Baked Goods and Boundaries: The Deal with Me and Pie
If you’ve ever been on the other end of a conversation with me about how I feel about baking, I apologize to you now. You were very polite, I’m sure, but more than likely my eyes got a little bigger and my breathing got a little erratic and the whole vibe of everything got really personal really fast, and you probably backed away slowly, thinking, “Wait, what did I ask?”
I know. I have been odd—about the baker within me, about my relationship to homemade dessert in general. It’s been a strange and unexpected journey for me, one that still unfolds as we speak, but I’m going to attempt to chronicle it as best as I can for you now.
Falling in love with Maggie Gyllenhaal
There are a lot of things I wish I could have done differently in my life, but one thing I can say I did well with absolute confidence was completely by accident—I picked the best possible first Maggie Gyllenhaal movie to see: Stranger Than Fiction.
Not only did I forever fall in love with her as an actress, but her character of Ana Pascal the baker made more of an impression on me than I realized at the time. Before her, baking had seemed quaint and 1950s-esque—nonetheless intriguing to me because of the out-of-time soul I’ve always been—but Ana Pascal was angry, flawed, tattooed, charming, generous. She seemed to bake as an extension of her self.
Moreover, her monologue about dropping out of Harvard Law—because she realized if she wanted to make the world a better place, she would do it with cookies—sort of seduced me. For one thing, I think the idea of having an excuse to give up on the thing you’re supposed to do to go bake instead immediately flooded me with tempting relief.
What if it was that easy? What if the easy thing, the baking, is actually what you’re supposed to do? As I will make abundantly clear soon, I have come to terms with the fact that this is not the case for me.
But beyond that—I think I still envy this kind of story for the way one discovers a vocation. The way I fell into screenwriting was so quiet and simple and without fanfare that occasionally, I come to doubt its legitimacy. And yet from what I’m learning about hiddenness, maybe it’s just the opposite. The quiet voice is the one that speaks the greatest truth.
Beyond Maggie Gyllenhaal, I really think Stranger than Fiction affected me because I want to be everyone in it—the writer, the friend, the expert, the baker, the protagonist falling in love and having a personal awakening. Of course, reading that now, I see that the beauty of life as opposed to fiction is that I can be all these things at once in varying degrees instead of having to choose an archetype and call it a day. I can be complex as hell, and that is a damn beautiful thing.
But anyway. This isn’t about my personal growth, it’s about baking. Actually, that’s not true, it’s about both. But I’ll make it clearer how they relate, I promise.
The Thing about Hiddenness
See, there is a spectrum of skills in the world, and some of them are more visible than others. And granted, the more visible set have different challenges—perhaps a struggle to find true authenticity or privacy in the constant spotlight. But I think the hidden skills are hard to preserve and refine in a world that constantly fights for your attention.
So it is with writing—ninety percent of the time you’re alone, and there’s a drudgery to it. But it’s also just a discipline that requires more of you. Writing requires quietude. You likely won’t get much validation or attention for it—or at least not for the discipline itself—any response will be mixed at best.
But that’s why you do it. You do this to create something good for the world. It’s not to please them, or whatever “they” think they want today. This is for you and you only. You don’t have to place your worth in their perception of you. But it’s a deeper process; it’s not a road of instant gratification. It’s a longer path of personal transformation, and all the baptisms by fire that happen along the way…not to overstate it.
This is not so with baking. At least with me. I fully acknowledge that if baking is your calling, then it challenges you in every way it’s meant to. But for me, when there is no challenge involved, it can be like crack.
All this validation for a work that is highly visible and aesthetically appealing, that people will always praise me for…but that will never challenge me. It’s hard to explain how highly dangerous this can become.
And yet…this is key to understanding the building obsession and psychosis that is the Pie Chapter of my life.
My Long, Strange Relationship with Pie
I think it started with Pushing Daisies…which comes as little surprise, since many if not most of my epiphanies have been tied to film and television. 500 Days of Summer made me realize that I was currently holding on to a relationship with a fundamental inequality of affection. I was Joseph Gordon-Levitt and I didn’t want to be for a second longer. But it wasn’t until I watched The Graduate for the first time a few months later that I finally got over that person—I realized I wanted someone who would run after me the way Ben ran after Elaine at the end of the movie. I didn’t care if they ended up together or not in the future. I deserved, at bare minimum, that level of passion.
Pushing Daisies—well, it more or less just reminded me that I liked to eat pie, and that I wished I could do this wearing Anna Friel’s array of beautiful vintage dresses. But I think I also probably knew deep down all along—in the pie vs. cake debate, I’m pie all the way. Why? I have frosting-to-cake ratio issues, which is why cake donuts are ideal and cupcakes are a living hell. And I’ll take flaky pastry and fruit/cream/custard filling over all the rest, any day of the week.
It wasn’t until Waitress that everything really changed. Watching Keri Russell’s heartbreaking portrayal of Jenna throw pies together in her head to cope with the mess of her own life awakened something in me (I also probably, like any sane person, wanted Keri Russell’s hair).
I wanted that relationship with pie—to have a tough moment, then create something in my head that would speak to the struggle, and in that way become stronger than my own suffering.
Now, you may be thinking, “That sounds a lot like what writing’s supposed to do…isn’t it?” Right.
But the thing about pie, or any semi-challenging baked good is—you can seek the same end from it, but you have an external result. You made something with your hands—it feels real. And you know if that real something is good, because either it tastes delicious, or it doesn’t. Writing is rarely so black-and-white.
And here’s the other thing—pie is filled with delicious, sugary ingredients. It’s addictive. People are going to want it.
And they’re going to like you a lot for bringing it.
But I wasn’t so hep to all this when I started.
All I knew is that I wanted to make pies like Jenna, and I wanted to eat them. And then I tried my first blueberry pie with a Trader Joe’s boxed pie crust (I shudder as I write the words even now), and I realized upon tasting my work (as mediocre as you’d expect) that this was going to take more finagling than I thought.
So I made a deal with myself. I decided that the summer after college was going to be the Summer of Pies—I would make as many pies as I could, until I was great at it.
I tried every recipe I could get my hands on, perfecting, refining. I could never seem to make up my own like Jenna, but who knows, maybe that would come later. And in the meantime, I had quite the Instagram following as I went on this little baking adventure—people were always tuning in to see what I would bake next, eating as much of my pie as they could.
And by the end of the summer, I had baked 25 pies…and I didn’t quite know how to stop.
Because baking pie was just something I did now. And I didn’t feel like I had quite found those foolproof recipes that would teach me how to make up my own. So I kept going—baking through the holidays ad nauseum, my Christmas baskets growing more ambitious and less realistic by the minute.
And then I found it. The Four and Twenty Blackbirds Cookbook.
Created by the Elsen sisters in Brooklyn, this book came from their pie shop where they chose to make simple, delicious traditional pies like their grandmother made, using only seasonal ingredients. Their salted caramel apple pie hooked me first—to this day my favorite apple pie of all time—and soon after, I had bought the recipe book and made myself a crazy promise in January 2014.
Yes, I decided—I would bake through every single recipe in this book, for every seasonal pie of the year.
And for a while—it was fun. The creative, delicious-sounding recipes genuinely excited me, and I loved digging around for the perfect ingredients, savoring their all-butter crust and its surprisingly forgiving texture. And I baked a lot.
To the point that my Instagram feed was more pie than human faces.
To the point that there was always dough under my fingernails, butter smudges on my phone and laptop screen, and bags under my half-present, crazy-wide eyes.
Now that I look back I try to remember how I did this with a full-time job, especially when I consider that through most of this year my family was going through a lot, and my best friend and I were barely in touch. Maybe I was more drawn to this “baking disorder” because it was something I could control.
But then, I don’t really want to blame this on anyone but myself. The point is, in the middle of all this, the spiraling out of control happened pretty fast.
Eventually, I was staying up until 3:30 AM on one summer night, baking thirteen pies for a summer church picnic that no one had even asked me to. Whenever anyone asks me what a “baking black hole” is, I point grimly to this moment.
Why, you ask?
Maybe some part of me just wondered if I could do it. But mostly I liked having something people remembered me by. It made me feel more visible in a church community I was trying to establish myself in. And to a certain extent, I can defend this part of baking—it has genuinely helped me network/make an impression in an office. People appreciate you doing something personal for them, and it makes you stand out among other employees.
But without boundaries, it becomes a black hole. And because I was deep in this black hole, doing something that didn’t challenge me, I started to be this strange, insecure person who would snap like a crazy woman at any one of the poor souls who, with the very best of intentions, would suggest I open a pie shop. “Actually, no, it’s a bad idea, because you have to bake constantly to come up with any kind of profit, and I don’t even come up with my own recipes, so it would be a pretty big fraud anyway…” all to the exhaustive tune of “You don’t really know what you’re talking about.”
And it finally became a suggestion I was irritated to even have to respond to. I became fed up, finally throwing my hands in the air and bemoaning, “Why do these people keep only thinking of me as a pie lady? Don’t they know I’m a writer?”
So I would tell them this over and over again, in perhaps a less-than-gracious way, probably half-telling myself at this point. “No, I don’t want to open a pie shop actually, I want to write, and no, you can’t do both.”
But they never seemed to hear me.
And it wasn’t until I’d gone through all of autumn (aka pie season), that I finally woke up.
December was upon me, and as it was the first Christmas I’d had working a full-time job, I was overwhelmed by everything on my plate at the end of the year—Christmas shopping and events, writing goals unfulfilled, and a desperate longing for time to reflect and make resolutions for 2015.
And with all this on my plate, somehow I also had it high on my priorities list to finish baking the Four and Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book. I had five recipes left unbaked on December 15th, and I vividly remember sitting at my desk at Harbinger, nineteen windows of responsibility open, and there I was stressing out about finding a grocery store that would carry both plums and figs so I could make plum fig pie, and I couldn’t find a single store that had both in December, and my patience was wearing thin, and I found myself stopping to ask—
Jaz. What are you doing? How has this become so important to you?
And I stopped everything, really trying to honestly answer this. Well, I had committed to finishing this project. I said I would bake through the book, and I like to keep my promises to myself, right?
Is that it? Or do you just want to say you finished this so you can try to forget how much writing you didn’t do?
Ouch. This hit closer to home than I wanted to admit. But I’d started pulling at that thread, and now there were questions behind the questions—like how many hours, how much money had I spent on pursuing what was ostensibly a hobby?
And the natural next question ran through my body with a chill…what else could I have been doing with that time? Writing, spending time with people I care about, reading, developing spiritually…the list was too terrifying. I couldn’t look back anymore or I’d drown in what-ifs. All I could do was be grateful that I caught myself in time.
So I stopped five recipes short. And I looked at what had happened to me—I had embraced something that didn’t challenge me, that made people like me, and I was hiding behind it so I didn’t have to do the harder inner-life work of being a writer. And no one would ever know this except me, so I had to be the one to stop it.
And for all the moments I had despised people for telling me to open a pie shop, the ones I wanted to think of me as a writer…I turned to my inner self, finally awake, and said, Well here’s a thought, Jaz. If you want them to think of you as more of a writer and less of a baker…why don’t you write…more and bake…less?
I know. It’s embarrassingly obvious on paper. But so are the answers to most of our bad habits, our self-soothing routines that take us away from what might be harder now, but more refining and rewarding later.
So I decided I needed new rules, new boundaries—a new deal with myself. Where hobbies were concerned, I would only spend excessive time on things that challenged me and pushed me into a better version of me—like music, dance, exercise.
I would only bake for birthdays, holidays, and if I actually wanted to eat the pie I was baking.
I would tell other people in my life my story, so that they could keep me accountable. These same people dubbed me “Piesenberg” to jokingly signify the dark alterego my addiction occasionally transformed me into. Now it’s a personalized apron they had made for me a few years back, and every time I wear it I take it as a reminder that this is better for me within my new limits.
Boundaries are good, even in the baked goods arena.
And today I am doing better. Yes, I still get a little twitch of crazy when people tell me to open my own pie shop. And yes, there’s still a part of me that feels like a fraud when I walk into a gathering without carrying baked goods to offer.
But I try to remind myself at these times that I have a folder full of new and old writing projects that have flourished all the better since I have let baking be the hobby it should have always been. And at the same gathering where I feel guilty for not baking, I am so much more present to love the people around me better, to not be stretched to a frightening, frantic fragment of myself.
But if I should ever backslide, and you see me making plans months in advance to bake a season’s worth of pie, if you see me gearing up to make more than five pies and it’s not a holiday, if you see me rolling and pinching crust at 2:35 AM, eyes glazed over—I am in a baking black hole. Please do whatever is necessary to pull me out.