I wake up early. Day seven of lockdown. I’ve been off work for two weeks, and I don’t know when I’ll be going back. I feel a little unhinged from reality, as if I am floating above it all, waiting to crash back down. My partner has been told to stay home too. We live in a flat I affectionately call a postage stamp, and all the usual distractions: work, domestic dramas, visiting friends, very long hikes, are suddenly cut off from us. He, a stoner to the bone, is taking it very well indeed. I, a busy person by nature, am not. I have discovered at twenty-seven years old that I am quite sociable actually, despite my love of solitude. I am trying to carve out a routine, but I am also nervous. Everyone is nervous, I know this. I know too I am lucky, though a little peeved at my space having to be shared, I am relieved. I have friends whose partners are nurses. I cannot even fathom the fear they must feel.
I thought I’d write with this time, finally free, but I’ve only done one article and a handful of editing. I write notes on my government sanctioned walks, but these are only observations of nature, snippets of poetry that may one day blossom, and admonishments about an inappropriate fixation. Outside I find, stories and ideas assail me from every side, in the flat I am deflated, caged. There’s a pressure on artists to create at the moment, instead of just surviving, and I feel that, I feel this strange, gossamer time slipping through my fingers.
I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to find some flour. I’ve promised to bake for some friends to keep myself busy. I’ve been gritting my teeth against the knowledge that many of those who have panic bought ‘paper-wrapped gold dust’ as a friend called it, will let that bag of flour sit untouched in the back of their cupboard for years, until a school bake sale or its thrown out.
In times of stress I like baking, I like the control it brings. If you follow a cake recipe to the letter you’ll have made something excellent, and that seems to me like a pillar of stability in a chaotic world. There’s witchcraft in it too, I like to think, making something whole out of disparate parts. Though real witchcraft requires intention: stay safe, stay well I will stir into a lemon drizzle for my oldest friend and his fiancé; stay safe, we love you, we’re grateful, into a cake for a friend working in a supermarket. Get the rest you need, be well, in some biscuits for my colleague. Mere minutes after bringing home the flour I baked my partner some chocolate cookies: be peaceful, be happy.
Now I know, before I deal with everyone else, I must bake something for myself. I have craved gingerbread for months, the spiced sweetness of it, the decadence and comfort. I wonder why it’s so evocative to me, and then all of a sudden, as I add the ingredients one by one, I remember.
It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay, I stir it, and I start to feel a little peace.
Gingerbread has always seemed to me a sort of sacred food, it tastes glorious, it lasts a long time, and it turns up in fairy stories, as quintessential to the genre as princess, knight and cannibal witch. Indeed, one of the earliest arguably gingerbread recipes were the spiced honeycakes left in the tombs of pharaohs. Earliest is apparently from Greece in 2400BC.
When I was very small, our very old Latvian neighbour Irma taught me to cross stitch. I was a bad student, more interested in the garden, or going on walks, or playing rummikub, or hearing stories, or stuffing my face with the glories stocked in her biscuit barrel. Only once did she admonish me for maybe eating a few too many of those biscuits, when I’m sure I ate far too many. The treasure of her trove were tiny bacon and onion stuffed roles, and the gingerbread biscuits. They were soft and chewy and only came around at Christmas when she would bake trays and trays full of the stuff: trees, androgynous little men, and stars. I was probably my most piggy self at these times. My cross stitch has never been anything to write home about (I can’t sit still for long), but my love of gingerbread (and a properly opulent veg patch) has always endured.
Gingerbread begins to ease itself into Northern Europe in the eleventh century, on the back of the crusades, but doesn’t become the thing we know today until the fifteenth or sixteenth when it becomes popular at festivals and fairs. Bizarrely, Elizabeth I is credited with being somewhat responsible for the first gingerbread men, which were given as likeness gifts of guests.
I can personally attest to such gifts being delightful: In my final year of university, I finally found some lasting friends. Two girls who I’d had lectures with since first year made it their mission to take me under their wing and after an invitation to a Thanksgiving meal at their home, and a couple of evenings of wine and Nandos, what sealed our friendship was a gingerbread man. They’d baked a load for class, creating gingerbread versions of everyone. Mine had been made first, before the icing had begun to run out (to be fair I was probably one of the most outlandish in dress, so that helped), and my favourite fox jumper and dodgy mohawk had been rendered in meticulous detail. Anxious, isolated, and in the last death gasps of a long and significant relationship, this gesture and their support kept me from disintegrating during one of the most difficult years of my life. My first play is set in their house, and their sofa became the only safe place for a longer time than I can admit.
The gingerbread house is generally attributed to German bakers taking influence from Grimm’s ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ It’s an image that endures, the cottage to be devoured, to entice, the ultimate trap. There have been two very good novels published in the last decade called Gingerbread, the first is by Robert Dinsdale and describes the mental disintegration of an old man who takes his grandson out into the forest to live in the wild. It is a strange, brutal book, Dinsdale doesn’t pull any punches with his work. The most recent is by Helen Oyeyemi, and it’s a novel saturated in her usual rich imagery and mythology. Every sentence Helen Oyeyemi writes is delicious. It’s a novel that deals with family, magic, mental health and the huge, difficult desire to know where we come from. In both novels there is a house that looms over the plot, and the sticky sweet smell of gingerbread.
In the nineteenth century loaves and cakes instead of biscuits begin to appear with molasses as a cheaper alternative to sugar. Molasses, golden syrup, honey, or some combination of the three is used to make a good, moist ginger cake. I like to go for molasses as it makes it darker and richer. As I started to make a gingerbread loaf this morning I wonder at its history. It lasts, I know that, but the spices and sugar must have been expensive, I think. I cannot work it out. Is it a cake for the rich, or the poor? Where does it come from? Germany has its lebkuchen (the only Christmas confection I tend to go overboard with buying) I know, and Gingerbread houses have that North American candy-encrusted pep to them. It’s a changeable cake, unlike a Victoria sponge. It comes in biscuit form, cake form, as a loaf, the spices can be changed and tweaked at will, as can the use of syrups and honeys. Capricious.
I have to leave it in the oven twenty minutes longer than the recipe asks. Our postage stamp flat, as my partner remarks upon waking, smells like Christmas, a warm, good thing against a blustering March squall, and I have made something for myself out of chaos.
Like magic, like a spark, I want to write again.
NB: Take things gently, you are doing so well. This is a frightening time. Stay safe, stay at home where possible. And if you live in Redhill hit me up, I might make you cake!
(Gingerbread me circa 2014)