Teaching my Black son how to bake

hand kneading dough in flour

This essay is part of Motherwell’s new Parenting and Food column.

By Jill Moffett
@jillymoffett

The morning before I went into labor, I stood in my kitchen rolling out Moravian gingerbread dough into an impossibly thin sheet from which I extracted delicate snowflakes, bells, and stars. The house filled with the smell of molasses and cinnamon. After the cookies cooled, I put them away, planning on decorating them later in lacy patterns with Royal icing. Instead, they stayed in the freezer for three months.

Every December, I would spend hours making gingerbread, coconut marshmallows, chocolate sandwich cookies, and peppermint patties—recipes cribbed from an old holiday issue of Gourmet Magazine. In this life, I have failed at many things, but I remain proud of my baking skills, my ability to make complicated, multi-step confections.

The doctors didn’t know why I went into labor 12 whole weeks before my due date, but my then partner suggested that perhaps the early labor was attributable to fact that I rolled out the gingerbread dough with far too much enthusiasm. Racked with guilt, I spent three months sitting on the sofa watching Cupcake Wars while my premature baby lingered in the hospital. I ate the frozen gingerbread and chocolate wafers myself.

Twelve years later, during the pandemic summer, I am reminded of that season of grief. My newborn baby was in the hospital for nine weeks, and during that time I was housebound. How could I go to a movie or enjoy a dinner at a restaurant while my child was alone in an incubator in the NICU?

After months of extravagantly ineffective online schooling, I decide to inform my son, Sacha, that for the remainder of the summer, he must commit himself to a pursuit that is not video games or video-game adjacent. He settles on baking and I happily overwhelm him with a stack of cookbooks: How to Be a Domestic Goddess, The Joy of Cooking, Southern Pies. He chooses his inaugural recipe from The Ottolenghi Cookbook: decadent, caramel studded brownies.

Venturing out from the safety of our home to the newly hostile territory that is Whole Foods, I tie my mask tight and load up on Ghirardelli bars and butter. After getting home and spraying everything down with hand sanitizer and bleach, I teach my son how to chop up chocolate with the big knife and gently melt it in a stainless-steel bowl over a pot of simmering water. We sift flour and beat eggs and even make caramel from scratch.

He is almost the same age as Tamir Rice was when he was killed by the police, shot to death while sitting alone in a park in Ohio. I think about Tamir as I watch Sacha make brownies, oatmeal bars, lemon cake, and chocolate chip cookies. Was Tamir also an only child? Did he also bake cookies with his mother?

Like Tamir, Sacha is brown and gentle-eyed, but unlike Tamir his body has not yet taken on any of the trappings of manhood. He is tall, but slender. He is a devotee of the peanut butter sandwich and little else. He eats one grain of rice at a time with his fingers. It takes him an hour to eat a piece of chicken. I buy cartons of protein shakes which he deftly avoids. Maybe, I tell myself, his birdlike frame will keep him safe, will make him less of a target for another year or two. Maybe even three.

Still, barring the unthinkable, he will eventually grow from a Black boy into a Black man, which means that he will be treated as if he is a threat. Every day I see reports or photographs or links to videos that I can’t bring myself to watch, of men who look like the man he will become being slaughtered by the police, violent white men who won’t care that he only weighed two pounds when he was born, or that he knows how to make lemon cake from scratch. As watch young people take to the streets and demand justice and basic human rights, I feel sad, angry, hopeful, sickened, tired, and outraged. Mostly, though, I am afraid.

One humid August morning, I sit at the dining room table drinking coffee as Sacha picks at his scrambled eggs and salsa. The newest issue of Garden & Gun is on the table, and on the cover is a layer cake slathered in vanilla icing and dripping with caramel sauce, perched elegantly on a clear glass plate, a large piece cut out to reveal the inside which is studded with pecans.

“Maybe you can make this next,” I say. “It might be time to challenge yourself.” I flip to the recipe, where the text assures us that it’s a cake for the ages. He’s skeptical. “That looks like a pretty complicated cake,” he says.

I assure him that he can do it, and that maybe he’ll grow up to be a pastry chef. I tell him that anything is possible. I try to convince myself of it as I say it, and I’m pretty sure that for now, he actually believes me.

Jill Moffett is a mixed-media artist, poet, and recovering academic. Her first chapbook, Border Crossing, was published by Dancing Girl Press. She is a mother to an 11 year old son and stepmother to three teenagers. In a previous life, she owned a cake catering business. Find her on Instagram @jillymoffett.

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