“The ice-cream was passed around with cake–gold and silver cake arranged on platters in alternate slices; it had been made and frozen during the afternoon back of the kitchen by two black women, under the supervision of Victor. It was pronounced a great success–excellent if it had only contained a little less vanilla or a little more sugar, if it had been frozen a degree harder, and if the salt might have been kept out of portions of it.”
- Kate Chopin, The Awakening (1899)
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening chronicles Edna Pontellier’s struggle to understand and conform to idealized notions of femininity, sexuality, and motherhood in the American South at the turn of the century. Edna’s discontent with her pampered life peaks during a summer vacation on Grand Isle (a small island off of the Louisiana coastline), culminating in an affair and the abandonment of her family. Chopin’s novel was thoroughly condemned following its publication: critics denounced it as vulgar and immoral, a disappointing new work from a well-established and respected writer. Well versed in praise for the Chopin’s descriptive language, vibrant characters, and realistic depiction of the Creole community, critics were shocked by Edna’s illicit behavior and subsequent suicide and appalled by Chopin’s failure to condemn her protagonist’s infidelity and social dissent.
I know, I know: vanilla rich chocolate chip cookies hardly qualify as haute cuisine. It is, however, the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (i.e. the end of the fall semester) and I’ve found that nothing expresses my appreciation for the efforts of the first year writing students I work with quite like a batch of homemade cookies. These cookies–made with four whole teaspoons of vanilla!–didn’t disappoint: between my students, officemates, and husband, I wasn’t given much of a chance to test their shelf life. I substituted chocolate chunks for the chips called for and refrigerated the dough overnight before baking (a trick I picked up from the New York Times version of Jacques Torres’ infamous cookies), but otherwise followed the recipe exactly.
I’ve brought treats to my classes on the last day of the semester since I first began teaching five years ago: it seems like such a small, harmless gesture of my appreciation. However, the topic of bringing baked goods to students served as a point of controversy when it came up in conversation during a weekend outing with some of my colleagues a few months ago. The discussion had turned to the experience of women vs. men in academia: it was suggested, without much contest, that women in academia–both as students and as educators–often work twice as hard to earn the same amount of respect as their male counterparts. One of the most obvious manifestations of this double standard, we all agreed, occurs in our classrooms; every educator at the table could name at least one student in each of their courses who clearly struggled with taking direction from, and giving respect to, a smart, confident female. Students complain to, commiserate with, and confide in female instructors in ways many of our male colleagues rarely experience. The actions that perpetuate these differences in treatment, however, were up for debate: “there’s no doubt that the dynamics are different and, for many reasons, that’s not fair,” said a male colleague, gently setting his drink on the table, “but I’ve also never brought my students a plate of cupcakes.”
I have to admit, he may have a point: I’ve been known to complain about students who treat me more like their mother than their instructor, and yet I bring them fresh baked cookies, a very personal and genuine token of affection that is often construed as “maternal.” In a similar vein, concerned friends and mentors have told me that the nature (i.e. the fact that I write for a popular audience rather than an academic one) and subject matter (food and literature studies are generally considered “scholarship-lite”) of Novelbite may compromise my reputation as a serious academic. Every time I bake and blog, these conversations enter my mind, although it has yet to stop me from doing either. When I bake for students, it’s my small way of letting them know how much I enjoy and appreciate their contribution – as writers and as really neat people – to the class. When I blog for Novelbite, it’s my small way of writing for and sharing my interests with an audience that extends beyond the VERY small circle of people who read my scholarly work.
At any rate, blogging and baked goods provide a tiny bit of respite from a world that keeps calling for a little less vanilla, a little more sugar, a little less salt, and….