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In the Kitchen with a Deadline

When I have a writing deadline approaching, you'll probably find me in the kitchen. It's horrible, I know, but when I work with a deadline, I tend to find elective domestic projects — cooking, baking, canning — irresistible.

Here's how it goes: I'm sitting at the computer, staring down the blank page, or the half-written book review, or the novel-in-progress, when I realize I'm thirsty. Not for water (of course not), but for a hot, freshly brewed cup of tea. I go to the kitchen, fill the kettle, rinse my big blue English teapot, fill it with loose-leaf Keemun, and wait for the water to boil. As I wait, I realize I'm a bit peckish. I open cupboards, peer at jars of dried fruit and nuts and crackers. Nothing calls out to me. What could fill this wee, nagging hunger? A cup of tea and... a cup of tea with a little honey and... I glance at my shelf of cookbooks. A cup of tea with a little honey and buttered toast. No! Freshly baked bread and butter. Yes! A simple slice of bread, warm from the oven, spread with salty, creamy butter. My mouth is watering.Yes! A simple slice of bread, warm from the oven, spread with salty, creamy butter. My mouth is watering. I pull out Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce and scan the table of contents: I've been meaning to have a go at her oatmeal sandwich loaf. With nary a glance at my blinking cursor, I tie on an apron and pull out the Pyrex bowls.

During the writing of Glaciers, I had many deadlines. I met most of them on time, and the rest, eventually. But my kitchen accomplishments during this time were intensely gratifying.

For example, I perfected my recipe for chocolate chip cookies (based on a combination of the chewy chocolate chip cookie recipe from The Best American Classics and the cowboy cookies in Baked Explorations). Baking quick breads and sweets is my most common form of procrastination. "I'll just whip up some brownies and write while they bake," I tell myself. I have a couple of vintage copies of Maida Heatter's books (if you've never heard of Heatter, start here, and I pull them out when my cravings lean nostalgic (date bars, zucchini bread).

In the winter, craving heat from the oven, I made bread from The River Cottage Bread Handbook, The Bread Bible, and Beard on Bread. Bread may have been the biggest stress-reliever, with all the kneading, until I tried Jim Lahey's no-knead method (My Bread), which is ridiculously simple, but time-consuming and prone to obsessive tinkering once you master it.

This last summer, as Glaciers went from manuscript to uncorrected proof, I made a cupboard full of preserves from Canning for a New Generation, Tart and Sweet, The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook, and Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It. Along with the fresh berry jams, of course, one needs biscuits, for which I inevitably turned to Edna LewisAlong with the fresh berry jams, of course, one needs biscuits, for which I inevitably turned to Edna Lewis, whose Taste of Country Cooking I found at a Goodwill years ago.

I started having occasional Sunday Suppers for friends and family a couple of years ago, which required poring over cookbooks, mostly checked out from the library, and advanced planning of main dishes, like my first ever roast chicken (via Thomas Keller), for which I bought a seven-pounder — the biggest they had — at New Seasons Market.

I subscribe to Saveur, which is, in my humble opinion, the best food magazine out there (and don't go all Gastronomica on me; it's way too expensive to qualify as a magazine). Over the holidays, when I should have been finishing my website, blogging, and prepping for the coming readings, I was thumbing through Saveur's December issue, marking recipes for bûche de nöel, and going to their website to watch their handy video tutorials.

And here I am now, working on another book (agents waiting in the wings), beginning a book tour, doing promotional writing, like this guest blog (i.e. five days of deadlines). I am surrounded by cookbooks. My mouth is watering. Where you will find me, moments from now: in my kitchen making the Moroccan merguez ragout with poached eggs from The Food52 Cookbook.

÷ ÷ ÷

Alexis M. Smith grew up in Soldotna, Alaska, and Seattle, Washington. She received an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. She has written for Tarpaulin Sky and Powells.com. She has a son and two cats, and they all live together in a little apartment in Portland, Oregon. Glaciers is her first novel.

Books mentioned in this post

Alexis Smith is the author of Glaciers (Tin House New Voice)

2 Responses to "In the Kitchen with a Deadline"

    Karen January 23rd, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    you and your kitchen live way too far away from me. ah for the days of fresh cookies in your sky blue tupperware in the workspace at Powell's. And the bread! oh my the bread...would you call that tupperware sky blue? you probably have a better word for it...

    Jennifer Leveau January 31st, 2012 at 7:35 am

    I do the same thing. I find cookbooks to be companionable and engaging as I am mostly alone writing until my children come home from school. Your obsessive baking resonated with me, too, and I usually use my children as an excuse. (Nigella's desserts are tres simple and luscious heaps of pleasure) But I think it's the momentary satisfaction that comes with creating something tangible, edible, real, that is addicting; whereas publishing is so slow (as a Glacier), the process is eternal, often desperate and erratic, so that when the oven door opens, and you lift out the baking tray, gratin dish or whatever and see the result (and taste it!) it's like oooh, ahh. Life is good. And then, it's back to the blank page.

    Good luck with the merguez ragout. Sounds tantalizing...

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