When I was growing up, the dessert everyone wanted at holiday gatherings was my mother’s carrot cake.
I used to sit at the table watching her make it, hoping for scrapings of the batter bowl or to sneak a fingerful of icing. The process took forever. Finally the two layer pans went into the oven, and as the cake baked, the fragrance of cinnamon filled the house—an indescribably delicious smell.
Now I make the cake. Over time I’ve come to think mine is almost—almost—as good as hers.
But as much as I love the cake and want to make it, and as much as it stirs the ghost of my childhood self on holidays past, I find myself sighing and almost reluctant as I prepare for it.
Making this cake is a lot of work.
I make it the way my mother did. Peeling the carrots, grating them on the finest side of the grater so that they become a smooth orange pulp, for no carrot bits should be discernible in the cake batter. I know people who use processors or even baby food carrots, and that may work for them . . . but this is where I appreciate the craftsmanship of my mother’s cake.
That word has been in my mind since a recent meeting when facilitators asked fellow educators a guiding question: “What makes high-quality work?” The answers were plentiful: originality or authenticity, clarity of expression or thought, meeting or exceeding a standard or learning goal . . . and craftsmanship.
It takes time to produce something high-quality. There aren’t shortcuts. I think about writing (because I always think about writing). As with making mother’s carrot cake, writing well is a lot of work, hard work. Refining, refining, grating those danged carrots to a pulp so that they’re not even evident in the outcome, yet they’re the foundation of it. Words worked and reworked and restrung until they finally blend into a seamless, cohesive whole. Without hunks of stuff that trips up readers. To become skilled at anything is to work and work and keep working, all the while knowing how these parts and pieces should come together and that in the end, the effort pays off. Craftsmanship means a serious investment of time, effort, and patience.
There’s an aesthetic feature to craftsmanship. The artist labors long for the effect and beauty of the work. The aesthetics of my mother’s carrot cake are its exceptional flavors and textures, the sensory experience of eating it, for on the surface it looks pretty humble. In middle school I had a French teacher native to Greece (another story for another day, trust me) who told the class that Greek desserts look very plain but are incredibly rich and sweet; when she first came to America and saw our wedding cakes, she couldn’t even imagine what such gorgeous things would taste like. “Then I tried one,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Bah! Like cardboard!” Aesthetics can be somewhat subjective, then, allowing for personal preference, but I can say this after having read hundreds of student papers across grade levels: When I find one of high quality, from the first sentence all the way through, it “sings.” It stands out. Not perfect, but flowing, clear, and beautiful. I know time and effort have gone into it, and that the author cared about the work.
And this, I believe, lies at the heart of craftsmanship. Caring. With every carrot I grate, I think about how my family will enjoy this cake, the same way I always have. Their enjoyment, more than my own, keeps me at the task. I even make the frosting like my mother did, blending cream cheese, Blue Bonnet margarine, and powdered sugar. That’s tedious, too. Like with writing, I get tired of it all long before I’m through. But I keep at it, not just to be done, but to do as well as I can, because it’s not only for me. It’s something deeply meaningful to me that I am sharing; I need for it to be as good as I can make it. The only concession I allow myself with the cake is buying chopped pecans for the frosting. When I was a child, I helped my mother crack, shell, and chop the pecans. They came from Granddaddy’s pecan tree.
But that tree is gone, as are so many people I loved long ago. The holidays come round and round again with their particular darkness—less and less daylight, the shadows of memory—but there’s a strength gained in expending strength on behalf of others. Caring means giving. Love means sacrifice. There’s a holiness in such work, a healing . . .
My son walks through the kitchen, puts his empty plate in the sink. He sighs. “That is the best cake.”
—Every carrot worth it.