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A recipe for solace

There is no good time to be a single mother and an epidemiologist. But it is always a good time to bake a pie.

The author's pie baked with fresh peaches and help from her son.
The author's pie baked with fresh peaches and help from her son.Courtesy of the author

Perhaps more than any other food, pies are a holding place for emotions. There might be bliss and affection baked in with the butter. Other days, sorrow or worry might make their way between the layers of dough.

Creating a pie demands focus — there are many steps! But it is a dreamy focus. Do not think too much about me, the pie requests. Cut and roll and pat. Slice fruit and let the juices collect. Sprinkle sugar, but not too much.

My son and I began a Saturday morning baking practice in October 2020, just after his second birthday. Our kitchen projects took hours, sometimes multiple days. I thought it would be educational for him: tactile, methodical, thoughtful. Now it is essential for us both.

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It is just the two of us. My husband — my son’s father — died a year before the pandemic started. As the virus raged across the United States, cases rising and falling but never disappearing, we baked.

We didn’t see more than a handful of people for many months, so we distributed bagels and cookies and donuts to create fleeting moments of connection with other households. We dropped off Tupperware full of cake on neighborhood porches under an expansive canopy of pecan trees. Sometimes we would knock and awkwardly say hi through masks and six feet of distance. More often we would leave the container and hope it might be discovered while its contents were still warm.

A pumpkin pie, baked by the author and her son.
A pumpkin pie, baked by the author and her son.Courtesy of the author

No matter how many pastries or cakes we had made, anytime I asked my son what we should make the following weekend, he would always say “pie.”

For the sake of variety, though, we made many different things. We made conchas and milk bread. We made choux pastry with Earl Grey cream. I prepared ingredients, meditatively chopping and measuring. My son stirred bowls of flour, salt, sugar. He cut butter with a small wooden knife. He pressed handprints into soft dough. I stayed up after working late, playing around with recipes.

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By February, more than half a million people in the United States had died. I faltered, unable to visualize the size of the loss even though, as an infectious disease epidemiologist, I watched those numbers daily. And in April, I had to leave my son to work on COVID-19 prevention at a border shelter for migrant children in Texas; I was needed there too.

I left the day before Easter; we made cardamom buns. As soon as he heard me clattering measuring spoons, my son stopped what he was doing — singing to himself and constructing something out of a stack of tiny books, “a snowplow,” he clarified — and said, “What are you making?” and immediately padded into the kitchen.

“I need to help you!” He pushed a chair up to the counter and dug his hands into a bowl of flour.

“Wait, please use a spoon!” I said, handing him one with one hand while adding yeast to warmed milk with the other. He stirred the dry ingredients for a few seconds and then asked if he could smell the yeast. His home-cut hair, already covered in flour, fell over his eyes as he leaned over the bowl.

We let the dough rise and rolled it out in a thin layer. I spread cardamom butter and heartache across it and cut it into thin bands. As I wrapped a strip of dough into a knot around his fingers, I explained to him that I had to leave for a few weeks, that I needed to go try to help children who were looking for their parents.

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The author's Easter cardamom buns.
The author's Easter cardamom buns. Courtesy of the author

But time, distance, and rationale exist outside the worlds of 2-year-olds — the only reality was that I was not going to be there with him but in a hotel room in Texas, eating take-out tacos and trying to make sure I could reach him on video chat before he went to bed each night.

Sometimes my dinner was caffeinated energy gels. I brought two cardamom buns with me, but they did not last long. I spent each day unable to take care of my child. How could I possibly help protect hundreds of children who were separated from their parents, having crossed a country’s border without them?

My boy dutifully conducted his business while I was gone. He built towers and flipped through books. He searched for Easter eggs with his grandmother. One of them, left overnight in water, hatched a unicorn. “Look at this,” he said across my screen, gazing at the unicorn lovingly. “This came from an egg.”

Even so, for weeks after I returned, he couldn’t fall asleep. Every night he said, “I just want to hold you a little bit more.” I would crawl into his toddler bed and he would wrap his arms around my neck, lay his head against my cheek, and close his eyes.

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As we resumed our routine, it was not long before we returned to pie. We began a renewed baking list for the springtime with the hope that, with the vaccine, the isolation would not last much longer. We started making plans. I booked a trip for us to Colorado. Maybe one morning we could go to a bustling bakery in a mountain town and taste test almond croissants at a wobbly corner table.

But I canceled those plans as the virus surged again in the summer. Our kitchen counter would suffice, and pies would continue to be our counterbalance to the pandemic. They would hold our worries but also hold us together, sending signals to the outside world that said: We are still here. We have not given up.

Emily Mosites lives in Atlanta. Follow her on Instagram @emmandcedar.