In the Absence of Flour

BY Saja Spearman-Weaver | | Pandemic Diaries

Lately, we make everything with the buttermilk pancake mix. I bake muffins, my roommate Cee makes coffee cake, her roommate Harry attempts a pie crust that turns out crumbly and leads him to toss the rolling pin through the window in frustration. We are an apartment that bakes; six undergraduates, finishing out four years of living together. Three of us live and die by the KitchenAid, and we have sustained each other with unique desserts every week of the last four years. We know each other’s favorite flavors (vanilla bean for me, chocolate for Cee, peanut butter for Harry), so when something’s in the oven, you always know who made it. For the last month, our tradition has continued, but everything feels slightly askew.

When the quarantine started, the stores ran out of flour and sugar fast. But Berkeley shoppers, utilitarian creatures that they are, somehow overlooked the buttermilk pancake mix. Naturally, Cee bought six boxes in a desperate bid to continue baking. Now, each quarantine creation that gets pulled out of the oven looks different — it may come in little tins, it could be a sagging cake, it might be “bread” twisted in a misshapen knot — but it all tastes of buttermilk.

Lately, I have been getting up each morning at 7 am. I make my coffee, gingerly coax brown bread out of our decrepit toaster, and grab my laptop to start the day. But before I settle into my daily writing routine, I check the NYTimes COVID-19 Tracker to see how many people died last night. I text both sets of grandparents to make sure no one got coughed on at the grocery store. I give myself a crash course in whatever economic vocabulary I need to understand how doomed my generation is, graduating into a climate like the one this pandemic has created. Only after all this do I start work on my honors thesis, the most demanding writing project of my senior year.

I told you about the pancake mix because I have yet to come up with a better analogy for what my writing process has been like since the near-global lockdown began. I still produce content — my thesis will be finished in time for my “graduation,”, and its density and volume will not be compromised. But each section tastes like the last. Every sentence I write, lately, smacks heavily of the previous one. I usually write in flour-y language, using some words as the structure, the foundation for the expression of my thoughts. The rest of the words shape the character of my prose. I like the taste of different sentences, I crave the delectable dissimilarities of tone and intention — sarcasm plays heavily in my writing, usually, as do double-entendres and subtextual meaning.

Lately, however, every sentence I write seems to begin and end with a vaguely unsettling aftertaste, not unlike the flavor of buttermilk that seeps into every dish I pull out from our creaky oven. Finer distinctions blur between paragraphs. The meaning of my prose comes through, sure, but my points feel obvious, without any finesse. I cringe when I send copies of my thesis to my adviser, embarrassed to serve her a dish without any signature touch. I produce page after page of this project, writing on the topic I chose with care and passion a year ago, and I produce it with what base material I have to offer. The results make my mouth itch with anxiety.

When my thesis adviser sends back her edits, she includes a paragraph of conversation before sharing any corrections. She asks about my family, gives me an update on hers, pontificates for my benefit about the status of possible in-person learning in law school next semester, and finally spends four sentences commending me for producing work during a global crisis. I stare at the laptop screen, one hand clutching a cornbread chunk that, unsurprisingly, tastes of buttermilk, and the other hovering above the keyboard, flummoxed by her praise. But then I read her last sentence of remarks and it makes more sense.

She tells me not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. She tells me that something is better than nothing, even if that something strays from your expected results and takes some mental maneuvering to convince yourself of its tolerability as an alternative. Then she tells me I have written the same sentence three times in a row on page 44.

Everything tastes vaguely of buttermilk now because that’s what we have in the cabinets. Lately, sustenance has taken priority over style, both in writing and in the kitchen. Muffins will still be made, as will brownies and peanut butter cookies, because they keep us sane and busy. Therefore, they must be baked. None will taste exactly as we expect. But they will sustain us until the flour reappears.

Saja Spearman-Weaver, ’20, Berkeley, CA