I’ve always considered myself to be a rather patient person. I’m usually late to things, so I understand when other people are running a few minutes late as well. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time working with children, and anyone who’s ever spent time with children (or anyone who’s ever seen children, really) knows that patience is a must. But, for some reason, whatever patience I pride myself in goes completely out the window when I enter a kitchen. I know that a watched pot never boils, but I absolutely hate waiting for my food to finish cooking or baking. When I’m not the one in charge, I have no problem waiting. But, put me at the helm and I start to get agitated. I check the food constantly—is it through yet? How about now?

I think that part of the reason I lose my patience in the kitchen is because I’m not comfortable there. I like to go exactly by the recipe, and I like to double check with an experienced someone before I make some sort of fatal cooking mistake. I don’t have that instinct or experience of knowing just how much to put in or how long to bake, and I don’t have the courage to wing it and experiment with amounts. Though I do enjoy fixing food with people who know what they’re doing, I’m an absolute mess when it’s left up to me.

So, when Amai Busa put me in charge of making her birthday cake, I agreed with a smile while internally screaming, “No! No! I don’t volunteer as tribute! Don’t make me do it!” But, no Katniss came to my rescue, so there I was, stuck with the most daunting task I could imagine. I began preparing a week ahead of time, surveying the few people I could contact for easy cake recipes that they knew of. Several people sent me suggestions, but I found one online that I thought would be even easier (and had even fewer ingredients). I gathered what I would need throughout that week, and Sunday evening, the day before Amai Busa’s birthday, I came home from church steeling myself to begin the baking. Not five minutes after reaching the house, malighte ayenda (the power went out). When the power goes out in the evening, it won’t be back on before 21 hours, usually, so that killed my chance of being proactive with the baking. That evening we also realized we were out of baking powder, so I would have to go get that in the morning, as well.

The birthday morning dawned with dark clouds and scattered showers here and there. (I know, very ominous.) Amai Busa, Abusa, Mirriam, and Joshua were heading to the farm for most of the day, so I was left at home with Memory, Esther, and Junior, and the job of baking the cake. Part of me was glad that they wouldn’t be there to see me bumbling around the kitchen, and part of me was very worried about not having someone to check my recipe and my methods. After waiting for shops to open and fetching the baking powder, I headed back home to wait until a little after 8 to make sure the power would stay on for a bit longer in the morning. At 8:07, my impatience made me start mixing the batter, and promptly at 8:17, once I’d added everything but the milk, the power went out. So, the batter sat and sat, and for 5 hours I sat nearby and cringed at the task still hanging over me.

At 13:30 (1:30), malighte abwera (the lights came back). I hurried back to the kitchen to add the milk and stick that sucker in the oven. I was supposed to be making a big cake and a small cake, so I decided to bake the smaller one first (both wouldn’t fit in the oven at once) as a test run. I slid the pan in the oven, and, after a minute or two, began hearing a faint hissing noise issuing from inside. I opened the door and smoke came billowing out. Once it cleared, I realized that the batter was leaking out through small holes in the bottom of the pan and burning on the oven bottom. Memory ran next door to borrow a pan from the Ngombis while I yanked it out and tried to stop the batter flow. (Mom, don’t read this.) Wanting to stop the smoking, I leaned in the oven to scrape the burnt batter off the bottom with a fork—not my brightest idea, but in the heat of the moment (pun intended) it made sense. When Memory came back with another pan, we dumped the remaining batter in it and shoved it back in the oven. Then we waited. The recipe said bake for 40-50 minutes, so I took the middle ground and, after 45 minutes had passed, took the cake out. Excuse me, took the pancake out. The cake had risen a grand total of about 1 centimeter.

I consoled myself with the fact that this was only the small cake—I could just add a little more baking powder and have a perfectly tall and fluffy big cake, right? Praying that I would have a good cooking instinct for once in my life, I did just that and slid the second cake into the oven of death. About halfway through the baking, the rest of the family returned home and, much to my chagrin, I had to explain the situation. If you ever want to feel about two feet tall, may I suggest doing exactly what I did that day?

It was hard to see the big cake through the oven window to check its progress and, surprise surprise, that was because it hadn’t risen enough to peek out over the top of the pan. I will give myself a little credit—this cake did rise about 2.5 centimeters. Comparatively, that’s something! When it was time to remove the cake from the pan to let it cool, I did just that, only to have it break apart, half of it remaining firmly fixed to the pan. Laughing, Amai Busa said she thought we had enough ingredients for her to make another cake, we just needed butter. Desperate to get out before I broke face in front of them, I practically ran out the door to get the butter. When I returned, Amai Busa had pieced my big cake back together and told me it would be perfect, just to ice it and no one would know the difference. So, while I slathered my runny, overly-sugary icing onto my failed cakes, Amai Busa tossed together (from memory) the recipe for another cake—one that would turn out to be perfectly browned, moist, and tall. I still felt horrible about ruining the first two cakes, but as I sat there and iced while Amai Busa baked and helped Mirriam pluck and cut a chicken and prepare the rest of the dinner for fourteen people, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the positive and hardworking spirit of this woman—of so many Zambian women. As I iced, she and Mirriam kept complimenting my baking and icing skills—and not sarcastically. “Susannah, she knows how to bake. It tastes good! Next time she’ll do even better.” Once her cake was in the oven, I urged Amai Busa to go sit down and rest. It was her birthday, for goodness sake, and she hadn’t stopped working since 5:30 AM. She laughed off my suggestion; “I’m alive! I’m celebrating by working, by getting things done.”

And she didn’t rest until everyone had eaten to their hearts’ content and literally danced the night away. I thought, perhaps, that we would just serve her cake to the guests and save my cake for the family’s eyes only, but she was excited to share both of our cakes with everyone. We laughed about how dense and sweet my cake was (most of the kids loved it, at least!) and, amazingly, what I had thought would be one of my worst days turned into one of my most treasured Zambian memories.

So, English major that I am, I can’t help but see this baking extravaganza as a pretty good metaphor for my time here. Most of the time, I’m the uncomfortable baker in the kitchen of Zambia. I don’t really know why people put me in charge of something, where the ingredients are, or how to measure them. I can’t understand (or even find) the cookbook, and I left my comfort zone when I walked through the doorway. I struggle day in and day out to wait for electricity and spend a day on an activity that might normally take an hour or two, and I frequently feel very alone as I complete the tasks that I need to do. Some days I just want to hide my face in my pillow and hope for someone else to come along and bake the cake for me.

And yet, what a difference it makes when people step into the kitchen to help coax the cake(s) into risen life. What a difference it makes when people piece your broken cake back together and sincerely compliment your shoddy icing job. What a difference it makes when people are happy to share your iffy work with others and what a relief it is when others accept and even enjoy it. I’ve had so many people be the Amai Busas and Mirriams of this story during my time here that I can’t even begin to count them all. I thank God daily for all the people who are able to turn my discomfort and uneasiness into days brimming with more joy and laughter than I could have hoped for. I pray that we might all do our best to step into each other’s kitchens, bringing with us the love and support that encourages us to move forward, to laugh at our mistakes, and that reminds us that we are never truly alone.


One thought on “The Best Worst Day

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