For seven or so years, from age fifteen through my early twenties, I painted. The hobby was private, all mine, and continuous. I smeared the same makeshift canvas over and over, thickening warm colors over cold, sometimes morphing what was there, other times slathering it clean with white gesso, which I bought in tubs like budget face cream. When I miss painting now, I miss the feeling, buttery through the brush’s fan of bristles and wood handle, like a ghost whispering through the walls of a house, or a lover’s heat reaching through sleep.
Nowadays, though, I cream butter by hand with a wooden spoon. The cookbooks never recommend this: Even my most adored authors say do it by hand if you must, but you’ll get better results with a machine. I agree, when it comes to cakes, which are always greedy for air—but I prefer cookies, to make and to eat. It’s simpler, too, an elemental tool for an elemental treat. Wonderful cookie recipes call for eggs, two kinds of sugar, essences and spices and mix-ins, but you can make the perfect cookie with just a stick of butter, sugar, and flour. I almost always begin this way, spoon to butter. Like a brush, the spoon is a conduit to the arm, an antenna. I bake like I once painted, to touch butter.
In the United States, a stick of butter measures four ounces, which is eight tablespoons or half a cup, and comes wrapped in thin paper printed with markings for each tablespoon. The butter, in varying shades from off-white to yellow, depending on the cream, glows quietly alive through its wrapping, like blue veins through your hand. East of the Rockies, where I lived most of my life, the stick is long, log-like. Now I live west, in LA, where I’ve since learned we have the shorter, stouter “stubby.” But it is all the same four ounces, a dependable building block. In Europe, the butter comes in bricks, usually eight ounces, wrapped in metallic foil. They make me think of ingots. When I buy one I feel rich.
Before there was a butter industry, dairy farmers sold butter pressed and stamped in carved wood molds. I’m not a farmer, and I don’t churn my own butter, but it is easy enough to make by whipping leftover cream. I remember doing this in elementary school, each kid taking a turn shaking the mason jar with two hands. Harder! Permission to shake a jar of anything seemed extraordinary, and it was even more extraordinary to do this and create something, through the exuberance of our own bodies, that our parents bought at the store. Butter, an emulsion of fat, protein, and water, is both a product of transformation and an ingredient that transforms, a solid in flux.
Flux is key, of course. For laminated doughs, like puff pastry, butter must be very cold so it will keep its shape in discrete layers, but I am mainly a cookie baker, and we need it softened. Softened butter makes it possible to stir and beat vigorously, mixing in sugar and air, which yields a supple, aerated, sweetened base into which you can evenly fold flour to form dough. I learned much later than I should have what “softened” actually means. It is cooler and harder—harder!—than you think, resisting you. When you slice it, the butter should push back a little. Fun as it is to poke a stick of butter when it is warmer than that, squishy inside its paper wrapper, it will yield oily cookies that puddle in the oven, losing their bite. It’s no tragedy, but still.
Butter, an emulsion of fat, protein, and water, is both a product of transformation and an ingredient that transforms, a solid in flux.
I find the western stubby softens more slowly than the slender eastern logs. Slowness is a virtue in the Californian heat. Baking after noon between the months of May and October is a risk in my west-facing kitchen, which gets so hot that a stick becomes gooey and greasy in minutes, and I, sweating now, have to put her back in the fridge, and forget, and repeat, and forget, and repeat. Sometimes I give up baking in overheated frustration altogether. (A solid in flux.)
Both of us require some extra attention. I have learned to be vigilant about my frustrations, which I have a history of escaping, leaving myself behind in the process. Of course, frustrations are as dependable in life as four-ounce sticks of butter.
I started baking a few years after I’d stopped painting, more than ten years ago. At that time in my life, pleasure was something I experienced at a distance much further than the length of a wooden spoon, but I hardly noticed. I was numbing hard feelings, which meant I also numbed the good. I was, and I say this with as much nuance as possible, unhappy. So much is blocked for me from those days, so I can’t tell you what instinct it was, exactly, that sent me to the kitchen. But I recall, around that time, cradling a cool stick of butter against my body like a stray kitten. I must have wanted to speed things along as I often do (I am impatient and impulsive in baking, make no mistake, and frequently short on time—and I don’t own a microwave). I held the butter, still in its paper, against my skin, rotating it so it would soften evenly. I know that at some point, it warmed itself against me, or I warmed it. Awareness, body as source of heat.
What I mean is, sometimes you don’t end where you think you do.
What I mean is, butter puts me in my body.
On cool days when I decide last minute to bake, I still warm sticks of butter with my heat, sliding them into a sports bra, into the pockets of my pants, even tucking them under the elastic of my sweats if there’s a true chill in the air. Think of it what you will.
Baking was not my only teacher, but it granted permission to make a mess, to follow my sensual appetites and do it with gusto. The more I baked, the more I sensed them, like a soak into my soils, an alertness, a pliancy, a tuning of my whole self to chill and warmth, density and lightness, drag and slip. I began to crave the way I felt when I created with my whole body, and to crave it as much as I craved the cookies themselves. I understand now that through baking, tending to butter and creaming it with sugar, I was reshaping my relationship to sensation, and with that, to pleasure. A stick of butter was step one in this reshaping and would be always, like taking a deep breath, counting to ten, drinking water. First steps avert panic. They anchor you.
Recipes, you see, are a set of instructions for paying attention. Buckwheat shortbread and sesame coins (Alice Medrich).Vanilla sables and jammers (Dorie Greenspan). Dark chocolate chip cookies with pecans (Deb Perelman). There is a low barrier to entry, step 1 to step 2 to step 3, in their incremental patience and perpetual present. In a recipe’s structure, I can let go. I do not have to think ahead. I do not have to think. I have made cookies so many times that the softening, vigorous creaming, decisive folding in, tender shaping, all that muscular and delicate tactility, the throaty vanilla smell, the thwacking of butter, the spoon ringing the bowl like a gong, it is like dropping an anchor, and I can float.
This doesn’t mean I float away, though my tendency is to want to. Baking even moderately well requires observation. Butter demands attention, not just in the softening, but in the bowl. Never trust a recipe that just tells you to cream butter and sugar for three minutes. It’s not time ticking, but transformation—a snowy look, a sunny smell—that you want. It’s smear to wood to hand to arm through shoulder to chest and back again, until it’s light but not yet fluffy oblivion.
Creaming butter with sugar by hand is hard, harder, at least for me, and I like that. And of course, I can pause. I’ve come to know butter as well as I know the gurgling of my own gut, its sounds, its stages, its smell—a tangy note, a leaf note, a flesh note, a sweet. I notice when the smell no longer comes from within the bowl and is simply everywhere, as if I’ve beaten the air too. I feel the leap between creamed and whipped too far through the spoon, like I’ve come to know the difference between holding and softness in my shoulders, my back, between stress and overwhelm, rest and avoidance, numbing and desire.
Creaming butter with sugar by hand is hard, harder, at least for me, and I like that.
As a kid I played a kind of game of not touching. Sometimes this would mean bringing the tips of my fingers as close as possible to my lips or my nose, stopping just before they met, or I would sit, curled in toward my bare knees, moving them as close as I could to the skin of my forehead. Doing this seemed to create a force field around me, or maybe it was that, in such closeness, I slipped inside a force field that was always there. The molecular space between became charged, electric, and I could sense my own proximity. As an adult, I’ve learned that the same thing happens when you hover your lips vertically above a cookie as it cools, except it also smells like swooning.
Sometimes, hovering over a tray fresh from the oven, I get the urge to wrap my mouth around one from above, not necessarily to eat it, but to feel its warmth, the give under its crisp exterior. With lovers, I have had the urge to touch facets of their faces with my mouth, the soft fur of the brow and eye socket, the mound of cheekbone, the thin skin on bridge of nose. To hold them in my mouth like a retriever dog softs a dead pheasant. Open-mouthed, the scent of them fills my head, like I am a chimney and they are the fire. It is a kind of permeation.
What triggered my trapdoor retreat, in those years between painting and baking? I had once been a full spectrum of person, with a full spectrum of feelings, a full spectrum of desires. I can’t help but wonder if the possibility of this diapason is what scared me into hiding from my feelings, all of them, the good, harder, hardest. I’d had longings in high school, but only one fling, if you can even call it that, with a girl at another school, and it went wrong. It had been, to oversimplify, inconvenient to the life I was living at the time, one in which I had a boyfriend, so I threw a tarp over whatever it had been and went on. I wasn’t ready to witness it through my flesh and bones.
Actually, it was around that time that I began my private painting, that smearing, brush to slippery color, against the canvas’s tooth. It’s impossible to say what motivated me, but I wrote poetry and songs back then too (I was that kind of high schooler). I’ve sometimes described myself, to myself and others, as a verbal processor, but it seems that just when logic failed me, words did too. Instead, I had feelings, squishy, amorphous, in flux. I needed to be in them without wondering what they meant. I needed to feel that they were.
When I bake, of course it’s to have cookies to eat. But it’s also to create with my body, to trust its longings. My body knows what cookies it wants, if it’ll be the ones that snap between my teeth or melt on my tongue, or the ones that crumble, a palm cupped beneath the chin, or chewy chunky ones that greet me as I sink in. I get the most particular rumblings, sesame one day, then plum, pecan, wine, flowers, chocolate, fennel seed. I don’t ask why. I take some butter out to soften.
I forgot so much, but I remember this. Re-member, as if it were the opposite of dismember, to tear limb from limb. This is not the actual etymology, but I don’t mind. It feels like dismemberment now, to escape my feelings, because I see that when I do that, I escape, if not myself then my self’s truth. As in so much of my life, I’m finding solidity in instability, in transformations. So I cream sticks of butter by hand, hard, with all of my body—arm, shoulder, lung, heart, belly, lung, shoulder, arm, feet, legs, feet, one, two, three. This is how I re-member me.
Katie Okamoto's writing has appeared in Catapult, The Atlantic, Eater, TASTE, Metropolis, and BuzzFeed Reader, among other places. She participated in the 2020 Tin House Summer Workshop for non-fiction and memoir and is at work on a book. Formerly, Katie was the senior editor at Metropolis, the architecture and design magazine, in New York City. Find them at katieokamoto.com.