I bake to feel like myself, especially when the outside world feels upside down.
In 2009, I was laid off from my first food media job out of culinary school. It had always been my dream to be a food editor, and I was crushed. Just after the cloud of self-pity lifted and the objects from my desk had been absorbed into my apartment with the disguise of belonging, I retreated to the kitchen with a new goal: to make the ideal chocolate chip cookie.
I had just created a food blog — following orders from the parting words of my mentor and former editor-in-chief — and it seemed like something a food blogger would do. Plus, a recipe by Jacques Torres had just appeared in The New York Times, and I thought that tinkering with his somewhat complicated iteration could help me find my own.
I was newly 25 and married to a first-year law student. My job had fallen victim to the recession and changing landscape of print media. I was as down and out as I'd ever been to that point, and somehow questing after the perfect chocolate chip cookie perked my spirits. It gave me purpose — a reason to orient my kitchen and efforts to produce something valuable, something worthy of putting out into the world.
After a few weeks and many batches of cookies, I finally arrived at what I felt was the perfect cookie: a crisp-yet-chewy classic bursting with layers of chocolate flavor, finished off with a sprinkle of sea salt. I loved the recipe so much that I began making it all the time, giving the cookies away to my friends whenever I had the excuse.
Soon the cookies began to take on a life and story of their own. I would trot them out every now and then to honor the often-overlooked small victories of life, such as a kind word from a usually grumpy boss or signing a new lease on an apartment. Over time, they developed a unique power.
Eventually, the cookies came along with me to every important meeting. I took them to a discussion about my first cookbook and credit them for earning my second. I made them to accompany the application for the offer on our house in 2015 — the height of the housing boom here in Seattle — relying on their power of persuasion.
I wrote my first children's book, the confidence to self-publish stemming from the very kind of determination held within building my food blog from scratch. It felt natural, then, to offer my chocolate chip cookies as a reward on Kickstarter. The crowd-funding campaign took place during a week in mid-February 2017, and I'd planned a series of Instagram and Facebook posts to promote the hopeful project.
One was a picture from my very first professional website that featured a version of myself that felt unrecognizable: young, blonde, childless, and without the glasses I'd come to proudly wear once I'd moved to Brooklyn in 2009. In that photo, however, the one common quality that baker and I continued to share was our signature dessert: the chocolate chip cookies.
I had no idea that, at the very moment of writing that post, I had a brain tumor lurking in my frontal lobe, or that the routine MRI I was scheduled to have later that very day would reveal it. An odd coincidence happened in that post, though; looking back later on it made me feel like my body was trying to tell me something. I used the word "legacy" in the caption in reference to my cookie recipe, describing it as the baked good I'd probably be remembered for best. Immediately after posting I realized it sounded a bit morbid because, well, I was completely healthy — or so I thought.
That slight moment of textbook dramatic irony has haunted me for years.
Once I was diagnosed with brain cancer, I chose to give up chocolate, gluten, and sugar, which were the fundamental elements of my magical cookies. It was heartbreaking at first, but the prospect of surviving — especially for my two young sons — offered a healthy perspective.
Somehow, I made it past the year the doctors gave me to live. "Now what?" I wondered in an empty kitchen.
I was faced with a totally different life in food that revolved around an "alternative" baking vocabulary — and a stack of medical bills. I felt like a cookbook author without a subject; the food choices that were necessary to my survival stood in opposition to the generalist, jack-of-all-trades food editor I'd become. Once again, my dream career fell away overnight. And once again, I turned to these cookies as a currency of hope.
During the early weeks when I was acclimating to life on the other side of my prognosis, I woke up suddenly in the middle of the night. I had gone to sleep after a terrifying review of our finances with my husband, battling a kind of panic that felt as though I'd been diagnosed with cancer all over again. I rose from bed and slipped out to my desk in the darkness, throwing my robe over my shoulders and shuffling into my slippers.
It had hit me, my next big idea: I would take the foods that held deep meaning to me and figure out a way to make them as often as I could. See, soup had taken on a kind of magic in my life the same way my cookies had — it's what people brought me when I was sick. Neighbors, friends, and even strangers would bring me batches of their favorite soul-nourishing recipes, like bowlfuls of lentils swimming with vegetables, in the months that followed my recovery from brain surgery. I fully believe that it was this display of community that shepherded me back to myself and possibly to the miracle of health I am living today.
I decided to thank the people who brought me soup by bringing them soup. And, of course, my cookies. Just because I couldn't eat them, didn't mean I couldn't make them — or share their magic.
And so, Soup Club was born.
My healthful, vegan soups paired perfectly with my cookies, a balance of comfort and decadence — hallmarks of my diet I'd come to appreciate since my diagnosis.
I currently live a life where I make over a hundred of these cookies a week and leave them with love (and soup!) on friends' porches.
The myth of these cookies grows each time I share them. They continue to reveal belonging, connection, and hope — just as they have ever since I created them in my Brooklyn kitchen. And even though I may never taste one again, I am certain they will nourish me always.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: The Chocolate Chip Cookies I Can't Eat Anymore, but Will Never Stop Making