Sewanee, TN – Rural Tennessee promised to hold stories and lemonade on the front porch, plus who could go wrong in a state with so many double letters? I had agreed to dog-sit for my cousins in Sewanee, TN for the summer and just arrived. In three days, I had met their friends, learned to tuck my pants into my socks to avoid chigger bites and weeded the garden. Tired from the heat and sudden activity after my road trip, I ate the last chocolate cookie. One of my cousins was still home for another week so I thought I would be nice and make another batch of chocolate cookies with chocolate chips.
The first thing you notice when you take on a baking project in someone else’s house is that you feel like you’re snooping. My cousins and I eat very similarly with a heavy emphasis on fresh vegetables but I was sure I could find the ingredients for my tasty sugary convection. Remembering that they told me to make myself at home, I perused the cupboards. The dogs, Lillie and Gero, helpfully sniffed everything that fell to the floor. One thing to mention about my cousins is that they are tall. I didn’t get that gene. It feels even more like snooping when you have to haul over a chair to see what’s behind the dried cranberries on the top shelf. I smiled smugly when I noticed a bag of conventional marshmallows, taking it as a sign that other white things like white sugar and white flour must be hiding nearby.
The second thing you notice after you get over the feeling of snooping is the sudden thought of good lord, how do these people combine these ingredients to eat? I tend to make my food from scratch but was having a hard time finding regular baking soda amidst the plethora of curry masala and honey pearls. I was about to track down the baking soda which I sometimes use for deodorant (when I’m feeling especially natural) when I found the container. Of course I’d never even seen the brand before. On second-check, it was actually from Trader Joe’s. I congratulated myself for finding a bag of flour in the bottom cupboard and even the mixer. I found farm-fresh eggs in the fridge and figured I could substitute raw sugar for the rest of the white sugar in the recipe. Butter was going to be an issue. I found most of a stick in the door of the fridge and then spotted the pint-sized mason jar of bacon grease on the top shelf. We’d been feeding it to the dogs as a treat. I silently prayed that I hadn’t double-dipped from the dog dish as I estimated the rest of one cup. At least the majority of the fat content was generally the same – cow fat, pig fat, what’s the difference? Baking the cookies would kill any transferred dog germs. Besides, I had already thought about using baking soda I usually put in my armpits; dog germs were the least of my worries.
The third part of house-sitting is that you really don’t want to waste someone’s stuff. Wherever you are staying, they have a certain way they do things and there’s a reason for it. The dogs get one scoop of this and the older one gets half a scoop of that because, then, at the end of the month, they run out of dog food from both bags at the same time. As a house-sitter, if you’re a good one, you try very hard to not waste anything and make it appear as if the only thing that changed while they were away was the level of the dog food. It’s the same with baking. You can use the ingredients as long as there is something to show for your usage. It’s a law of physics: E=MC2. Thus, using ingredients to make cookies (to make up for eating the last one) perfectly balances out to completely justified.
I combined the butter-bacon grease with the sugar/raw sugar and realized that I’d never found the vanilla. Fortunately, we had bourbon. I put in two teaspoons and took a shot for me for good measure. Resources in the house were going down so this better work. I added the cocoa powder, baking soda and was ready to add the flour when I saw that it said, “100% whole wheat”. I was so far into the project that there was no going back. I thought of my friend Storm who once made a Bedouin tent in her living room for Valentine’s Day and frequently whipped up dinners from a can of green beans and some ground beef. I could do this. I dumped in the whole wheat flour, turned on the mixer realizing why it says to stir in the cocoa powder mixture by hand. The dogs barked as a cloud of cocoa puffed from the mixing bowl. I told myself any brown sheen in the kitchen could pass for dirt from the garden.
I couldn’t bring myself to taste the dough – it smelled like a campfire with a hint of nuttiness from the whole wheat. For some reason, the thought of pork product with sugar turned me off.
When the cocoa dust storm cleared, the dogs returned to see where the bacon smell was coming from. They sniffed around and I realized that, with the cocoa, I couldn’t even pass these things off as dog biscuits.
The recipe called for a neat little two-teaspoon ice cream scoop to form 12 neat little dough-balls on the cookie sheet. They were to be baked exactly eight minutes. I thought about a picky recipe I had read which said to throw out the vegetables after making vegetable broth. The same person probably wrote this recipe.
While a cookie dough scooper would be nifty to have, this was more of a Mason jar house, one where you’d find a cool tool to remove the stems of heirloom tomatoes (commercial tomatoes having been bred for thicker skins to handle fluctuations in moisture and being picked mechanically). As it turned out, scooping with teaspoons worked fine. I filled the cookie sheet with 11 lumps.
I placed the precious lumps in the oven. I had substituted five of the eight ingredients and Tennessee’d the recipe by adding the bacon grease and bourbon. Now I just had to wait, like a dog waiting for the real master to come home, happy to see the house-sitter each day but knowing the real thing must be just around the corner. I had conquered the kitchen and made myself at home. I called a friend to tell her about my adventure.
“Do you think the bacon grease will make them spread too much?” she asked.
I had a moment of doubt. “Maybe I can call them Tennessee health bars? The dogs are alive. She won’t care about the cookies.” Which really, in the end was the point.