Opinion | The Zen of Tiny Clay Food

I’ve always hated cooking. My mother thought it was drudgery; her mother felt the same. As for me, a tech worker, I hid in my profession’s disdain for inefficiency. The calculus of exchanging time or money for feeding my family never balanced in cooking’s favor. For a perfectionist like me (another matrilineal inheritance) long recipes looked like baroque forms of self-torture; there wasn’t even time to shop at the good grocery store.

But in quarantine, I watched friends extract comfort from making food. In the muck of working and parenting and worrying and scrolling, I wanted that for myself. Always the diligent student, I bookmarked recipes, sourced flour, bought a stand mixer. I felt pride in my no-knead bread, my fridge-cleaning frittata, my gut-destroying double-chocolate cookies.

Still, sometimes my family didn’t want to eat what I made, or it looked funny, or worst of all, it tasted bad and I didn’t know why. I couldn’t find the patience to learn from imperfection. Instead, I boiled over with annoyance and exhaustion. Cooking was no different from scrubbing the dishes or supervising Zoom preschool. It was just another thing I was failing at.

After trying tie dye, YouTube yoga, face paint, Instagram read-alongs and homemade coloring books, one day I bought some polymer clay to pass the hours with my daughter. She wanted to make fruit, so we rolled baby apples and oranges in our palms. She demanded cookies, so we carefully placed minuscule chocolate chips onto tiny balls of dough. She enjoyed it; I was addicted. The soft clay in my hands slowed my anxious breathing. I fell into a trance mixing the perfect shade of icing. “Clay today?” I’d beg my child. After spaghetti, she lost interest, but I found my source of comfort.

I started to stay up too long after everyone’s bedtime making beautiful little meals I could never master at life size. It was the first time in a long time I was really alone, the first time my mind was still. The only thing at stake was my own satisfaction.

My husband does most of the cooking now, and my heart belongs to clay. I keep lists of new clay meals to make. I follow genius chefs on social media and save screenshots for inspiration. I bore my friends over text with my plans. My daughter and I still do clay together when she’s in the mood, but she gets angry if her results don’t look like mine. So I’m working to teach her the word “experiment” and the notion that each time she tries, the trying makes her better. It’s a lesson I’m still learning at the end of every strange, horrible or hopeful day in quarantine, when I sit down with my clay and my little tools and I try again to make one small piece of the world just right.

Rebecca Ackermann is a designer and writer.

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