Tag Archives: friendship

Scones for Friends

Orange pumpkin scones in a black cast iron skillet.

A few weekends ago, I drove from Spokane to Moscow to see some friends. On the seat next to me was a plate of peach scones, wrapped in foil, sliding from side to side as I curved through the yellow hills of the Palouse, vibrant miles and miles of wheat.

A sign on the last county before Idaho reads “Entering Whitman County, The Nation’s Leading Producer of Wheat.” Most of the wheat in the Palouse is soft white winter wheat, which produces flour with less moisture, making it useful for cakes, pastries, and crackers. On day three of baking school, cake flour was just one of fifteen flours I sifted my fingers through to identify by texture, color, and moisture content, all of us pre-chefs standings around tiny bread pans filled with cake flour, whole wheat, cracked wheat, soy flour, all powdering our fingertips. I’ve only used all-purpose flour for my scones.

This wasn’t the first or last time I baked scones for social purposes. For an English department event I thought was a potluck but was actually just some beers and chips among mostly tenured faculty outside the Humanities Building, I brought a platter of pumpkin scones. Having the excuse of a gift makes it less nerve-racking, these social interactions, and there’s something anachronistic about it, too.

It’s comforting, I think, because of how bad I usually am at building and maintaining friendships. When I leave a place, I leave it entirely, forgetting too soon how lonely my preferred state of aloneness can become. Scones give me purpose, something to absorb my anxiety like a sponge: I promise I care about you, and here’s a plate of fresh-baked evidence that I hope will speak for me so I can stay quiet.

Supposedly the first recorded reference to scones is from the Scottish bishop Gavin Douglas’s 1513 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid: “On grene herbis and sonkis gres./The flour sconnis war sett in, by and by” (88). The word scone possibly comes from the Scottish Sgonn, which Alexander MacBain’s 1896 Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language defines as “a block of wood, blockhead; sgonn-balaich, lump of a boy, ‘section'” (317). However, the aptly named Dictionary Containing English Words of Difficult Etymology (self-published by the Reverend Thomas Richard Brown in 1843) identifies sgonn as a Gaelic word meaning “a prater; and droll, an idle person: which seems to be synonymous with sgonn-bhalach, a scoundrel” (124).

All western baking traditions are products of modernity, though. The earliest references to scones appear just before the widespread use of ingredients we think of as essential for them. Sugar was one of the primary crops of the slave trade, which the British were in the process of expanding in the Caribbean in the seventeenth century; tea imported from China did not enter conventional British social life until the early eighteenth century; and baking soda wasn’t a household product until the nineteenth century. As Great Britain expanded its reach, afternoon tea time became a form of “participating in the continued success of the British Empire” (Fromer 538), a symbolic act of consuming the fruits of violent conquest abroad.

I don’t know what premodern scones were like, but their etymology (from lump, not scoundrel) could accurately describe many different kinds of bread. In 1999, a team of Oxford archaeologists working in Yarnton discovered what the BBC called the oldest bread in Britain: small burned blobs of 5,500-year-old crushed barley. Plenty of evidence suggests that in Neolithic Britain, “cereals were primarily cultivated on a fairly small scale,” such as “garden plots that would have shifted around with people” (Cummings & Harris 831), so unlike the static winter wheat fields of the Palouse.

I’m drawn to these ancient bits of toast because of their context. The Neolithic period was one of intense climatic change, of chaos and uncertainty. One important note: the barley chunks were also found with apple cores and hazelnut shells. Barley was probably difficult to grow in large quantities, so the first bread in Britain may have been ritualistic, a treat for a special occasion rather than a staple.

With limited resources, one type of probably rougher flour, no baking soda, and only honey as a sweetener, the barley lumps/scoundrels may have looked more the “oily cakes” that the protagonists make in Kelly Reichardt’s 2019 First Cow. Set in 1820 in the Oregon Territory, the characters Cookie and King-Lu begin making a kind of fried dough using milk stolen from the only cow in the region, owned by a British governor known by his title as the Chief Factor. When Factor finally tastes the cakes, he remarks without an ounce of self-awareness for what the cake implies that it “tastes of England.”

The film is ostensibly about friendship, but I think it’s also about the difficulty of an authentic friendship under capitalism. When the working class must sell their labor—their mind, body, time, and spirit—to the ruling class, it becomes easier to treat one another as mere resources, just as our bosses do. In First Cow, it’s unclear until the final scene how much King-Lu and Cookie’s friendship is transactional, a mere business deal.

A journalist obtained from A24 Reichardt’s recipe for the oily cakes, from co-writer Jonathan Raymond, which was developed “from historical recipes of the time.” Requiring “just an astonishing amount of lard” to cook the yeast, fat, egg, and all-purpose flour, the formula is more like rustic pancakes.

Like a conventional short story, the film coalesces around one character’s final decision to act or to not act: King-Lu could take the profits from the cake sales and abandon Cookie, or remain with him, as Factor hunts them down after discovering their thievery. The friendship portrayed is both sincere and realistically fraught, even doomed, by the social circumstances that originally shape it.

Every time I make scones, I either use a different recipe or a different flavor. This is the opposite of industrial baking for profit, which requires uniformity. I’m glad for the uneven, lumpy, rustic shape my scones often take. I like that no two batches are the same. The pumpkin scones were the best batch I’ve made in a while (an earlier attempt at pear scones were less successful). I shared half of the batch with some fellow humanities adjuncts over dinner after the department event, along with soup made from the produce of a theology professor’s garden.

I don’t know what I’ll bake for the next occasion to share a meal. Maybe I’ll experiment with barley flour. Lumpy scoundrel already sounds like a type of doughnut. Maybe I’ll bake them with hazelnut, local apples, and fresh milk.


Brown, Thomas Richard. A Dictionary Containing English Words of Difficult Etymology. 1843.

Cummings, Vicki, Oliver T.J. Harris. “The Continuity of Hunting and Gathering in the Neolithic and Beyond.” The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers. Ed. Vicki Cummings, Peter Jordan, & Marek Zvelebil. Oxford University Press, 2014, 825-837.

Douglas, Gavin. The poetical works of Gavin Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld; with memoir, notes, and glossary. Edinburgh, 1874.

Fromer, E. Julia. “‘Deeply Indebted to the Plant’: Representations of English National Identity in Victorian Histories of Tea.” Victorian Literature and Culture Vol. 36 (2008) pg. 531-547.

Nobody Plans to Stay in Spokane

SpokaneMy plan for the break was to take a bus from Spokane to Missoula, and get a ride from there to Hamilton, Montana, to visit my grandparents, then travel to Arizona with my parents. To make a short story shorter, the bus was delayed, and now I’m stuck in Spokane for the night. I will depart in the morning, I hope.

My aunt was kind enough to give me a ride to Spokane from Moscow, on her birthday no less. In her profound generosity, she booked a hotel room for me in Spokane after learning the bus was delayed twelve hours. She then joined a friend for per-arranged birthday plans, hurrying because apparently there was an active shooter in downtown Spokane. She told me that her well-traveled husband has only ever been afraid of Spokane. Moscow, Russia? Fine. Dubai? Sure. But not Spokane. Anything but Spokane at night.

Of course 2017 would draw to a close with me stuck in a hotel room in Spokane where there’s an active shooter on the last day of the semester, listening to “Pale Green Things” by The Mountain Goats on repeat. There are worse endings.

The last time I was in Spokane, I was with the only other nonfiction first-year student in my department. He was picking up a friend from New York at the same Greyhound station I will (hopefully) depart from. He and I wandered the town at night, what my well-traveled uncle would strongly advise against. We found cool bars, he visited a dispensary, and we waited for his friend’s bus in his car listening to Utah Philips sing “Solidarity Forever” on repeat, talking about the possibility of unionizing grad students to protect ourselves from the multitude of organizations attacking higher education.

A month later, he had to leave. His story is not mine to tell, but I know that a graduate student union might have been able to help him stay. A better healthcare system, or even expanded medicaid, would also have helped, and stricter environmental regulations would have spared his health from the start. But, as with so many things this year, it’s too late now.

I didn’t expect to be in Spokane tonight. I expected to explain again to my grandparents what a vegetarian diet involves and sleeping in a comfortable old house in the Bitterroot Valley. Instead, tonight I can see the spot my friend and I parked and shared our insecurities from the view of this hotel. What an unexpected gift, to remember the people who have helped me survive this semester. I needed this reminder of the many people who unintentionally hold me together at the seams just by being themselves. At the end of a dreadful year, what an unexpected gift.

-jk

Reading and Road Trips

Crested ButteTwo weeks ago, I graduated from UNL with a Master’s degree in English. It is the result of two years of reading, writing, and writing about what I read. More importantly, I had the pleasure of spending time with the friends and colleagues I worked with this past year. To celebrate the end of the semester and our program, several folks in my graduate cohort took a vacation by driving from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Crested Butte, Colorado, for a weekend next to a river. Soon, we will scatter and go our separate ways, and the slice of time we gave one another without responsibility, without the need to work for someone else, without tasks to fulfill, was a small slice of heaven (which is, as we all know, a place on Earth).

Right now, I have a summer of road trips planned ahead of me. I have been accepted into the MFA program at the University of Idaho, in Moscow (the fun Moscow). I’ll be driving there from Lincoln soon with part of my family, then through Montana and Idaho to visit a variety of relatives, then back to Flagstaff, Arizona, before driving back to Montana and Idaho a month later. I’ll be spending a lot of time in a car.

When a handful of English Majors go on a road trip, they take books with them, and for me it’s always been that way. As long as I can remember, I’ve taken long road trips every summer from Arizona across the Rockies to Montana, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and California, and I’ve always taken a book with me. One summer, I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Another summer, I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. On this most recent road trip, I read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara, and to continue my step in the left direction through summer reads, I think I’ll take along Terrorism and Communism by Leon Trotsky, which I hear is a pleasant beach read.

I’ve spent the last two years reading more books than I expected, various novels, historical texts, books on theory, books on the Russian Revolution of my own volition, craft essays, and several Nigerian plays. It is telling that, on my first break from grad school, I continued to read. The same is true of my friends who went to Crested Butte.

I have a lot going on this summer, much to look forward to and much to fear. I could blog about going to a new graduate program in creative writing or the college-industrial complex after surviving it for two more years or moving to a new state again. But right now the only things I want to do are read and spend time (reading) with my friends. I even hear talk of a Kafka/Marxist reading group in the making.

-jk

In the Company of Roses

Flower Last week, a man told me a parable about a lump of clay and some roses. He cited it as a Persian parable, but I did some research and found that it actually comes from the thirteenth century Persian poet Abū-Muhammad Muslih al-Dīn bin Abdallāh Shīrāzī, commonly known as Sa’di. He is one of the most influential poets in Islamic and Asian literature. In Iran, April 21 is celebrated as Sa’di Day.

While Europeans were busy killing each other in the medieval period, which they eventually termed the Dark Ages like a bad sequel to the Roman Empire, most of Western and Central Asia witnessed an artistic, philosophical, and scientific renaissance. Sa’di was only a part of this unique cultural era.

The poem I heard comes from the “Adoration and Preamble” section of Gulistan, or “the rose garden,” one of Sa’di’s most famous works. It reads something like this:

“I held in my bath a per­fumed piece of clay
that came to me from a beloved’s hand.
I asked it, ‘Are you musk or amber­gris?
Like fine wine, your smell intox­i­cates me.’

Till some­one set me down beside a rose,’
it said, ‘I was a loath­some lump of clay.
My companion’s scent seeped into me.
Oth­er­wise, I am only the earth that I am.'”

Apart from talking lumps of clay, I love this poem because it reminds me that I am defined by my proximity to others more than I realize.

Artistically, I am the product of the writers and poets I read: Billy Collins, Sylvia Plath, Douglas Adams, John Steinbeck, Dunya Mikhail, Jamaica Kincaid, and Pablo Neruda have made me the writer I am. Aesthetically, the Southwest made me an experimental, avant-garde magical realist. Socially, I am shaped by my friends, family, lovers, mentors, and the two or three enemies I keep around for good measure. Professionally, I’m a workaholic, being the son of professors who know education is a religious devotion serving the many at the expense of the few, the happy few.

I’m honored to live in the company of roses. I surround myself with those who inspire me. It took me a while to figure out how miserable one can get surrounded by those who are negative, over-critical, dishonest, manipulative, and toxic. I don’t mean I’m in the company of the perfect; all roses have their thorns. But for what it’s worth, I’m glad to let my friends rub off on me. It makes me a better person (and apparently more appealing to bathe with) to walk with roses.

-jk

A Brief Note About the Best Weekend of the Year*

*or, That Time I Went to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs 2015 Conference in Minneapolis

Conference 1

“Listen to the language you start with in the first paragraphs. That will shape the rest of the story more than you are aware.” –Pamela Painter on first drafts.

Every year, thousands of writing programs, small presses and literary magazines, publishing companies, writers new and old, writing teachers, and students flock together to share their books, writing programs, new releases, and innovations in the literary community. Thanks to the NAU Honors Program, I joined several friends in attending the conference, and it was one of the most beneficial experiences of my academic life.

“The MFA program is useful because it’s a break from the capitalist shitstorm. It lets you work without giving you black lung, and lets you focus on writing. The problem is that it doesn’t prepare you for life back in the capitalist shitstorm after it’s over.” –Claire Vaye Watkins.

Conference 2

Despite our travel plans going wrong, we made it. Because Arizona does not acknowledge daylight savings time  (but Greyhound does), we missed our bus by an hour. We decided to take a shuttle to Phoenix and ended up taking two different shuttles an hour apart, but eventually gathered in Sky Harbor with enough time to bankrupt ourselves from airport food. By late afternoon and with much applause, we landed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, amidst rain and snow.

“One of the hardest things for an Arab to accomplish is to live apolitically.” –Hayan Charara on whether or not writing should be political.

The conference has two features, an exhaustive list of panels and a colossal book fair. I spent most of my time in the less popular conferences, and tried to explore as rich and diverse a selection of topics as possible:

conference swagLiterature from communities in diaspora, featuring Vietnamese-, Korean-, and Arab-American writers; a reading of flash fiction, from six-word memoirs to 1,000-word short-shorts; a reading from Cuban poet Víctor Rodríguez Núñez and a signing of his newest collection With a Strange Scent of World; a set of memoir readings from U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; a discussion on translating Brazilian minority poets; a lengthy discussion from MFA teachers about the usefulness of seeking an MFA in Creative Writing in the first place; a panel on the usefulness of historical fiction and the rules one can break with it; a beautiful poetry reading from Iranian Farzaneh Milani, Syrian Mohja Khaf, and Iraqi Dunya Mikhail plus a list of historical women poets in the Arab-speaking world; a panel on writing as advocacy; and a reading of creative nonfiction about the value of speculation in nonfiction works.

“The ‘other’ for the writer is simply everyone.” –Elizabeth Kadetsky on the relationship between writers and the world.

The conference reinvigorated my love of writing, but unmasked a great many myths and expectations upon which I had previously built my understanding of the writing life. I now understand that the MFA racket is not all it’s cracked up to be; though certainly useful if applied correctly, MFAs are neither necessary nor financially sustainable if one wants to be a writer. I now have a greater appreciation for the need for good translators, and how deeply politicized translations can become when meaning and identity are at stake crossing the thresholds between languages. Flash fiction is more than an exercise in economizing language but a growing form of art itself.

Lastly, and most importantly, being a lone writer, while romantic, is terrible; good writing can only ever come from the experiences a writer internalizes and interprets, so I must accumulate as many experiences as possible, good, unpleasant, awkward, funny, humiliating, beautiful, terrifying, or calming. Time is not what I need as a writer; a community of friends, loved ones, people who inspire me, are what I really need. This trip generated more ideas for stories than anything I’ve done inside a classroom, and it is to my friends that I owe my ability to write, if I can say I possess such an ability in the first place.

friends

-jk