Imagined Communities and Baked Goods

by Will Sutton


I had decided to sleep in. My classes were done, and I didn’t start my summer job for a few days. Setting my alarm for 10AM the night before, I looked forward to a solid nine hours of sleep.

Not so. I awoke that morning at 8:30 to the sound of my mother’s voice in the kitchen, speaking loudly into her laptop. I tried to ignore it and return to bed, but had no luck. Miserably awake, I marched downstairs with a bone to pick.

Before I could gripe to my mother, however, I saw my 8-year-old cousin on the laptop screen, a mixing bowl on the counter in front of him. My mother, too, stood in front of a mixing bowl, the ingredients for brownies laid out beside her. I looked from her to my cousin blinking unassumingly on the Zoom call and decided not to whine. I grunted a good morning, grabbed some coffee, and went back upstairs.

I didn’t want to loudly complain in front of my little cousin, but that’s not the only reason for my retreat. Seeing the pair baking together-- both that morning, and nearly every Tuesday since-- was genuinely touching. These days, I relish eating my breakfast while listening to my mom teaching him how to crack eggs with one hand, or trying to explain the science of bread rising. Plus, I get to enjoy whatever treats they bake.

In a section of Remembrance of Repasts, David E. Sutton’s 2001 anthropological study of the island of Kalymnos, Greece, the author makes an intriguing observation: Kalymnians who have been physically separated from their homeland seek out their native cuisine in order to achieve a sense of wholeness. Drawing upon the work of Benedict Anderson, Sutton asserts that dislocated Kalymnians consume familiar food to place themselves within an imagined community that confirms their cultural identity.

I cannot help but apply this idea, on a micro scale, to morning baking tutorials in my kitchen. From homes in Massachusetts and New Jersey, my mom and my little cousin bake brownies, cookies, and bread in lockstep. As they move together through their kitchens, there’s a palpable sense of family, generated in the steps, textures, and smells that they share from homes 200 miles apart. Every Tuesday, they imagine, and share, a community through the act of simultaneous baking. So I won’t complain when they interrupt my sleep.

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