Peach Cake

It’s 2020, 4AM. 

I’m in the kitchen, cutting up a peach.

I have to tell you about this peach. If you follow me on Instagram, you already know about it, because this peach was so picture-perfect that when I brought it home from the fruit stand on Granny White Pike I went out to my backyard and took a glamour shot of it in the afternoon light. I had an art teacher in college who thought the greatest sin an artist could commit was rendering something too perfect. She hated preciousness, clean lines, happy colors. “Don’t give me something beautiful,” she would say, “give me something real.” Sometimes she would grab the paintbrush from my hand and smear it through my still life, leaving a gash of muddy brown through the paisley napkin I’d been replicating in painstaking detail. “Mess it up,” she’d command. She’d make me paint with my left hand. She’d turn near-finished canvases upside down and say, “Finish it like that.”

If I painted this peach, she would have said, “Don’t insult me, Winona. This isn’t what the peach actually looks like. This is what you think a peach is supposed to look like.” But in this case she would be wrong, because this peach really was perfect: bright orange with rosy cheeks and two green leaves twisting gracefully out from the stem. 

Now I’m chopping it up, and doing a fairly terrible job of it too, owing partly to the fact that I’m running on three hours sleep and mostly to the fact that I have terrible knife skills. (Yesterday I asked Nick if he would hire me to the work in the kitchen of the restaurant he’s going to open someday, and his answer was a very tactful version of “Maybe if I was really desperate.”) I scoop up the ragged slices of my mangled, beautiful peach and drop them into the creamed butter. I combine the cinnamon and sugar in a small bowl and mix them together. 

I’m in the kitchen right now, pre-dawn, because I couldn’t sleep. The frayed hem of a worry got caught in the escalator of my mind and pretty soon I was staring wide-eyed at the ceiling of my bedroom, mind racing with thoughts of diseases, racism, economic ruin, political turmoil, environmental destruction, civil war — all the greatest hits of anxious inner monologues and the crushing reality of life in 2020.

My mom is an anxious flyer. Once she told me, “Flying wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t have to work so hard to keep the plane in the air.” That’s me, right now. My worries are a plane with no pilot. My fears are glass plates spinning on long poles. Don’t let it crash. Don’t let them fall. 

I try everything to calm myself: breathing exercises, meditation, visualizing a calm meadow with happy deer frolicking among wildflowers. Nothing breaks through the waves of worst case scenarios, until suddenly my mind clears except for one image: the perfect peach. And one thought — a fact, really:

I am going to make a peach cake. 

I get out of bed and go to the kitchen, turning on the light and tying an apron around my waist. 

While I measure the flour and sugar, I put on a podcast: an interview with the poet and writer Ocean Vuong. He is talking about how American textbooks dedicate multiple chapters to George Washington — what he ate, what kind of teeth he had, what kind of tree he chopped down. “And by the way,” Ocean says, “if somebody chops down a fruit tree, that’s a red flag for me.”

The audience laughs, and I do too. 

I swirl the cinnamon sugar through the batter, thinking about how you can’t make a peach cake without a peach tree, and soil and water and sunlight, and somebody who took the time to tend to the earth, and pick the peach, and drive it to the fruit stand. I’m just so glad nobody chopped down this tree. 

Worry has always come easy to me, but so has gratitude. I always get a little confused when people talk about listing five things they’re grateful for at the end of the day, or keeping a gratitude journal, because for me, gratitude is a constant state of being. It’s right at the surface, all the time. When I experience something beautiful — a sunset, a rose, a song, a peach — my first thought is often, “Thank you.” And that’s what I’m thinking now, as I sprinkle the top of my cake with the last stringy, uneven chunks of perfect peach.

Thank you for this peach and this kitchen. Thank you for the voice of a poet speaking truth about a violent, complicated country. Thank you for flour and sugar and eggs. Thank you for the sunrise. 

I look at the picture of the peach cake in the cookbook, then back to my version. “Not beautiful,” I think, “but real.”