When I was eight years old, my brother went to Vietnam, and my mother set about what would later be known as the Great Overseas Brownie Mission or GO-BM (no reflection on the brownies, I swear). This meant that she basically endeavored to provide the entire U.S. Army stationed within satellite distance of Saigon with homemade brownies. The North Vietnamese had their Hanoi Hannah, and my brother and his buddies had Mom, aka Gourmet Gayle. (Okay, her name was really Estelle, but I didn’t like the sound of Epicurean Estelle. My occasional nickname was Sara Bernhardt, for the old-time movie actress who was a drama queen.)
I was her sidekick, and it became clear to me very early on in the project that it was about much more than making brownies; it was about sending baked bites of love and safety to my brother and the troops. The responsibility was intense but also empowering. At eight, your mind is open to the most fantastical delusions: If I was dutiful, vigilant, and vigorous in all steps, then somehow my brother would come to no harm.
This was before the days of KitchenAid or microwaves, and we had to let the butter soften to room temperature, then cream it with sugar using our own elbow grease—my least favorite job but the one I thought most important. Perhaps I was unconsciously subscribing to the “no pain, no gain” theory without even knowing it. I only knew that in my magical thinking, I equated my efforts with the safety of my brother. If I slacked off, he might suffer a wound; if the batter was not totally smooth, it might be even worse. And because the recipe only made 16 brownies, and my mother was quadrupling the recipe for each of two pans, this creaming was quite an aerobic feat. What’s the word for multiplying a recipe times eight? Octupling? No, I think it’s called “nuts.” No pun.
But it was after the brownies were baked that the real work began. My mother insisted that each brownie be packaged individually, first in plastic wrap, then aluminum foil, and layered into shoeboxes with the precision of a master mason or the crossword editor for The New York Times. Have you ever ripped 126 little sheets of plastic wrap off the roll? Let me put it this way: Have you ever had 126 tiny paper cuts? But my brother was fighting for justice; the least I could do was shed a few drops of blood for the cause.
When the brownies were shipped off, my mother always had a bit of a cry—a post-pastry depression. I think that as long as she was baking, she was actively engaged in safeguarding her little boy, but the minute the job was done, she went back to a passive role, to that frightening lack of control. As a therapist, I now cook with some of my clients because I know that these principles are clinically legitimate; there is power and determinism in cooking. No matter how bad your day, your relationship, or your health, you can achieve success every time you choose a recipe, haul out the ingredients, and do the job. At the stove, people dealing with anxiety or depression can improve how they feel, a little or a lot.
And who knows? My brother did come home safely. Just maybe, Mom and I had something to do with it. And let’s not minimize the chocolate. As Mom knew, chocolate makes everything better, even distance.
Debra Borden is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in New York and New Jersey. She is the author of two novels and a self-help book called Cook Your Marriage Happy, the first volume in her “Cook Yourself Happy” series, which uses cooking therapy to address emotional and situational issues.
Estelle's Brownies for the Troops
1 c. (2 sticks) butter, softened
2 c. sugar
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 1/2 cups sifted self-rising flour
1 t. vanilla
1 c. chopped walnuts (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Grease and flour two 8-inch square pans (or use baking spray).
In a mixer, cream together butter and sugar until smooth.
Stir in melted chocolate.
Add eggs one at a time.
Gradually add flour.
Add vanilla and optional walnuts.
Divide batter equally into two pans and bake for 30 minutes.
Let cool and cut into squares.
Count your blessings.