Sugar, Butter, Flour: A Meditation on Stella Parks, Cottagecore, and Home
By Liliana Navelgas, Staff Contributor
Imagine, so to speak, a perfect strawberry. Bordering on cartoonish, it is a deeply saturated red, uniform all over the surface, with seeds conspicuously studded in divots and evenly spaced. It widens instead of narrowing at the end, fanning out so that it fits perfectly in a hand. It is huge. It’s probably the type of strawberry that you’d get at a small family-owned farm, basking in the summer sun and digging in the patches. The idyll is one of earthiness and abundance, the knowledge that the natural world is precious and, above all else, a home. ‘Cottagecore’ is the movement that has extrapolated an entire aesthetic from these vignettes, drawing upon images of quaint, mostly European-style towns in temperate regions. It values idiosyncrasy (as in the case of the artfully deformed strawberry) and simplicity. The audience for this is primarily queer teenage girls seeking a way to define their own ideals of domesticity and, more importantly, independence.
This hits a tender spot for me, as I have always associated images of nature and food with coziness and comfort. Whenever I’m traveling, I check out the native flora and fauna (quite informally) and eat like a local. Being a sensory person, it’s how I establish my relationship with place. And indeed, it’s how I feel at home. It’s only at this point that I can create. Creation looks like this: taking the strawberry from earlier with me into the kitchen. Cutting it up and mixing it with vanilla, sugar, lemon juice and zest. The strawberry bleeds rich with its sweetness into a bowl and gets baked in a tart shell. All the while, I leer over the oven door and watch the crust bubble and brown, moving and changing like it’s a living thing. It’s a magical experience. There’s a sense of immense pride in knowing that I had a hand to play in that process. It’d be a stretch to compare it to birth and motherhood, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind especially when entranced. It’s just a pie baking in the oven, but it becomes so much more, momentarily.
I stumbled upon Stella Parks during one of these obsessive episodes, as I was trying to perfect a recipe for a blueberry pie to bring to school on Pi Day. I saw my first video of hers, and I was hooked. She stood in a spick-and-span, obviously made-for-studio kitchen carrying a casual air and tossing blueberries around in sugar, tapioca starch, and cardamom. She talked nonchalantly and yet with surgical observation about how blueberries go with cardamom because of certain essential oil, and teased many more secrets as I pored over her work. An award-winning pastry chef and well-known cookbook author, Stella Parks became both patron and muse for my own journey in baking. I identified with her focus on science and logic to achieve results, as opposed to vague empirical statements. “Beat the butter until light and creamy” is not a description that readily resonates with me. Some cookbook authors address this ambiguity by providing visual guides, and it works well enough, but Stella’s approach seems to suit me the best. She provides cooking times and unassuming words of wisdom (“Times are meant to contextualize, not constrain, a physical process.”) in the same breath. She speaks nimbly and casually. She thinks of inventive things and relentlessly pursues results. And that is something that speaks to me like no other.
It is empowering, then, to consider the ideal of cottagecore in this light. I am not just some romantic, musing woman tending plants and admiring strawberries. I do not only wait on my wife as she comes home to shower me in love and tell me how much she enjoys the cake I made. I also leave in the morning. I work and I buy ingredients and I measure by the gram. I vigorously whisk ingredients with a furrow in my brow and my hair tied back. I know what I’m doing. A form of independence arises in this pursuit as creation. It is imagining something great and then bringing it into existence with your own hands. It might be melodramatic to wax lyrical in this way about baking, but in the context of cottagecore, it is perfectly apt. After all, as highlighted, cottagecore is itself a dramatized microcosm of what unfurls to be a grand ideal. It once again illustrates abundance and possibility; it is the ideal of having a home, and also the power of making one.
Now, who wants to hear about why cloves make bananas more banana-like?