Work the Middle

I have spent a significant amount of time over the last year perfecting my chocolate chip cookie recipe. I carry the belief that any grown woman who knows her way around the kitchen should have her own signature versions of a few dishes.

I like slightly crisp edges and gooey centers, filled with pools of chocolate. So, at the end of our first 3 months in quarantine, I began my search for recipes. I asked friends, watched YouTube and IG Clips, and then took to the mixing bowl, trying new things, until I figured out a version that I love.

This sister’s recipe got me 95% there, but it was a serendipitous absence that took me all the way in. She uses chocolate chips, and I realized that I had no chocolate chips in the middle of baking a batch. But I had also seen this sister’s recipe, too, and she uses chocolate bars. And I did happen to have semi-sweet Bakers chocolate bars in the pantry. So I chopped two full 4 oz. bars up, and added them to this brown butter chocolate chip cookie recipe.

When after about 10 mins in the oven I took them out, I legit gasped. The chopped bits of chocolate had done something totally different to my cookies. The brown sugar batter had settled, draped itself, really, over the chocolate chunks and pieces of pecan, sort of like a blanket tucked in to all the right nooks and crannies of your body. I could barely wait for the cookies to cool.

When they were still warm to the touch, I grabbed one: thin and crispy around the edges, but puffed in the middle, soft and gooey. I broke it in half – this is the true test, and the chocolate oozed but didn’t drip. It pulled apart, an arm outstretched in search of its other half.

This one was the one.

As I indulged,  it got me to thinking about edges and middles, the way I needed both things to make it work. Cookies that are soft to the touch the whole way round don’t land on the tongue the same way. Yes, you need some bite to it, some crunch, some sweetness. But the centers are a bit less sweet, less caramel-y, slightly underdone, messier. The chocolate and warm brown sugar and nuts (optional) pool there in the center. They muddle and puddle. You bite in, snuggle, sink.

This is the nature of middles. They are messy and luxurious at the same time. The boundaries are less set; you are invited – required --to immerse yourself.

I turned 40 late last year and I am thinking about middles. There is an allure to beginnings.  Every time we begin a new project, we think, “this is the beginning.” Terror and exhilaration both ensue. Or we come to the end, and we feel grief, satisfaction. The “40 is the new 30” set try to extend beginnings -- as a way to ward off the end.

This is, thankfully, not the end. This, however, or perhaps, thankfully, is also not the beginning. This is the middle.

When we launched this new project, I was thinking of the joy and intimidation of beginning again. But then I realized – this is the middle. To honor our middles, even the ones that are more soft and voluptuous, than firm and taut, means we don’t discard everything that led up to this point.

To begin. To end. These are verbs. To middle is not a thing.

What do we make of being in the middle of things? In academe, we call the stage I’m at mid-career – no longer green, not yet seasoned. Just in the middle. Maybe we have delivered on the promise we showed as young upstarts, or maybe we are in the dregs of reinventing ourselves after a perceived failure to launch. Remixes, the good ones, are the most fun kind of reinvention.

At the beginnings we care about our boundaries, our edges, about how much space we are taking up, about whether we have room to grow. The leavening agents that help my cookies to get those crispy edges also help them to expand. You don’t pile a cookie like that up by the dozens. Those are baked half a dozen at a time, with room to roam.

Still, you want those edges to set. You want a footprint to work within. When the edges, the boundaries are set just right, the middles can be soft, they can pool and settle, and hug their curves. I love licking my fingers and sticking the crispy edges at the bottom of the bag or bowl to them, a lingering taste of the goodness. Edges are dispensed with easily. You rub your hands together and brush them away. But the messy middles – for those, you have to get your fingers dirty. Chocolate gets everywhere. It is, perhaps, the loveliest nuisance.  

In the middle, we are just getting to the good part. (Or so I’ve heard; I’m still new to this, after all.) And aren’t we all in it, the song, the book, the dish, waiting for our part, that good part?

The problem with the middle is that it’s easy to lose perspective, easy to think it’s all messiness on the one hand, all softness and luxury on the other. Easy to think “we get to live here forever.” Scary to think, “this will never end.” In the middle of the ocean, you can’t see the shoreline. You ventured out for the serenity; the disorientation of your feet not touching the ground, the endless treading of water on your way to wherever, is not something you had counted on.

By the time I came into my work, Black women had been having a conversation about moving from the margin to the center for a couple of decades. Tired of being sidelined, and pushed to the periphery, we asked to take up space in the middle of everything, to occupy the critical center, at least some of the time.

But the center is nothing, if not, a messy middle. We distrust centers, given as they are to centrism. We understand the edge differently for a reason. It’s the cutting edge. The radical edge. If my cookies tell us anything, middles are, if you are not careful, breaking points.

Figuring out how to occupy the center is the thing that preoccupies so many of us.  Just when you think you’ve got it, it’s gone. Before 35, you are the center of the world’s attention. Brands care what you think. Politicians care. The media cares.

We are all over 35 though (or soon to be), and so here we find ourselves, in the middle of figuring out what it means to not be at the center, anymore. Millennials are moving into middle age. We aren’t the young hot feminists, but we love to see the folks who are.  And we refuse to be the old chicks in the club. 

So here we are figuring out what it means to make it through the middle.  Hopefully with our edges in tact.

The key is to work the middle. But don’t overwork it.

So lest I overwork this dough, let me say a final word about folding technique. Good folding starts…in the middle. And it makes all the difference in the end. 

Put your spatula right in the center of the dough, cut a path to the edge, lift the bottom over the top, so you don’t deflate the air or activate the glutens, and gently fold it under. Do this only a few times, until your dry ingredients meld with your wet ingredients. Then lightly incorporate your chocolate chunks and nuts. Don’t overmix. Leave something in the bowl. Let an errant whisp of flour and cocoa powder peak out from the bottom.

Don’t stir too hard.

The end product will be tough if you do.

AU: Brittney

P.S. If you’re around later today, join us for an IG Live on @professor_crunk’s page at 4pm EST, where will be talking about what we’re doing with #TheRemix and taking a few questions.

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