At the church to which I belong, the job of "coffee host" is rotated weekly among willing members. You arrive early to measure out the coffee in the coffee maker and make the lemonade. You spread a tablecloth on the serving table and set out cream and sugar, napkins and cups, and a centerpiece if you’ve remembered to bring one. Finally, you place the cookies of your choosing on glass platters and add them to the table.
Making homemade cookies for this event is rare. At the church I used to go to for more than twenty years, making homemade cookies was indeed the standard operating procedure. You started days or weeks in advance of your scheduled Sunday, baking and stockpiling more than a dozen dozens of homemade cookies, bars, or muffins in your freezer until the day arrived and you set them out to be gobbled in an hour. That plan is of another age. Who has time? Instead go to the store and buy your offerings, which is what I did the Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend, just in the nick of time. By buying the cookies, three varieties, instead of making them, I got all kinds of other things done that needed doing that day. I moved a writing project forward. My husband and I readied for the next day’s family event. We relaxed.
And guess what? After church, the store-bought cookies still brought smiles. “What kind are these?” a woman asked, obviously pleased. And from a man with eyes half closed in satisfaction, “A little touch of coconut never hurts.”
In his book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton explores ten kinds of work, biscuit manufacturing being one of them. “Biscuit,” of course, is England’s way, and thus de Botton’s way, of saying “cookie.” His style in the book is that for each chapter, he immerses himself in a workplace and reports what he observes. For his chapter on career counseling, he followed around a counselor. For his chapter on fish packaging, he went on a fishing boat, and so on.
For his chapter on biscuit manufacturing, he spent time in a biscuit factory and interviewed the people responsible for making chocolate biscuits and getting them on store shelves. The report he delivers to his readers shows de Botton in a bit of a struggle: will he take this work seriously and ascribe to it meaning or will he consider its worth as diminuitive as the size of a biscuit on a plate? Overall, he came down on side the of meaning.
"[W]e should be wary of restricting the idea of meaningful work too tightly, of focusing only on the doctors, the nuns of Kolkata or the Old Masters. There can be less exalted ways to contribute to the furtherance of the collective good and it seems that making a perfectly formed stripey chocolate circle which helps to fill an impatient stomach in the long morning hours...may deserve its own secure, if microscopic, place in the pantheon of innovations designed to alleviate the burdens of existence."
But de Botton goes on to posit that the value of biscuit manufacturing extends beyond filling impatient stomachs. A community can survive and thrive because it manufactures biscuits. Survival is at stake. "The biscuits carried lives on their backs." He pokes fun at the various development and marketing schemes but then also points to the poverty of societies that don't allow such commercial endeavors.
"It is the high-minded countries that have let their members starve, whereas the self-centered and the childish ones have, off the back of their doughnuts and six thousand varieties of ice cream, had the resources to invest in maternity wards and cranial scanning machines."
I much enjoyed this book and Botain’s style of writing. His observations and insights made me think and even laugh out loud. I appreciated how he applied his imagination to the value of producing such a small thing as a chocolate cookie beyond what is visible at first sight. While he questions whether all meaning for the individual gets lost when responsibility for the product gets divided up into so many job titles and descriptions, I'd like to apply a big-picture imagination to any person's part in even a small thing and its life beyond.
At the end of the church’s coffee time, my husband and I packaged up the leftovers and brought them to a family event two hours north. We set them out on a table in the sunshine and ate them with our afternoon coffee. They weren’t homemade but they were good and satisfied a craving for sweetness.