I started January with two things: muffins and “True Grit.” They seemed related and I thought it might make sense trying to figure out why. If they weren’t, both were worth talking about anyway.
The muffins I made, the book by Charles Portis I read. Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, listed “True Grit” was one of his favorite books. I didn’t know much about it except that it was a movie with John Wayne but the book seemed an odd enough choice for a hard-bitten chef that I thought there had to have been something to recommend it.
I’m quite familiar with muffins. January doesn’t carry much momentum and making muffins seemed a way of creating some. Momentum and a way of rooting myself in the new year. I was looking for purchase. “Purchase” is the sort of thing you think about when it’s gray outside, it hasn’t rained much and the air is thick with indecision.
Homemade muffins are easy to make and don’t take much time. I used to measure the ingredients but not now. Measuring is for rookies and I’m no muffin-making rookie. I throw everything together.
Throwing, dumping, tossing, spilling, scraping, sprinkling, beating and pouring. It’s like jazz, free form and spontaneous. White flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, brown sugar, vanilla, eggs, milk, melted butter, chocolate chips, raisins, sometimes bananas and apples.
If there is a tricky part, it is introducing the baking powder, which comes in a small cylindrical carton and the baking soda, which we have transferred from its box into a glass jar with a clamp lid.
The muffins require about a teaspoon of each. I’ve moved from using an ordinary spoon to just shaking the baking soda and powder into the mix.
The powder behaved but the baking soda tumbled out of the glass like a baking soda avalanche.
Baking soda is white and so was the flour on which it landed. It was as if the flour was harboring a fugitive, this one being almost a half cup of baking soda. I tried to spoon out the white because I could no more quit on those muffins than little 14-year-old Mattie Ross could in finding the man who murdered her father in “True Grit.”
I fished out several tablespoons of what looked to be baking soda, splashed in the wet ingredients, whipped the batter with a dinner fork, poured it into a muffin pan lined with 12 muffin papers and slid the pan into the oven for about 20 minutes at 375. Twenty minutes, more or less, homemade muffins being a more or less sort of thing.
I took two muffins to work the next day. I ate the first one, sweet, delicious and moist enough. I waited an hour for the second one, until I’d done some work and ridden a few miles on the open range in my desk chair.
I peeled off the paper and took a bite of the second muffin. It was bitter. It was a mouthful of bitter. It was like biting into a mountain of baking powder.
Ten muffins were left at home. It didn’t seem right to throw away 10 muffins but it wasn’t right Tom Chaney had shot Mattie’s father in cold blood, stolen his horse, his saddle and two gold pieces either.
I threw the muffins in the trash and started over. This time we got it right. In the end, so did Mattie.