The Ban on Baking didn’t crumble in one chomp. Instead, it ended with a thousand little bites.
The first one came that morning, when I leaned into the kitchen counter and chewed through the bolillo’s crusty shell. The soft middle made me sigh. Licking the Nutella-coated crumbs from the corners of my lips, I dropped my gaze to the oven.
If hazelnut tasted this good slathered inside a bolillo, how would it taste between flaky croissant layers? Or blended with the sugar paste topping a concha? The moka pot brewing Cuban coffee gave a high-pitched whistle. A warning I’d tread into dangerous territory.
“Rubi, el café,” my mother called from the laundry room.
“On it,” I yelled back through the last mouthful of bread. I turned the stove off. The blue flames vanished, the baking ideas didn’t. They never did.
I craned my neck toward the hallway. Still clear.
Darting across the kitchen, I grabbed a binder from the messenger bag slung on the back of the chair and pulled the pencil from the middle of my curls, wrangled high into a topknot.
Hazelnut croissants, I jotted in the margins of the Law and Debate binder. And hazelnut conchas.
Underneath the word concha, I drew a lopsided circle, striped its insides like the seashell the Hispanic sweet bread was named after. The dark and hurried scribbles gleamed against the rest of the blank, white page, daring me to keep going.
So I did.
The tip of the pencil scratched against paper as I drew a multiplication sign over the and. I added an equal sign after concha.
“Croncha,” I said, writing in big, bold letters.
I didn’t know if I could replace the concha’s regular sweet bread with buttery layers of croissant dough. But I could almost taste the combination. The notion of a new pastry excited me more than spring break.
Then my parents’ voices drifted in from the hallway.
The words Dad spoke were thick and exaggerated, like wooden spikes he drove through his Spanish to make sure his Cuban accent never went away. My mother’s was more like the pictures I’ve seen of Havana’s oldest buildings, falling away bit by bit. Crumbly, unlike the rest of her.
Striding down the hallway, my mother’s pin-straight hair bounced down her back like a shiny, black cape only Darth Vader could envy more than I did. No matter how short he cropped them, Dad’s salt-and-pepper curls still managed to boing and frizz. Exactly like mine did whenever I let them loose.
My mother made a beeline for the coffee. Dad started in the direction of the sliced bolillos. Only he was so focused on the kitchen table that he nearly slammed into the edge of the island. I followed his line of sight all the way to the baking notes dripping down the margins of my wide-open binder.
My stomach flipped. I almost snapped the lid on the contraband. But something about the way the corners of his lips curved into a smile made my fingers itch with the urge to hold it up for him to see. His eyes roved down the page. I swore he was salivating—and it had nothing to do with the warm bolillo he grabbed.
Mid-bite, he nearly choked though. Probably remembering who stood right next to him. Just as my mother turned to see what the commotion was, he pointed the bread at her.
I slammed the binder closed. Even if creating recipes wasn’t technically breaking the Ban, baking-adjacent activities were still no bueno. I shoved it into my messenger bag. The croncha scurried into my heart, squeezed into chambers overcrowded with the rest of my in-the-margins recipes.
“The mail,” said my mother, reminding me of the Recipe that mattered most.
One acceptance letter from Alma University.Fold in pre-law major until smooth.Sprinkle in a dash of Ivy League law school.Set, and watch me rise.They’d crafted it for me the moment I was born. Never asked me about adjusting any of the ingredients. Ironic, yes. But I also couldn’t deny the Recipe was foolproof. If followed to a T, it’d yield my future success. My mother downed another cup of Cuban rocket fuel. “Did you check the mailbox yet? Is the mail here?”
The kitchen air felt suddenly thick. “I’ll go check it now.” Grateful for the chance to escape it, I breezed through the sparsely decorated living room, and out the front door.
Morning sun stirred awake, lighting up the hills and the already gridlocked freeways of OC. The ocean stretching beyond it glittered. I squinted. The faintest edges of Catalina Island came into view.
The sight made me wistful for something I couldn’t place. Probably a spring break on the beach with Devon. Not freezing inside the auditorium with Madeline and the rest of the Law and Debate team. Swallowing hard, I walked down the driveway to the mailbox.
Our postman, Samuel, approached ours. He shuffled through a stack of mail. Paused at something thick. Chunky enough to be Alma U’s acceptance package.
My heart pounded, spurring my feet to do the same. I sprinted forward, arms outstretched. Ready to finally receive the key ingredient in our Recipe for Success.
“Whoa, Rubi. Nothing from Alma today.”
Soles of my flip-flops squeaked to a halt. Heart did too. “Nada? You sure?”
He shook his head. “Only these.”
The pile of mail thudding between my palms masked a huge sigh. As if it wasn’t totally weird I sometimes (lots of times) stalked the mailbox, he asked, “Same time tomorrow?”
Not trusting my voice to hide my disappointment, I nodded. Whoever said patience was a virtue obviously never applied to colleges before. Never mind living inside the pressure cooker of making sure their Big, Shiny Future stayed on track.
I riffled through some bills, USA Today’s Best College Rankings—and ooh—the latest issue of Baker’s Dozen.
I flipped through Dad’s magazine, fully intent on borrowing it to read at study period, like always.
Then my breath hitched.
The announcement written across the page jolted me like a defibrillator. Every recipe housed inside my chest pounded. Stilled heart fluttered to life again.
Orange County’s First Annual Bake-Off: Four challenges. Two acclaimed judges. One prize of a lifetime.
Dough you have what it takes to be OC’s best amateur baker?
I glanced up the driveway to the front door, ready for my mother to burst free and catch me red-handed. I pulled the phone from the back pocket of my uniform khakis. Opening the message thread with Devon, I snapped a picture of the ad, added a few question marks, and hit send.
“Dough you have what it takes?” I whispered to myself, nearly dropping both the magazine and my phone when it started buzzing in my palm. The phone was only halfway up to my ear when Devon’s voice trilled, “Rubi, you have to try out for this! You dough have what it takes to get in!”
My mouth twitched into a smile. Just like Devon showed me every single one of her fashion sketches, I showed her every new baking idea. Except while Devon was actually allowed to make her creations, the Ban put a wrench in baking any of mine.
Was baking like riding a bike? With Devon squealing in my ear, I very badly wanted to find out.
Then again, the whole point of my parents working so hard in the bakeries was so I didn’t have to. Not to mention the last time I tried riding a bike, it didn’t go well.
“Oh, come on, Rubes! I can feel you smiling,” she sang-shouted.
“No, I’m not.” Only damn it, I was. “But let’s say if I hypothetically got in, you know my mother would actually kill me if I competed.”
“Only if she knew about it,” she said, egging me on.
Luckily, there was enough good daughter left in me to try to fight the fire Devon was fanning. “But I’d know about it.”
“We’re seventeen! Hiding things from our parents is in our DNA. It’s our teenage duty, or something.”
There were lots of other teenage duties I hadn’t partaken in. Like despite knowing the tongue was the main organ in the gustatory system, I’d never actually used it to kiss anyone. Never spent a full day at the beach even though I lived pretty close to one. Considering my DNA was so different from most teenagers living in Pelican Point, my duty was to make sure my parents’ sacrifices amounted to something.
Like making damn sure I got into Alma.
“Don’t you think I should at least wait until I get accepted into Alma before trying to get into Bake-Off?” I snuck another peek up the driveway.
“It’s not your fault Alma still uses snail mail. Your acceptance package is probably on its way as we speak.”
I glared at the mail tucked underneath my armpit. “It’s not.”
“It will be. In the meantime, just do this thing, Rubes. Today’s the last day to submit an application.”
I looked down at the magazine again, wide open in the palm of my hand. Arguments against at least trying out began to drain away. Maybe my mother sensed it because the front door creaked open. “Dev, I got to go. The Boss is coming.”
“Fine, but if you don’t sign up before second period, I’ll force you to do it then.”
I ripped the ad from the magazine, and shoved it and my phone into my back pocket right before my mother popped through the front door. “Honorio, hurry up.” Her shoes clicked forward. I tucked the magazine under my armpit between the other mail.
“Nothing yet?” she asked when she reached me.
I shook my head.
Her forehead wrinkled and her face darkened with disappointment. “Entonces what are those?”
“Oh these?” I held them up like they were nothing substantial. “College rankings. Bills.” Act natural. “Oh, and one of Dad’s magazines too.”
He walked from the house then with my messenger bag over his shoulder, a thermos in one hand and a bolillo in the other. He kicked the door closed and rushed down the driveway to meet us.
My mother snatched the baking magazine from my hand, swatting him with it. “How many times do I have to keep telling you these should really go straight to the bakery, Honorio?”
He pulled her in for a hug. “Until it gets through my thick skull.” He winked at me. She didn’t see me return the gesture because her eyes closed as she hugged him back. Probably relishing in the sound of her favorite nickname or the warmth of the parental PDA.
When they finally peeled apart, she honed in on the other magazine. Plucked it from my hands. I wanted to tell her she didn’t still have to keep subscribing to it. But I couldn’t. Not when she pressed the magazine to her chest and smiled like it was Christmas morning.
Finding out Alma never dipped below the top ten, and that I was almost in, was undoubtedly her idea of the best gift ever.
As if she wanted to give me a little present of my own, she grabbed the bolillo from Dad and handed it to me. “Now eat up. You won’t be able to learn anything on an empty stomach. Get moving or you’ll be late. Same goes for you too, Honorio.” And with that, she walked to her car and drove off.
“Gotta love the Boss,” Dad said. He took a sip from his thermos. At least she’d left him with some sustenance.
“Want your bolillo back? I already had one.”
“You keep it. I’ll eat at the bakery.” He slung the bag over my shoulder then patted it.
“Oh, and Dad? Thanks for the save back there.”
“No worries, kiddo.” He brought his face down to my ear and lowered his voice as if letting me in on a secret. “Since you have a half day today, are you coming in later? After your shift, you can tell me what the croncha is all about.”
A chance to riff baking ideas again? “Of course!” When it came to Alma ushering in the next episode of our family’s future, my parents were always on the same page. As far as the Ban though … While my mother would never even entertain the idea of me breaking it, Dad sometimes looked the other way for a slight bend or two. “I’ll head over right after debate practice.”
I looked to the magazine in his hand, then touched my back pocket. He smiled super wide, as if knowing Bake-Off’s ad was hidden inside it.
“Okay, kiddo, let’s get moving before we get in trouble.”
That’s the trouble with bending. It was impossible to know how far to go before you broke.
Copyright © 2023 by Jessica Parra