Staci Perry bakes like she lives. She doesn’t measure. She works with what’s already in the fridge. And she scrapes every last bit out of the bowl. “I don’t do anything fancy,” she says, sitting in the kitchen of her century-old farmhouse two miles north of Verdi, a tiny, windswept town by the Minnesota-South Dakota border.
“It’s very church potluck-ish – bars, brownies, pies, just your home kind of food. If a recipe calls for a candy thermometer, I turn the page.” So when a crack appeared in the dark-chocolate cheesecake she made last month for an intern, Staci recognized it for what it was: “the perfect cranny for the ganache to nestle into like a silk scarf tucked into a cashmere coat,” she wrote on her blog. “I see my life as a work in progress, so I treat baking that way too. It’s been a ride!”
That ride brought her to this year’s Easter Vigil at St. Thomas More in Brookings, S.D., where she joined thousands across the country entering the Catholic Church. She cried when she received her first Communion from Father Andrew, who welcomed her with radiant joy. “I felt like God was standing in front of me, looking at me,” she says. The 44-year-old communications specialist had attended Mass with her boyfriend for years but was turned off by what she saw as the church’s many “rules.” Then she learned Catholicism is the first Christian faith, and her mind was opened. By the time she’d begun attending RCIA last fall – meeting every Tuesday evening for an hour-and-a-half session that challenged and enlightened her – she knew she had found the answer to a deep void. “I came to the realization that I was missing something.”
It wasn’t lost on her that Catholicism is centered on an altar, a table of plenty that feeds the weary. She found Mass to be sweet and unrushed, like her time in the kitchen, where she lets things mix and melt. Baking is a spiritual exercise, she says. “To me, it’s an act of thanksgiving.” Staci feels so blessed that she’s compelled to pour that love in and back out. Scalloped potatoes for the neighbor who broke her leg, key lime pie with pretzel crust for her boyfriend’s birthday, smoky deviled eggs flecked with bacon every 4th of July. If she can make someone’s day so easily, why wouldn’t she? That’s what it all boils down to, the parallel Staci sees between her longtime passion for baking and her new love of Catholicism: “the sharing part,” she tells me, cracking an egg and wiping her hands.
It’s Saturday afternoon, and she’s making Reese’s Peanut Butter Poppers for a nephew who was in a 4-wheeler accident. Her blue eyes sparkle when she looks around her kitchen filled with object lessons: an antique scale, the pantry made of barn wood, embroidered flour sack towels, Grandma Janet’s Sunbeam electric mixer. “Everything has a story,” she says. The Catholic faith that has given Staci a sense of home is also propelling her to pursue bold dreams. She’s drafting a book proposal to write a cookbook, one that would satisfy an un-met niche and advance her baking ministry. “It sort of feels like a beginning. My eyes have been opened to the possibilities.”
For cradle Catholics and converts alike, that is the power of faith and the invitation of summer: to slow down enough in order to create something. Bake or build or braid. Write something, record something. Sew, sing. Plant a flower, paint a room, fill a bird feeder. Find a new use for an old object. Leave something better than it was before. Create and live out the faith that is ever ancient, ever new.
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and the editor of SisterStory.org.