March 02, 2008

Before anyone becomes too excited, or feels inclined to pat me on the back for baking this cake (or any of the cakes that will follow in this series) on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I feel bound to point out that I’m not actually baking this cake right now.  This is not to say that I’m not baking at all right now, because I am.  Inspired by Bunni‘s New Year’s resolution to cook or bake something new every week, I have decided to do something similar...only different. smile This year marks 10 years since I quit my day job to attend culinary school.  I would be fibbing if I said that life post-culinary school is what I had hoped and worked for, but I don’t regret having tried, not for one minute.  Without indulging in too much rose-colored-glassvision, I will say that I worked harder in pastry school, in restaurants and in bakeries than I have ever worked anywhere.  I made clumsy, silly mistakes, I was yelled at on a near-daily basis and I cried more than any 30-year-old woman should ever cry, for any reason, but even on top of all of that, I had a blast.  Should I ever have the opportunity to do it again, I shall jump on it in a heartbeat—right after I make arrangements to hit the pool and a weight room with a trainer to whup my ass into fighting shape.  It was always a point of pride with me that I could lift a 50-pound sack of flour without throwing out my back.  I’d like to be able to continue doing that.

Once again, to nobody’s surprise or shock, I digress.  While cataloguing some of my little-used cookbooks before packing them for storage, I found the binders that served as my textbooks in culinary school.  Paging through them brought it all back to me:  walking to school from the 86th Street IRT stop during a surrealistically hot summer; walking through the door of the pastry kitchen and feeling the temperature drop 40 degrees; hours and hours of chopping chocolate and boiling sugar and whapping pounds of butter around in Hobart mixers; studying our finished desserts and breads as we learned to evaluate them critically; tasting, tasting, tasting; packing everything up and either taking it home or sharing it with the school staff and the mechanics at the garage next door; and scrubbing down every surface in the kitchen with sanitizing solution (1 tablespoon chlorine bleach to 1 gallon water), longing to be done with the day’s work as the chlorine smell settled on our hair and skin.  I lived, ate and breathed all this stuff, spent all of my waking life consumed by poached pears and nougatine and three different formulae for ganache—and then I graduated into a soft job market, learned that the company for which Lloyd worked was on the verge of collapse, knew that there was no way I could support us both on a pastry monkey’s salary, and returned, cap in hand, to packaging.  Even as I shifted my focus away from pastry and toward bread, even as I researched and drafted and redrafted a business plan, I never opened my school textbooks again—until yesterday, that is.

In short, I’m in a mood not only to revisit, but also to share, which is why I have a sponge for pain brié working in the kitchen even as we speak.  Pain brié is a rustic French bread, made from a relatively stiff dough that is not only kneaded but beaten with a heavy rolling pin for 10 minutes to develop the gluten.  I’m sorry to say that my only memory of this bread is that the dough refused to smooth out when my team made it.  I ended up beating it so vigorously that I was nearly jumping up and down with the effort.  (A chorus or two of “Unbelievable” by EMF would have been not only appropriate, but also welcome.) I’m keen to try it again, to see not only how the recipe works but also if any of the additional baking trucs I’ve learned over the past decade can help make the bread even better.  And so I shall.

Since I have no bread to share just yet, I can at least share the cakes that have made their way through the PTMYB kitchens over the past few weeks, like this beauty right here:

warm applesauce cake with cranberry syrup

Warm Applesauce Cake with Cranberry Syrup (from Roland Mesnier’s Basic to Beautiful Cakes by Roland Mesnier and Lauren Chattman, Simon & Schuster, 2007
makes 1 10-inch tube cake, serves 12

Despite my regular mewlings to the contrary, I am a lucky, lucky bakerina.  Not long ago, my father attended a bookfair in Washington, DC, where, in addition to meeting Chris Matthews and Letitia Baldrige, he also met Roland Mesnier, who retired as the White House pastry chef in 2004 after 25 years of baking for presidents, kings and other heads of state.  During their chat, Chef Mesnier totally charmed my dad, who not only picked up Chef Mesnier’s new cake book for me, but also asked him to sign it for me.  Maybe it was just bookfair shmoozing, but there was something particularly mood-elevating about coming into work one morning, finding a package waiting for me, opening a book full of dessert recipes and finding the first page emblazoned with “To Jennifer, A great pastry chef to another, Your friend in the White House, Roland Mesnier.” Six hours after I opened that package, I was laid off from my job, proving that my dad is not only a fine and generous fellow, but he also has a superb sense of timing. smile

Those of you who know how tetchy I am about things like chemicals and box mixes and fake foods may be surprised to see me countenancing a recipe that calls for maraschino cherries, a frankly-weird food that I have not enjoyed since I was eight years old, when the bartender at the restaurant where my folks and I used to go for pizza would throw them into my Coke.  Normally when I find something like this in a recipe, I opt right away to substitute something more to my liking, like bottled sour cherries marinated in brandy, or dried cherries plumped in a little boiling water or tea.  This time, though, I decided to trust Chef Mesnier’s judgment and make the cake as he directed it, and I had to admit that not only did the maraschino cherries not ruin the cake, they added an interesting fillip to a moist, spicy, fragrant cake.  I might try it again with the aforementioned brandied cherries, just to see how they work, but I wouldn’t think twice about buying another bottle of maraschino cherries for this cake.  Only for this cake, though. wink

For the light syrup (to be used later in the cranberry syrup:

4 cups water
2 cups granulated sugar

Combine water and sugar in a medium saucepan, place over heat, stir to dissolve the sugar and heat to boiling.  Let cool to room temperature.  You will have more syrup than you need for this cake.  Leftover syrup can be sealed and stored at room temperature for up to two weeks; it’s great for poaching fruit or for adding to tea instead of regular granulated sugar.

For the cake:

1 cup plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour*
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
1/2 cup applesauce
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup canned crushed pineapple, drained
1 10-ounce jar whole maraschino cherries, drained, patted dry and stemmed

*Normally when I try a recipe for the first time, I measure and weigh the ingredients, and make a note of the weight for future reference.  This time, though, I let laziness get the better of me.  Very often, when recipes are converted from weight to volume measurements, you will see odd measurements (x cups plus or minus x teaspoons or tablespoons).  This happens particularly with recipes written by French chefs, who write their formulae to metric weights.  One of these days I’ll get my act together and plug the weight measurements in.

Set a rack to the center of the oven and preheat to 375F/170C/Gas Mark 5.  Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan.

Sift the first five ingredients together into a medium bowl.

Using either a hand mixer or a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together until smooth, light and fluffy.  Beat in one of the eggs and half the applesauce.  Stir in half the dry ingredient mixture.  Beat in the remaining egg and applesauce, add the rest of the dry ingredients and stir gently but thoroughly to combine.  Stir in the raisins, pecans and pineapple.

Pour the batter into the tube pan and smooth the top.  Arrange the cherries on the surface of the cake and press them in gently, but do not embed them (the cake will rise around them, and they will sink below the surface).  Bake 35 to 40 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.  Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack.  Do not remove the cake from the pan.

For the cranberry syrup:

1 12-ounce bag fresh or frozen cranberries
4 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups + 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 cups Light Syrup

Combine the cranberries, 4 cups of the water and the sugar in a medium saucepan over high heat.  Bring to a boil, turn the heat down to medium high and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the berries are very soft and nearly all popped.

Strain the syrup into a large bowl.  Press on the solids with a spoon, forcing as much of the strained solids into the syrup as possible.  Add the remaining 1/2 cup water to the solids in the strainer and keep pressing on them.  When as much of the pulp that can go through the strainer has done so, return the solids remaining in the bottom of the strainer to the syrup.  (As you may have noted, the objective is not to produce a clear or smooth syrup, but a deeply-flavored one.  Chef Mesnier is a big fan of not wasting flavorful pulp.) Stir in the lemon juice and the light syrup.

Preheat the oven to 150F/60C/Gas Mark 1/2.

Place the cake pan (with the cake still inside it, natch) on a rimmed baking sheet.  Pour about 1/2 cup of the hot cranberry syrup over the cake and let it sink in.  (The effect you’re going for is akin to watering a houseplant, where you let the water sink into the soil before adding more.) Add about 1/2 cup syrup at a time, in 5-7 minute increments, until the cake is saturated.  Chef Mesnier doesn’t specify how much of the cranberry syrup you will need; I found that I had a lot left over.  If any syrup leaks from the cake onto the baking sheet, pour it back into the pan and reheat gently.

Remove the cake pan from the baking sheet and return it to the warm oven.  Keep the cake in the oven until serving time, up to four hours later.  When you are ready to serve it, just invert the cake onto a platter.  It should pop right out of the pan. (I’ll admit to some trepidation when Chef Mesnier assured that it would happen, but odds my bodkins, he’s right.) Slice and serve with sweetened whipped cream, if you so desire.

applesauce cake, oven-bound

soaked, rested and ready

Posted by Bakerina at 03:47 PM in • (0) Comments
February 22, 2008

Since I’ve been feeling all introspective and keen to turn over a new leaf, particularly after Monday’s restaurant adventure—many, thanks, incidentally, to everyone who commented or sent email with feedback on the resulting post—I thought that I would try something a little different this morning.  It’s not so much a call for advice as it is an opinion poll, a chance for you to share your points of view and to tell me, purely and simply, what you would do in a given situation.  (Yep, it’s a never-ending party around here.) smile

The situation is question is not an earth-shattering situation; in fact, it’s so low-key and almost inconsequential that one would be pardoned for wondering why I’ve thought about it, on and off, for close to 14 years.  Low-key as it is, though, it does touch on some significant issues with me, including education, enlightenment, competition, kindness, skill and standards of performance.  (Whew.) For me it serves as a point of reference in conversations I’ve had with teachers, bakers and visual artists.  And yes, it is a true story.

Oh, do not ask “what is it?” Let us go and make our visit.  (Sorry, Tom.)

Long, long ago—okay, 14 years ago—I was a newlywed, a brand-new resident of Beautiful Uptown Astoria and a brand-new employee of Big Ol’ Cosmetic Company, where I worked in the purchasing group, starting my long slow slide down the razorblade of consumer packaging.  At the time I didn’t even consider that I could bake for a living, and culinary school wasn’t even an option.  I had spent the better part of the previous six years in underpaying, unstable jobs, deeply in debt and petrified about making my rent, so at the time, just having a steady job and knowing that the bills would be paid was a dreamy luxury.  I was perfectly happy to be what the Bread Bakers Guild of America calls a “serious home baker,” and because that was the year I discovered the King Arthur Flour Bakers Catalogue, I was doing some serious home baking, sharing the results with my co-workers.

Back in the 90’s, Big Ol’ Cosmetic Company used to hold company picnics in the summertime.  We’d charter some vans and trundle up to some nice big park in Orange or Dutchess counties.  We played volleyball and soccer and other vigorous outdoorsy games, we’d roast meats, we’d have a bakeoff, a good time would be had by all.  When signup sheets for volleyball teams were passed around, I signed up.  Then disaster struck:  four days before the picnic, I sprained my knee in a dance class.  (Actually, my knee popped out of joint, then back into joint, in the space of 2 1/2 seconds, but since it wasn’t actually dislocated when the EMT’s showed up, the knee was officially sprained.  It hurt like a mother, though, and since I am now covered in a freezing-cold sweat at the memory of the pain, I think I’ll stop talking about it now.) I hobbled into work the next day and told the picnic coordinator that I’d be right out for volleyball.  “Well,” she said, “it’s not too late to sign up for the bakeoff.  Do you want to bake something?”

Heck, yes, I wanted to bake something, and moreover, I knew what I wanted to bake:  Elizabeth David’s flourless chocolate cake, the recipe for which I found in both Mrs. David’s French Provincial Cooking and Laurie Colwin’s More Home Cooking.  To say that I love this cake is such a weak, pallid statement for this kind of cake love. This cake is the pure essence of chocolate, with the barest whisper of almond flavor and scent.  It has just enough brandy and coffee to be interesting, but not so much as to be painful.  It takes 20 minutes to put together and less than an hour to bake.  It doesn’t require any complicated pastry skills; in fact, all it needs to look spectacular is a dusting of confectioners’ sugar.  Best of all, it’s the perfect choice for a bakeoff where people will be tasting a lot of desserts; it’s small, so it doesn’t require an advanced engineering degree to box up, stabilize and drive to a park, and because a little taste goes a long way, there would be more than enough for the judges and anyone else who could be convinced to Leave the Damn Diet at Home.

I try, I really try, not to engage in hubris, but even I had to admit, as I unpacked the cake and placed it on the bakeoff table, that I had done well. Sitting among the other desserts, the kitchen-sink cookies and the oatmeal bars (of which I ate an appalling amount) and the Toll House Cookie Pie, I knew that I had a winner on my hands.  My little cake looked not only as if it had just arrived from Paris, but also as if it had had a little nap on the plane, emerging refreshed and ready to play.  It was a good cake.  It could be a winning cake.

“Oh, look what you brought!,” said one of my coworkers, who I will call Nicole (not her real name).  Nicole was a marketing assistant, one of the sweetest women I knew; openhearted, soft-voiced and blond, she was rather like Georgette on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, only not at all ditzy, like Georgette was.  Even when she was having a terrible day, she radiated kindness.  And now we were here at the bakeoff table, I with my little Elizabeth David cake, she with an impressive-looking chiffon pie.  The chiffon filling was obviously the flavor now recognized as “cookies and cream”; the crust was made with crushed Oreos and the edge was studded with Oreos cut in half.  Because I have a soft spot for Oreos, I thought the pie looked great.  I hoped it tasted as good as it looked.

“Look at your cake!,” Nicole exclaimed again.  “Oh, that looks *so* good.  And you can smell the chocolate!  Ah, I’m embarrassed to be in the same bakeoff with you.  I’ve never even baked before.”

“Don’t you dare be embarrassed,” I answered.  “Your pie looks beautiful.  That *is* Oreo filling, right?”

“Sure is,” she said.  “Do you want to try some?”

She cut me a little sliver.  I took a taste.  Even before my brain registered the taste of Oreo, it registered something else, the unmistakable steely chemical taste that I recognized as Box Mix.  I have tasted it hundreds, if not thousands, of times:  in box-mix cakes made by friends’ mothers, in the chocolate muffins at the deli where I would occasionally get breakfast, in party cakes from supermarket bakeries.  It was not a flavor I was anticipating finding in a chiffon pie, but there it was.

“Soooo...” said Nicole, her eyes looking bright and expectant and a little worried.

Don’t be a jerk, said the little voice in my head.  She told you she’s not a baker.  She obviously respects your opinion.  A box mix is not a crime against humanity.  Do the right thing.

“It’s really good,” I answered.  “It’s beautiful.  It’s full of Oreos.  The crust is nice.  This is great, Nicole.”

“Oh,” she said, visibly relieved.  “I’m so glad you like it.  I was afraid I was going to screw it up.”

“You didn’t screw it up.  You did well.”

“Awww, thanks,” she said, and then moved closer to me, whispering conspiratorially.  “Believe it or’s a box mix.”

Do not, said the voice in my head, under any circumstances, tell her that you knew it was a box mix.  Do not rain on her parade.

“Really?,” I said, trying as best as I could to sound surprised.  Fortunately, I was spared any subterfuge by the arrival of the three judges.

“Oo, chocolate,” said the first judge, one of the package engineer, a decent and friendly guy.  “My favorite.” I tried not to grin like an idiot as I cut him a slice—which was good, because his response was not what I expected.  “Whoa,” he said, recoiling a bit.  “There’s some booze in this cake, isn’t there?”

“Just a little,” I said.  There was a tablespoon of cognac in the whole cake.

“Oh, it tastes like there’s a LOT more than just a little in there,” he answered.  “Hoo boy.” I started to get nervous.  Could I have accidentally put more in there than I thought?  I could swear that I only put in the stipulated tablespoon.  I cut myself a tiny piece and thought about the flavors emerging against my palate.  Chocolate, lots of it, then coffee, then brandy, then that little hit of almond. Nothing fought against the chocolate, or against each other.  I hadn’t screwed up with the brandy.

The engineer moved on to Nicole, and to the Oreo chiffon pie.  The look on his face after the first bite of pie was that of a man in love.  “Nicole,” he said, “that is the single best dessert I have ever eaten, ever.”

To my credit, I did not let the incredulity show on my face, which was good, because it happened two more times, as the other two judges tasted the desserts, and then happened more times than I could count, as the rest of the picnickers lined up for tastes.  I heard a lot of variations of “I think there’s some alky-hol in that cake,” with maybe one or two compliments on the chocolate flavor.  The Oreo pie was devoured; compliments were rained on Nicole’s sweet, blushing head.  Of course she won the bakeoff.  It wasn’t even close.

Riding back to the city in the van, the remaining 2/3 of the cake sitting in my lap, I tasted another tiny piece.  There’s just not that much brandy in it.  It’s not that strong.  Is it just me?

That night I told Lloyd about the bakeoff.  “You’re kidding,” he said in a tone of voice that made me want to kiss him.  “They all loved the pie?”

“They all loved the pie.”

“And the pie wasn’t good?”

“The pie was vile.”

“Which I’m betting you didn’t say to the baker.”

“You’re right.  I told her that it was really good.”

“Just really good, or good for a mix?”

“Just...really...good.” As the words left my mouth, I knew how lame they sounded.  “I pretended to be surprised when she said it was a box mix.  It’s just...she was so nervous, and she looked so happy when I told her I liked it...”

“I know,” he said kindly.  “I know you wanted to do a nice thing, and you *did* do a nice thing.  The thing she can make this pie for other people, and she can tell them that even the scratch baker in the office, the one who’s been baking since she was a kid, even *she* couldn’t tell that the pie was made from a mix.”

I had not considered this, of course.

“Now, look,” said Lloyd.  “You look like you’ve just been caught eating a puppy.  You were doing a nice thing for your friend.” He was right, of course, but I couldn’t unfurrow my brow, couldn’t stop knocking on my head and muttering stupid, stupid, stupid. I had done a nice thing for my friend.  I had also totally compromised my bakerly integrity in doing so.

Eventually I stopped plotzing over it all, and got back to the business of serious home baking.  Nicole brought the pie to the office Christmas party and told me that this had become her pie for family dinners and potlucks.  She was sweetly, shyly proud of this pie, and I felt churlish for being so grumpy after the picnic.  Not long after, we all spun off in different directions, as co-workers often do:  Nicole and the package engineer each took new jobs at different big ol’ cosmetic companies, I went to culinary school, and the bakeoff at the 1994 picnic was officially consigned to the mists of history.

Except, of course, it never really went away.  I think about that day, and about that conversation with Lloyd, at odd times.  I thought about them the first time I read The Taste of America, the book that kicks off with a chapter entitled “The Rape of the Palate.” I think about them whenever I watch Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares or Last Restaurant Standing, which often feature chefs being told, sometimes for the first time, that their food is not what it could be.  I think about them when I am watching something on Cartoon Network and am treated to ads for stuff like GoGurt.  At what point do we decide that oddly-flavored imitations of the real thing are better than the real thing?  Is it worth trying to convince people otherwise?  Is it even possible to convince people otherwise, or do we just end up being humorless martinets, alienating genuinely good people as a result?

It isn’t just food issues that make me think of that day, either.  Every time I talk to Bunni at the end of a bad day, every time she describes the struggle to have her students follow basic, clearly-delineated directions, I think about these students, and wonder how and why they seem so flummoxed.  I am not going to resort to the tired old cliche of the unique and precious snowflake—as far as I’m concerned, that’s a phrase that needs to die, and soon—but I do wonder how they got to this point, how they were able to matriculate into college without being able to communicate clearly.  Were they stuck with indifferent secondary school teachers?  Were they blessed with good dedicated teachers who didn’t hesitate to tell them when their work didn’t meet an acceptable standard, but were impeded from providing real direction—and an accurate grade—by angry parents and nervous administrators?  Did they have engaged teachers and no-nonsense parents, but for some reason the lessons just didn’t stick?  Did they have teachers who were so keen to see any sign of effort that they shied away from negative commentary, opting instead to accentuate the positive?  Or did they have teachers who blurred the line between constructive and destructive criticism, leaving them loath to learn how to think critically?

I have been accused of overthinking all this, yes.  smile Ultimately, as I said, it was just a bakeoff, a lark among colleagues, and not a sign of the triumph of ignorance over reason and enlightenment.  Nevertheless, it still makes me wonder whether I did the right thing on that day, or, really, if there is a right thing to do...and here, dear friends, is where I officially pose the question.  If it had been you, would you have ‘fessed up and admitted that you knew that you were eating box-mix Oreo chiffon pie, or would you have fibbed, and thus boosted the confidence of a genuinely nice person in the process?

Thanking you in advance for playing along.  Silly stories about food will be coming soon. smile

Posted by Bakerina at 09:45 AM in • (2) Comments

Dear friends, the post I had planned to post yesterday is on its way, but in the meantime, I cannot help but share.  Welcome, dear friends, to Bakerina’s Cavalcade of Food Horrors: A Neverending Series.

Tomorrow night I will be attending Julie’s birthday party, bringing two Trianons and a pistachio nougat-flavored torte requested by the birthday girl.  These lovelies all require eggs, so like a good girl I bundled up and walked out in the first proper snow of the year (happy dance, happy dance) to get some eggs at the health food store.  While the nice fellow at the shop filled up my egg crate, I decided to pick up a yogurt for breakfast and headed over to the cooler, where, I am sorry to report, I found this:

Oh,  for the love of Mike.

I will not comment further.  I really can’t.

Posted by Bakerina at 08:22 AM in • (0) Comments
February 18, 2008

As life-changing moments go, it was pretty small.  It wasn’t quite a Gordon Ramsay moment.  It wasn’t even a Howard Beale moment.  It didn’t solve any mysteries of the universe, it is not the little acorn from which mighty oak trees grow, and odds are that I won’t live happily ever after as a result of it.  Really, it was less of a life change and more of an attitude adjustment.  That said, things are different with me now, all because I decided to leave a restaurant yesterday.

Now that I am unemployed, the hours that I keep are eccentric, to put it mildly.  I still wake up between 6:30 and 7 in the morning so I can have coffee with Lloyd, and I still go to bed around 11 or 11:30, depending on whether I feel like watching Alton Brown (I usually do).  In the intervening hours, I write, I look for work, I eat and I go to the pool, but I rarely follow the same hours twice.  Some days I look for work all day, some days I write for two hours and then spend the rest of the day cleaning the kitchen, some days I just bail on everything and head to Brooklyn or Chinatown, camera in hand.  I have had days where I don’t eat breakfast until 11:30 in the morning, I don’t eat lunch until 3, and then wonder if I will be in the mood to eat dinner when I serve it to Lloyd around 7:30.  This shaggy dog schedule only grew doggier during the school application process, when I spent hours glowering at my essays, and then during the week after my apps were finished and submitted, when I caught the powerful, misery-inducing flu virus making its merry way around New York City and Points Everywhere Else.  I spent over a week living on Theraflu, Gatorade and oranges, watching Kim and Aggie come up with impressive similes inside of filthy homes, and doing very little else.  Now I’m feeling better, but the eccentric schedule still rules the day.

This is how I found myself yesterday at 2:30, after a morning of scouring the want ads and an afternoon of cleaning the kitchen floor.  I was ready for lunch and decided to go to a restaurant in Astoria I had walked by many times, but had never actually visited.  It is a favorite of my pals in the neighborhood, who like to go for breakfast on weekends, and I had thought that their menu looked intriguing.  Seeing steak frites on the menu put the cap on my decision, sending me into reveries of oooo, steak, oooo, red wine, food for the blood, oo, oo, oo.  I walked in and was instantly struck by the fact that it was close to 3 and the restaurant was full.  Granted, it was a small restaurant, seating 30 people at maximum, but it was still full; moreover, it was full of people still eating and drinking, not lingering dreamily over coffee or aperitifs.  Later I would learn that this was holiday weekend brunch traffic, not typical for this place at this time—but I am getting ahead of myself here.

I placed my order—steak frites, mesclun salad with apples and cucumbers, a glass of shiraz—and sat knitting my sock, sipping my wine and watching the crowd.  At the time I had no plan. I was happy to sit and wait, and wait, and...uh oh, here comes the floor manager to apologize to the women sitting next to me, who, I realized, had been there with drinks when I was seated.  “We’re really sorry about the wait, guys,” said the floor manager.  Normally it’s not this busy.  We had two big tables come in at the same time.  I know you’ve been waiting for a while.”

I looked at the big tables.  Six at one.  Five at another.  Every other table was a two-top or three-top.  Uh oh.

The floor manager came back.  “Guys, they’re plating your food right now,” she said to the two women.  For giggles, I checked my phone.  It had been half an hour since I had arrived at the restaurant.  Still no salad.

Five minutes after she said that the food was being plated, the plates finally arrived at the table next to mine.

I put the sock away and watched the room for a while.  More food came out, going to a three-top that had also been seated with drinks when I had arrived.  The floor manager and the waiter ran around the room a lot, disappearing into the kitchen, re-emerging without food, going back into the kitchen.  It was ten minutes to four, nearly an hour since I’d arrived, nearly 45 minutes since my order had been taken.  No salad.  No steak.

The floor manager came back out, bearing more food—and here was the moment where my mind was officially boggled.  She delivered the food to the six-top, to a table full of people who had been eating their entrees when I had arrived. Apparently not everybody’s food was ready at the same time.  Back into the kitchen she went, back out she came with more food, this time for the five-top, another table full of people who had been working on their entrees when I got there.

It was at that moment that I decided to cut my losses, pay for my wine and leave.  Obviously something had gone seriously amuck in the kitchen, and the chef was in the weeds.  Maybe the chef was working alone that day, trying to juggle a full restaurant without support.  Maybe something had gone wrong with the kitchen equipment, pushing service back until it could be fixed.  I knew that all kinds of trouble could befall a restaurant, and that one bad night, or one bad afternoon, was not indicative of the general quality of a restaurant.  I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I asked the waiter for my bill for the wine.  He looked nervous, said, “uh, okay,” and disappeared.  Within a minute, the floor manager was at my table.

“Do you at least want us to wrap it for you so you can take it with you?  Because, I mean, they’re making it now.  I know you’ve been waiting for a while, but they’re making it now.”

“No, I really would just like to settle my bill and leave.  It’s been close to an hour and I haven’t even seen my salad, never mind my entree.”

“Well, ma’am,” the manager said, switching to the tone of voice my mother used to use when I’d been caught in a statement of wild-eyed exaggeration, “I don’t think it’s been *quite* an hour.”

“It hasn’t been an hour since I’ve ordered, but it *has* been an hour since I arrived,” I replied, but she cut me off quickly.  “You have to remember, we’re a small restaurant.  We don’t get this kind of crowd at this hour, and we had two tables come in at once.”

This is normally the moment at which my creampuff personality is revealed, where I would realize that these poor folks are dealing with circumstances beyond their control, where I would just sit down and politely agree to stay for my meal.  This time, though, something was different.

“But,” I said in what I’d like to think was a firm yet pleasant tone, “you’re a restaurant.  Being full up at lunchtime is a good thing.  And it’s a holiday weekend, and on holiday weekends tables fill up.  You have to be equipped for it, and you have to be staffed for it.”

“We ARE staffed for it, ma’am,” she answered quickly.  “We are staffed for it.  We have three people cooking today.” The shock on my face at the news that this mishegoss took place at the hands of three cooks must have been palpable, because she changed tacks.  “Look, they’re all ready to go.  You really don’t want to wait just a little longer?”

It was 4 p.m.  My last ounce of benefit of the doubt was gone.  “I would really, really, really like to just pay for the wine, and to go now.”

“Well,” she said, her demeanor softening, “of course your wine is on the house.”

“Thank you,” I responded, kindly, I hope, and left.

Again, it’s far from the worst experience anyone has ever had at a restaurant—hell, it’s far from the worst experience *I’ve* ever had at a restaurant.  It didn’t cost me any money; it didn’t cost me much time.  It didn’t even leave me with a bitter taste against the restaurant.  Their menu is still compelling, their food still looks great, and I’ll bet that when the kitchen is working the way it should, they’ll make me a terrific meal.  I also knew that yesterday they had every intention of making me a terrific meal, but for the first time ever, I didn’t care about anyone’s good intentions.  I didn’t care that they were doing the best they could under difficult circumstances.  I didn’t care of what they were capable of.  At that moment, I cared about their actual performance; I found it lacking, and I didn’t feel patient enough to reward them for trying. I was disappointed, and I wanted to get the message across. 

I thought about this on my walk back through the neighborhood.  This was a big deal for me—but why?  Why did it feel so weird to lose my patience like that?  Upon further reflection, I understood a little better.  I had taken the Golden Rule to ridiculous extremes.  I have a bad habit of shrinking from criticism, of hoping that if people notice how hard *I* try, or how well-intended I am, they won’t feel compelled to share any brutally-honest assessments of my own work.  So, of course, if I want to be given a lot of rope, it’s only fair that I should give a lot of rope to others.

I believe the phrase for which I am casting about is “pernicious nonsense,” as in “This argument is a load of...”

The time for delicate flowerhood is over.  I am on the verge of starting law school, or at least I hope I am.  In law school, and in court, you don’t get credit for almost winning your case, or for wanting to win your case, or for having every intention of winning your case.  There is only the quality of the work you do, just as it is the quality of the meal that is actually served to you, not the meal that would have been served to you if the kitchen staff hadn’t been in the weeds; just as it is the quality of the novel you write, not the vague idea of a story you’ve had kicking around in your head for the past ten years.  It shouldn’t have taken me this long to figure it out, but at this moment I’m less concerned with what took you so long? and more concerned with what now? Now, things are different with me now, all because I decided to leave a restaurant yesterday.

Posted by Bakerina at 06:38 PM in • (0) Comments
February 01, 2008

It was at about this time last week that my mind finally snapped.  I say this knowing that my nears-and-dears, who have had the misfortune of actually keeping company with me, will chortle when they read it, because they know that a) my mind snapped long before this, and b) seems to snap on a weekly, if not hourly basis.  I appreciate their skepticism, but I also laugh at it.  *I* know when my mind has truly snapped, and last Friday was the day.  That was the day I sat down to take a break from Law School Application Essay Hell and decided to work on the scarf I’d started earlier in the month while watching Children of Men, using the glorious handspun wool yarn that Ragnvaeig gave me for Christmas.  As I assumed the position, I looked closely at the scarf and found that I’d not only munged the stitch count, which would affect the lace pattern, but that I’d also made a mistake in the pattern eight rows back, all the way across a row, and it showed.  I ripped it all back, managed (miraculously) to get the correct amount of stitches on the needle without dropping any of them and ruining the pattern further, realized that no, the scarf would not be finished today after all, contemplated the golf-ball-sized ball of yarn in my right hand and thought, it never ends, it just never bloody ends, nothing ever gets finished.

Of course that’s not true, and even in the depths of my own bad attitude, I knew that it wasn’t true.  Life is finite, after all, and it’s not like we can bring our paperwork, or our yarn, with us when we go.  (For reasons I can’t suss right now, I’m thinking of an ad for Comedy Central that Stephen King did back in the early-mid 1990’s.  “We’re all gonna die, baby.  I’m just making it more interesting along the way.” How I wish Comedy Central would run it again, although I’m sure we have it somewhere on our old MST3K tapes.) Even though I knew it wasn’t true, though, I couldn’t keep from lashing out about it.  Intellectually, I knew that miracles don’t happen overnight, and it would take more than a severance check and a few weeks off to reverse months—no, years—of spiralling sadness and lethargy.  Unfortunately, my intellect had apparently taken a month’s holiday and left the keys with my inner Awkward Teenager, who is all thumbs and two left feet, a roiling, seething mass of nerve and attitude.

I will not blame all of the above on the looming law school application deadlines, but I’d be a liar if I said they weren’t a contributing factor to the madness.  The good news is that the applications are done, save for mailing off some admissions fees and a pair of forms that need to be filled out by the registrar of my undergraduate university.  (I am still wondering why a dean’s statement is necessary for someone who has been out of college for 20 years, but as Alexander Pope would undoubtedly say, it is not mine to question, nor to understand, but merely to accept.  No, I’m not chafing at the idea of acceptance.  Much.) The bad news is that to get there, I had to go through the most arduous, torturous writing-and-editing process I’ve ever had.  My senior thesis in college, 100 pages of nonsense about translation theory, didn’t give me as much trouble as my little 500-1,000 word essays did.  Bunni and ‘mouse were kind enough to offer their editorial services, and it is a testament to the strength of their characters that they did not embed an axe into my forehead during the whole drafting process.  Lord knows I gave them plenty of reason to do so.  I don’t think I’ve heard so many variants on “whoa, whoa, whoa!  Let’s take a deep breath and back away from the ledge!” in my entire life.  When I wasn’t wailing piteously about how I was NEVER going to write again, NEVER EVER EVER, I was subjecting them to conversations much like this:

Bunni: What’s up?

Bakerina: What kind of sick f*?# puts a full-length mirror opposite a toilet?!  In a bar, no less?!

Bu: Where *are* you?

Ba: Friendly Pub on Second Avenue.  Lunch date isn’t here yet.

Bu: Okay, Jen, you know that nobody looks good when they’re sitting on the toilet.  It’s not an aesthetically pleasing look for anybody.

Ba: No, no, no, it’s *different* for me!  My entire body has become diagonal!  It all starts at fixed points and then moves out in a diagonal line!  Gravity hates me!

(audible sound of Bunni mooshing her fingertips against her brow)

Bu: Woman, don’t make me hurt you.

Ba: (meekly) Sorry.

I repeat, the good news is that this is all behind us now.  I have written essays that have been deemed good by my fine, fine, superfine editing team.  I have sent them, along with my resume and various and sundry application forms, out into the world.  All that remains now is the waiting, but unlike my last go-round with law school applications, this time I don’t feel as if I’m hanging on by my fingernails, waiting for deliverance from an untenable situation.  Not only do I have something worth waiting for, I have something—many things actually—worthy to do while I wait.  I wake up, I look for work, I have coffee with Lloyd, I go to the pool and swim until I can’t swim any more.  I fill out forms and remember that these are neither the first nor the last forms I’ll ever have to fill out again, so struggling against them is a pointless exercise, really.  I pick the needles and yarn back up and hear Margene remind me that it’s the process, and that there is no such thing as a wasted effort, that even a sweater with eighteen inches ripped off the front has something to teach us, if we are open to learning from it.

It was about this time last week that my mind had snapped, filled with visions of appalling writing, further law school rejection, a life of knit-three-rows, rip-back-eight knitting, Lloyd and I living on oatmeal for months on end—and not even the good steel-cut stuff either.  That was then.  Now, though, I am waking up after months—no, years—of walking death.  That sound I hear is not my mind snapping, but rather clicking into place.

The golf-ball-sized ball of yarn is gone, too, turned into a right snazzy scarf.  Of course I knew it would. 

love of scarf

Posted by Bakerina at 09:38 AM in • (0) Comments
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