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.)
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 not...it’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 is...now 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. 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.