Soooooo, i think about food alot...
Frosting. You can’t detect the malevolence of frosting when you’re a child. There’s nothing appalling about it, the way, conversely, a raspberry can make you pucker. In the rawness of it, nothing is yet pacified. And so, you play the purist all those years, accepting the sourness of it as a small shortcoming to an otherwise perfect piece of fruit.
And then with frosting, every inch of it is pacified, tamed, so that it doesn’t scare you the way a brave hunk of woody, unripe plum can. You know that feeling. It’s the same dread of waking up to the fluorescent light, the acridity of coffee in the morning. Straddling the toilet seat in the dead of winter for fear of that cruel shock.
Frosting was a place where none of that existed. I loved the tender sweetness of it, the sheer comfort, and the liberal way they loaded it on a cupcake. Best of all, I loved watching its swirling transformation from white to robin’s egg blue or buttercup yellow when spotted with a teaspoon of colouring. It didn’t take much to make it so, and yet the effect was striking.
It seemed too good to be true, at the time. I used to imagine the global shortage of butter cream frosting, poor children sitting down to English tea, a stingy cupcake upon a saucer, because I had hoarded it all. But I didn’t lose any sleep over it. I adored frosting…
Until now, whereupon the sight turns my stomach. When you’re little, you’re too stupid to feel it killing you, or perhaps you’re stronger. I can’t tell which. All I know is that the sentiment towards confection is not what it was following the first decade and a half of my life, and I began to taste something ironic in it. The sick sweetness is all wrong- the powdery backdrop, ghostly.
And ghosts, I’ve had it with ghosts. Not the phantom of Grandad striding out of my closet. The ghost between what someone says and what they mean to say.
Maude: “I hear the French like to blanch their peaches. The skins peel easier, dontcha know?”
Ghost Maude: “That’s how you skin a peach. Give me that.”
Maude is from my Sunday Bake Exchange, if you want to know. It’s what we do when our Johns and Walters and Billys are out at some buddy’s pad, a scotch in hand, and they’re playing Rummoli. The women seem to enjoy it. To me, it seems more like an I don’t need you statement. Proof that I also have people in my life, though friends might be stretching it. Sunday saves me from lulling into insanity.
We take turns each week as the hostess of the exchange. I like to be the hostess because that way, I get to show off my fine china and my Blue Willow set, and nobody says a word. Silence, here, means that I’ve impressed them all- a satisfying feat.
First, we allow something close to ten minutes for any latecomers. Beth is always late.
“Well good afterNOOOON ladies, I’m sure sorry for bein’ late an all, caught myself dusting the vacuum. Some things have just GOT to be done, you know how it is.”
Last week she told us she’d been vacuuming the dust.
Second, the hostess sets up coffee and tea and the ladies distribute plates and dessert forks while, one by one, they give a short description about the dish they made. Not everyone brings something, which is good for various reasons. It’s a real nuisance when two ladies bring the same item. Then we get into superiority issues (Example: Cake A had a tighter crumb, but Cake B had a prettier piping job). Another thing is, I get a little sick of sugary treats, especially nanaimo bars, which usually find themselves squashed in a napkin (discreetly) rather than in my stomach. Once, the buttery parcel exploded in my handbag, and I had to toss it out, it was so sticky. I guess it served me right. It’s refreshing when someone brings something savoury, like a loaf of artisan bread, instead of sweetmeats and cake. Then I don’t have to worry about hiding it in my lap like a child would do.
Third, a volunteer stands at the head of the table and leads grace. This one’s easy, but I’ve always found it a shade embarrassing, because our improvised compositions usually go a little something like this:
“Lord, we give you thanks and praise, as we gather here in May’s fine abode, and we proclaim our gratefulness for providing us with these plentiful ingredients. Lord, the St. Augustine Sunday Bake Exchange Group is blessed by your salvation. Amen.”
And fourth, we dish out the confections, and we temper it with threads of small talk and weak conversation topics.
“Oh, May! You got that new 2- quart KitchenAid stand mixer, beauty!”
I watch Estelle’s beehive sway up and down, side to side, half wishing it would unravel into a sandy heap around her neck. It’s tight with bobby pins, though, and the hairspray holds it snug like stiff Italian meringue.
“I was at an auction last month, you know, for the United Way volunteers, and I had my eye on a beaut, just like yours, only a 5-quart, and it was this delicious avocado green. Had to have it.” I’m transfixed by the red circle of her mouth, contracting and fluctuating as she speaks. “Oh, but that plain white is just swell, make no mistake. Simple is best, yunno?”
“Oh, Estelle! Did you not read that article in The Baker’s Digest? They said the dye for that avocado colour is defective. There’s an ingredient in it, I don’t know the specifics, but there’s some sort of cancer-causing agent in it. No guff! It’s out in the open, and it becomes airborne, and ugh, I hate to even think of it. You’re gonna want to say farewell to that thing PDQ!”
The other draft of my retort was better, but I didn’t use it: Oh, Estelle? Why don’t you bring over your big beautiful KitchenAid so ours can have a pissing contest?
“Mmm,” she scrunches her nose. “I wouldn’t know it. I’m on to Chops Weekly, now. I find the articles slightly more sophisticated.”
I sense it’s time to end this before it gets hairy.
Ghosts are everywhere. These are the ones I’m talking about. A room full of women at a baking exchange is really a room full of ghosts. We wade knee deep in pride, and our sole aim is to rise up through the mush of silly women as the cleverest, baking-est woman of all. It’s not about the food or the sharing of the food or the company of the sharing of the food. It’s not about keeping family traditions alive. It’s about proving resourcefulness as a woman, how well mother taught you. It’s about streamlining technique to get the most out of as little as possible. Finding the single most efficient stroke that binds the mess together in one clean ‘whup’. It’s about relishing in the victory of showing them all how. Climbing up the invisible ladder. Raking in the virtual points. It’s about developing the cleverest culinary tips and calling them your own.
At least, of course, if you ask me.
Anyway, I have a notebook full of these culinary shortcuts. They’re the fruits of my labour in the kitchen. Hours upon hours have been invested, measuring quarts shattered in frustration. I think I’ve broken three so far, but I’m not sure. I’m like a researcher looking for the cure for AIDS, only this time I’m doctoring flour, molasses and lard. It’s what women do all day at home when their Arthurs and Eliots and Franks are at work.
Here are some examples:
-Save the aluminium wrapping from the butter block, and use it to smear it all over the baking dish for an even, non-stick coating. For even better non-stick, drop a spoonful of flour into the buttered dish, and give it a good shake about until it clings to all sides.
-If you run out of brown sugar, all you have to do is add a tablespoon of molasses to plain white sugar and give it a good strong mix. Or, if your brown sugar goes dry and brittle, stick a slice of bread into the container. By tomorrow, it will be moist and supple like new.
-If you run out of buttermilk, add a teaspoon of lemon juice or white vinegar to regular milk, and it will curdle.
-Use cornflakes instead of breadcrumbs for fried poultry. It costs less, contains less sodium, and makes a nice crunchy texture.
-Use an ice cream scoop for drop cookie dough. It dispenses consistently and efficiently.
-If a large bag of marshmallows have already been opened, freeze them. Otherwise, they dry and shrivel over time.
-Prepare the lattice for a pie on a baking sheet. Freeze it, and then place it over the pie for trouble-free transfer.
-Use a serrated knife for chopping baker’s chocolate. That way, it stays stationary when you cut it, and doesn’t end up on the floor.
-To prevent the unsightly green tinge that a hardboiled egg gets prior to cooling, immerse the eggs in an ice-water bath once they’re out of the boiling water.
The embarrassing ones, I don’t write down. I keep them in my head. Like the way I’ll add half the box of Betty Crocker’s yellow cake mix to the batter I’d been making from scratch. That way, it tastes professional and chemically modified the way it should. That’s what we’re all aiming for, anyway. It’s a weasel trick, but I gain virtual points.
“May, this is fantastic! Is this really from scratch? You little devil, it’s from the box!”
“Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“Well I’ll be.”
Then I laugh my favourite, melodic laugh so Estelle can hear me.
This week, I’ve really outdone myself. I spent hours last night making an Ancient Egypt themed cake, and it looks incredible, like one of those custom-made cakes you only order for a bar mitzfa or a chic New York after party. The icing on top is the colour of sand, and an even stream of blue gelatin that is supposed to be the Nile meanders all over the top. Then the three great pyramids stand together at one end, and they’re made of soft Werthers Toffee cut into rough cubes because they have the right colour. I even made a sphinx in the centre out of marzipan, which costs a small fortune if you make it from scratch like I did. And in places that were bare, I piped (very steadily) pictures of Isis and Orisis, and hieroglyphics where it made sense. For this, I had to visit the library for books on Ancient Egypt.
This time, I used my half-and-half weasel trick again, where I add half the store-bought mix. I’m scared that Estelle will point this out to everyone. She always finds a way to dampen my glory, but I’m doing my best not to give her that chance, because my Ancient Egypt inspired cake is almost flawless.
Lulu the Korean lady helps me haul it to the middle of the table, and all the ladies erupt into praise. I smile so much my jaw aches, but I can’t help it.
“Ohhh mmmmyyy…” “Loook at thaaaaaaat…” “Ohh, Maaaaaaay…”
“Oh lord, look at that piping job… just flawless…”
“Is that… marzipan? From scratch? Get out of town! Marsha, remember we made marzipan? Organic peanut butter is what it tasted like. Ha!”
“And she’s a sculptor! Just look at the detail of her sphinx.”
“You made that out of gelatin? How on earth-?”
“The Pyramids of Giza! How cute!”
Praise is lovely, but it makes me a little uncomfortable.
“Oh, stop it…” I say to retain some modesty.
“May, how long did this take you?”
“Oh, two to three hours. Not terribly long.”
Meanwhile, I’m keeping an eye on Estelle. She hasn’t said a word yet, but there’s a faint smirk on her face. I’m scared at whatever she’s doing that for. What’ve I done wrong? It’s not my piping, it’s perfect.
“I couldn’t bear to cut the thing!”
“Oh, I know, it’s a work of art! Who’s gonna do it?”
My sphinx is the masterpiece, and it shimmers a little because I dusted some of that golden powder on it that the big chefs use for decoration.
“Maybe if we try to avoid the sphinx and the Pyramids, and go for the flat bits…”
“Oh! I’ll run and get my Kodak. It’s only across the street, I won’t keep you.”
Is it the navy blue icing on the sides? Did I choose a dumb colour? I knew I should’ve kept it simple…
“Alright, ladies, let’s get some plates going.” They’re cutting it into squares and passing it down, taking in the aroma, and Estelle is sitting straight now and expressionless with all the ambivalence of a judge. What if she finds out about my cake batter cheat?
“Tastes as good as it looks, Mayflower.” I can handle Lulu.
Everyone gets a piece now. Estelle gets one too, and I watch her chew it slowly and thoughtfully. She’s looking at my three pyramids, side to side, and then she smiles.
“You used Werthers Toffees, and then you stacked them. How charming, May.”
So it wasn’t the batter, and it wasn’t the navy blue. It was the pyramids. What I say next comes without thinking, and I splutter, wild-eyed, like a maniac.
“Yeah, well you must think I’m stupid if you use store-bought frosting, you dirty cheater. Everyone knows.”
The chatter stops immediately, and the ladies look from myself, to Estelle, to myself again. To my amazement, Estelle looks almost hurt, staring at me, her eyebrows inverted. She looks down in her lap, and Lulu pipes up.
“What did you say this time, Stella?”
More silence. I realize my fist has been on the table all along, and my lip curled. I withdraw from both and stare at the plaster ceiling. He doesn’t have anything to say, either. I wonder what my husband is doing right now.
“Hey, now, Stella was just bein’ gentle,” a lady offers.
I figure that out now.
I hear the droplets from the sink strike the porcelain, offering a cheer up melody.
The ladies are trying to patch up where they left off.
“Well anyways, May, this is just darling. You could start a baking career on this sort of thing.”
“You know that shop down by the lakeshore, run by the old English woman? She designed a medieval cake for my son’s birthday.”
“Oh, I know the one! She’s still going? I reckoned she was on her last legs!”
I’m still concentrated on the ceiling, trying to think about cake. Salty tears sting my eyelids at first, and then more come and roll down my face and into my ears because I’m looking up.
“She makes a fortune, too. That business has been going strong since I moved here fifteen years ago.”
“I’ll bet she does! Maybe our May here could be her assistant! How about it May?”
Suddenly, a great, horrible sob breaks loose, and I sound like Kathleen Turner, the way I’m wailing. I cannot stop, and I’m sure I look like a red baby.
“Oh, May…” Lulu puts a hand on mine, but I pull away and walk to the kitchen doorway.
It’s silent again, until Estelle says “Well, I’d best be on my way.”
A murmur of agreement follows, and one by one, I watch the ladies abandon my partially eaten Ancient Egypt themed cake and exit through the front door as I continue to sob. When they’re all gone, I sink down to the floor and feel that the tile is sticky because it’s a hot summer day. From the floor, I glance at my cake with disgust, and then turn away.
Sometimes, you’re off by a little, and it makes all the difference. Even by the margin of a teaspoon.
Crying into my ears and my hair, I fall asleep on the tile floor.