Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Back at it

I've heard from some nice folks who have been stopping by the blog and wondering about this two-month-long silence. My excuse is that I was working on a book proposal and learning how to knit. Both projects are going reasonably well but I've been "tied up". Yowza! Thanks, folks, I'll be here all weekend...

I also had a bout of viral meningitis which, while bizarre and extremely uncomfortable, was never life-threatening. On my sickbed, I tooled around with the following essay. There are themes of contamination, no doubt brought on by my inflamed meninges.

Here goes:

There comes a moment in every cook’s life when she has to choose between the sanitary thing and the necessary thing. Between risking disease and risking failure. It’s a gut decision, made in the half-second before anyone notices. I made that call on a June day in 2000. It has been my dirty little secret ever since.

Back then, my husband, Scott, and I were in what I think of as the “stealth campaigning” phase of our courtship, well past early dating and nowhere near engagement. As his birthday approached, I decided to bake a masterpiece. A “don’t let this one get away” birthday cake. I planned the party–a group tailgate at our favorite drive-in movie theater–and even called it a potluck so I could focus on my home-baked persuasion.

At the time, I lived in a not-so-former tenement building in Boston’s North End.
The rent was cheap and we were afraid to make demands, so I ignored the unfinished bathroom and uninsulated walls. I tuned out the decrepit center hallway with its crumbling walls and its ancient and very slippery terrazzo stairs. I hardly thought of the hallway at all, except to reassure horrified first-time visitors that “it really gets much nicer once you come inside.”€ I went without air conditioning and baked cakes on hot summer afternoons.

And so I passed four dreamy hours on the appointed day making a golden butter layers with a chocolate ganache center and a creamy crown of chocolate buttercream. I cooled each layer in the refrigerator and cooled my wrists in glasses of ice water. I hummed and daydreamed and wrote our names in frosting. I spent so many sweltering, dreamy hours that, by the time Scott arrived to pick me up, I was running 30 minutes late.

Making your boyfriend late for his own party was not the behavior of a Keeper, and, by the set of his jaw, I could see that Scott knew this. He appeared to be ruminating on that very fact. So I went into fifth gear, grabbed the candles and matches and pillows, threw the cake into a Tupperware cake carrier which wasn’t sealing quite right but no matter, and raced out the door and down the steps, and...

I slipped. I caught my balance, but it was too late. Out flew the cake, a flying cake, slippery with heat, looping through two-and-a-half slow-motion flips and landing, face-down, on the floor. I saw it resting in a thin layer of dust motes, plaster chips, and cat hair.

I saw Scott staring at it, too dumbfounded to react. But I had to act. I slid the cake off the floor and onto the plate. The top layer was cracked, but salvageable. It had absorbed the impact for the bottom layer, which was unharmed. I had two seconds to decide.
I thought of arriving, late and cakeless to the party. I thought of four wasted hours, and failing at my one task. I couldn’t lose this cake.

I ran back up to the apartment and ransacked the cupboards. There had to be frosting. My old roommate ate frosting for dinner. There had to be–and there was! Glorious, year-old chocolate frosting in a dusty purple canister. Beautiful, creamy, shelf-stable, chocolate cement! I scraped off all the contaminated buttercream, scanned the cake for little pebbles and hairs, slathered on the canned frosting, sealed the Tupperware carrier, and ran back down the stairs in two minutes flat.

Scott didn’t ask any questions. When we arrived, we saw that our friends had parked in a long row of cars and set out a dinner of cucumber salad, couscous, teriyaki chicken wings, and plenty of cold beer. The sun went down and we watched “Chicken Run,” reconsidering the wings. So I brought out the cake, confessing nothing, just lighting the candles and listening for a telltale crunch. But no one noticed anything amiss. Or if they did, they kept quiet. When the movie was over, we go out of our cars and stared at the stars. Scott said it was a great birthday.


Cuarentayuno said...

Ain't it funny how when our performance matters most, we engineer disaster? Still, you each got your own keeper to keep! :*

Passionate Eater said...

That is a great story! Most important thing, is that you scraped on what was contaminated. Thus, all is justified. Carry on.