Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Delivering Bundles of Joy: Southern Fudge Cake & Strawberry Chiffon Pie

The other day, while wandering through the aisles of the grocery store with a grumbling stomach and rising level of agitation at not being able to find anything (they’re currently renovating so everything has been moved to a temporary location that the search into a game of “Where’s Waldo”), I started to pay more attention to the people around me rather than the food. Sure, there were those who were just as frustrated as I was that a ten minute “quick” run to the store had turned into a quest more daunting than Frodo’s trip to Mordor (my husband is a HUGE Lord of the Rings fan, I haven’t yet read the books, but the story still keeps finding its way into my life regardless). But then I noticed something else: the bleary-eyed, glazed-over look that seemed to have taken possession of so many of the faces around me. Many grabbed aimlessly for meals in a box or frozen bag that required little to no preparation. Others seemed totally disconnected from the experience all together and as their arms reached out to grab items and toss them into the cart, I wondered if they would even remember doing it when they got home and unloaded their bags.

After locating the few items I needed, I made my way back to the growing lines at the checkout. Instead of scanning tabloid headlines like I usually do to waste time in line, I began to contemplate how much thought we actually put into the food we make. So many of us are too worn out at the end of the day to care enough to put our few remaining scraps of energy into a well-planned, home cooked meal. To be honest, until I started this project, I didn’t pay as much attention to my weekly menu as I do now. Before, my husband and I planned meals that would provide enough leftovers for the rest of the week or, if we hadn’t had time to run to the store, we’d piece together the remnants of the freezer, fridge and pantry until it resembled something edible.

I recently read the book “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” by Aimee Bender. It’s a story about a girl who, when she eats something, is able to feel the emotions of the person who made it. Ever since I finished the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about the girl’s talents. Every time I made a meal I wondered what she would be able to tell about me from tasting the food. And as I stood in line watching the other customers who were either impatiently pacing or were complete zombies staring into the depths of nothing, I wondered what their meals would taste like when they prepared them at home.

That weekend, we were visiting friends who had just arrived home from the hospital with their third child. We offered to bring down dinner and, of course, desserts from The Found Recipe Box. I asked them to give me a list of their favorite types of dessert so that I could match them up with my recipe list. And I was happy to find two that seemed to match their tastes perfectly: Southern Fudge Cake and Strawberry Chiffon Pie. With the image of the zombie clan from the grocery store and the main character of “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” in my mind, I made sure to focus on love and happiness while I was preparing the two desserts. But, I would soon discover that it is entirely possible to overthink a meal. 

After arriving at our friends’ house and visiting with their beautiful new addition to the family, we sat down to dinner, which was promptly followed by dessert. The unveiling of the desserts garnered a positive reaction from the audience, which included a 5-year old and a 2 ½ year old. And after dishing out pieces of each to everyone, it was time to start collecting feedback. Usually this process involves either my poetry group or just my husband and my dog, Murphy (who rarely dislikes anything). This was the first time I had children as taste testers and I was excited to hear their response, because typically, kids will tell you exactly how they feel about everything. Even if it’s not the reaction you were expecting.

First up was the strawberry chiffon pie. I actually had two of these because the filling made enough for two 9-inch pie crusts. I chose to add some variety and used a standard crust for one pie and a graham cracker crust for the other. We only cut into the graham cracker crust, which I felt was a nice complement to the light, sweet pie filling. The adults all agreed that the filling reminded them of a Dairy Queen strawberry Blizzard. The 5-year old described it as jiggly and yummy. But when we asked the 2 ½ year old what she thought, she responded, “It smells like poop.” At first we were shocked. Then we howled with laughter. After a few moments, we realized she was sitting next to her new little sister who was in need of a diaper change. We tried to explain the cause for the smell, but the girl couldn’t be convinced. Eventually, she dipped her finger into the gelatinous filling, but even after tasting the sweet strawberry flavor, she wouldn’t take a bite of the pie. 

So we moved on to the Southern fudge cake, which is actually more like a very moist, dense brownie than a cake. I chose not to frost it and instead dropped a dollop of the homemade whipped cream on top that we also used for the pie. When asked how she liked the cake, the younger girl enthusiastically nodded her head up and down in approval. Her older sister giggled, but agreed with her that this dessert was very yummy. The adults were also in agreement, but it came out more as a muffled, “mmmmmm” as they shoveled bites of the decadent chocolate cake into their mouths. This is definitely a recipe I’ll be making again.  

I recently took a Food Writing class to learn more about the genre and get some inspiration for blog posts. One of the activities we spent a lot of time focusing on was descriptions of food and how to find unique and interesting ways to describe a meal. But as I sat watching the two young girls devour their desserts and listened to their comments, I couldn’t help but realize that I had overthought the entire meal. I spent so much time pondering the process of food preparation and how I would uniquely write about it, that I forgot about the most important part: the time we spend enjoying the meal. So often I sit for many long moments at my computer, fretting over the “perfect” word to describe something I’ve made. I imagine that as I stare hypnotically at my screen sifting through words in my mind, I must resemble the zombies at the grocery store that I spent so much time staring at just days before. And as rumbles of laughter still reverberated through the kitchen from the “poop” comment, I accepted that sometimes words like jiggly and yummy just happen to be the perfect way to describe a pie or cake.

I learned a lot that afternoon. I think it’s important to get out of our heads sometimes when we feel stuck and there’s nothing better than listening to a child’s interpretation of the world around them. They have such a creative and unrestricted way of looking at things. To them, there is no box that requires thinking outside of, they just think. I envy that their minds are so free. I think I need to recruit them more often to be taste testers – so girls, if you’re up for it, you’re hired! Just send me a list of your favorite food items. And next time, we’ll make sure that the baby’s diaper is fresh and clean before we start eating.

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