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How I hit the hard-ball stage

A couple of well-meaning readers have recently inquired into the foundations of my relationship with food, or, more succinctly, the origins of this thing I call Orangette. As the following amply demonstrates, such seemingly harmless questions can be downright dangerous when combined with an afternoon of digging in the archives, both online and off. What follows comes to you straight from a tattered, sun-bleached sketchbook that holds my teenage writing—or, at least, the snippets of it that aren’t stashed in my parents’ freezer, which I once fervently believed was the only way to secure it for the ages.

Dear reader, I humbly present to you the story of how it all began, the story of how one verbose teenager in the wilds of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, found her way to the kitchen, as told in her own words.* I wrote this essay-cum-prose-poem, fittingly titled “Kitchen,” ten years ago, when I was 17 and fresh from my first edible epiphany. Please, handle with care.

*With long-overdue thanks and apologies to Frank O’Hara, Armistead Maupin, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and Flannery O’Connor, in whose works I’d been thoroughly pickling myself when “Kitchen” was born.


Fresh Ginger Cake with Caramelized Pears
From Gourmet, February 1996

¼ cup unsulfured molasses
¼ cup sour cream
½ stick unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
2 tsp grated peeled fresh gingerroot
½ teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
2 medium firm-ripe pears
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 ½ teaspoons Cognac or other brandy
3 tablespoons heavy cream

Midnight, and we converge upon the kitchen: Mom for poached pears, Burg for rice pudding, and me for fresh ginger cake with caramelized pears. Lately I’ve been really identifying with the kitchen, the way it’s always warm in the pantry, its shelves lined with bottles or bags labeled “Raspberry Apple Butter” or “Cranberry Beans” or “Quaker Barley,” the way there are cookbooks laying open on the butcher-block island, the way it smells good after dinner and in the afternoon when the refrigerator is cold and full. It’s been this way since Christmas with me, eagerly thumbing through the new issue of Gourmet in search of a recipe to read about, soak in, taste without tasting. But the recipe for fresh ginger cake with caramelized pears demands immediate attention, tonight. So we go to the store after dinner and come home with a backseat full of bags: gingerroot, a dozen eggs, a bottle of molasses with a sweet-looking granny on the label, a pint of heavy cream, a tub of sour cream, and pears (firm-ripe).

We all think alike. Burg is at the stove with the double boiler, then opening the pantry for rice. Mom is at the sink, peeling pears with her new vegetable peeler, leaning over the recipe for “Pears Noir” from her California Heritage Cookbook. I am making the cake I can’t stop thinking about. Me, I want fresh ginger cake with caramelized pears at midnight with the rice pudding and the poaching pears still on the stove and the kitchen warm and the cake and caramel and pears warm and the marble tabletop cold under my elbows.

Rice pudding is fine, but it’s not for me. It is Burg’s once-a-week-or-so fun, later to be Tupperwared and tucked into the fridge for occasional spooning. The poached pears will tomorrow be coated in bittersweet chocolate and served to the guests who will sit and laugh in the dining room with my parents. But the cake is mine. Cake: I like it on my tongue, the word—not just the stuff itself—but even better in my throat, my stomach. Cake. It can only mean something good.

I never thought I would like rice pudding, anyway. Something about the dairy and the rice; they shouldn’t be together. But I’ve changed my mind. I wonder if it is my father’s rice pudding that’s done it—only three tablespoons of sugar, and amazing—or maybe my uncle’s rice. My father’s brother Arnie sends the rice from Nanuet, New York—basmati rice, straight from India, still in the little burlap sack with the handles and the big red block letters spelling out the name of a town I can’t pronounce. Arnie is fun. He calls for Burg and speaks slowly slowly and it makes me crazy if I’m in the middle of something because it seems to take hours to get him over to Burg. The word “Hello” in and of itself takes a good minute. But Arnie is fun. He looks like Burg and has a dog that’s nearly as tall as he is. So I like rice pudding because of Arnie and the rice, and after all, it is my very own father’s rice pudding, although really, I don’t think I’m biased at all.

And the poached pears; I like them too. Well, picture it: you’re lying in an overfluffed bed in the upstairs bedroom of a bed-and-breakfast in Cape Neddick, Maine, just before Christmas, and there's snow piling high on the ground outside, but it’s warm up there, under the canopy, in the bed. It’s eight o’clock. There’s a knock at the door. You roll out of bed. At your feet is a silver tray with one cup, a silver coffee pot, a cream pitcher, and a sugar bowl. You pick it up, close the door, rest the tray on your bedside table, pour yourself a cup of blacky-brown coffee, and you sink back into bed under the comforter and return to your second volume of the Tales of the City series, and it’s a good morning because on the page Mona is discovering her roots in a whorehouse in Nevada with Mother Mucca, and gynecologist Jon Fielding is wooing Michael again. And then, of course, there’s breakfast at nine. First, there will be pineapple scones, still warm from the baking sheet, and a cloth-lined tin of cinnamon muffins and apple-spice bread. Then a poached pear, buoyed by a pool of Grand Marnier crème anglaise. Then a warm plate with a small poached egg on a bed of puréed spinach, with caramelized apples and a crispy little phyllo purse filled with sausage, ricotta, and mushrooms and baked until flaky outside and melting inside. This is breakfast on this almost-Christmas of your 18th year. You sigh and decide to stay seated right where you are until tea at 4:30 (cranberry linzer tart; ready?).

So yes, I like poached pears. Because I was in Maine that Christmas, and I ate everything and then another scone an hour after breakfast because I can never get enough, it seems. Because poached pears landed squarely in the middle of the breakfast to go down in history, the breakfast that set me afire, afire with the love of the food! Aaaaah-men! And hence this midnight meeting in the kitchen, this preoccupation with cake and caramel and fragrant winter pears.

To the kitchen. This cake will be incredible—mark my word—and I will grate this ginger even if the milk that runs out from under the grater makes me feel a little queasy. It will be that good. It will be delicious, yes. In the oven, my cake makes the kitchen smell full and alive, and the pears bubble in the pan with sugar and butter and cream. Midnight, and the kitchen is clicking and burbling and whirring. Soon we all lean into the soft, brown cake cooling on the island, and we pour pears and caramel soft and all butterflow onto the cake and melt onto the floor with it on our forks and in our mouths even better than the word “cake” itself on my tongue I ever dreamed it would be. Midnight, and we melt in the kitchen and check ourselves with the candy thermometer and declare that we’ve reached the hard-ball stage, and we pour ourselves into bed.


Anonymous Melissa said...

Molly, you truly have a gift. I love the evocative and sensual quality of your prose in this narrative; it's almost - no it is - poetry. I found myself reading it slowly as if to savor every word - the writing itself seems almost edible. I also followed the link to read the post about your father, which I hadn't before, and it was so beautiful it brought me to tears (sitting at my office desk). Thanks for sharing this with us - the food world is very lucky indeed that you have chosen to make things gastronomic the focus of your talents.

4:09 AM, October 04, 2005  
Blogger Michèle said...

Hi Molly, I second Melissa's comments. On my own quiet evenings with a cup of tea in my hand I have read through many of your old archives. It was nice to read this, with Burg in the midst, and with a view into the 17 year old Molly, who was a girl with a big old heart and a great love of life and food even then. Truly touching, my friend.

5:25 AM, October 04, 2005  
Blogger Clare Eats said...

This was a great post Molly, as always. You inspired me AGAIN, I made my own version of this cake for my farewell house dinner. It was perect just as described :)

6:27 AM, October 04, 2005  
Anonymous Luisa said...

This is lovely and so incredibly well-written for a seventeen year old! Thanks for sharing it. It's fun rediscovering things you wrote years ago and trying to figure out how they fit into your life. Plus, fresh ginger cake really is great (I use David Lebovitz's recipe, also on Epicurious, and it always induces ecstasy in people trying it).

7:57 AM, October 04, 2005  
Blogger Shauna said...

Dearest Molly--

I teach writing to seventeen-year-olds, eager to stamp their story on a page, desperate to understand the world and their place in it. And I teach some talented writers, some truly gifted kids. Still, if you had been in my class, and you had turned in this essay, I would have waved my arms in the air at the class, and said "Shhhhhh. Let me read you this one." And they would sit, hushed and listening, waiting for the end, so they too could bite into that ginger cake. They'd applaud, a little awed. And then I'd tell them, "Just write like that, please."

Certainly, I would have given you an A.

8:00 AM, October 04, 2005  
Blogger amylou said...

Molly, I really wish that I could have known you when we were seventeen. We could have romped and read and written and eaten. And listened to records. And maybe with your influence, my poetry would have improved.

I'm glad I have the pleasure of knowing you now.

12:55 PM, October 04, 2005  
Blogger violet said...

ohhh goodness. this reaffirms the fact that this is one of my favourite blogs. ever. wonderful.

i was thinking today of your blog and how beautiful it is. and i felt bad about my sad sad attempt at webblogging.

3:43 PM, October 04, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Melissa, really, this is too much. Thank you for your generosity of spirit, my dear--and even more, for reassuring me that I'm not the only one who occasionally gets weepy at the office.

Michele, mon amie, thank you.

Clare, when you get inspired, you don't waste any time, do you? You're a baking machine! Your adaptation of the fresh ginger cake looks delicious, and I'm thrilled to hear that it topped off a successful "last supper"...

Luisa, thank you. Every couple of years, I revisit this piece, and always with a mixture of affection and horror. I see so much of my present self and my current writing in it, but also so much of who I was back then--my exuberant "poetess" incarnation, if you will. Ooof. But after ten years, I feel far enough removed that it's more bittersweet than anything--or, at least, most of the time! Oh, and thanks for the heads-up on David Lebovitz's ginger cake! A must-try, indeed.

Shauna, I said it to Melissa, but I'll say it again: really, it's too much! To bring things down to earth, Miss Teacher, you should know that I *did* edit one snippet out of here before posting it--namely, a half-paragraph involving the words "underwear," "prancing," and "True Confessions hotline." I had to protect the innocent, you understand. I was lucky to have wonderfully supportive teachers--much like you are today, I imagine--in high school. Your students have it very, very good, m'dear.

Amy, I think we should add time travel to the to-do list for our next get-together. I'll bring my old Dischord albums (vinyl! hot stuff!), ginger cake, and lots of erasers. Are we on?

Violet, my dear, thank you! But enough nonsense! Have you read this?
Remember, cussing and determination.

10:58 PM, October 04, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heya Miss Molly,

Mostly I've just got to find a big fat Sharpie and underline everything everyone's already said. It's crazy but lovely to feel such an affinity for someone I don't even know.

It makes me laugh to consider you looking at old journal entries or even old posts in horror. But, and of course you know this, genius reveals itself early but becomes something of nuance and finesse and punch only by honing. And getting to see so much of that process is wonderful, and inspiring. So, you know, rock on with your True Confession self.

The things you've been saying about the evolution of your writing remind me a bit of something an author said this winter at a seminar I was at, and perhaps you've heard it before -- he said he tries to keep this Saint-Exupery thought in mind when he's at work: "La perfection est atteinte non quand il ne reste rien à ajouter, mais quand il ne reste rien à enlever." I so didn't know that when I was 17 -- except maybe in the way my 9th grade English teacher urged us to exchange our curlicue adjectives for strong verbs.

Anyway. Yeah. A big ole honkin' thanks for all you offer to us your readers.

There's a goodly chance I'm leaving New York this winter ... it's a very bittersweet thing but I'm cheered at the thought of pouring through some of your posts to find some inspiration for a cozy farewell soirée.


3:46 PM, October 05, 2005  
Blogger T said...

Hi Molly. Its late and my sentiments are muddled, but luckily others have expressed what I would wish to- that your writing is exciting and inspiring, comforting and intimate. Its not too much to say that- indeed, its a shame that words cannot convey the extent to which your writing impacts me, and others.

11:44 PM, October 05, 2005  
Anonymous Samantha said...

Molly, just brilliant. What else could I even say? Thank you for writing, and thank you for letting us all share these wonderful, tangible stories of food and family that always, always leave a lump in my throat and often a tear in my eye.

1:39 PM, October 06, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Lisa, you're destroying me. My head is going to swell to immeasurable proportions if you don't ease up, my dear. You're delicious.
P.S. That St. Exupery quote est magnifique. Quelle sagesse!

Tanvi, thank you. When my next rainy day (read: bad-writing day) rolls around, as they inevitably do, I'll remember this, m'dear.

And Samantha, thank you for reading, and for helping to make writing Orangette such a rich, rewarding adventure.

8:08 PM, October 07, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll ease up when you start being boring,flat, and unkind. Until then, I'm afraid you're going to have to put up with my admiration :)

Happy fall --


2:16 AM, October 08, 2005  
Anonymous mav said...

molly... loving each & every post! you MUST try and rice pudding from rice to riches. have you had it?

emailing you today. hoping we can meet up in a few weeks in seattle... and i need dinner recommendations! :) mav

3:00 AM, October 11, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

You'll be pleased to note, mav, that I did go into Rice to Riches last month in SoHo! Brandon and I went in and snooped around, scoping out all the flavors...but we'd just been to Il Laboratorio del Gelato, so we decided to wait til next time. Sniffle, sniffle. Looks like I'll just have to make rice pudding at home instead, in homage to Burg. And speaking of home, hurry up and get over here to my neck of the woods!

9:32 PM, October 11, 2005  
Anonymous mon ami said...

I just came across this recipe while searching your index for a way to use up my pears. It reminded me how much I love your writing and your book. I borrowed it from the library a few months ago but now I know I need to add it to my Christmas list.

thanks again for sharing

6:24 PM, October 02, 2009  
Anonymous Laura R said...

This makes me smile, for several reasons. In 1996, I was six years old, probably sitting in my bed and dreaming about the Backstreet Boys. Wafting through the house was probably something simple, like baked pork chops and over-cooked rice. My tastes were undeveloped [though they definitely still are today], and my clothing was far from individualistic. I was carefree and shy, and couldn’t imagine even being ten.
Reading this makes me feel hopeful; at seventeen you wrote eloquently and in a confessional tone, which reminds me so much of how I write now. In fact, traces of your writing style are very familiar to me. I can only hope that one day I am able to write as well as you currently do. (:

8:58 AM, October 27, 2009  
Anonymous Anna said...

Molly...Your writing is beautiful. The words, lilting and soft, melting into each other and weaving a warm and lovely blanket of sentimentality. Oh, to write like that and be 17. The beauty of falling in love with two things at once; food, and writing. The marvelous way they combine together. And the descriptions of the food itself brings me to the clear pictures and imaginations of just what you mean. Thank you for blessing anyone who wants to see with this gift of talent. It does my eyes, mind, soul some good.

3:13 PM, September 18, 2011  
Anonymous Syd said...

Oh, bloody hell.

Molly, I've been working my way through the archives for a while now, and I have to say that this entry is one of the most evocative, sensuous, sensual pieces I've ever read. (I wrote that before I saw very much the same thing written by the first commenter, I promise!) I can taste the pears and the caramel, that blacky-brown coffee, feel the warmth of the kitchen and the bed beneath the canopy...kudos to you.

And that you wrote it at 17...color me envious.

I will say it makes my writing muscles itch for a workout, however. :)

6:24 PM, February 12, 2012  

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