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19 June 2006

Don't look at the postcard

“Comparisons are odorous.” – William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act III, Scene V

GinghamapronpieladyLet me just suggest something to you. There are very few things that I know for sure in life, but this is one of them: When a recipe states at the top of the instructions that it “depends on skill level,” it might be time to walk away.

Just close the book, walk away, and head to the delightful Sister’s McMullen Darn Good Pastries and Fine Cakes Bakery where not only are the doughnuts raised and sugared every morning fresh, but they also know how to ice a pound cake without pulling off the top every time you lift your knife, creating crumb frosting in the sad, scary, and ultimately lonely process.

I might add a secondary note of caution: when the recipe also calls for the cake to be colored red, shaped like a fire truck, and displaying ladders lovingly sculpted from thin pretzel logs and melted white chocolate for glue, run screaming from the kitchen.

Run, run like the wind.

Malevich_peasnt_womanOh, if my 3-year-old only liked rectangles or squares, or even circles, I would be so happy. Note to self: introduce her to the happy solid-colored art of Alexander Calder or, better yet, Kasimir Malevich (see illustration). I could probably do a respectable Jackson Pollock cake, too. (And if you go to that Jackson Pollock link and put your cursor on the screen, you can create your own Jackson Pollock! Left click on your mouse and each time you do, you'll get another color...)

But no, her dreams are all about fire trucks, so a fire truck cake for her birthday it was. And not a flat supermarket cake with a picture of a fire truck drawn on it, oh no. A real 3-D truck made of pound cake (note: pound cake crumbles if you look at it too hard) and sitting on a road of Oreos crushed in the blender (trust me, it looks just like dirt), fire hoses made of green fruit chews rolled into tubes. Wheels made of Oreos with red fruit chew circles as hubcaps and white icing piped on as bolts.

Call me Martha.

It was at the icing stage that I panicked. Besides the fact that my sculpted cake looked like a semi-trailer rig that might have overturned a few times when the driver was sleepy, the whole surface of the cake lifted up onto the knife each time I lifted the blade; John came home from work, walked into the kitchen, and I heard a sharp intake of breath. When I looked up, I saw the grimace he was trying to change into a smile; it wasn’t working. I sent him to Ingle’s for back-up cupcakes. When I held the photograph of the sample cake up beside the misshapen mass in front of me, I felt tears springing hot behind my eyes. It looked nothing like the picture.

I have a great friend named Lucy who could have made this fire truck cake and spun a sugar firehouse with little tiny perfectly detailed fire fighters to boot, all while refinishing her floors, painting her kitchen, and planting color-coordinated azaleas in a pattern that would look like a mosaic of the Sistine Chapel from space, damn her. Her son loves tractors, so she made him a tractor cake one year that looked like it had been commissioned by the John Deere Company. This kind of pressure just doesn’t help the domestically challenged. Surely she never reaches this tear-springing stage.

I pushed past panic to the questioning stage: “What on earth was I thinking?” There were no answers, so I pushed on to the denial stage: “I think it looks good.” After denial came blaming: “If you had printed the picture bigger, I could tell how to lash this pretzel ladder on and attach the melting Fruit Chew ladder.” Blaming was followed closely by hysteria: “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? GET TO INGLE’S IMMEDIATELY FOR SOME CUPCAKES SO THESE POOR CHILDREN WILL HAVE SOME SUGAR TO CONSUME AT THE PARTY!” Shame came next: “I cannot possibly take this monstrosity out in public.” Then resignation and acceptance: “Tess is three. Her friends are three. What do they care?”

It was an exhausting day in my apron. Tess napped as I completed the decorating, twirling the green Fruit Chew hose into its resting place atop the truck, placing the licorice running board, icing the windows white. When she woke up, she ran into the kitchen. “WOW!” She loved it! And she got on her little ladder to see it close up; I was nervous—would she touch it and ruin it? She picked up a yellow M&M (not in my color scheme) and, as if in slow motion, her hand moved toward the cake. I stifled a “NO!” as she pushed it into the side of the cake. “LOOK! A BUTTON!” She spent the next 10 minutes decorating to her own satisfaction. I bit my Martha Stewart tongue.

Emma_as_a_firefighter_1Twenty-four hours and some dozen failed pretzel ladders later, the big moment arrived. Tess and a few of her tiny friends joined the very fabulous members of Engine Company Number 1 for a special tour of the firehouse, sitting in the fire trucks, watching Tess’ big sister Emma try on fire fighter gear, and getting firefighter badges. Then we walked to a nearby children’s museum for play and sugar.

They loved the fire truck cake. “I HELPED MAKE IT!” Tess screamed with delight. “I HELPED MAKE IT!” She jumped up and down, up and down, up and down. She poiTess_finny_and_isabelle_check_out_the_ca_1nted to her M&M decorations, she pranced and danced and twirled, exclaiming her part in the cake to all her 38-inch-tall friends. Once they figured out that the dirt was made from Oreos, it was all over. The fire truck was demolished and eaten in 8 minutes flat, leaving only Fruit Chew hub cabs and a Dalmatian doggie candle on the tray.

It was worth every moment of truck agony, self-doubt as a cake icer. Why did I compare myself to Martha Stewart?

When Emma was in the 6th grade, she had an assignment to make a castle as part of a unit in school. We all sat at the dinner table and discussed options. Foam core? PVC? Construction paper? Welded metal? No! Gingerbread! Let’s make a gingerbread castle. My lord, how hard could it be?

Walk away. Run.

Kitchen_aid_mixerI burned up the motor in my mixer on the first batch, requiring me to run to Best Buy and pick up that nice Kitchen Aid mixer I had always wanted. I figure the gingerbread project, once I added in all the equipment, the mixer, and supplies, was a good down payment on a new car. We found a pattern, requiring us to cut gingerbread dough into 1,218 pieces of intricate wall sections, bake them, and magically piece them together. After baking, we had no idea how to glue the pieces together. (By the way, gingerbread doesn’t remain perfectly flat while baking, in case you were wondering).

So John did what anyone would do—he called the White House to ask what edible paste the chefs use to make the gingerbread White House. The White House switchboard, after hearing the story of Emma making a gingerbread castle for a school project, asked John to hold. Next he knew, he was talking for 10 minutes with Thaddeus DuBois, the White House chef.

We used his recipe.

Nothing stuck. I’m not saying it’s the White House’s fault; I have a new admiration for anything made of gingerbread.

BlueAt around 3 a.m., we decided that it would be a project about castle ruins. This decision was further underscored when in a split second, our dog Blue ate the northwest corner of the structure. After watching these proceedings for about 20 hours, Blue performed like an NFL linebacker, studying the field until the opening appeared, lunging for the hole in our defenses.

Would I have changed anything about that experience? No. These are the stories that make up our lives. It’s a great tale for us to laugh about and hey, I got my dream Kitchen Aid mixer out of the pain. And when Tess is older, she’ll love the photos and stories of her fire truck cake. What is success? Sometimes it’s laughing at the process and embracing the end result even when it doesn’t look like a magazine photo shoot. Sometimes, it’s not making that comparison at all—am I as thin as the models I see in magazines, is my home as beautiful as the ones in Architectural Digest, does the Grand Canyon look as striking in person as it does on the picture postcard? Walker Percy has said that the preformed symbolic complex of the Grand Canyon (and by extension, anything that we compare to the image of itself) keeps us from actually seeing it:

Canyon2“It is almost impossible (to see) because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer's mind.  Seeing the canyon under approved circumstances is seeing the symbolic complex head on. The thing is no longer as it confronted the Spaniard; it is rather that which has already been formulated--by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folder, and the words Grand Canyon. As a result of this preformulation, the source of the sightseer's pleasure undergoes a shift. Where the wonder and delight of the Spaniard arose from his penetration of the thing itself, from the progressive discovery of depths, patterns, colors, shadows, etc., now the sightseer measures his satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex.  If it does so, if it looks just like the postcard, he is pleased; he might even say, ‘Why it is every bit as beautiful as a picture postcard!’  He feels he has not been cheated. But if it does not conform, if the colors are somber, he will not be able to see it directly; he will only be conscious of the disparity between what it is and what it is supposed to be. He will say later that he was unlucky in not being there at the right time.  The highest point, the term of the sightseer's satisfaction, is not the sovereign discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the preformed symbolic complex....”

We should regain sovereignty over our experience, shouldn’t we? Make the cake and don’t compare it to the one made by the White House chef. Find our own Grand Canyon, not the postcard one.

I’ve signed Emma and myself up for cooking classes with a woman who teaches in a small cabin on her 1928 woodstove. Emma’s a pickle aficionado, so on July 15th, she and I will go learn to make pickles, pickled beets, never-fail dill pickles, Aunt Lula’s cabbage/pepper relish, 19th century piccalilli, Effie’s yellow squash and onion pickles, herbed icebox pickles, and a 1915 spiced peach pickle. I’ve already started working on Tessie so she’ll ask for a pickle cake next June. I’ve never seen such a thing, so it’ll be perfect.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Tess_with_firetruck_cake_turning_3_2Go ahead, make the fire truck cake. Don’t settle for what’s easy—go for the Eiffel Tower sculpted from marshmallows, the class project made completely from gingerbread cut and baked into intricate, crenulated towers, the science project created entirely of licorice and white chocolate shavings. Why settle for easy?

And don’t look at the postcard, the model, the sample, the dream home—that’s not life, that’s idealized pressure, shaping us in ways that aren’t aspirational, but detrimental. In looking at the postcard, you miss the Grand Canyon that’s right in front of you.


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This reminds me of John Daniel's, "The Impoverishment of Sightseeing."

Kurt - I don't know that essay, but it sounds intriguing - thanks so much for the reference. I'll definitely take a look...

What a beautiful article Patti! Instead of settling for what's easy, you challenge us to do what's hard and more memorable. AWESOME suggestion! Thanks Patti! Now to find that big hairy audacious goal that I've been running from. :)

Absolutely...this insidious comparison really DOES rob life of a certain satisfaction...there are so many "postcards" now--wedding shows, birth shows, shows on the perfect party, meal, dessert, lovemaking name it! Every aspect of life has been professionalized and airbrushed by a team of experts, and yet we're expected to emulate them perfectly. How can we possibly do so and retain any enjoyment? This leads to the idea that it's better to let the experts do their thing, and not bother with anything new unless we can prove that we'll be proficient at it.

Ahem, as you can hit a nerve. Great GREAT posting...and your cake looked wonderful too!

Phil - Thanks for your note! I love the image of you running from that goal!

Mardougrrl - you're absolutely right at the numbers of postcards we're confronted with these days and your insight about not trying unless we're good at something is right on target...hadn't thought of it that way. That's it - exactly! It keeps us from venturing into new waters, this fear of failure. Thanks for the food for thought!

LOL, the dog ate the corner of the castle. Ha! I can just see his brown-beaten apology. Wha? Bad dog? Grumble, grumble. I'll never figure out these people.

I knew the little one would love the firetruck. But we all get MArtha Stewart style fixations by times. Just living and laughing, that's the real deal. Life will serve this lesson often...(smile)

Patti, wonderful story!

Great post, Patti. And I *love* the graphics!

: )

patti-- you have given me a laugh this morning as i recall similar experiences from my own past baking distresses. i think it must be a universal experience, especially for those of us who have raised children. i loved the gingerbread story! thanks for sharing-- jylene

What a cute cake. I love the look in your daughter's eyes as she looks at it. You're so right that comparisons with perfection usually get in the way of 'real' life.

I've always to prefer learning a skill as I need it. Like learning to sew by making my bridesmaid's dress for my sister's wedding. It certainly helped that I found a wonderful older woman to walk me through the process. The downside are the unfinished projects littering my house...

Patti,my daughter,Jylene has been sending me
your writings and I always enjoy them. But this one particularly hit home.I'm no expert by any means but she and I have managed a few Gingerbread houses and for the past 4 years I have organized a Gingerbread house contest at the library where I work .I have even given a couple demonstrations to get the event started.Most people find it less difficult than they had thought and it is always fun to see the creative results, especially with the first timers. There is nothing that can compare with the light in
a childs eyes, as they bring in their finished masterpiece. My idea has always been to enjoy the process of creating, as much as the end result,and,although I admit to having shed a few tears of frustration,
for the most part, I feel the creation was as much about treasured memories,as any "Martha Masterpiece". I now have a whole new batch of grand children and great grand
children to teach the joy of creating.
P.S.Just this morning,I saw a piece on t.v.
about the Grand Canyon. They said the average tourist spends 15 minutes at the site on their way to somewhere else. They stop,look,snap a few "post cards" and drive on. Pretty sad. Now there is food for thought and another essay.

wow, patti.

when i needed help with writing, i used to open up the bible and point randomly at a section - and invariably, the part i pointed at would relate to what i was trying to communicate, and would jolt me out of block.

i've started to think that way about your site. i haven't visited in a while (not sure why), but today i needed some calm, so i came.

the challenge made me cry. i needed to be told to do the most difficult thing, because that's where i'm at and i was losing steam and faith in myself...but you made me feel like someone was watching.

thank you so much for that. i can't tell you how much it helped. your beautiful words were a lifeline to someone this morning.

Thanks so much to everyone who has commented - I appreciate your very kind words, and am happy that you found something meaningful in my words! Your images and stories are a real gift to me, too!

Bee - I'm so glad you found the lifeline you needed at the time when you needed it...!

Jylene - wow. your comment about the "15 minutes at the Grand Canyon" is really amazing. I've traveled all over the world and have never seen the Grand Canyon--it is first on my list of "must see's..." if my husband is reading this, a trip to the Grand Canyon would be a lovely birthday gift.... ;-)

What always amazes me, Patti, is your ability to take these seemingly mundane subjects and make them into something so deep and true. I usually start out with the deep and the true and try to make sense of it, but after reading your stuff for the past few months, I have to wonder if I don't have it altogether backwards.


You've obviously gone amiss...the dog is clearly not a dalmatian. :D I do applaud your dedication to your daughter's passion for firetrucks and all things firefighter.


You've obviously gone amiss...the dog is clearly not a dalmatian. :D I do applaud your dedication to your daughter's passion for firetrucks and all things firefighter.


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