Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Bakery

It was cold last Thursday; the fingers poking out of my jacket sleeves were numb. The sun was shining aggressively over the top of the row of buildings in front of me, burning my eyes. I walked slowly, a slight limp favoring my right leg. The air felt crisp; the grass lining the sidewalk was strikingly green. There was a knot in the pit of my stomach, butterflies fluttering up into my throat. I reached the long colorful strip of buildings snaking along the curve of the street, their brick bases blending in with the monotone shade of fallen leaves strewn onto the ground nearby. I opened the creaking wooden door on the corner and was immediately hit with a burst of light warmth. There were a handful of people milling about the room, peering enthusiastically into the glass cases filled with breads and pastries. Coffee cups steamed. The cheerfully brunette woman behind the cash register laughed raucously and greeted a man in a bright red sweater, clinking change and rustling paper bags simultaneously. I stepped carefully past the counter, through the arched doorway, and into the back room. I glanced around, taking in the stacks of ovens, racks of colorful cookies, stacks of earthy brown bread and cascade of metal mixers. I was looking for my new boss, the Baker.

I felt new, strange and uncertain of myself. I couldn’t understand my overwhelming feelings of hesitation. But walking into that light and airy room I was entering a new job, a new set of responsibilities. It is a concrete jump to take my life back into my own hands – to recover, accept and move on from what has happened to me this fall.

I plastered a smile on my face when the Baker came stomping up the stairs, a well-worn Red Sox hat balanced on his head. His shoulders slightly hunched, thick gray hair on his even skull and a pristine apron tied snugly over his slight stomach paunch. His eyes, creased with smile lines, are traced with sadness. He grinned, radiating kindness. We shook hands and chatted jovially as I outfitted myself in a white starched apron. The sunlight streamed into the large kitchen, a luxurious room inhabited only by the Baker and I. A small black radio was perched on a dusty shelf, spouting classical music into the air. The knot in my stomach gradually dissolved. It dissolved into the crates of apples I peeled and chopped, rhythmic and comforting in their simplicity. I buried myself happily in mounds of pie dough, gobs of flour and the delicate assemblage of thanksgiving pies.

I arrived home later that first day with aching hands and sore legs after hours on my feet. It was a familiar feeling, reminiscent of my last restaurant experience as a dishwasher and prep chef in a bistro this summer. I again lost myself in the slightly mind-numbing tasks of repetitive cleaning and chopping. I found myself dusting off the smattering of stale Spanish I had learned to have halting conversations with N, the dishwasher. I, however, washed not even a single dish. I felt strange at first asking the Baker the bevy of technical food questions that came to mind, but soon relaxed under his obvious desire to help with detailed answers. And I smiled to myself as I worked, awash with the melodies of Bach and Mozart, the whir of the mixer and the clank of the ovens.

I certainly didn’t expect to find myself making a plethora of pies, a deluge of pumpkin breads and a flood of almond macaroons that cold November morning. I still have to shake myself every so often, realizing with a sudden jolt that I am OK, that the worst is over. I am constantly surprised these days to be back in the work force, to be in a place I respect and enjoy, to be regaining my life. It is a wonderful feeling, worth a thousand apple pies.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Salsa, Rosemary and James Bond

When I was in elementary school I spent a lot of quality time with James Bond. On many a Sunday afternoon, my father and I cocooned ourselves in the sun dappled basement TV room with Dr. No, Live and Let Die, or my personal favorite, Goldfinger. Along with Tuesday night ice cream (soft serve chocolate dipped in chocolate) to be eaten while watching the adult softball league game nearby, Sundays with James Bond was a father-daughter ritual that I loved. Each afternoon I would curl up on the couch with my Dad and drape an old crochet blanket all the way over my head. Through its woven holes I could see the TV while simultaneously felt protected by its bulk. I loved the small jolts of fear the scary scenes inspired in the back of my throat. Yet I always felt overwhelmingly safe. The soundtrack in my mind to those lazy afternoons contains a methodical crunch and the rustling of a plastic chip bag: Agent 007 was always accompanied with tortilla chips and chunky red salsa. Ever since then the smell of salsa has immediately conjured up an image of a young Sean Connery, a Roger Moore, and a happy young girl with her dad.

Today, salsa does not bring any scent oriented memories to mind. In my largely odorless world, the muted taste and more important texture is what ties me to what I eat. The soft creaminess and delicate sweetness of my mom’s freshly made fall applesauce transports me to afternoons in the kitchen of my childhood. The warm crust of bread right out of the oven sends me to the bleary eyed 5am shift at the bakery I worked in before going to college. The crunch of almond biscotti feels like an afternoon in Florence; the bitter thickness of espresso is Rome. I can bring memories to mind with texture and a bit of attention almost as strongly as I had previously taken for granted that came with smell. With concentration and an inkling of imagination, I find that I can more closely understand the complexity of flavor available to me without a full sense of smell. I chew slowly and swallow, breathing out evenly, closing my eyes. On the exhale I can ‘taste’ in the back of my throat, even through my nose. I feel a subtle increase of flavor with each long exhale. When I move slowly, taste slowly, the sensations grow. On the exhale a sugary soft crunch becomes laced with tangy citrus zest, a sip of wine moves from simply sweet to layered with fruit and vine.

Not surprisingly, however, I overwhelming miss being able to taste fully. Without smell, my palette is extremely muted. Each bite is in a quiet fog; it is difficult to tell herbs, spices, subtleties apart. Sometimes I just want to feel something in my mouth without thinking about it. I want nothing more than to have a full taste sensation. This is where salsa comes back into my life, minus its smell related memories. These days I like it hot, spicy, and on everything. I put generous shakes of Tabasco sauce into my ‘extra hot’ salsa. I layer it onto tortilla chips with a spoon. Where the hint of cinnamon in coffee is a delicate grasp of an odor, the heat of jalapeno laden salsa is an unmistakably pleasant burn in my mouth, an undeniable warmth on my tongue. It is a taste that I do not need to think about; a physical sensation rather than ghostly possibility.

Beyond my unmistakable new love of salsa doctored with Tabasco, I am making progress in other arenas as well. I am walking with both legs, balancing only a bit on a (very stylish) black cane. I have a job as an assistant baker and pastry chef waiting for me as soon as I am strong enough to professionally wrestle with a good deal of dough. And last night as I was chopping up a bunch of fresh rosemary to garnish a roast lamb and goat cheese panini, its smell fairly assaulted my senses. The woodsy, rich odor of the pungent herb lodged itself wonderfully in my nasal cavity. I immediately saw myself, strangely enough, on a horse in Colorado where my family and I had spent a vacation over a decade ago. The scent brought to mind a western ranch, a walk through the wilderness, a dark brown horse more interested in eating trailside grass than agreeing to take me out for a ride. I was so happy I wanted to shove that rosemary right up my nose. I continued to smell my hands the entire night. Its lingering scent gave me goose bumps of pleasure; it reminded me, in an odd way, of James Bond.