Call me sentimental, but reading “Marjorie Morningstar”–and I’ve read it many times–always plucks at my heartstrings. I know it’s not literature and it’s kind of sappy and very dated, but there are so many passages that I find moving (as well as the central theme of losing one’s youthful dreams to the point where it’s hard to imagine they existed at all). One of those passages, the one I’m thinking of now, has Marjorie wistfully saying, “I used to live in the El Dorado,” an apartment building on Central Park West. There was a brief period in her life when her father enjoyed financial success and moved the family to the glittering residence. For Marjorie, the El Dorado was a magical place, a place in which nothing she dreamed seemed impossible. And even though she only lived there briefly, she always looked back on her time there as a time of wonder. The statement “I used to live in the El Dorado,” as her lover noted at the time, poignantly reflected her life, her waning dreams, the nostalgia of the “ago” rather than the reality of the “is.”
I feel the same way about my store. I used to have a bakery (I always imagine myself saying this with a Danish accent, like Meryl Streep intoning “I had a farm in Africa”). I was a pastry chef. And although the short time the store was open passed by in a flurry of anxiety, sleepless nights, and mounting bills, it was magical nonetheless. There wasn’t a day that passed when I didn’t feel as though I was exactly where I belonged. Creating beautiful and delicious desserts made me happier than just about anything else I had ever done. Unfortunately, marketing and networking and sticking to a business plan and budget didn’t. I had no wholesale accounts or standing orders, and foot traffic and word of mouth could not carry me through. Within eighteen months of opening, the bakery went under and I became a former pastry chef.
Losing one’s business is a little death, and it took me a long time to recover. It hurt when people said things to me like, “Oh, your stuff was so good!” (oh yeah? why didn’t you buy more so I could stay in business?) or “You should open another store/work at some other place” (would you tell someone whose pet died that they should just get another dog?). In the meantime, some minor existential crises got in the way that I had to deal with, like an eating disorder, a marriage gasping for breath, and not knowing what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. It’s been more than six years since I closed my doors and it’s only recently that I’ve started trolling craigslist under “pastry,” furtively looking at ads the way some people look at internet porn.
Last week, I hit the jackpot. A restaurant in my area is looking for a pastry chef to come in a few half-days each week to make desserts in advance. No plating, no sixty hour weeks, and no bills to pay. I would be getting a paycheck instead of cutting them. I interviewed for the position the next day, and the owner and manager seemed interested in me. I’m just waiting to hear from them. But as I wait, I’ve begun to question myself: how can I promote a product that I can’t defend?
Although I’m not as strict about a Paleo diet as I used to be (fingercuffs, remember?), I hardly eat any grains at all, unless I’m tasting something I’ve made. Sugar is something I can handle in small quantities, but combining it with flour is the metabolic equivalent of a speedball for me. I am infinitely more likely to binge on chocolate chip cookies than I am on chocolate chips, and so I pretty much avoid the flour and all is well–most of the time. When flour or grains creep into my life in the form of dessert, however–even if it’s just the graham cracker crust of a key lime pie–I find myself sliding down the slippery slope that inevitably leads to a binge.
And I have to believe that I’m not the only one. While the circumstances of my life for the past five years have made me more aware of the immediate physical effects my diet has on my body and on my brain, I would hazard a guess that many other people are like me, that one cookie often leads to ten in a way that plain chocolate does not, and that it’s for physiological reasons and not gluttony or because “the cookies are just so good!.” When crack cocaine burst on the scene in the 1980s, it became a problem for this very reason–you can smoke it and smoke it and smoke it all day long till it runs out, unlike regular cocaine where you need to stop and rest between lines. And while restaurants serve finite portions of dessert, they still act as pushers for people like me, people who’ve lowered their inhibitions with a glass or two of wine or merely who succomb to others’ exhortations of “just a forkful.”
Is it fair of me to push food on people that I choose not to eat myself for health reasons? Or do I take the libertarian approach and let individuals choose for themselves? Realistically, I’m not going to change the world, or even the eating habits of more than a few people, by anything I bake or don’t bake. Even my kids are going to eat crap when they are not at home whether or not I keep it around. I’ve starting buying bread again now that it’s no longer a trigger for me, and a big jar of Nutella has re-established its foothold in the cabinet above the refrigerator.
At the same time, I want to live a life of integrity, and in my mind, integrity equals congruence between one’s stated beliefs and one’s actions. If I believe that sugar and wheat together are highly addictive and toxic substances for myself and choose to minimize them in my life, then what message am I sending when I make desserts for other people? It’s not the same thing as telling someone to do something that I believe is bad for myself, but it is a question of degree. I tacitly condone the consumption of dessert when I prepare it for others.
In spite of these questions, I haven’t spent too much time worrying. There is more going on in my life that demands my attention, like making sure the kitchen is clean, keeping my yoga practice fresh and interesting, and wondering why a good chunk of the American electorate believes that Rick Santorum is a qualified and suitable candidate for the office of president. Plus, it’s entirely possible that the job will fall through and I’ll go back to being a recreational baker. Still, every once in a while, I ponder, marveling at the cruel irony that I am essentially risking my life by indulging in my life’s passion. Dare I risk the well-being of others?
I can’t wrap this post up with a pithy little paragraph that gives my definitive final take on the subject. I’m not sure what it is. When a substance is not illegal, we need to make our own decisions. If I’m making it harder for people to say “no” to dessert–because really, I am quite talented in the kitchen–am I an enabler? A pusher? A moral reprobate? A bad teacher who is not walking her talk? Is it worse to sell desserts to people than it is to give them away? And what do I tell people when they ask whether I eat my own desserts or not? Where does the conversation go from there?
Should my desserts come with a warning label?