When I was younger, my dad would take us on trips to Orlando to visit our grandparents. And my Granny always prepared the same foods – chili for my dad, goulash for me. She bought extra breakfast cereals and encouraged us to mix as many different ones as we wanted in our cereal bowls. And for dessert, there was always a bakery angel food cake, a huge bucket of fudge swirl ice cream, and chocolate syrup and whipped cream to garnish.
And since that was back when I wanted to be a pastry chef, I got to make dessert for everyone.
I pulled Granny’s brightly colored bowls from the cupboards and cut thick slices of cake, topped them with double scoops of ice cream, and then went to town, spraying clouds of whipped cream along the sides and on top before drizzling, oh so artfully, Hershey’s syrup over the whole thing. I imagined that my artful criss-crossing was fancy and gave everything a grand sense of occasion. Sometimes, I traded out for loopy swirls, which to my eye looked like trippy hippy flowers.
My first job was as a server at Ruby Tuesday’s. The customers build the salads, the cooks took care of entrees and appetizers, but desserts were left up to the servers: warmed blondies topped with ice cream and caramel; strawberry shortcake with strawberry syrup; and the big show, a chocolate cake served in a giant margarita goblet, topped with ice cream and chocolate syrup and whipped cream.
Basically, I had been training in my Granny’s kitchen for that dessert, and so whenever someone’s table ordered it, and they announced with a groan that they needed a dessert made, I jumped at the chance to drizzle and slice and scoop. I don’t have to burst your bubble here, I imagine: casual dining food is all pretty formulaic, but those desserts, though they followed a template, felt like a chance to ad lib, embellish, flourish.
It was a chance to play.
So I cracked open my copy of that Bon Appetit Thanksgiving issue yesterday afternoon, and there’s a whole lovely section about pie. (Though, really, are any sections about pie ever un-lovely?) Baker Tara Jensen of Smoke Signals encourages readers to customize their pie, to cut out geometric shapes or figures from the dough, to arrange them in your own way. Make the pie your own. Liberate yourself from the lattice and make your pie your art. As I read this, I felt encouraged. Pie as play. Garnish as individual expression. Dough to set your creative spirit free.
In her delightful book The Commonplace Book of Pie, Kate Lebo lists rules for making pie, and my favorite is rule #10: “Pies can take four hours or more to make. Forgive the pie maker her tardiness.” Pies may seem straightforward – dough, filling, optional topping. But pie is hands-on, full of choices, full of that fun I mentioned a couple days ago. A ball of chilled pie dough beckons the baker to play: fluted edges or crimped, lattice or steam vents, or as Tara Jensen would have us do, a game of arranging shapes.
As I was turning all this over in my mind, getting ready to blog about creativity and playfulness and pie and loopy swirls of chocolate syrup, I asked myself why we do this. Why do we garnish? Decorate? Why do we add a flourish to our food – a bit of parsley, chocolate shavings, just the right dollop of whipped cream? It’s an extra touch that shows… what? Care? Enjoyment? Play?
I think it’s all of these things. And so I asked myself, why do I censor that playfulness, that flourish, that brazen sense of enjoyment in other areas of my life? My writing, for instance, feels so high-stakes. There’s very little playfulness because writing. is. serious. But should it be? All the time?
I sometimes wonder if my life as a writer might be better if I could bring back that youthful enthusiasm I had for angel food cake and ice cream and chocolate syrup. If I could apply that playfulness to scenes and dialogue and plot. What stops me? Fear of failure? That old song again.
In The Taste of Country Cooking, Edna Lewis shared with us a recipe for lemon meringue pie, and I drew a heart in the margin when I read it. (I’m a consummate professional when it comes to reading and writing, and so that’s why books and friends’ manuscripts are all littered with hearts in the margins.)
She writes, “Lemon meringue pie, like white frosting, was considered a great achievement; every cook tried to excel in the art. Mother made the most fragile lemon pie.” Indeed, I remember my own mother’s horror when someone at a potluck cut through her perfectly peaked and bronzed meringue with a plastic knife, ripping the airy dessert to shreds. But here’s what I loved from Edna Lewis:
She would make lemon pie as a treat for us after we had finished a good job of weeding the cornfield or when for some reason she wanted to make us happy.
Every time I brought the bowls of angel food cake and ice cream out to my dad, my brother, my grandparents, everyone seemed happy. No one was handing out James Beard Awards for my criss-cross designs, but everyone dug their spoons in, happy. We play with our food, as it were, to make ourselves, and those we feed, happy.
And maybe, in the end, lowering the stakes, having a little fun, daring to play, might make happiness elsewhere, in whatever we do: writing a book, crocheting a scarf, or serving up a dish of ice cream.