From Issue 3: Relationships
Text by Adam MacLean
Photo by Steve Viksjo
From ages twenty-five to twenty-eight I lived with my boyfriend Brian in the West Village in what would be our final go-round—the last trimester of our nine-year relationship. It was in that teeny-tiny 250 square-foot studio apartment on West 11th Street that I learned cooking science and how to bake. Accidentally. Against my will.
Brian and I had dated on and off (and on and off) from attending Bard College together all the way through our late twenties. One of our big breakups came when I kind of quit school and moved to Manhattan after auditioning and getting accepted into a small dance company having a premiere Off-Broadway. I walked into Bard’s Dance Theater Building and declared something like, “Well, I got it!” years before Valerie Cherish had made the words immortal. I told Brian, “Now that I’m going to be a dancer in New York City, our lives are just going in different directions. While you’re still here at college, well, I’ll be pursuing my dreams.” I really went for it.
From January to September 2003, while I spent two thrilling weekends Off-Broadway and then a grueling nine months struggling to “make it,” New York City chewed me up and spit me out. Making rent was always stressful. The hustle and the rejection of musical theater auditions wore on my soul. During a callback for the national, non-union, bus tour of Cats I paused in the middle of a dance phrase with my hands up next to my face like paw-claws and had the chilling, revelatory thought: “Do I even want to be in Cats?” I didn’t land that gig either.
In addition to the “growing up” that moving to New York precipitated, it became glaringly obvious that I didn’t like eating. When everything felt so uncertain and every audition was another rejection, conveniently forgetting to eat provided a sense of accomplishment and a sensation of a little bit of control. I’d wake up in the morning, have some coffee, and head out. After dance class in the morning, I’d work first at an art-handling job and then as the only male cocktail waitress at a pool hall. There were dance rehearsals in the evenings, and I’d go the whole day having eaten only a Fresh Samantha juice (later bought by the Coca-Cola Company and rebranded as Odwalla) and maybe some canned tuna fish on Triscuits. I was a Kate Moss of a boy. Six-foot-three, 140 pounds—all limbs.
“Mishegas. It’s Yiddish for ‘crazy.’ Like ‘baggage.’
So what’s your mishegas?”
After the show closed and the audition grind became too much, I went back to Bard to finish out my senior year, swallowing those Comeback lines every step of the way. Brian and I got back together.
Every day I’d enter the dining hall and suffer what felt like an acute anxiety attack. I tried to convince friends that eating was annoying. “It’s just so tedious. Relentless. All day. Like, how is everyone in agreement on this? We’re back here again?!”
This may sound like disordered eating, and to figure out if it was, I saw a therapist. A woman with both arms full of wooden bangles and a long flowy skirt, she rolled an exercise ball in front of me, sat down on it and said, “So. You got mishegas around food? I got news for ya: Everyone does.”
“Um, what’s mishegas?”
“Mishegas. It’s Yiddish for ‘crazy.’ Like ‘baggage.’ So what’s your mishegas?”
“Well, I think eating is really annoying. I’d prefer to not do it. Or at least not everyday.”
She knew exactly what to say and how to say it. “Well, you’re not the first. But think of it like this: Your body is a machine, like a steam engine, and the machine needs a fire inside to make the rest of the stuff move. You’re a dancer? You need a good machine. Just make the fire. Think of protein as the logs, veggies as the kindling, carbs can be the newspaper you crumple up and squeeze. ‘Light the match’ with some salt and fat. Do me a favor and make a little fire for me each day this week and let me know how it goes.”
The next day I arrived at the dining hall, grabbed a plate, and went to the line. Brown rice on the bottom, grilled chicken strips propped up towards the center, green beans arranged the same way. I drizzled on some olive oil, added salt and pepper. It was like a little tepee of food. The panic attacks subsided and for the rest of senior year I went to the dining hall every day to make my little bonfire.
Brian knew this part of me. When we later lived together, during that last trimester of love and insanity, his family would come visit us in New York and their days were organized around meals. Breakfast was an adventure. Lunch was an expedition. Dinner was the main event! I couldn’t stand it.
The stories from their world travels were always a version of, “We started the day with a simple bread and cheese plate at the villa, lunch in the Piazza del [whatever], and then for dinner we took a bus out to a vineyard where we had the most glorious Bolognese!”
I would interrupt these stories asking, “What about the art? And the history?!” and Brian’s mother would respond, “Oh, sure, sure, the Duomo is great, the Statue of David is great—oh and you know, near the Academia, on this little side street, there’s a restaurant where they make fresh gnocchi everyday at 3 PM and it goes in the water for less than a minute…”
Brian became a cook in this tradition. Days spent planning meals. Jobs merely a means to earn money to buy more glorious food. The reading material in the apartment was back issues of Cooks Illustrated, and Barefoot Contessa was the only thing in the DVR queue. Trips to Broadway Panhandler were like visiting Mecca. It’s exhausting just to think about.
During a spate of unemployment, Brian discovered he had a knack for baking. Reading Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible, which he described to me as “the science text book of baking,” Brian learned to weigh his ingredients on a scale instead of using measuring cups and that you must never use salted butter in baking because, “Then you’re at the mercy of the Land-o-Lakes lady about how much salt is in there—it could ruin everything!”
The only table in the tiny apartment became a prep counter. Cooling racks filled with round cakes were arranged on the couch. Icing bags and decorative icing tips were laid out on the bed. I’d move things out of the way, so that I could crawl in and go to sleep, only to plop my head on the pillow and be enveloped in a cloud of flour dust. There was always a beater with buttercream to lick. He experimented with floral notes in frosting—a lavender buttercream— and drew elaborate script on cakes for birthdays. He’d make chocolate ganache, raspberry balsamic reduction, and Swiss buttercream.
I’d started a career as a freelance concierge and would recommend his cakes and cupcakes to my clients, so he started baking for a living. Magnolia Bakery was a mere 500 feet away at the corner or Bleecker Street, but we inhabited an actual bakery, five floors up.
If Brian forgot ingredients or needed a new kind of pan, he would ask me to grab it while out and about, which is how I got acquainted with the New York Cakes & Supply store on 22nd street. He’d text me every day asking, “What do you want for dinner?” and I’d always reply, “I can’t think about it now!” But I’d come home to elaborate meals anyway. We were trapped in the tiny apartment, hot oven keeping us warm in the winter, hot oven fighting with the air-conditioner in the summer.
Our breakup was messy, literally and figuratively. We both vowed it was the last time, and it was. I moved to Williamsburg and forgot how to eat all over again—my time there could be summed up as “The Hummus Years.”
“What’re you thinking for dinner?” “Ugh! Who cares?! Why all this dinner planning?! Can’t we just think about it later?!”
Fast-forward a few years to a different relationship where all was going swimmingly except that at 6:30 PM every day my boyfriend Nick texted me, “What’re you thinking for dinner?” and I texted back, “Ugh! Who cares?! Why all this dinner planning?! Can’t we just think about it later?!”
But there were glimmers of hope. Sometimes, Nick would return home from a business trip to a home-cooked meal. Or sometimes he’d be cooking and I’d suggest something like, “A little ginger in here will give it a nice kick,” and he’d say, “Who are you right now?”
After some years of therapy I’ve come to live by that therapist at Bard’s advice, that food is fuel, necessary fuel, and I’m happy to say I’m no longer, ahem, “six-foot-three and 140 pounds” but “six-foot-three and 190 pounds.”
When Nick and I were invited to join friends on an Easter retreat we brainstormed via group text what to do that weekend. Put marshmallow Peeps in the microwave and watch them explode and die? Color hardboiled eggs and write on them with wax crayons? Cadbury Creme Eggs—who was in charge of buying the Cadbury Creme Eggs?
The group was split; some liked those manufactured milk chocolate high-fructose corn syrup balls, others thought they were gross.
I had started managing the social media for a cookbook author and food historian (I know—how on earth is a person with such an aversion to food drafting copy for “37 Recipes for the Perfect Picnic”?) and she wanted her website to look like Food52. In my research I stumbled upon a recipe for DIY Cadbury Creme Eggs.
I told the group, “If you guys have a stand-up Kitchen Aid mixer I’m totally going to make Cadbury Creme Eggs.”
The answer was, “Uh, yeah, we got one as a wedding gift that we’ve never used.”
Nick didn’t believe I was serious. I went shopping on West 22nd Street and bought all the obscure ingredients: pure cocoa nibs, Lyle’s Golden Syrup (Nick: “I have never seen this before in my life”), and orange blossom water.
Some divine possession took hold of me when I arrived upstate and I started on my project. The boys sat in the kitchen and watched with a mix of confusion and awe. When the recipe instructed to put the mixture for the crème centers in the freezer for 10 minutes, at minute nine I instructed Nick, “Move them from the freezer to the fridge. I don’t want the centers to get too cold; just the edges.”
The recipe gave a “cheat” option to temper the chocolate in the microwave but indicated, accurately, that it won’t harden as well using this method. Nick said, “I don’t get it, then why use the microwave?”
“They don’t want to scare people off using the double boiler.”
Without hesitation, I got out a spaghetti pot, boiled water in it, found a glass Pyrex bowl, put it on top of the steam, let the bowl warm up. I added the cocoa nibs and moved the bowl closer and further away from the steam as I stirred, melting the chocolate to the perfect viscosity for dipping our little chilled crème centers.
After the second round of chilling in the fridge, our Easter desserts were complete and they were out-of-this world delicious. Sweet, but not sugary sweet. Brightly flavored from the orange blossom water. A nougaty center, satisfying to bite into. Chocolately and smooth, remarkably different than chocolate engineered to survive the Duane Reade shelves for several months.
One of the husbands there said, “Where’d you learn to do this? Did you take a baking class in secret?”
“I guess I did.”