Tuesday, April 27, 2010

True Story: Doctor Yummy

           The express bus that runs from my local transit center to Oregon Health Sciences University provided me convenient access to work for many years.

           In the mornings, it ran towards my job, and in the evenings, it carried me home again.  Its winding, cross town route eliminated the necessity to transfer from one bus to another, cutting several cold, wet minutes from my daily travels.

           Another nice aspect of the trip was, unlike a regular city bus, an express bus accumulates a band of regular riders.  This cuts down on the number of mentally unstable, homeless, or drug addicted passengers one might encounter.  Don't get me wrong, I’m not a snob.  I just like to lower the probability that someone will pee or vomit on or near me, first thing in the morning.

            I liked to think that I rode my bike and took public transportation because I was doing my part for the environment.  That was in the equation somewhere, but the simple truth of the matter was I couldn’t afford a car.

           I’m ashamed to admit it, but as the years progressed, even though I loved my job, it wore on me that I would never make much money as a pastry chef.  I was earning enough to help my husband through graduate school.  But in fact my earnings merely reduced the amount of debt we piled up as Brent got closer and closer to his PhD.


            I told my friend Allison about my money worries one day.  She told me, “If you really want to make money, you should open your own bakery.”

            “Oh, God no,” I said.  My parents had run our family bakery for years and I saw what it did to them.  They loved the work, but it was never as profitable as outsiders imagined.

            I shared an old joke with my friend.

            “Do you want to know how to make a small fortune in the food business?”

            “Yes.  How?” she asked.

            “Start with a large fortune...”


            We were living paycheck to paycheck.  Nothing to be ashamed of.  But after eight years, my take home pay (not counting medical coverage) was about a dollar more than minimum wage.  I couldn’t escape the feeling that, no matter how much I loved my job, I wasn’t going anywhere.  There were no opportunities for promotion or cross training at my bakery.

It had taken three years for my boss to trust me enough to let me help him with wedding cakes.  Aside from that, I was doing exactly what I had been doing since day one: filling and finishing cakes.  I expressed my insecurity to my husband, who reframed my concerns.

“Listen,” he said.  “You have a job where you make things that everyone loves.  Think about that,” he continued.  “You’re not making poison, or paving over fields of buttercups.  You contribute to the net joy of the universe every single day.  How many people can say that, huh?”

            But he was the one who had just gotten his master’s degree and was well on his way to finishing his doctorate.  He had something to show for all his efforts and while I was extremely proud of his intellectual accomplishments, I couldn’t hide the fact that I envied his path and credentials.

            One evening, I came home with my shoes ruined through an unfortunate mishap with 32 pounds of melted butter.  I would have to buy new shoes and we wouldn’t be able to eat out for at least a month.  Cleaning the chocolate out of my ear that night, I calculated that we would also have to begin an earnest exploration of the joys of beans.


            Filled with nurses, interns, administrators and other hospital staff, I remained an outsider on the express bus.  My job felt frivolous to me compared to people who saved lives, delivered babies, and comforted the sick and dying.

           Exposed daily to a group of trained professionals, I wondered what my life would have been like if I had gone on to graduate school or worked someplace where people earned a salary.  Some sort of professional title might have been nice.

            In any case, I kept to myself amongst the doctors, nurses, faculty and staff because I didn’t think we had much to talk about.  But one morning I struck up a conversation with a pale, blond woman named Tina who worked in the accounting department at the hospital.  She noticed I always hopped off the bus before it crossed the river and made its way up the hill to the big building filled with sick people.

            “You don’t work up at the hospital, so what do you do?” she asked.

            “I’m a pastry chef.”

            As soon as I uttered those magic words, a change came over my seatmate and all those sitting within ear shot.  Dessert is a topic that draws people in.  Suddenly, I was at the center of several, overlapping questions from Tina and our immediate neighbors.

            “What kind of pastry do you make?” she asked, her face lighting up in a way that I had never seen.

            The beautiful, African American woman sitting in front of us turned around in her seat and flashed us a winning smile.  “Do you make donuts?  ‘Cause I love me some donuts.”

The handsome man across the aisle, an intern in his early twenties, leaned over and wondered, “Can you get me some éclairs?”  His voice was hushed, like we were negotiating a drug deal.

            Before I could answer any of them, we were all startled by the booming voice of the bus driver who was used to talking over crowds.  He weighed at least 250 pounds and had salt and pepper hair.  He fixed his gaze upon me by tilting his head and looking into a mirror near the windshield.  His handle bar mustache barely moved as he bellowed:

           “Do you guys make that chocolate sponge cake where you cream the egg yolks and sugar before you fold in the egg whites?  My wife used to make that, but now she says I’m too fat.”

            Answering the bus driver first, I explained that we did, indeed bake chocolate genoise.  “We fill it with a mocha mousse studded with toffee, and then we top it with whipped cream.  The cappuccino toffee cake is one of our most popular items.”

            Then I turned to the beautiful, African American woman and apologized that we didn’t make donuts.  But I recommended a really good place to get them, not too far away. 

           "Annie's Donuts up on Sandy Blvd.  She uses potato flour in her batter and her donuts are always tender and light."

           I explained to the handsome young intern that I wished I could bring him some éclair, but alas, this was also something that we didn’t make.  Then I told him about the new, French bakery that had opened in northwest Portland.

           "They made sensational éclairs there."  He gave me a look of such pure ecstasy that I thought he might light up a cigarette afterward.

            My seatmate Tina repeated her question as I turned back to face her.

            “What kind of cakes do you make?  I mean, what are you making this morning?”

            By this point, half the passengers were craning their necks and leaning forward as a hush fell over everyone.

            “This morning I am working on some German chocolate cakes.”

            Murmurs of delight bubbled through the atmosphere as Tina pressed for details.

            “What do you have to do first?  Do you bake them?”

            There were quizzical mutterings as I explained that I didn’t do any baking at all.  “In fact we have a baker and that’s all she does.  I work with the cakes after they’ve been baked.”

Tina prodded, “So what will you do this morning, with these baked cakes.  Do you ice them?”

            “Eventually, but first I have to fill them with a coconut – macadamia praline.  Then ice them with chocolate butter cream.”  Most of my audience was humming gently, making what can only be described as a collective yummy sound.

            “So once you ice them, the cakes are done?”

            “Not yet.  After they’re iced and chilled, my friend Mary pours them with chocolate glaze so they have a nice, shiny coat.”

            “That’s the end?” the handsome intern wondered.

            “No,” I said getting lost for a moment in his beautiful, green eyes.  “Once the glaze has set I pipe a shell ring of bittersweet, chocolate ganache on top, fill it with more praline, then insert decorative, chocolate fans.  Then I finish it off with a garnish of toasted macadamia nuts and a little chocolate logo with my boss’s name on it.”

            The beautiful, African American woman turned back around in her seat and let out an orgasmic, “Wow.  If I worked there, I’d weigh a thousand pounds.”

            “This is my stop,” I reminded the driver before he passed it.  As I descended the steps I heard a chorus of “good byes” filled with such longing and tenderness that I whistled as I walked the three blocks to work.


            On subsequent commutes, I described my work in greater detail.  Sometimes I kept it simple, merely explaining that I would start the day working with nine pounds of melted chocolate.  This was enough to start everyone talking about what they would do with that much chocolate.

          A surprising number of people expressed the desire to pour it over their bodies, or preferably someone else’s.

          Looking at the handsome intern with the beautiful green eyes, I entertained the thought of licking chocolate from his muscular neck before I got off at my stop with renewed energy.

            Sometimes my fellow passengers were satisfied to know that I would commence to whip two and a half gallons of heavy cream shortly after disembarking.  Other times, I would describe a new flavor profile my boss was working on.

            “It’s a hazelnut cream cake, filled with apricot puree and iced with Franjelico butter cream."

            "It's torture," Tina said.  "You tell us these stories but you never bring us any cake." Once, after describing the architectural sequence involved in assembling a three tiered wedding cake, a powerful administrator turned to me and said, “I wish I could do something like that.”


So what if I only had a BA and a culinary arts diploma?  So what if I had to ride my bike to the grocery store to buy beans?  I could transport a busload of hospital workers to a world of dessert.  For a few minutes every day they didn’t have to worry about delivering babies or comforting the dying.  All they had to do was lay back and think about something that everyone loves.

(Original artwork by Jason Zenobia "Morning Commute.")

1 comment:

  1. I love love love this story more than I can say. :)


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