Saturday, July 11, 2009

Life is just a bowl of (Montmorency) Cherries

Here's some unsolicited advice: Never. Ever. Pat yourself on the back.

Or, if you insist on patting yourself on the back continue the motion and swing your hand up and around and smack yourself firmly and briskly upside the head. Pride is a fickle, tricky fool. Not even a minute into your self-celebration, you can find yourself staring, dumbfounded, into the eyes of your own humiliation. It's as if the universe has a way of self-correcting for blustery displays of arrogance. As the head swells, the feet slide out from underneath; karmic balance thus restored.

There is a story here. I'm sure you've gathered.

It all started with a cherry tree - a very special cherry tree - a Montmorency, the queen of sour cherry trees. A friend of mine offered them up, lamenting that there are more cherries that find their way to the ground than into pies. I'm all for the circle of life, and believe strongly in composting, but I prefer to let the cherries take a tour past my taste buds before they reach their final resting place. So - in the middle of one sunny Saturday afternoon - I chatted with my friend and plucked fire-engine red sour cherries off the branches. The branches were swollen with fruit which made for quick picking.

Lazy woman's picking. My friend's husband had cut down the branches for some convenient pruning.

I brought the cherries home and, as I was headed to a July 4th BBQ, turned them into a rustic hand formed tart. I cooked the cherries down with sugar, port, some thyme and lavender and laid them over a base of equal parts sour cream and goat cheese, set up with an egg. April and I handed out samples at the party and basked in the glow of our food savvy friends adulation. My hand soon grew tired from (yes, you're right there with me) patting myself on the back.

Within hours after the party I learned of a tart competition being held in just a few days, the first of its kind in Seattle: a Francophile Fruit Tart competition, to be exact. Until this week I had never entered a cooking competition of any kind. Why not, I thought. Why not indeed?

The smell from this vantage point was fairly intoxicating.

I used to think that the world of pastry was inconceivably boring because each day must start out the same. "Ah," says the pastry chef of my imaginings, "A new day! I need to gather some FLOUR, BUTTER, SUGAR, SALT." Then, the very next day starts out the same. "Ah! A new day! I need to gather some FLOUR, BUTTER, SUGAR, SALT." Not for me, this life of 4 ingredients.

But the truth is that deep within me there is a pastry chef struggling to get out. I try to shove her down, but sometimes she proves too worthy a foe and bubbles up and over the surface. As any good pastry chef knows, you may start with very similar ingredients each day, but the true talent emerges when the same basic ingredients can produce a vast array of final products. So it was with some respect, a worrisome amount of over confidence and a share of flour, butter, sugar and salt that I, one and half hours before the competition, grabbed my buddy Jet and started baking. If you read this blog you know that Jet is my wingman, always at my side for the latest and craziest food adventure. I called her up at noon. The contest started at 4. "Wanna come help me enter a tart competition?" And just like that, we were off.

There was only one problem: What the fuck were we thinking? At 3:55 pm we were scrambling into the car, two tarts, one just slightly uglier than the other, balanced precariously on our laps, on beat up, ugly baking sheets. In the back, confectioners sugar in a sieve ready to go when we got there, 3 minutes late. We threw the tarts onto the back of my truck and garnished them with powdered sugar right there on the street. Speed walking while carefully negotiating the sidewalk pavers, we climbed the steps to Rovers, a well-known French restaurant in Seattle.

I was wearing jeans with a hole in the knee and a t-shirt, dusted with flour. Jet was wearing capris and a t-shirt and I think I saw some cherry juice splashed on it. We both had on flip-flops. I was carrying a hippie basket with sugar all over it. We heard them before we saw them, the sju sju sjus of French being spoken between several well-dressed women and men who greeted us as we entered. They were with the French-American Chamber of Commerce and oh yes, now I remember, this contest is part of Bastille Day celebrations, and oh right, perhaps I might have considered that a classic French tart consists of pastry cream, is made in a tart pan, has rows and rows of concentric fresh fruit, and sometimes glaze. Bien sûr! I looked down at my flat, hand formed, goat cheese, sour cream, cooked cherry and thyme "tart" and gulped.

Tingling sensations of dread - felt first just below the nape of my neck and running down my back, like thousands of tiny fire ants - came when we rounded the corner where the contestant chefs stood, lined up in their starched whites, names embossed on their lapels looking to all the world like a white pastry army facing down a most unprepared savory foe. They came from some of Seattle's best bakeries and restaurants. Funny, I never stopped to really think about who would be entering this competition. If my mind did linger for a moment on any picture of this day, it would have been on the image of a county fair, foodies and bloggers, chefs and pastry people all showing up with their tarts of every stripe. We'd sip iced tea and compare recipes. It would be held outside and there would be rows and rows of tarts.

Not six.

Each one was more beautiful than the next - high-sided, glossy, magazine cover tarts sprung forth from their covers onto the plate. Chefs were placing flowers, just so, on their creations. I held my hand over my mouth, resisting all temptations to let out a crazy, wild, high pitched laugh-yelp and glanced, for a moment, like a beaten dog, over at Jet who did not return the eye contact. We realized we had not brought any tools to transfer the ugly tart from the ugly pan to the white display plate. With what we felt were the beady eyes of gloating competitors staring at us, we sloppily picked up the tart with our hands and slid it over onto the plate. I felt a tiny fault line crack run up the middle of the tart just as it landed, most unceremoniously, on the plate. Photos were snapping and all the air was being sucked out of the room.

I told Jet I'll be right back and I made my way quickly to the front door and down the steps and out into the garden and I breathed in the clean air, gobbling it up and clearing my head. I wanted to be the kind of person who would walk right back in there, head held high, proud of my creation, all flattened and amateurish. Instead, I tried to play their game and my eye caught on a newly blooming lavender plant and after looking over my shoulder twice to make sure no one was watching, I ripped off a hank of flowers and ran back in. Jet saw me, smirked in a way that made me think she was feeling indigestion, and I started frantically showering our cow pie with lavender flowers, which made it look just like a cow pie showered with lavender flowers.

I stood back. I surveyed my handiwork. I drank a glass of a Rosé. Fast.

The judging took forever and we watched as they broke down the crusts with their forks, stuck their noses right up next to the pieces, murmured about pastry cream and difficulty points, artistic expression and the ripeness of fruit. Then, the extras were shared amongst the crowd and contestants, our stress sweat mixed with French perfume; adrenaline and Chanel and frangipane hung in the air. I drank another glass of Rosé. Faster.

We took a sample of each of the tarts into a quiet outside room, sat down and tasted them. Bite by bite, I incrementally started to feel better. Mine was flavorful. The rest, save for a few, not so much. I felt slightly redeemed in knowing that what I lost in looks I made up for in substance.

The judges convened, discussed, and decided. And then came the announcement. Shockingly, I did not win. A quick perusal of the points distribution has me scoring high in flavor, and losing badly in difficulty and presentation. Food writer Rebekah Denn, one of the judges, tells me privately, later, that my tart was "ugga-licious" for its tasty homeliness. I declared it "Fug-tasty."

We clap clap clapped for the winner (Boulangerie Nantaise and my personal favorite of the day Macrina) and got back in the truck. It was 5:33pm and all over, just 3 hours after we met in my kitchen and started pitting cherries and making dough. We started laughing, hysterically, and I thanked the stars that I love telling stories a hell of a lot more than I like making pastries.


Paulette said...

Great story, Becky. You're an amazing writer and cook!

Surly Gourmand said...


after seeing the photos of the other tarts, and reading that you scored highly in the taste category, allow me to offer you some sage advice: would you rather be gorgeous but nasty, or ugly but sweet?

Can the same philosophical criteria we just used to make you feel better about your ug-tastic tart be applied to your mom? Yes, but unfortunately your mom looks like your tart and tastes like the other tarts.


Your Friend the Surly Motherfucking Gourmand

Heidi Kenyon said...

I like "all the air was being sucked out of the room." Very nice! xoxoxo!

Fresh-Picked Seattle said...

A wise man once said: "A tasty tart, fugly or no, is quickly et, but a very funny story of cringing embarrassment lasts a lifetime."

No? (I'm being told that no wise man ever said that.)

Well, nevertheless, it's true. So I would say you still came away a winner, but that would make me sound like a kindergarten teacher so I won't.

Kathy said...

What a great read on a breezy summer afternoon. If you cook as well as you write (I'm taking it on advisement that you do), you have it all over the formality that you stumbled into last week. Your story is a great gift, as well, as we've all lived it at some time or another!

ashlyn said...

ha ha ha ha ha....hilarious!

Scott Heimendinger said...

This was a great read! I have a lot of empathy, but for the opposite of your situation. Beauty on the outside, soggy dissapointment within. I would have rather landed in your camp.

Liz Peterson said...

I am sitting in a library... supposed to be working on writing for my capstone project. But alas, I much prefer reading what Becky has written. I see the comments on FB that your entry made someone LOL while up at financial aid and I just had to take a break and look for my self. Has Becky done it again?
Your wise and witty words splash across the screen and soon I can feel it... The uncontrollable giggle. The loud BAFFA escapes my lips and okay yes a little snort. I am trying to cover it up since the library is almost silent on this beautifully sunny afternoon. But it is quite difficult to hold the laughter in as I imagine the lavender petals scattered across your hand formed "Fug-tasty" tart.

Thank you Becky for brightening my day, giving me a break I so much needed and inspiring me to return to the drudgery of writing about youth development and college readiness.

With a wink and a smile...Liz

thewelltemperedchocolatier said...

This story gets better every time that I hear it.

Also, it made me hungry.

Jesse Selengut said...

Awesome! Great story. Thanks! I like the "sju sju sjus" of French.

kairu said...

This story is hysterical. I laughed until tears came to my eyes.

No, your creation is not the classic French fruit tart, with the perfect fluted edges, the concentric rings of glazed berries, the hand-slivered almonds. But in my eye it is more beautiful, perhaps because of its imperfection, perhaps because I tasted myself a few days before.

At the end of the day, you have to give it all you've got, without thinking, without considering the consequences, the rules you didn't know existed. I love that you showed up there in your jeans and t-shirt and were confronted by a battalion of white-coated chefs and well-dressed people speaking French. I love that your tart won on taste, but not appearance. In the end, you don't remember the chocolate handles, the perfect rows of gleaming berries like Cartier jewels slung around the neck of an aging socialite. You remember the crumble of buttery pastry, the tang of goat cheese fragrant with thyme and lavender, the clear bright flavor of sour-sweet cherries, something that comes with a brief season, which you have to grab with both hands before it is gone for another year.

sara said...

I kind of like a tart to look a little fugly. Makes you feel less bad about really tearing into it.

bet you would have won at the county fair. Those people know from tarts.

Marc said...

Becky, you crack me UP. I read your post and burst out laughing, while cringing at the same time as reading through the lead-up to the actual tasting.

David is reading it now, and he just literally burst out laughing too.

I love you man :)


DateDyke said...

I am "resisting all temptations to let out a crazy, wild, high pitched laugh-yelp" after reading this.

Becky said...

Thank you one and all for your lovely comments (except you surly gourmand, my mother wanted to thank you personally)

In case you wanted to see some pictures to go along with the story, check out my friend Lorna's blog:

Theresa said...

Arnold just shared this post with me, and I loved it. It had me rolling with laughter and feeling bad for you and Jet at the same time...i can only imagine the scene that day :) You are a wonderful writer, and obviously a great baker :)

Mike said...

What a great story! I look forward to reading it again as the first chapter in your memoirs of winning the Pillsbury Bake-off.

theculinaryaddict said...

Damn, I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that one. As a judge, I don't think I could have gotten past the dynamic duo of Jet & Selengut.

Carol Peterman said...

I could just feel the thousands of tiny fire ants! Now you have an answer to the "what's your most embarrassing moment" question. Or maybe this is just an additional chapter to that book. Your story is just as vivid as the photos, but thanks for the link. If I saw all those tarts lined up in a pastry case, I would order yours in a heartbeat. I have had too many of the pretty tarts that turn out to be nothing more than eye candy.

yuenling said...

How did I miss this entry when it was first posted? What a great read. You are a wonderful writer, and like I said best--I liked yours and the frangipane tart the best!

Diana's said...

I grow those cherries too.

They sure are yummy !

Yes, the fru-fru folks are correct that looks are important, BUT the real folks know that taste is the most important thing when it comes to food.

I am now following you on here and on Twitter too.

Organically Yours,

formerchef said...

Wonderful, funny story. I could feel your anxiety as you walked into that room and realized what happened. I commend you for not turning and running and for seeing it through.
I would take one of your fugly tarts with hand picked local cherries over one of those beautiful but over-worked tarts any day.


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