Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Baked in NY

To say that my trip to New York for the vegan baking workshop at the Natural Gourmet Institute was fantastic is a disservice. To say that it was perfect sounds like a lie. But I'm not lying. It was perfect.

In the workshop, I learned more correct technical tricks and about more efficient equipment, sure, and I got a lot of new recipes -- of course! But it was an underlying feeling that changed for me during the course of the workshop. To be able to clearly and really organically answer my own questions about what exactly baking means to me was invaluable. Baking, it seems, means a lot. And I'm not so bad at it. There was no way to really know this until I went to a program like this and shared a kitchen with other serious-minded bakers. The entire process was exhilarating.

This last week, I realized something kind of obvious. It starts with the acute awareness that I'm moved by many -- way too many -- things that are usually artistic in nature; things that span too wide of a spectrum. This has often been an overwhelming characteristic that leaves me confused, only as far as direction and focus go. (Actually being lost in the awe of details is a clear practice for me, not confusing.) And I realized that in the tiniest of capacities I may be able to capture glimpses of a wide range of beauty through baking. Any of it, all of it; from touches of radical and fine art, patterns of indigenous textiles, to odd and patchwork religious elements, things in nature to the molding of an old door. I suddenly feel I can do this: Create a small snapshot or interpretation of an interesting detail and get it on a cupcake, on a teacake, a three-layer cake. Cake is my temporary offering of beauty. I know I've written about this before, about when I used to watch the Tibetan Buddhist teachers create gorgeous sculpture out of butter that took days, and it melted away in as much time. It was a gesture that everything is temporary. You offer up your best, creating an artistic and profound impact -- in symbol and in living -- and then it's gone. The offering dissolves, but the impact lingers. The thoughts of compassion will last and do more work than anything physical. Our vehicle melts away and we come back to try to do better.

But then there are times when you just want to shove something delicious in your face without a goddamn philosophical or humanities reference. I'm working on that too. This is harder for me.

The structure of the workshop was well done. Thirteen students bustled around in a big professional kitchen and around workstations, and we had dreamy assistants waiting on us hand and foot. Fran Costigan was terrific; generous with time and information. Her joy for baking trumped all other elements of the class, which was infectious, and she gushed when we did well; our end products genuinely thrilled her. Those things, the honesty of her emotions, endeared me most to her. We baked seven hours a day. We were assigned recipes as groups and as individuals and were told to try variations. When we made good time, Fran assigned us more. She gave us some room to experiment with the recipes too. It was an industrious atmosphere, but the over-all energy was charged, and we were focused in a jazzed way. I thought I'd be much more tired at the end of the days, but I was fine. I was more than fine.

I also learned that after a year of corresponding and loving someone via the internet, that my instincts were dead on and that I could love them more fiercely in person. This was part of the perfection of the trip, hanging with Emilie. It was effortless and fulfilling. We partnered in workshop -- I caught many tips then -- and we roamed vegan eateries and cake supply shops and the streets of Chelsea and the lower eastside, sometimes talking a lot and sometimes lost in our own minds until we spilled back into conversation. We're kindred, yo. Here we are at the Vere Chocolate Factory where we had a blast learning about their beautiful and thoughtful facility right there in NYC.

During the flight back home I sketched for hours in a note pad, drawing cakes and frantically scribbling ideas. I filled pages. I still can't see where this baking path is leading me, but after this week I, without a question, have made legitimate space for the path. It's wide and well raked.

Today was a little murderous. I knew work would be out of control. I want to whine about coming back to endless piles of high maintenance customer-care crap, but it's pointless. I have to do this working thing. Getting all bent about it makes it almost more unbearable. So, I'm exhausted and Mina is home with an ear ache and Carmen's right paw is swollen -- she's walking with a limp -- and the entire house could use a good scrub down. I'm trying not to spew the piles back with a geyser of overwhelmingness. I feel it building a bit. I keep thinking, I can't wait to bake this and that, but I've had no chance yet. I just keep eying my sketch pad of pen-drawn cakes trying not to lose the fervor that was built so freestyle in New York. On my work lamp on my work desk, I've tapped a fortune I got at Red Bamboo in the Village on Sunday night. It reads: "You have an important new business development shaping up." On the back it teaches me how to say "I need money" in Chinese.

I just want to thank everyone again for the kind and supportive comments over the last week. I'll post more workshop photos in the flickr soon.


Fran Costigan said...

Dear Lovely Danette,
Your description of your experience at VBBC is a joy to read and I thank you for your generous comments. I feel that you 'got' me. I get very enthused and the action is thrilling.

I am moved in the presence of a group that rocks, and jells (as your classmate Debra wrote , in the vegan sense of course). Imagine my joy to get to spend a week with individuals and the cohesive group that formed, iMagical. To experience first hand the i'ts bigger than the group thing' that happens when people with different experiences share freely and kindly. When I see the aha light and delight when someone gets 'their it', this is why I share my recipes and teach. AsI said in class, it occurred to me that vegans and those who are open to new learning to cook/bake/eat vegan for whatever their reasons, are just nice. You heard me say over and over that I am not the food police. I hate the food police and that includes the vegan members. We are who we are and where we are at now, and change happens ... with consciousness. Desserts are a gift and we are learning to make them no excuses fantastic, and made with thoughtfulness and quality ingredients. Fairtraded, organic, sustainable ingredients. It is more than the skill we taste-- It is the goodness, the no harm was done to the growers, and like that.

I had no idea that you and Emilie had never met. You are so connected. Now she is simply a genius baker with all due respect to the rest of us.

I miss you so much. I am planning a trip to LA, last part of March, I hope, and would love to get a hug and some chow with you.

Looking forward to hearing more and seeing pictures.

Now, if I only had a jam dot and piece of biscotti to have with my tea....

andrea said...

wow, hard to follow that first comment... which I totally enjoyed reading. but wow, your experience! what a joy, D. I'm so happy for you I could burst.

girl least likely to said...

oh my god, what a wonderful experience! i'm so psyched for you. hooray!

Anonymous said...


Emilie said...

oh man. here i am. it's 4:34am. i have half a jar of peanut butter, a spoon, too much pain to sleep, and tears in my eyes. seriously. you capture so much about this past week so well, but then, words, like baked goods, are another part of your gift. (no need to say that i'm also humbled and weepy over fran's kind words--and not just the bits about me--it's her whole package, yo.) i've got those pangs of emotion that are hard to parse out--i know i'm sad that it's over and we're not flipping through recipes figuring out which ones we *most* want to make or engaging together in little rituals that needed no consultation to develop or maintain. but, i also know i'm happy--so happy because this experience will somehow stand as a major beginning of ...something... and we're both gonna figure out what that something is and soon. we're also going to win the lottery and make things happen like bang, but then, you knew that.

Kristin C. said...

WOW. I love what I just read. I totally see your previous chaos on your new, raked, perceivable artisitc future in baking and creating. You have a true talent...and the fact that you feel that talent inside...and that it fills your heart, is beautiful. I am so happy for you and this time of change! I llok forward to reading about the journey!

Maven said...

I feel exactly the same way you do about being moved by so many different artistic endeavors. It's hard to see, sometimes, how everything is going to coalesce for you. At one point years ago I realized singing was going to be It, because it embraced so many of the things I was interested in--music, literature, nerdy study, language, performance, theater--and I'm moving into a phase in my life where I once again don't know how all of the bits of information I'm gathering, the things I'm trying, the interests that are sparking are going to emerge into something that makes sense, that I can pursue in a holistic way. So I really like reading this stuff. Not just because I'm excited for you, but because I like to see how these paths rise up to meet our feet. It's hopeful stuff.

Also delicious.

kristen said...

Wow, what a love-filled post. You and your girl look so happy.

I was talking about you on Monday, (were your ears burning?), about your passion for vegan baking and how good you are.

I'm quite certain that your baking will turn into something for you, I guess it just means you have to be open to the universe and know that in time, the answers will come to you.

madness rivera said...

If you guys aren't the best comment-makers in the land, I'm not sure who is. . .

Thank you for the great post/comment, Fran! I miss you so much too, and you better call when you visit LA again.

Andrea, thanks so much. I loved emailing you from the airport, about to board a red eye. It seemed the perfect place to tell you; I knew you'd feel the jolt from the news.

Thanks Girl Very Likely!

And Em, eesh, I've been waffling between mourning and endless hope --both on extreme levels - since the trip. But I do feel it a turning point either way. Miss you mountains.

Thanks so much Kristin. Great, encouraging comment.

Maven, I so hear you. It's heady stuff, really, the way I see it. But I'm finding that less thinking and more absorbing and channeling is helping me. The idea of translating art into baking is too much, but the thought of interpreting a glimpse through my personal filter of baking seems endlessly innovative. We'll see about the execution side. I get that for you too, the overload of The Interesting. I can only imagine how beautifully you filter it through your voice. I can't wait to hear that some day.

Thanks so much Kristen.

julie hasson said...

Wow, what an incredible week you all had. I'm high just from reading the post and feeling all the love of the comments. What a truly beautiful experience.

I was so excited to see the pics and read about your trip. I can't wait to hear what future endeavors it develops into for you.

Melinda said...

The day that you get to quit your job and live your dreams full-time, whether it be through baking or some other endeavor, I think I will burst with happiness. For you and for everyone who will reap the benefits.

Anonymous said...

wow what a travel you have!!

Marigoldie said...

Yes oh yes oh yes, these are big steps. Here's hoping the daily stuff clears out a little and leaves room for baking soon. It will--always takes a while to get in the groove after a trip.

Vegan_Noodle said...

This was such a joyful post. What an amazing experience it sounds like yall had! So glad you were able to capture it and share with us. It seems as if you have found a cherished friend for life in Emilie, and she in you! Also, I loved Fran's comments about being anti-food police. Sounds like a great class... I"m hoping to sign up for the summer session once I figure out flights, dates, etc! I'm sure I"ll be asking you more questions....

madness rivera said...

Thanks Vegan N for the kind comment. It was amazing and I hope you're able to go. It was certainly worth it.