Let’s start by noting that a) I celebrate Hanukkah, and b) I have a hard time saying “no.” In the baking world, these facts gave me star power every holiday season – I could work late, I could say yes, and most shamefully, I was dying to play Christmas elf. Could I wrap all the stollens? Okay. Would I mind icing “Bob & Susie” on three hundred chocolate mittens? Not really. Could I possibly make espresso, work the register and finish off that Nutcracker-themed wedding cake? Well…fine. But just this once. I mean it!
But it is never just once. I’m a habitual yes-girl, and what’s worse, the ideas – even today – are frequently of my own making, things I was not even asked to do. I propose an idea and everyone says “yes!” and I say “of course!” and twelve hours later I’m hunched over a counter, glaring at a mixer. I’d like to say I never learn, but somewhere after 38, I did. The ghosts of three “sures!” past – all holiday, all gingerbread, all crazy – finally taught me to keep my sweet mouth shut.
Street of Broken Dreams
Fresh out of culinary school, I’m working for an overly ambitious guy at a do-everything shop in Chicago’s Old Town. We plan our holiday open house, and even though I am already baking pastry, working catering, designing the menus and refereeing romantic staff spats, I raise my dorky hand. How about a gingerbread Armitage Street? Shops, snow, icing, lights? Everyone seems pleased, and I work all week on the sugared city scene. It’s a candlelit hit at the open house, and I’m clapped on the back all night. But my eager-beaverness soon earns me every job that no one wants. A famous name is brought in at great expense to draw customers and boss me around. In the end, Ambitious Guy declares bankruptcy and closes shop.
A Model Relationship
Older and ostensibly wiser, I am brought into a restaurant to whip the bakery kitchen and staff into shape. The owner wants a partner, and says it will be me, in time; he has a difficult reputation but I believe him, and work my little heart out. Christmas rolls around and – surprise! – I’m outside, sketching the restaurant for a gingerbread model. I work on this one at night, at home, after work and when Josie sleeps. On my tiny kitchen counter I cut through gingerbread slabs with an X-acto, and then a knife, and finally a hacksaw. The iced model goes on display, and it too is a hit – customers ooh and ah over the little white bricks and candy awnings all week, but before New Year’s, Difficult Guy decides maybe…maybe he doesn’t need a partner. I hang up my apron, but the gingerbread stays.
How the Cookie Crumbles
I didn’t even work there. My friend owned a little gourmet shop, and was brainstorming holiday windows. I suggested a gingerbread Eiffel Tower. Would I have time, with a toddler and a catering business? Oh, sure. Why not?
Glaring at twenty pounds of dough three days later, I wasn’t sure. My design was clear but painstaking, and as the baked brown slabs filled my dining room, tagged with yellow Post-Its – “2nd level left,” “tower deck B,” “base foot DON’T CUT!!” – it became a dark architectural headache. I was thrilled when we set it safely in the window, aglow with tiny lights. My friend’s door clanged with jingle bells, and shoppers brightly elbowed and jostled for truffles and sausage and cheese. People took pictures, the local paper came, and my friend loved it, too – she loved it so much that weeks later, when royal icing began to crack off, she refused to take it down.
“Please take it down,” I’d say. “The season’s over. It’s porous, you know – not meant to last forever.”
But she would not, and there was some argument over who the tower belonged to – me, the rightful baker, or her, owner of the window. I gave in – yes, keep it up – and it sat there falling apart bit by bit, which is more than I can say for our friendship, which fell apart immediately.
So. What have we learned? Be careful with saws in the kitchen. Don’t glue monuments with egg whites, and don’t eat raw dough before sunrise. Enjoy playing holiday elf, and if you’re able to say yes, say yes. But if you just can’t say no, tread gingerly.