My friend Ronnie asked me if I would help with a beneﬁt for the nursery school she heads. Right away I said, “Yes, of course, by all means. For you, Ronni, whatever you want.” After all, Ronni has been coming to my meditation group for years, and I know she adores me. And I love the way her clothes ﬁt. I’m in a committed relationship and all, but with certain women I still want to be on their good side. Ronni is one of them. She even dumped her problematic boyfriend and found another named Ed. What more could I ask for?
“We are going to have a ‘Magniﬁcent Mingle,’” she said. “We are asking celebrity chefs to plan a menu together, and then each one will cook their dish. Would you be willing to do that?”
That sounded pretty simple to me. No problem.
Later Ronni let me know that the plan had changed. Senator Dianne Feinstein and her husband, Richard Blum, had decided to hold the event at their house in San Francisco and to underwrite the catering. (The senator, it turned out, is Ronni’s boss’s mother.) So the new plan was for the celebrity chefs to provide desserts. Was I still willing to participate? Ronni wondered.
Here a whisper of doubt surfaced. I’m not much of a dessert chef. Certainly not into presentation and ﬂourish. Nothing like you might expect from a fancy high-class restaurant. “Rustic cuisine” is what I call my cooking. That way there is much more leeway for dishes to turn out the way they do, rather than the way they should.
“Ronni,” I hesitated, “you know, I’m not really much of a dessert maker, and I’m sure that compared to the others—who are actual pastry chefs—whatever I make will not really measure up. I don’t know . . . ,” my voice trailed oﬀ.
“We’d still really like you to participate,” Ronni responded. She sounded so earnest, but I still didn’t believe that “we” particularly cared one way or another, so I told her that I didn’t think my participation would be so important after all.
“Maybe not, but it would be wonderful for me if you were at the event. It’s going to be fancy dress-up, and I’m not used to socializing like that. Couldn’t you come for support?”
“Okay, but fancy dress-up? What will I wear? The only dress-up clothes I have are my Buddhist robes.”
“That would be perfect!” was Ronni’s animated reply. “Wear your Buddhist robes. Come as my priest. Keep me company.”
It’s easy to be intrepid when the event is months away.
A few weeks passed, and Ronni told me the plans had changed again. “Remember how I told you that you would bring the dessert and serve it? Now the caterers are going to serve all the desserts. You can just deliver your dessert to them, and they will take it from there.”
“Fine,” I said. “Easier for me to enjoy the evening in my black dress.”
The event was to be held in February, and even though that sounds early for fresh fruit, I decided to make a strawberry rhubarb tart cake. I thought I would leave the chocolate to others as well as the frills. Since I’d never seen a recipe for anything like this, I ﬁgured that while it might not turn out spectacular, at least it would be original. Besides, if I’m going to cook for 150 people in my modest home kitchen, I deﬁnitely like to “keep it simple, stupid.” A layer of tart dough, a layer of fruit, and cake on top. Instead of cute petite tartlets taking up pan after pan, I’d make it in sheet pans and cut it into individual servings. I ﬁgured it all out: four half-sheet pans with three rows of ﬁfteen servings each. Nothing to it.
As the time drew near, I thought I had better try out my dessert at least once before making it for the masses. I like to think of myself as daring, willing to take risks, and I had a pretty good idea it would work, but I went ahead and tested it out the Monday before the event. Rapturous. We loved it. And from my home-scale trial I could easily extrapolate the quantities needed for my weekend shopping list. Once in a while I even dared to hope that my homey dessert would be a big hit.
That was before Saturday, although Saturday started well enough. By eight o’clock I had the rhubarb cooking, and shortly after that, Susan and Stork, two other people from my meditation group, came by to help. I thought I had the baking well-organized and my anxiety pretty well concealed. It’s not easy cooking with people who know me as a meditation teacher. A lot of performance anxiety. I had to stay calm and keep it together. At least that’s what I imagined was expected of me. Everything had to go smoothly, and if it didn’t, well, I’d be at least as buoyant and unﬂappable as Julia Child when she dropped the suckling pig on the ﬂoor on live television. Let it come and let it go like clouds in empty space. Sure thing. Nothing to it.
For several hours everything went like clockwork. At about two o’clock the trays of strawberry rhubarb tart cake began coming out of the oven in an appetizing shade of brown, giving oﬀ absorbing aromas of butter, sugar and ﬂour accented with vanilla and freshly ground anise seed. I spent some time ﬁguring out the exact details of how to cut the tart cake into triangles rather than diamonds, squares or rectangles. I was pleased with my ingenuity. “Haven’t seen that very often,” I gloated.
Then came the unexpected. As Susan and Stork were getting ready to go, I thought I would give them each a few pieces from the ends of the trays. I inserted my handy-dandy triangular metal spatula and lifted out a piece of fragrant tart cake. I tilted the spatula to let it slide oﬀ. Nothing happened—except immediate, intense anxiety. The tart cake was sticking to the spatula. So I gingerly tilted the spatula more steeply and began to shake it in order to loosen the dessert. The top layer of cake with some fruit on the bottom slid oﬀ onto the plate. Stuck to the spatula was the crust with more of the fruit. My anxiety doubled, but I was still able to contain it.
I tried more pieces. Same result. My dessert for 150 of San Francisco’s social elite was going to be unservable. I had miscalculated. Compared to my test run, the crust on the bottom was too thin and hadn’t been prebaked long enough to be solid. The fruit on top was so thick that the moisture had turned the crust underneath into a mush. That’s when I lost it. I started screaming and wailing. With my whole body and mind. As a Zen teacher, I don’t do things half-heartedly.
Not that I get involved in blaming people. I know better than that. I blame the universe for being organized the way it is. To humiliate me when I am trying to do something of beneﬁt. What’s its problem? “Fuck the universe!” I screamed. I try to do something generous, something kind, something good, and just get fucked over. What kind of a world is that? Pretty soon my tantrum shifted to a more preverbal level: extremely loud raging, wordless but piercing. It’s embarrassing to be over ﬁfty yet so inarticulate and infantile.
My students stood there in stunned silence at ﬁrst and then began to suggest that things weren’t that bad. The dessert was really delicious. Maybe it would be easier to serve it when it cooled oﬀ more. But I knew.
“It’s easy enough for you to say that things will be ﬁne. You’re not going to have to stand up in front of San Francisco’s social elite at Senator Feinstein’s house.” I wouldn’t let up. I was inconsolable. My high-volume wails continued.
Once my students realized that I was not to be consoled or quieted, they headed for the door. I couldn’t blame them. They had worked hard. There was nothing else they could do but leave. I saw each of them to the door with their dessert-to-go, calming down enough to oﬀer thank-yous as best I could, expressing my appreciation for their taking the time to help out. Then I went back to ranting.
My daughter came into the kitchen while I was cleaning up—quite verbally at times—and began telling me in measured tones that things were not that bad: the dessert was beautiful and delicious and others would not be experiencing it with my same high standards. “Dad, they won’t be judging it like you are. They’ll be enjoying it.” Secretly I was rather pleased that she would oﬀer such a straightforward, accurate reminder, but I stuck to my belief that humiliation and embarrassment would be forthcoming within a few hours. My daughter gave up trying to bolster my spirits and disappeared into her room.
After cleaning up the kitchen I lay down on our recamier. (Okay, I can’t ﬁnd it in the dictionary either.) It’s a marvelous recliner sofa, higher at the end with the pillows. Maybe it’s a “fainting couch,” just what I needed. I stared at the ceiling, acknowledging that my life was over, done for. I’d worked hard, done my best, and messed up. There was nothing left to do but face the end that was in store. Oh well. I made a cup of coﬀee, half decaf, with warmed half-and-half. Lay there and slowly revived myself, took a shower, and put on my Buddhist robes. White jibon, beige kimono, black koromo—the ﬂowing dress, the layered look. Tied on the black rope belt. Adjusted all the collars. At least I would be formally attired as I met my fate.
When I took the trays of dessert out to the car I remembered that I needed to get gas, and wished that I didn’t have to pump it myself while wearing my best black dress, freshly showered and shaved. Maybe, I thought, I can ﬁnd a full-service gas station. Fat chance. The problem with ﬁnding a gas station with a full-service island is that I never go to them. If there were any full-service stations along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, I missed them.
No problem. I had left myself plenty of time to drive to San Francisco, so I didn’t feel rushed. Soon I was breezing down the freeway listening to “The Things We Do for Love,” then Aretha Franklin’s “R-e-s-p-e-c-t” on the radio. Breezing right along, that is, until the bottom of Waldo Grade. Whoa! Traﬃc was backed up from the Golden Gate Bridge all the way to the bottom of Waldo Grade. I couldn’t believe it. “Oh, man, this is screwed. The things we do for love!” Like sitting endlessly in bumper-to-bumper traﬃc. What fun! The only time I’d seen it worse was the day before they raised the price on discount toll books.
So I sat in traﬃc and stewed. Here I was in my best black dress, about to run out of gas in the middle of a traﬃc jam and create a wonderful spectacle for the Saturday night crowd. My lifetime ambition. What should have taken me eight or ten minutes took me forty-ﬁve. Creep, creep, creeping along.
Once on Geary Boulevard I gave up trying to ﬁnd full service and pulled into a self-serve station, walked smoothly over to the cashier, and gave him a twenty. It was a station run by Chinese, and since my outﬁt didn’t faze him, I imagined the cashier either had seen a lot of Japanese Buddhist priests or had been living in San Francisco for a while. Take your pick. I smiled pleasantly: how kind of you to let me play dress-up for the party. He smiled back. With gas in my car and no dirty looks at my outﬁt, I was starting to think that things might not turn out so bad after all. Sure thing.
I rarely get anywhere promptly, but amazingly, even with all that traﬃc, I was one of the ﬁrst guests to arrive. I parked just a few steps from the Feinstein residence and carted my trays of dessert into the kitchen, where the caterers found a place to put them. I was ready to party. Almost immediately a glass of champagne appeared in my hand and Dianne Feinstein herself, my senator, was there to greet me. “Hello, how are you? Good to see you again. How nice of you to contribute a dessert to our beneﬁt. Please, make yourself at home.”
Then her husband, Dick, was there to say hello. As a fellow Buddhist he swept me right up. We hadn’t spoken in years, but he was friendly and graciously offered to show me his Buddhist art from Nepal and Tibet. I was so happy to be with him, and walking through the upstairs of his house in the quiet company of exquisite statues and thankas, my heart went out to him. Silently to myself, I wished him all the health and happiness this world has to oﬀer. On the spur of the moment he oﬀered me a beautiful turquoise ceramic trivet shaped in the syllable om. “Here,” he said, “you could probably ﬁnd some use for this. I’d like you to have it.” I slipped it into the “pocket” of the sleeve of my kimono. Then it was back downstairs into the maelstrom of people I didn’t know, people I’d never met.
The catering crew was attentive, and trays of appetizers came by, along with reﬁlls on the champagne. I began to feel I was in exalted company—a reach of my hand and food was there, my empty glass ﬁlled. Then the meal was laid out in the dining room, and we paraded around the table spooning food onto our plates. I managed to ﬁnd a chair and visit with someone while I ate. I forgot my apprehension. Whatever will be will be. Let the caterers deal with it.
I helped myself to seconds before the food disappeared from the dining room. Then I heard that desserts were being served in the very special-sounding “solarium.” The moment of judgment was at hand. I cruised through the living room to the solarium, and as nonchalantly as possible I sauntered around the table where the desserts were displayed. Cookies, cakes, tarts in all their magniﬁcence, plate after plate, met my eye. Any moment I expected to see some of my tart, but it was nowhere in sight. My spirits started to sink, and the more desserts I saw which were not mine, the further my mood plummeted.
“What’s the story?” I wondered. “Has someone decided it is not ﬁt to serve? My dessert is not that bad.” In my mind I rushed to its defense: “It may not look that great, but the ﬂavors are terriﬁc. Really, you should give it a try.” But nobody heard my soliloquy. The guests were happily helping themselves to desserts and chatting away. A huge wave of humiliation washed through me. I had anticipated that people might ﬁnd other desserts preferable, but now I was devastated to suddenly realize that mine wasn’t being presented at all.
Dazed and bereft, I began searching the house for Ronni, looking for an explanation. I couldn’t believe how I had been so upset earlier at the thought that my dessert was not perfectly enticing. How shameful to have been so distraught, when not having it served at all was even more distressing. Two times through the house and I couldn’t ﬁnd Ronni, so I headed for the kitchen to see if someone could serve my dessert.
The kitchen was bright and already cleaned up and fresh-looking. I found a handsome gentleman plating rich-looking round chocolate “bombs,” garnishing them with fresh raspberries and a mint leaf. In response to my inquiry he said he was from one of the restaurants. When I consulted one of the caterers who was cleaning up, she knew nothing about serving my dessert and referred me back to the chocolate server. No help here. I considered serving my own dessert, but my formal robe has two-foot-wide sleeves which extend past the wrists, and even if I “tied back” the sleeves, serving-up would have been awkward, especially considering the champagne I’d drunk. So I went in search of help.
After a while I found my way outside and around the back of the house to a downstairs staging area. Two long folding tables were set up, replete with desserts. A whole crew of people was putting them on plates. It was the staﬀ from Boulevard, a large upscale restaurant in downtown San Francisco. They couldn’t make up their mind which dessert to contribute, so they brought their entire dessert menu. “What would you like?” they asked.
In this world of overabundance could there possibly be any signiﬁcance to a simple homemade dessert? Now I recognized an old feeling of betrayal: “What I want, what I wish for, doesn’t matter. It never has, it never will. You thought somebody cared about what you had to oﬀer, but they can do just ﬁne without you.” I wandered back upstairs, lost and confused.
In the vast foyer I was suddenly face to face with the senator, who startled me with her gracious and solicitous inquiry, “Ed, are you all right?” “Yes, ﬁne, thank you,” I lied, not wanting to admit how completely devastated I was that my contribution to the beneﬁt was not being served. But my senator was not blind. “Is there anything I can do for you?” she asked sincerely, “anything at all?”
My United States senator was asking me if there was anything she could do! Shouldn’t I ask for something important? Saving the redwoods, ﬁlling the hole in the ozone, storing nuclear waste, reforming campaign ﬁnancing? I couldn’t decide, but I was convinced that it would have been really petty and selﬁsh to ask that my dessert get served. “No, that’s okay,” I stammered, and ducked away before I started to cry.
The guests were beginning to leave by the time I ﬁnally found Ronni and explained to her that my dessert was not being served. She said she would look into it and returned shortly to explain there’d been a misunderstanding, that the chefs were serving their own desserts after all, not the caterers. I should have known. Some behind-the-scenes arrangements, perhaps even my senator’s request, led to a few slices of my dessert being served.
What a ﬁasco: a dozen or so plates of strawberry rhubarb tart cake sat forlornly in the dining room, a house-length away from the solarium where the other desserts had been oﬀered, while the last half-dozen guests said their good-byes. There was nothing left to do but pack up and go home. My life as a celebrity chef had hit bottom. I felt so empty. The message I heard from the world was, “It’s not that we don’t like your cooking. We’re just not interested. You and your cooking are irrelevant.”
I know that’s not what happened. I know there is no one to blame and that no one actually said that. But that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. What a bummer.
Three and two-thirds trays of tart cake accompanied me home. My neighbors were delighted. They can’t get enough of that wonderful stuﬀ.