Saturday, October 31, 2009

I Have Never Depended on the Kindness of Strangers

Nope. I've hoped. Prayed. Begged and dreamed that in dire situations there would be SOMEONE decent enough to at least ask if I needed help. Even if it was insincere, I craved this display of human decency. Rarely have I seen that much. Cynical, yes. Truthful? Not anymore. Those of you who know me or talk to me a lot know that what I'm about to say has happened before. Within the last 6 months. You're going to laugh. You're going to point, hold your stomach, rock back and laugh. You'll wipe your eyes and beg for a moment for breath. Okay, maybe not, but I bet you still point and laugh. It's that kind of story.

So last night, 1240 am, I'm heading home from a night of packing, wine and movies. I hear a familiar chugging sound and feel that stuttering that makes my heart race and my stomach stop in dread. I had been less then careful with my malfunctioning gas gauge and was no longer running on E. Fumes had long since blown out. My poor truck literally coasted to a stop at a red light. ALL forward momentum was lost, but I didn't have enough to get to an open gas station anyway.

Now, the last time this happened, I had to be rescued by the lovely and wonderful Baroness. Since then I've kept a 2 gallon gas can in my car "just in case." I know what you're thinking. Why don't I fill up before I get to this point, right? When I bought the truck a year ago, I knew it had electrical problems in the dash. The gauges don't always work right. My brake light is on when I've released the emergency brake. The gas light will come on when I've JUST filled the tank. The speedometer doesn't register speed most of the time (though it seems to be improving with winter; maybe the cold helps somehow), and the odometer will randomly flash at me and not register the miles I'm driving. I try to fill up when the gas gauge registers at 1/4 left. It's usually still accurate at that point. Last night, I didn't pay attention to the fact that it was less than 1/8 a tank when I got in to go home. Had I don't that, I may never have discovered that there are decent people in this world.

So I'm getting onto the interstate when all of this happens. I recognize it first when I'm trying to get up to speed and can't. I let off the gas and keep my foot off the brake for the slight downhill slope and curve hoping that the forward momentum will be enough to carry me to the first exit and nearest gas station. Well, I got half that. I got to the first exit but at the bottom was a light and it was red. My truck sputtered and died right there. I couldn't even get it started again. So I get my gas can and my purse, lock up the truck and start hoofing it down the street towards the BP station--the only gas station I can see. I'm not overly familiar with the area, but I know that there are gas stations around that exit. Just not AT the off ramp. And not open at (now) 1 am.

Cursing myself and turning around, I get even with my truck when an SUV of guys who are stopped at the light at that exit ask if I'm okay. Now, call me paranoid, cynical, mistrustful... whatever. My first thought was, "Oh dear God don't let them offer to give me a ride. I have to refuse cause I'm SO not getting into a car with three men I don't know at 1 am." They roll down the window and ask if I need a ride. I smile politely.

"No thanks, I'm just heading up the street to the gas station."

All three protest, and I'm thinking, "Oh no... no no no... " The driver leans over his passenger and waves for me to come closer. At first, I don't move. But then he starts talking again.

"Don't worry about a think, we'll take care of you. Give us the gas can and we'll go fill it up for you."

Shocked--not just surprised but outright shocked at this generosity--I take the three steps between our vehicles and hand over my gas can.

"Stay right there. Stand next to your car so that the people coming down can see you and you don't get hit. We'll be right back."

Before I can tell them I don't have cash, the SUV is gone. Now comes the part where I later really took stock in just how poor an opinion of humanity I have. They were gone for maybe three minutes when I thought, "I really hope they don't steal my gas can. I'll have to call Baroness and ask her to come help me. I don't want to do that; she's probably asleep by now." I was kind of sad at the thought that I really did think they might not come back and I was out an $8 gas can AND would have to inconvenience a friend. My next thoughts were even worse. "What if they come back and demand some "other" form of compensation for their troubles when they find out I don't have cash? Sure I can defend myself, but it's 3 large men against me... I'm not THAT good." That's when I hung my head in shame, pulled out my phone and started chatting with a friend via text. He was justifiably concerned and didn't call me stupid or silly for what happened, though he would have been within his rights to do so.

So what happened? About fifteen minutes passed and they come back. Turns out they had to go a bit further afield to find an open gas station. The guy even went so far as to put the gas in my truck then insisted on waiting to make sure my truck started before he was willing to cross the street back to his friends and his own car. He wanted no money at all. Nothing. Even more, he made sure I had money to actually get gas. This all blew me away. I got in my truck, drove to the gas station he directed me to, and as I put more gas in the tank, texted my friend to let him know that I had my gas can back and was now at a gas station filling up. I decide to peak in the bed of the truck where my gas can resides and what do I find? A five dollar bill. I'm not kidding. The guy put $5 in the bed of my truck under my gas can.

I went home with a smile on my face, a warm feeling in my heart, and more than a bit of shame at my reaction to the situation. I'm glad to have been proven wrong: there are decent people in the world willing to help when there's nothing in it for them. There really are gentlemen left in the world.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bake Your Cares Away

Yeah, I have the beginning of the Fraggle Rock theme stuck in my head. But... anyone who knows me, knows that the title is applicable whether I'm feeling a little Red and crew or not. My very short profile bio mentions my love and desire to bake the world's cares away, but my very sporadic posts have yet to do with anything baked. So guess what today's topic is? No, not pastries. Puppies. Haha, only kidding.

Baking has always been a relaxation tool for me. I can get lost in the scents of flour, butter, sugar and spices. Reading recipes for me is like reading sheet music for others. They can hear the notes in their heads; I can taste the results in my mouth. It just is. For a long time, I never paid attention to this part of me that desired standing in front of an oven, pulling out yummy, comforting foods and putting in a mix of raw ingredients that would some minutes later yield the yumminess. I ignored it, commited great acts of sacrilege with boxed mixes and Pilsbury slice and bakes.*

Then one day I was depressed. I'm talking skipping working, don't answer the phone, can't get out of bed even to pee let alone personal hygine, depressed. Except the option to skip work wasn't an option. It wasn't just a matter of paying the bills; I was in a job where calling in sick meant I had to go to a doctor--earlier than I had to actually be at work--then convince the doc that 24 hours in bed was warranted, before driving to work with the doc's missive that, Yes, 24 hours in bed was necessary, before finally driving home again. It was more depressing and just not worth it. So I donned my uniform and went. I answered the phones. I typed the emails. I did my job, low key though it was. And when I went home, I stood staring at my warm and comfy bed thinking that oblivion sounded nice. But once the pj's were on, I didn't want to crawl into bed. There was this fear in my gut that if I did, I wouldn't get out again. I wouldn't be able to face the alarm going off the next day--or worse, the repercussions of just not setting it. My living room held little in the way of appealing distractions. Sure, I had movies, cable, internet, but none of it held the promise of feeling better. Food, however, did.

I'm a stress eater. Always have been. No matter how hard I try to change my ways, I don't think I'll ever NOT eat when I get stressed or depressed. I eat to celebrate. Simply put, I love food. But I had nothing ready to eat. No chocolate, no ice cream, nothing baked--store bought or other. What I had was ingredients. And desperate need. So I baked. I didn't have an electric mixer. I had "Mixy." Anyone have the dark brown Tupperware from the 1970's? My mom did, and when I went to college and got my own apartment, I got a lot of her hand-me-downs. Apparently it was time for her to upgrade her kitchen stock and I got the cast offs. Fine by me.

"Mixy" was a brown piece of plastic labeled "spatula" but it didn't resemble any spatula I'd ever seen. His--I know definitively that "Mixy" was a boy, though how I'm not sure--handle fit in my hand and stuck out for another 4-6 inches beyond that. It wasn't shaped like the flat spatulas used to flip pancakes or scrape cookies off sheets. It was closer to the sleek, silicone spatulas seen today that are used to scrape the batters and mixes out of bowls, much to the dismay of kids who want to claim dibs on licking the bowl. That IS, after all, the best part. "Mixy" wasn't flexible, though, and in his head, on the scraping side, were holes.

I dug out an old cookbook that my mother helped write when I was a teenager and flipped through it until I found a chocolate chip cookie recipe. I had everything it required, and having made them a few months prior as I packed out of my college apartment to move to the first "welcome to the real world" apartment, I knew they were pretty simple and rather tasty. I got started. The actual process won't be discussed. Anyone who knows me knows that it's damn near impossible to get me to share a recipe. What I will say is that focusing on the recipe, mixing by hand and taking the time to do it right rather than slap dash just to have something, cleared my mind. All that existed was the dough. All that mattered was how great they were going to taste when I had a few warm from the oven. All that mattered was how that warm gooey cookie was going to spread inside my tummy and push away the depression, the pain, the hurt, the [fill in whatever ailed me at the moment here].

By the time I was scooping the cookies onto the cookie sheet, I was smiling. I had something wonderful to look forward to. The anticipation had me bouncing, the smell drove me nuts, and when I had that first bite... I burned my mouth. Yep, I didn't wait for them to cool. I did the three blows and bite thing, burning my mouth on hot chocolate and gooey cookie. It was wonderful. I baked the rest of the dough that night and took them with me to a friend's house the next night. They were a huge hit and made everyone else there smile as well. Soon I was asked to make them every week for our get togethers. People started buying the ingredients so that I could bake them there. Warm from the oven does have special powers.

The next time I got depressed, I tried a different recipe, and guess what? It worked again. I soon discovered that if I baked when I was feeling down, not depressed, I never got depressed. Eventually I was baking just to bake, because it was a great feeling and I loved how my home smelled. Friends commented that I should open my own bakery. I laughed it off and kept reminding people that I was going to fly for the Navy for the next 20 or 30 years. But then I left Active Duty and was faced with the inevitable, "What now?"

The answer: bake. Baking has led to so many wonderful things in my life--not the least of which is the amazing friendship with The Baroness. I finally realized what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and have since been working towards it. I have a number of professional cook books, culinary school texts and work books, and I read them like other people read novels. I have recipes for butter, and ideas that won't sleep. I try my hand at things and then rush to share them with everyone. The "When is your bakery going to open? I want an invite." comments continue to flow in, filling me with hope, elation and motivation. I love this, and I'll do it even if those comments stop. But it's nice to know that others want me to do it. That they're willing to pay me for it.

So, when does it open? As soon as I know, I'll let you know. I start culinary school in the fall, and I can't wait! Until then, I continue to experiment. What's the latest? Well I needed to bake the other night. NEEDED. Baking over the weekend with the Baroness wasn't enough. So I dug out a recipe and found that I didn't have any Vanilla. I'm ashamed, and dismayed because it is literally the first time in 4 years that I don't have a bottle of Vanilla at home. However I raided my closet for other flavorings and decided to try anise instead. Guess what? The cookies were good. They were a basic butter cookie, but the mild licorice flavor makes them seem more... exotic. Call it a win. I decided to go one step further two nights later. I had some of the dough left over and rolled a few cookies with lavender. The lavender was worked into the cookie, not just on the outside of it. Fail. The smell was FANTASTIC. The flavor was not. Oh well; not every experiment is a wild success.

More to come, so stay tuned. ;)

*Note on packed/box mixes and any slice and bakes, not just Pilsbury: There's absolutely nothing wrong with them. They work well and yield yummy, comforting foods. There are certain box mixes I will use from time to time, even now. Given my druthers, though, I do it all from scratch.