I WAS SEVEN and at my cousin’s christening when I first encountered a lemon meringue pie. The other sweets on the dessert table seemed superfluous next to the mountainous wisps of sugary egg whites. Mesmerised by its steep undulations, I timidly asked for two slices, ‘One for me… and one for my dad please.’
As the other children launched into the backyard with their vanilla ice cream cones, I followed with my hands full and with fingers crossed that the cubby house would be vacant. My devilish plan seemed all but foolproof when I closed the four-foot door behind me and sat at the miniature table with my firm, airy pieces of pie. This Goldilockesque scene was every bit the fairytale to the seven year old me, as I licked up the last delectable crumb. That evening after dinner, the yellow evidence of my gluttony surfaced – my stomach had been overloaded, and I was sent shame-faced to my room.
My eyes have always been bigger than my stomach when it comes to sweets, so at age eighteen, working at a gourmet cake shop seemed a natural progression. In the centre of an affluent residential area, the shop catered for the tastebuds of social bridge players, private school children and old sweet tooths who were all too happy to indulge in exclusive flavour fusions. Date and walnut, apple and yoghurt, orange and almond – the catchy combinations did not seem so distinct on my first day.
I was familiar with the rustic shop sign, the patterned plastic aprons and coiled cupcake stands that made up the window façade, yet was struck unawares when I opened the shop door. The first breath of buttery air felt like you’d sunk your teeth into a teacake. Every ingredient under the low-lying roof – cinnamon, cocoa, vanilla, lemon – formed one suffocating scent that overwhelmed the airways and warmed the body. Over the next year, I sat behind the cylindrical biscuit jars and the chest of drawers filled with cheese straws, as customers exclaimed, ‘What a beautiful smell!’ I would smile widely and agree, trying to remember what it smelled like, as I had become completely immune.
Upon finishing a shift, however, my olfactories were drawn to the insidious scent like children to the cookie jars. I felt vulnerably edible, and decided to limit my on-the-job attire to two interchangeable white T-shirts and a pair of faded denim jeans. My outfit was confined to these items save for the mandatory train driver’s cap that kept my hair back.
Also on the list of hygiene precautions: only wearing fluorescent band-aids, as the skin toned ones camouflaged very well in the shortbread mix. This defensive measure generated colour in the slice department when Deb, the buxom Italian slice-maker got an infected ingrown fingernail. It occurred to me however, when Deb was mixing the rocky road by hand, that her pink bandaid could be mistaken for a marshmallow.
She seemed so far removed from the goods she baked, which I sold in purple taffeta ribbon. She in her disposable hairnet, her chubby elbows deep in melted chocolate, while on the other side of the swinging saloon doors, her walnut brownies sat pretty under a shiny dome. She whined about two unemployed teenagers that were eating her out of state-housing home, while immaculately dressed ladies of leisure admired the shop’s imported teas.
Next to these women, Deb was like a pavlova beside marzipan-iced Christmas cakes. The former, messy and unpredictable, yet always rich with content and good value; the latter beautifully crafted, with an invariable character and expensive price tag. Naturally the two are seldom seen together, and similarly, Deb and her co-workers rarely came face to face with the middle class Australia that swanned through the shop door.
The presence of the cooks, if at all, was heard rather than seen, as heated conversations bubbled over the flimsy dividers. A regular customer once slammed her papery, diamond-clad hand on her heart when the workroom ruckus echoed in the shop. ‘Gracious,’ she giggled, shocked and amused.
ANARCHIC CONVERSATIONS WERE unavoidable in our ten-by-twelve metre factory. Occupied by eight people, and eight different nationalities, the cultural melting pot often reached boiling point. I was generally reserved when contributing to whirlwind discussions. Yet at any rate, my voice was drowned out by heavy eager accents shooting across the stainless steel tables and industrial ovens. Loud open arguments were usually dominated by the Scandinavian tart-maker, Helgair.
Helgair looked like a skinny-legged Santa Claus, parading his best assets daily in tiny white football shorts. His voice boomed when he was angry yet his long white beard and bushy eyebrows seemed to soften the blow of his short temper, which I eventually attributed to sleep deprivation. By the time I arrived for the morning shift at 7.30, he had already been baking for seven hours and was brusque and tough more often than not. On a busy day close to Christmas time I sold a lemon tart without removing it from the baking tin and caught the blaze of his wrath, ‘These tarts don’t grow on trees!’ He shouted only inches from my face, ‘I need the tins to keep up with my orders Alex,’ his voice cooling yet his tone still stern.
I was stunned, yet sensed the pride that I had carelessly disrupted, and apologised on the spot. Helgair responded by pulling a small draw-strung sack from his back pocket. He spilled out the colourful contents on the greasy table, and asked me to choose a gemstone. I chose an amethyst imitation, perplexed, yet forgiven. Perhaps more of a Merlin than Santa Claus?
I found this forgiveness ceremony bizarre, yet started to appreciate the craftsmanship I had overlooked in the factory-line setting. I saw Pat, the cropped haired, elf-sized lady who made the quiches and added finishing touches to every thing else. Working right beside me, I rarely heard a peep from Pat, who unbeknownst to me, was missing her two front teeth. I watched her fingers move with the ease of a concert pianist as she scattered Smarties on the top of cup cakes, or perfectly iced a birthday cake in tricky white chocolate ganache. After a pivotal dental procedure, the gap in Pat’s teeth was not the only space filled, as her output slowed and every break in conversation was satiated with a ‘Jeehesus, Mehry and Joseph!’
Laden with an allegro pace, Pat’s Irish accent had me straining to understand her more intently than I did the Indian and Argentinean who worked on biscuits. Angela and Maria embodied precisely what I had dreamed up biscuit makers to be. Both dainty, fine and gentle, they did justice to my sense of feminine baking; effortlessly rolling out pecan crescents or dicing up Florentine clusters. Maria’s skin was as smooth and bronze as the mocha kisses mix that she swirled out of an icing bag. Her slender arms defied their feeble appearance as she motioned determinedly over the baking tray. She glowed under the heat and pressure, whereas others faced the dismal results of frizzy hair, blotchy skin and sweaty foreheads. Her beauty was matched with Angela’s innate motherliness, manifest in the homemade curry puffs she shared for morning tea, and her jet black eyes – warmer than a fresh French tart. The biscuit makers were essential ingredients to every flawless batch.
Despite the success of the biscuit range, the cake shop owners were interested in diversifying the repertoire, and so Maria and Angela began to experiment. The miniature meringues were a huge hit, but the passionfruit fingers were fragile and endlessly crumbled once out of the oven. No one could dispute their deliciousness however, and they stayed on the menu.
The silver lining of any broken biscuits was that we became the benefactors, taking home bagfuls of scrumptious varieties. Family members showed their appreciation, not least their hunger for more, by visiting the shop. Angela’s pretty preschool granddaughters once gave an appearance; warily entering the workroom then making a beeline for the store of smileyface biscuits. Unfortunately, these sturdy round shortbreads were all intact, so I snapped two in half, out of principle, before handing the little girls their treats. They nodded and understood.
The girls’ presence invoked a painful nostalgia for the childish curiosity I once possessed. I saw through their twinkling eyes and polite exchanges, to dreams of waywardness and sweet gluttony. After all, I entered the sweets business under the same premise of sinful bliss.
Seeing myself in the girls, I also saw faded dreams of glory. I realised that I no longer delighted in the presence of rich and decadent desserts after a year in their company. Was I overexposed? Overindulged? It wasn’t in my nature to contem-plate such a thing. Either way, I could not separate a Monte Carlo from the raspberry cream, rolling pins, and fan powered ovens that created it. I didn’t even flinch at the punch of sugar-saturated air that met me at the door. Nor did I fantasise about licking the giant bowls, or running away with a tangy lemon cake. My desire for the sweet yet sickly feeling I sought ten years earlier, like the water bath of a self-saucing pudding, had slowly evaporated.
Inevitably, I could not have the cake and eat it too, although I continue to try.
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