Tomorrow afternoon, I will head out across town to have lunch with one of the most famous people I've ever met. At her house. Now, when faced with an unexpected and generous invitation to dine at a luminously eminent person's house, one inevitably asks, "What should I contribute to this event?" When I posed this question to my friend, he replied, without hesitation, "Chocolates." But that idea seemed nothing short of prosaic to me.
And anyhow, I had my instincts to guide me. I just had to pay attention to them.
I still haven't figured out British pastry ingredients, and that's also the edge of an oval pie you see there: though I have finally located ceramic pie dishes, the affordable one (mysteriously! because people like pie!) has sold out at the new cookshop in town, and the extravagant one, while red and gorgeous, raises the uncomfortable prospect of having to say tomorrow, "Um, can I have my dish back?" Whereas if this one gets left behind and never returned, it's no great loss.
One of my favorite nights in graduate school came the last time I baked desserts for a famous woman in my field: my dissertation director, who was retiring. I volunteered to bake pies for a massive conference-weekend-ending supper that was taking place at her house, being led to believe that I would bake a few pies and then my department would be kicking in a cake or something as a central dessert. A couple of days before the weekend's conference got underway, the administrative assistant planning the event called me up and said that they (I never found out who made up this "they") had decided it would be nicer if I made all the desserts, so that they could take center-stage. Because I love my dissertation director, I agreed to this ridiculousness.
But then the fun began.
Thursday evening or Friday morning--I don't remember which, now, though I think I was a grader that semester, so it probably wasn't in the morning, when my discussion session met--I bought the ingredients for a flourless chocolate cake with raspberry coulis, a blueberry pie, an apple pie, a cherry pie. And some other pie I can't remember. Perhaps there were two apple pies, or two blueberry ones. Perhaps I made a mixed berry pie. In any case, there were many pies.
I attended the afternoon's portion of the conference, then headed home with some friends and got to work. Occasionally, they found ways to make me let them help: someone else followed the instructions for the fresh raspberry sauce, for instance. The chocolate cake went first, because it was terra incognita. But The Joy of Cooking has almost never led me astray (though I find it nearly impossible to make their molten lava chocolate cakes come out of the oven with molten centers, alas). Within a couple of hours, there was almost literally unbelievably rich and dense chocolate cake cooling in my kitchen, and a pie was underway.
At 10 p.m., three of us took a break and took another famous Victorianist (i.e., not my dissertation director) bowling at the local lanes. We tried to convince him to come to my house and go for a ride on the Sit 'n Spin, but he (wisely) demurred.
I arrived home around, oh, 1--and promptly got back to work on the baking. While we were bowling, several people had stayed behind in my house, drinking cosmopolitans and, in one very talented person's case, wielding my old utilty knife to create, from a regular old sheet of paper, a fantastically gorgeous stencil with which we could powder sugar the top of the cake to proclaim that the party's honoree rocked (because she did, and does). I know that the blueberry pie came next. I know that I made at least one apple pie after the blueberry pie and before I went to bed, sometime around 5 a.m.
By 9:30 a.m., I was back on campus for the morning start-up of the conference.
After a day of papers and discussions, I decamped for home with the friend who'd come into town for the conference and was staying in my living room. After we executed some fancy stencilling work, we packed the car full of all these desserts I'd somehow produced in the space of 24 hours.
And it was a terrific event, full of strange moments (like watching the son of two famous literary critics playing the harpsichord). The food was delicious. The desserts were acclaimed. The whole evening lasted only a few hours, and yet they were the thickest party hours I'd ever known. They were dense like that flourless chocolate cake.
I remain proud of that baking marathon, and of having had both the chance and the skills to do a thing like that for the small formidable woman who helped me figure out how to go about being myself.
The pie I baked tonight has a different significance, of course. This one is more like a gesture of hope than one of gratitude--or perhaps I should say that it's also a gesture of gratitude, but mostly in a broad and impersonal way, recognizing what this woman has done for my field and for the college where I'm living.
Mostly, I'm hoping she'll like it.
I went out for pie supplies just before 4:30. Now, the Clare College clock is spotlit.
And now it's possible, even before evensong begins, to walk alongside King's College Chapel and observe its strange windows as they're illuminated from within. I am not schooled enough in stained glass to know whether it's common to build fragments of old windows into new ones. I will go out sometime this week with the monopod and try to get some better images of the disembodied heads and severed architectural details that punctuate the glass along the whole south side of the chapel. Handheld isn't going to get this job done.