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As I looked into the display case and noticed that the top shelf was quite noticeably empty, my heart sank. And then I started to laugh at myself. I had stopped into the newly re-located Madeleine Patisserie on 23rd Street; it had just moved two doors down from it’s original address. I discovered Madeleine Patisserie for myself about a year ago after reading a blurb about the then newly opened shop a few weeks earlier in The New York Times. I was just walking around during a lunch break… Oh, a bakery! Needless to say, I just had to check it out as soon as I noticed it’s blue awning and semi-subterranean storefront. Once I descended the small set of stars and entered the shop, my eyes were immediately drawn to the big display case. On the bottom shelves was a colorful and enticing selection of fruit tarts, but what my eyes and taste buds were focusing on were the trays of French macaroons on the top shelf. It was a veritable rainbow of colors and flavors – at least twenty different varieties. Although macarons seemed to be the specialty of the house, this bakery/cafe does sell some fine examples of their namesake madeleines. They also come in a variety of flavors, all of which seem to be perfectly concocted so that the natural muting qualities of butter don’t overwhelm the essences and flavorings that infuse those two- or three- (or one-) bite "little French cakes". The espresso-walnut one I sampled today was… Oh, where was I? Oh, yes – I was laughing at myself.
While I walking around Chelsea a few weeks ago, I had noticed that the original location of Madeleine Patisserie had shuttered. As I looked into the windows, I took in the the absence of the comfy chairs, the tables, the shelving and that display case. Thankfully, there was a sign taped to the door indicating that they were moving two doors down. Well, I walked two doors down and found no sign of a nouvelle Madeleine Patisserie. I walked two doors down the other way, no pastries there either. I guessed that they were still in the process of moving. Actually, I hoped that they were still in the process of moving. With the ever volatile real estate market in New York City, Chelsea could very well have been deprived of yet another source of baked indulgences.
Since I ended up with a longer than usual lunch break today, I decided to go on a follow-up stroll. I first came across the new occupants of 128 W. 23rd, an African Art Gallery from what I could tell. Then I shifted my gaze east, two doors down, and, happily, my hopes were not dashed. I noticed the familiar blue awning with it’s familiar lettering. I quickened my pace and found myself standing in front of their new storefront a few steps later. The new digs were a bit smaller, narrower than their previous location, and it appeared that the seating was reduced to a few perfunctory tables and chairs. I opened the door and entered with a bit of hesitancy. Would their offerings be reduced too?
I first encountered the baskets and trivets filled with baguettes, batards, croissants, pains au chocolat, financiers, and various other puff pastry creations; the small, individual jars of jams and jellies, and the white, pink, yellow and blue packets of sweeteners for your coffee and tea. A few feet away was the display case. My eyes quickly scanned the shelves. The familiar selection of impeccably assembled fruit tarts were on the bottom two shelves. On top of the case was a row of jars filled with today’s selection of madeleines (six flavors), meringues (plain and coconut), and generous rounds of gallette bretonne (French shortbread). When I started concentrating on the top shelf, at first I thought my eyes were deceiving me. All I saw was a span of mirrored steel. It was empty. Nothing. That’s when my heart sank. And that’s when I laughed at myself.
My heart sank because of a macaron! Rather the lack of a macaron. How foolish is that? How stupid? How third grade! How wonderful! But wait! It gets better!
With a hopeful suspicion that the macarons were being kept in the back somewhere, I asked Maria if they had any today. She informed me that they did not have any today, but would, hopefully, have some by next week. It turned out that they had just completed the move this past Sunday, and today (Tuesday) was only the second day they were re-opened for business. Of course, hearing "Yes, we have no macarons today," and that it would be at least another week before the top shelf of that display case would be filled again did nothing to raise my spirits. I believe I even frowned. And then I giggled.
Yes, there are more serious, more adult sources of disappointment – and joy! – but as I immediately assessed my reaction, I could not help but laugh at my own folly. I’ve always known that I love food, but was it really possible for me to miss food? I guess so. And at what point in my life had a craving become an object of my affection?
Since I was not able to enjoy a cassis or lemon-chocolate or lilac macaron today – and since I was not going to walk out of there empty-handed – I decided to sample a trio of today’s selection of madeleines: Chocolate, Espresso-Walnut and Rose. Maria placed them in a small white paper bag, rang up my order at the register, and I headed back out on to 23rd Street. It wasn’t too long before I opened the bag, stuck my hand in and selected the Espresso-Walnut one. As I took that first bite, in my mind’s eye I could see that simply satisfied smile coming over my face; and I knew that if a camera was on me, it would capture the glint in my eye, the slight filling out of my cheeks, and my buttery-crumb-coated goofy grin. If I had happened to be walking with a friend, I would have immediately broken off a small bit for him to sample, or least have exclaimed, "This is really good! You should definitely try one the next time you go there!" But since I was walking by myself, I did not have to make that decision.
Next up was the Chocolate one which gently and sufficiently satisfied my daily chocolate quotient. Finally, the Rose. Many times, floral flavored and scented sweets can end up leaving me feel like I’ve just consumed a bit of furniture polish, dishwashing detergent or a votive candle instead of a lilac pastille, an orange blossom gelée or geranium sorbet. I had not tried a Rose one before, but, frankly, I was in the mood to be slightly adventurous today. I sniffed it before I placed it in my mouth. It smelled like a Rose. I then took a bite of it. It tasted like a Rose. Well, at least what I imagine what it would be like to bite into a long-stemmed American Beauty. Again, that goofy, can-it-really-be-this-good? smile came across my face, and, again I fully suspected someone to come up to me and capture my expression on camera. There just had to be some sort of documentation of my glee!
I looked at the remaining half, and was sort of taken aback by the very pronounced pink-red color of the cake. It wasn’t exactly unnatural, just unexpected. I nibbled slowly at what was left of that combination of butter, flour, sugar, rosewater(?) and a few drops of food coloring. I wanted to make it last as long as possible; at least until I had returned to the studio for the second half of my day. By the time I had reached the lobby of the building, I had indeed finished the madeleine. I had consumed all three of them during the course of my walk down 23rd Street, up Seventh Avenue, and back across 26th Street. As I entered the lobby, I became aware of the chill in my fingers. It was a bit colder today than I had thought, and I had not included my gloves as part of my outerwear selection for the day. Even though the end of meteorological Winter just a few days away, I had already experienced a harbinger of Spring. In fact, I had just tasted it.
I ended up back at Madeleine Patisserie after my afternoon session of auditions had finished. Alas, still no macarons gracing that top shelf of the display case – Hope springs eternal! – and it looked like they had done a pretty brisk business since my last visit a few hours earlier. There were just a few plain croissants left in the baskets behind the counter, and the display next to the register was a fraction of what was there during my first visit of the day. I also noticed a sign taped to a curtain that lined what I thought was the back wall of the new space: "Seating Area Coming Soon". For today’s final selections, I chose a coconut meringue and two chocolate chip financiers the size of a truffle (or a chocolate covered cherry, whichever you prefer). Since I had ordered two of them, I first sampled the financier. Again, I was smiling uncontrollably as I took that first bite. A true perfect bite of the usual baker’s staples with the addition of ground almonds and a sprinkling of semi-sweet chocolate chips. Then came the coconut meringue – all crunch, sugar, air and toasted coconut. I imagined that this is what coconut-flavored cotton candy would taste like if it had a hard candy shell. Once I had finished the meringue, there was no sense in saving the remaining financier for later. And by that time, I had managed to walk all the way up to 44th Street where I proceeded underground to hop on the A Train for the rest of my trip home. As I wondered if my fellow riders had any idea why I smiling so much, I made sure to check the front of my coat for any traces of meringue dust and cake crumbs.
Ah, yes, the Food!
One of the highlights of the most recent SETC Convention in Chattanooga, Tennesee, was discovering the rotating cake display at the City Cafe Diner. Getting to Chattanooga the day before the auditions started was filled with various travel woes (delayed flights, missing pilots, and non-existent hotel reservations), so I felt that I was more than qualified and justified to treat myself to something sweet after I had finally gotten myself settled into my hotel room. Besides, I needed something to snack on while I was watching "American Idol" that night.
I had been to Chattanooga once before when the SETC Convention was held there in 2004, but I had not ventured into the City Cafe Diner which is the house restaurant for the Days Inn by the convention center. I had thought about splurging on some room service that first night, but after thinking about it, I realized that I was not in the mood for dinner, just dessert. So, I headed out of my hotel, and across the street. I figured the Diner was bound to have some desserts, but little did I know that they would have quite the selection of cakes spinning around in a case by the front register. Sadly, I did not take a picture of that diabetes-inducing display, but there were at least twelve different cakes available each night, in addition to a selection of pies, tarts, Greek pastries and cookies. I decided to stick to the cakes.
For that first night’s indulgence, I took a chance on their Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cake.
It was a tall slice of alternating layers of chocolate cake and chocolate-peanut-butter frosting topped off with a miniature Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. It was good, not great. Strangely enough, I thought the cake and frosting were not sweet enough, and both the chocolate and peanut butter flavors were somewhat muted. I only ate half of the slice, if that. The cake itself had a great texture and crumb, but, overall, tasted sort of bland to me. Maybe I should have tried the Butterfinger Cake instead? -Although, the almost-glowing neon-looking orange-brown coating of crushed Butterfinger bars kept me from exploring that option any further.
Well, after my first day of auditions – just under 280 people, I was definitely allowed to treat myself to another sweet indulgence that night. So, I headed back to the City Cafe Diner, and checked out my other options. I had noticed that they had just put something new in the display case. "That’s our Baklava Cheesecake. One slice and you’ll go into a sugar coma!" was the answer I got after I had pointed to the cinder-block slab of a dessert that was sitting in the bottom of the case. Sure! Cut me a slice to go! -And maybe a sugar coma would not be that bad a thing after watching the "American Idol" results show and "Lost" that night?
Once I was back in my hotel, I discovered that the Baklava Cheesecake was more of a layered affair. The core of it was a plain cheesecake that was sandwiched between two thin layers of Carrot Cake, and the top and the bottom were composed of inch-thick layers of baklava (phyllo dough, walnuts, butter and honey-syrup). Sadly, it ended up being too much of the sum of its parts. I questioned the Carrot Cake layers at first, but then realized that they were probable there to shield the crunchy, flaky layers of phyllo dough from the moisture of the cheesecake layer. However, the baklava portion of the dessert had not been protected from the moisture of the display case, and the flakiness of the phyllo dough ended up having a bit of a chew to it. The cheesecake center was decent, but could have probably benefited from a few less minutes in the oven initially. And just like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cake from the night before, the whole concoction seemed somewhat on the not-so-sweet side, however, I’m guessing that whatever sugars were in the various components of the dessert may have cancelled each other out. The Baklava Cheesecake was not a total waste of $4.95 (yes, all the cakes were just $4.95 a slice!), but I think it would have worked better if it were assembled á la minute rather than giving all the layers time to meld. I finished maybe a third of it, so, alas, no sugar coma.
Day Two of the auditions came and went, and since I had managed to have quite a nice lunch at the Tallan Cellar restaurant (a good ole "meat & three") that day, I decided all I needed to eat during that "American Idol"-free night was another slice of cake. I decided to pick something basic: Caramel Cake.
No problem with this slice of cake not being sweet enough! Slathered between the layers of amazingly fresh and vanilla-infused layers of Yellow Cake were generous heapings of Caramel Buttercream. Caramel Cake is one of many Southern Classic Desserts, and this rendition was most certainly insuring that Classic status. Yes, my teeth did ache a little bit as I took my first bite, but they were supposed to! The Caramel Buttercream and Yellow Cake layers complemented each other perfectly, and, yes, the dessert was most definitely rich, but it was not at all heavy. I ate half of it. Then ate the other half about a half hour later. I had to pace myself.
The third and final day of auditions came to a close, which also meant that the convention was also ending that night. Of course, I had to celebrate that night with another piece of cake! So, it was back to the City Cafe Diner for my final visit and my final selection of the trip. There was a gentleman in front of me who was inquiring about the various cakes; he, too, was getting a slice to go. The manager was answering all his questions, but then referred him to a young woman who had come out of the kitchen bearing a few just-made creations. She was affectionately called "The Cake Guru". She explained what all the various layers were in the Chocolate Chip Cannoli Cake. She showed him the California Cheesecake with it’s it’s layers of plain Cheesecake and Angel Food Cake, and fresh fruit topping. Then there was the Key Lime Pie she had just made that afternoon. The Devil’s Food Cake, the Red Velvet Cake, the Oreo Cake, the Checkerboard Chocolate Mousse Cake with it’s alternating blocks of White and Dark Chocolate Gooey-ness. After he had walked away with a slice of the Strawberry Mousse Cake, I then turned to the Cake Guru and explained my situation, "It’s my last night in town. I’ve come here every night for the past three nights, and I really want to have a great piece of cake tonight. What should I have?" Without any hesitation, she proclaimed, "The Sampler Cake."
-Flying out of Washington-National in the middle of a snow storm. -The plane’s departure delayed due to de-icing. Twice. -Getting off the plane in Savannah, Georgia, and discovering that it felt like summer – it was only March. -Buying pralines from various vendors along River Street, then discovering that they were giving them away for free at the convention hospitality booth. -The mile walk between the hotels. That’s really all I remember about the 1994 Southeastern Theatre Conference Convention. My first set of Spring SETC Professional Division Auditions.
The most recent SETC Convention was just held in Chattanooga, Tennessee; it was their 59th Annual Convention. As I was preparing my opening remarks to the actors and actresses auditioning, I was all set to say that it was my 20th Anniversary year with SETC. Well, after thinking it through, I realized it was more likely my 15th year. Then after consulting the "Past Conventions" listing in the convention program, it turned out it was only my 12th. I guess it only seemed like I’ve been playing the Spring SETCs for 20 years already. *For anyone doing the math: I haven’t played for all of the Spring SETCs since 1994. Due to work commitments, I’ve missed three of the annual conventions. Strangely enough, the three years I missed (1997, 2001, 2006), the conventions were held in Florida (Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando). We’ll have to see if that pattern continues in the future. (I also play for the smaller Fall Professional Auditions, so I’m guessing that may have contributed to my 20-year syndrome.)
My first SETC actually came about after I had lobbied for the job. That year, a number of theatre students I played for at Virginia Commonwealth University had made it through the state screenings, and were passed on to the regional level. I just wanted to see if I could play for them. As it turned out, the pianist who had been playing for the auditions the previous couple of years was not available that year. After a few brief phone conversations, as well as some recommendations – including a particularly glowing, unsolicited one from the Theatre VCU secretary – I was hired for the gig. It was basically a blind and deaf hiring. No one in the central office had ever heard of me, let alone had heard me play. And, truth be told, I had no real idea what I was going to be in for once I got down to Savannah. I had heard tales of the "Big Convention", but I had never experienced one myself.
Besides the travel woes, the weather and the pralines, there really is not much more I remember about my first SETC Convention. Oh! I do remember that a group of students had gotten mugged while walking along the River Street Waterfront, and they took a collection up to help them with their food, clothing and other expenses. But as for the specifics of the actual auditions themselves, well, there’s actually not a lot I remember about those. I think I had a grand piano in the ballroom. It was the usual three days of auditions, with about 250 people auditioning each day. And I was asked to come back the following year – and the following years – so I guess I did a job. What I tend to retain about my annual SETC adventures are the airports, the hotels, and, yes, the food.
There aren’t that many specific auditions or auditionees I remember from the past 14 years. Yes, I can remember being generally entertained from time to time, but as for which song and monologue went with which number, name and face in a particular ballroom, hotel and city, well, all bets are off. However, there is one young gentleman who totally caught me by surprise by actually including me in his audition…
(to the tune of the Gershwin’s "They Can’t That Away From Me")
The way you play my pitch
The way you hit those keys
I think you’ve found your niche
Oh, no, they can’t take Jose away from me.
…Or something very close to that – and he continued on through the bridge and final refrain. It also turned out that the monologue he performed before the song was directed towards me, but since I was multi-tasking – getting the tempo and other info from the next person – I didn’t pick up on that until someone told me he had customized his whole audition package "towards" me. His monologue, I believe, was one of Shakespeare’s Fools. Alas, since everything had happened so fast – and since I was sort of in shock – I was not able to follow-up with him to thank him, nor to see how many callbacks he ended up getting.
Otherwise, what I tend to remember are "trends". The end of "Soliloquy" made a huge comeback in popularity the year the Lincoln Center revival of Carousel opened. There was even one young gentleman who, as he was placing his music on the piano, asked me, "Do you know this? It’s from a new show." After making sure I only rolled my eyes inside my head, I just responded that I did know it, and made a semi-obvious gesture towards the copyright date on the opening page. Then there was the year of the Damn Yankees revival where I believe "Goodbye, Old Girl" set the record for the most performed, most repeated song. There was at least one actor who sang that song in each group of 25 auditions, sometimes two; and in the final group of the day, of the convention, there were four renditions of that song, perhaps even five, with at least two back-to-back. I had blocked it out after a while, and had had the accompaniment memorized by rote by the middle of the second day of auditions. It had even become sort of a joke among the people auditioning. One guy didn’t even bother giving me a tempo indication as he put his book on the piano, "I guess you know this one by now." The most recent trends seem to center around the Kristin Chenoweth and Sutton Foster Songbooks: "Taylor, the Latte Boy", "The Girl in 14G", "Not for the Life of Me", "Astonishing", "Show Off", and, of course, "Gimme, Gimme". And, yes, playwrights also seem to inspire trends from time to time. If Christopher Durang, Jane Martin (the long suspected and speculated nom de plum of theatrical administrator, Jon Jory) and Neil Simon had a nickel for each time one of their monologues had been extracted, well, they’d have a lot of nickels. -Too bad William Shakespeare’s benefactors and heirs(?) had not set up some sort of royalty agreement in place at the time of the Bard’s death.
I guess it’s a good thing I don’t remember more about the thousands of auditions I’ve played over the years at SETC and elsewhere. God knows, I kick myself enough during the process whenever I have a bad audition, I would go crazy trying to retain all the details of even just a fraction of the auditions I’ve played – the good, the bad, the ugly, the downright awful, the painfully oblivious, and the refreshingly brilliant ones. Although, I have to wonder if somewhere down the line, something in my head will snap, and I will be found walking around Times Square re-enacting the audition packages I’ve experienced over the years. So, if you happen to come to New York City, and run into a shaggy-haired Filipino with a sign around his neck reading, "Will sight read for food," and reciting the "Tuna Fish" monologue from Laughing Wild, and sprech-stimming "How Could I Ever Know?", well… Just remember: He likes the Monkey Cake from Amy’s Bread, and the Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies from Levain.
Through the window-paned doors he could see the last flakes of snow falling to the ground. They were big, fluffy, unexpected flakes – a reminder that even though the temperatures of the past couple of days had indicated otherwise, it was still Winter. Even the calendar mounted on the refrigerator said that the first day of Spring was still three weeks away. Alas, the recent warmer temperatures had also meant that as soon as each snowflake made contact with the ground, they would return to their original liquid origin, speckling the back patio with wet, irregular polka-dots.
He had wanted to run outside when the snow started falling, to be a kid again: looking up to the sky, opening his mouth, sticking his tongue out, tasting the cold. However, less child-like, more mature concerns kept him from flinging open the doors, and venturing out on to the patio. Should he put a coat on? What shoes should he wear? Did he really want to head out into the cold? Would he get wet? The snow was going to stop falling as soon as he stepped outside anyway, right? The snow did stop falling eventually, but much later then he had falsely predicted. As he watched those last flakes of snow slowly descend and then melt on the slate tiles on his back patio, that all too familiar sense of regret was reawakened in him again.
The past couple of days had been filled with many similar moments, small missed opportunities. Each time he would take a moment – and just a moment – to think about what he had just let pass him by. And each time that strangely hollow bit of emptiness inside of him would tell him You should have done that. But, again, it was just a moment, a split second of his thoughts, and then he would continue on with his life until the next such moment arrived sooner or later. Usually sooner. He continued to stare outside. By this time, there were no traces of white left on the patio, nor on the lawn chair that should have been put into storage months ago. That brief Winter Wonderland had simply become the remnants of a brief sprinkle of rain. Maybe Spring had come early? No!
He pushed himself away from the table, walked over to the front door where his shoes were, and slipped on his favorite pair of Winter mocs, and finally headed out onto the patio. As he opened the door, he felt the cool air brush against his face, and was disappointed to find it was not cooler, colder. A few steps later, he was standing in the middle of his small backyard, surrounded by the few shrubs and trees that comprised his bit of green in this corner of the city. As he stood on the graveled landscape, he looked up to the sky hoping for any stragglers. Nothing. He continued to look around, hoping to catch some sign of the brief flurry that he had just watched from the safety of his kitchen table chair. Again, nothing.
He was not anti-Spring, he just wanted Winter to get it’s full due. He wanted a return to the Winters of his childhood. Watching the snow fall and fall until it buried the small set of stairs that led up to his front door, and the resulting joyful anticipation of sitting by the radio as the announcer read off the list of school closings. The inevitable laughter that would burst forth after watching one of his brothers take a step off the back porch, and disappear into a bank of white – his brother would be laughing too. The joyous thrill of sledding down the big hill on an inverted trash can lid. The warmth and love of the triangles of grilled cheese sandwiches and bowls of tomato soup that his mom would have waiting for him and his brothers once they had shaken off all the snow from their dungarees, and removed the Wonder Bread bags (which were secured with rubberbands) that lined their boots. Life had definitely become much more complicated since then, and the meteorological patterns of the intervening years seemed to favor milder Decembers, Januarys and Februarys.
Trying to make the best of it, and to make sure his venturing outside was not for naught, he began to take a closer inspection of his surroundings. He observed the pattern of the snow-rain-drops on the leaves of a dormant azalea. He tried to discern which shades of gray on the large pieces of gravel were part of the stones themselves or bits of dampness. He reached over to the poured concrete border that formed one of the flowerbeds, and as he felt the cold coming off of it even before his fingers made contact with the manmade stone, he smiled.
Suddenly, his eyes caught a glimpse of Green. Leaves. He grew wary and weary again of the prospect of a pre-mature Spring, but he soon realized that the Green was preserved, not new growth. He breathed a happy sigh of relief. The leaves were at the base of a single flower bud. He thought it might be a daisy at first, but it might have been a rose, however, he could not recall if he had ever seen roses in his backyard. Truth be told, even though he liked flowers, he was never one to keep track of which fanciful name went with each formation of petals and colors.
He looked at the bud. It seemed as if it had been preserved right at the moment before it was supposed to open to let the enclosed petals expose themselves to the outside air and sun. He thought that if he touched it, that it might burst. Maybe it was hibernating. The green-ness of it puzzled and awed him at the same time. It was already the last week of February, and this bud had to have been formed months ago. It had survived the rainy October, the early chill of November, and the snowfall earlier in the month. Mother Nature at her most resilient.
He gazed over at the fence, and noticed another clump of flowers resting against the slats. However, these flowers were not Green. They were Gray, Yellowed, frail. He walked over to them, and as each step took him closer, his sense of marvel increased. It appeared that the whole plant was dead. There was no trace of green in the stems, in the leaves, nor in the petals, but like the bud, it had been preserved and had literally weathered the elements of the past couple of months. He noticed the network of fibers that formed the basis of the petals; they reminded him of a counted cross-stitch panel that was either still in progress or had begun to fray at the edges. Parts of it were exposed, while other parts still retained their original covering, now sun-bleached and parchment-like.
At the base of this plant, he noticed a piece of paper, a stray bit of litter that had most likely blown in from one of the adjacent yards. He bent down to pick it up, and as he began to stand up and turn his head, he found himself looking up into the sky through the faded bouquet he had just been admiring. The clouded sunlight only seemed to grow more intense as it filtered through the translucent petals. Bright, White, Light. Simultaneously, the flowers seemed to lose their fade as their silhouettes sharpened in relief against the backdrop of the still-Winter sky. For a split second he thought it was snowing again.
He could only take advantage of that vantage point for a few seconds; any longer and he would have surely lost his balance and tumbled into the wooden fence, onto the plant, crushing that fragile Winter arrangement. Once he was standing upright again, he took one more look around the small garden before heading back inside. He kept his Winter mocs on and went back to his bedroom to fetch his wallet as well as his house keys, and walked out his front door. As he walked towards the grocery store up the street, he began to make his mental shopping list.
A can of tomato soup
A package of individually wrapped slices of American cheese
A loaf of Wonder Bread. Or two.