When I was 22, I had a dinner engagement with Joyce Carol Oates and I stood her up. Didn’t call or send a message. I just didn’t go. Yes, THAT Joyce Carol Oates. The uber-prolific National Book Award-winning, Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of We Were the Mulvaneys, and Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart. Her. I’m just naming the novels I know even though she’s written like 60? Not including essays and short story collections. Unbelievably talented, Mount Rushmore novelist. Chance of a lifetime.
And I didn’t go. At the time I was a freshman in college and my English professor saw something in me which I later discovered was a virginal youthfulness he wished to exploit and sleep with, but at the time I thought was a hope and concern for my burgeoning writing talent. My mentor turned out to be what Lena Dunham calls a “Sunshine Stealer”, just a dirty old man looking for a jolt of youth. And sex. But that’s a whole other story for another time. And we’re here to talk about Joyce. And Fire, Flour & Fork I swear.
The professor noticed me reading “Because it is Bitter…” in class and invited me to a dinner he was hosting for her. I was thrilled. Immediately went home and crammed another two books of hers in so I would appear knowledgeable and worldly. Which wasn’t easy since she’s prolific in the length of her novels as well. But when he called the night before and said he’d arranged for me to sit NEXT to Ms. Oates, I panicked. I’d hoped to smile discreetly from afar and maybe say a few words. Sit next to her at dinner? The whole night?! My social anxiety flooded up tsunami fashion. I didn’t go. Hid in my apartment for a week in case I ran into him, or by some weird possibility her, even though we’d never met. When I finally returned to class I mumbled, shrugged, and acted about as interested in literature as I was in contacting Ebola.
All this is a long way of saying I’m terrified of meeting my heroes. Always have been. It’s completely irrational. My head tells me they’re just people, but my heart, my gut sends up a ticker tape message along the lines of, “They’re better than you, they’re smarter than you, they’ve done more with their lives than you,” which runs on a loop until I end up in a corner with the shakes.
Case in point. When Anthony Bourdain was here, I purchased the VIP tickets, but did I get my book signed? Hell no! I sat in the back and stared at him like a crazed stalker, completely petrified. What on earth could I say to him or Eric Ripert that would be even remotely cool or intelligible? I was content my question, “What’s your favorite secret junk food vice?” was asked during their talk. That’s as close as I wanted to get. Another time at a dinner hosted by Chefs Michael Symon, Jonathan Waxman, and Bobby Flay, all I could do was grin like a buffoon.
Sadly, it was the same story for the Appalachian Memoir dinner at Fire, Flour & Fork. Chef Sean Brock was in the restaurant all night, but the most I could manage was a creepy smile in passing on my way to the bathroom. He wasn’t even looking in my direction and still my heart jumped up in my throat like a fucking spider cricket! Imagine talking?! Visions of gobbeldy-gook spewing out of my mouth like verbal diarrhea about how much I love, admire, and seriously CRUSH on him during every episode of The Mind of a Chef flooded my brain. No thank you. I’ll just smile and pretend my heart isn’t pounding out of my chest thank you very much.
Which left me even more nervous to meet another hero of mine, Chef Christina Tosi. Tosi, pastry chef at David Chang’s Momofuku Milk Bar, is a native Virginian, and a MASTER in the art of sweets. I made her cornflake, marshmallow, and chocolate chip cookies last Christmas, but substituted Fruity Pebbles as suggested in her cookbook, Milk. My family loves them and to this day calls them “Crack Cookies”.
Coincidentally, at her cooking demonstration she’d be making Crack Pie, one of her signature creations. This decadent confection resembles more a dense sticky toffee pudding than anything in a crust. Imagine a chess pie that’s chewier, sweeter, nuttier, and more buttery. Nestled in an oat cookie crust, this pie is so sweet your cavities will cry out in protest. I couldn’t wait to see her bake it.
I so dearly with all my baker’s soul wanted to ask her a question about an original pie creation I was working on. But would I have the courage? From the way I’d just acted at the dinner I thought not, but I also knew this might be my only chance to get an expert opinion. I mean, how badly did I want to win next year’s Charlottesville Pie Fest anyway? Pretty badly it turns out.
Her demonstration was amazing, a true expression of what public speaking with cooking utensils could be. Chef Tosi was engaging, funny, self-deprecating, and so at ease in front of a crowd it’s like she cooks in public every morning of her life. She mixed, rolled, kneaded and dusted, talking with an easy way and knowledge about all things pastry. I hated her. When she stated, “Milk powder is MSG for pastry chefs,” I scribbled it down furiously, tweeted it out, and sighed in wistfulness and envy that she could be so relaxed, so quippy, with an effortlessness and ease I’d never known. Not once.
“Milk powder is MSG for pastry chefs.” —-Chef Christina Tosi
After her demo, and after we’d all inhaled a slice of Crack Pie like it was medicine, I somehow found the courage to get an autograph for my well-worn copy of “Milk”. Maybe it was the intense sugar rush, or the fact I’m just over my damn self already and sick to death of my fears, but somehow I found the wherewithal to stand in line. I even spoke with two elderly ladies who’d never heard of Tosi, but had enjoyed the Crack Pie and were wondering which breakout session to attend next. I practiced talking to Tosi by talking to them, probably too much, even giving them my recipe for Tomato Candy of all things. I could hear myself babbling. I’m sure it was the nervousness. Or the sugar. Or both.
By the time I got to my hero, I was on a roll. I’d heard her tell someone she’d gone to UVA and latched onto that. Asked her about UVA, commented on the beautiful landscape, and before I could stop myself, launched into my soliloquy about one of her heavenly cakes and what did she think about turning it into a pie? I could sense the long line behind me growing restless, but I didn’t care. I was full of sugar and had a mission. Help me make this pie!
Chef Tosi was friendly and helpful and very carefully gave me suggestions on what she thought was a wonderful idea. She signed my book, wished me well, and sent me on my way. The whole exchange probably took less than 5 minutes, but in my head it lasted hours. Days. It was all in slow motion. My heart pumping the entire time. Which might have been the sugar. It ain’t called Crack Pie for nothing. Too late I realized I hadn’t gotten a picture.
Have I conquered my fear? Not quite. In my head I know opportunities only come around once, and when faced with a door, you should open it, but tell that to my beating heart and sweaty palms. For my gut it isn’t always easy. At least I now have concrete steps to take when faced with meeting your heroes. Eat a TON of sugar. If you’ve had a triple latte beforehand that helps. Have in your mind one question to ask. If you find out she knows your hometown, jump on that for all it’s worth. Never stop talking. Seriously, keep talking until the angry line of ladies signal you with their eyes your time is up. Or the event organizer kicks you out for being a stalking Creepy Creeper.
I often think what would have happened if I’d gone to that Joyce Carol Oates dinner. Sure, I would’ve had to fight off Mr. Grabby Hands but I might’ve also discovered a true mentor, one who could’ve opened doors for me. If I wasn’t so paralyzed, I might be further along. Maybe even have a book or two under my belt. But I do believe things happen for a reason, and for whatever I was supposed to be a no show. Even if it was only for a quirky blog post story some 25 years later. If it happened again? I’d go this time. And probably sit at the dinner smiling at Joyce like a buffoon.
And what, you may ask, was the question for Chef Christina Tosi? What pie am I interested in making? You’ll just have to attend next year’s Charlottesville Pie Fest to find out :0)
Thank you Fire, Flour & Fork for a terrific event. Who knew conferences could be so therapeutic? See you in 2015!