I am not a a religious person. I can’t even say I’m a terribly spiritual person.
But, I am a person who is deeply moved by the thoughts and actions of inspiring, generous, loving people.
We were gathered together in one beautiful stone barn in Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) last Saturday. As individuals, we had come to this place for many reasons; friendship, knowledge and of course, food. Many of us came in lost and confused, as we have stumbled trying to find our way in the blogging equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah: Google Recipe Algorithm, SEO and Monetization. As we listened with rapt attention to the teachings of Penny, Shauna, Pam and Justin, it seemed we all, at the same time, were rocked by the emotion that bubbled up to the surface. One brave soul asked for guidance out of the hell of self-doubt. She wept openly, and as I nervously scanned the crowd while the tears spilled from my own full eyes, I saw others weeping, too.
And, I do believe I heard a chorus of “hallelujahs” and “amens” at that magical moment.
When the sessions were over, and it was time to rejoice and eat, there were more tears and more hugs. 8 second hugs, to be exact, because that’s the amount of time it takes for a good hug to start lifting serotonin levels. And we were lifted by those laying on of hands. Over and over and over again.
Suddenly, I knew things would be different from here on. You see, I’m not a writer, I’m barely a blogger, and I’m certainly no photographer. But, I do create and I do have a story to tell and I’ll tell it the only way I know how, and somehow, it will be read or seen or heard or eaten. I won’t be shackled by formulas and schedules. I will remember that photographs are a metaphor for life, and I will look through the lens and see everything in full frame. I’ll turn off ALL the editors’ voices in my head and just do what I do because it feels right to me.
Hallelujah, I have seen the light and I have been released!!!!
And, I am grateful that it happened to me and my brothers and sisters in the Temple of the Big Summer Potluck.
Extra special thanks to The Andersons and Erika Pineda-Ghanny (@ivoryhut) for creating this sanctuary for us all.
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As we settled into the den this past sweltering Friday night to have a cold cocktail and watch a movie, the phone rang. It was Julie, our downstairs neighbor.
“Hi Gail, I was wondering if I could ask you something?”
“Sure Julie, what is it?”
“Can you make a wedding cake for Sunday?”
Dumbfounded, I replied as I always do in situations like these. ”Are you crazy? I can’t possibly do that, Julie. I’m so sorry.”
Ignoring what I just sputtered, Julie went on trying to win me over.
“Let me just tell you about whose getting married”, she began. ”Two of my oldest, dearest friends who’ve been together for ages got their wedding lottery notice earlier today. The guys just got a slot in the Manhattan same sex marriage lottery for Sunday. I’ve been busy with them all day arranging their wedding…we have a friend who is a judge performing the ceremony, 20 family members and friends are coming in for the wedding and even though Aureole was already booked, they were nice enough to suggest Ai Fiori, who is happily taking care of the whole thing. All we need now is the wedding cake.”
Now, could anyone say no to this? I certainly couldn’t. Especially while listening to this shpiel while wiping the tears that were streaming down my cheeks. ”Okay, Julie, what do the guys want?”
“Well, they want a tradtional tiered cake with fondant and fresh flowers.”
[a moment of silence on my end] ”Oy. Julie, I don’t do fondant cakes. Or fresh flowers. Buttercream and cookies are what I do.”
We take a few minutes to simultaneously review the photos of my work on my website.
“Well, let me have Ken call you.”
I spoke with Ken about flavors and cookies and buttercream and heard the ‘ohmygod, I can’t believe I’m doing this’ in Ken’s voice. Planning a dinner party on the fly is one thing. But, a wedding? A wedding that’s part of a history-making day? No wonder Ken sounded like an automaton hopped up on Redbull.
I thought and I thought, I sketched, and I use that term loosely since I have the drawing skills of a 4 year old (picture big sheet of paper, drawing in one corner of the paper, rest of the page is blank. And that’s on a good day.). Finally, I had the idea in my head. I’d do the cookies and bake the cake on Saturday, make the buttercream and assemble the whole thing on Sunday. Pick up at 3:00 p.m., delivery by 4:00 p.m., ceremony begins at 5:00 p..m.
On this day, July 24, 2011, in all five boroughs of New York City 823 same sex couples will have been married by the time you read this. History will have been made as New York becomes the 6th state to change its laws to allow same sex marriage. We are all celebrating. We’re celebrating the first portion of the end of a social and legal injustice (the federal government will be obviously be the next hurdle). And, in a time when our state’s economy is pretty much in shambles, the money brought to the state in the tourism, hospitality and retail sectors will be very significant. Which, in and of itself could be the reason(s) other states might want to reconsider changing their laws.*
But, let’s get back to the mushy stuff….wedding talk.
As I measured and mixed, schmeared and smoothed, I thought all day about my own state of marriage. J and I have been together for 29 years. Waaaay back in the ’80′s, when we met and fell in love and decided to be together, a real marriage was not an option. ’Gay’ and ‘marriage’ were words that would never be written in the same sentence. But, that didn’t stop us, or other couples like us, from
needing wanting the ritual of a wedding. Reciting our vows in front of friends and J’s family (my parents refused to come; a decision they ultimately regretted) who loved us and wanted us to be happy. We wrote the vows, selected rings, got very dressed up, hired a caterer and had our ‘commitment ceremony’. That’s what pioneers like us had in 1982. A commitment ceremony.
For all intents and purposes, we’ve sailed through life as though we were happily, legally married. We built a home and a life together. Saved and invested money together, bought life insurance policies and had wills and medical powers of attorney drawn up. We behaved responsibly.
In 2008, when the New York State Assembly failed to pass the same-sex marriage amendment, we feared we might never see same-sex marriage in our state. On a particularly frigidly icy December day, we trained to Greenwich, CT (where same-sex marriage is legal) and applied for a marriage license. After waiting the requisite number of days, we trained back, once again, to Greenwich to get married.
No friends accompanied us; we told them not to bother. And, in sharp contrast to they way we entered our commitment ceremony 27 years earlier, we neither dressed up or wore makeup. The Justice of the Peace wanted to marry us in her own home, and again we said thanks, but don’t bother. We’d be fine with getting married in City Hall in a random room beneath the photo of the current head of The Department of Sanitation. It was just a formality. We got married years ago.
Wearing our warmest jackets, gloves, scarves and Uggs, we trudged into the courthouse, with a Starbucks coffee in one hand, and my Mitzi bag in the other (you didn’t think we’d leave her out, did you?). Pleasantries were exchanged with the loveliest J of P, and we were ready to begin.
We stood in front of a podium with the state seal of Connecticut painted on it. The Justice of the Peace began to read from her book.
And, I began to sob. No tears slowly welling up in my eyes, no single salt water trickle out of the side of my eye, but the kind of ugly sobbing that explodes from the bottom of your soul and makes your shoulders practically convulse. I thought I’d never get through the 3 minutes of ceremony to mumble the “I do’s”. But I did. And, in that moment when J and I faced each other and sort of heard something about being recognized as a married couple in the state of Connecticut, I fully comprehended the enormity and the importance of being equal. Married. Not a civil union, but really, honest and truly, married.
So, to Ken and Terry, and the other 822 couples who, hopefully cried a lot prettier than I did while they got married, I say “Congratulations!”
Now, who wants cake?
* Did you know that lesbian and gay couples earn roughly 45% more than their heterosexual counterparts?
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By the time I truly unwound and relaxed (and by that I mean not having hot flashes 10 or 100 times a day), it was time to pack up and go home (back to the ever-present mustache of sweat beads).
It’s been so lovely here. We relaxed. We read and listened to music all day.
We never turned the news on. Not once. I survived.
We cooked. We grilled. I baked.
We saw two of the films presented at the Film Festival.
We saw beautiful dance performances.
We almost hate to go back home.
Even Mitzi’s not exactly jumping into her bag.
Oh vacation, you were so very good to us this year!
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“When you ship an order of cookies, do you ship extras?” That was the question I posed a few nights ago to cookie business owners on my Facebook page.
Granted, this was hardly a Quinnipiac poll, but I did get a lot of answers rather quickly. In a nutshell, the preponderance of responders (or is it respondents?) said ‘yes’ to the extra cookie shipping. Isn’t that interesting?
You KNOW I have an opinion on this. And, let me preface this entire post by saying it’s ONLY MY OPINION! I’m not judging, preaching or telling you how to run your business by any stretch of the imagination. This is just a platform for discussion because, well, it’s an interesting discussion. Okay?
May I ask you another question? When ordering something fragile from Tiffany’s, Neiman Marcus, Sears, Walmart, Target, Amazon, Williams-Sonoma, or any other big retailer, do you get an extra bowl, wine glass, vase or dish? Do these merchants ship extras because they know the product is fragile and that breaks are inevitable? No, of course not.
So, why are you shipping free extras?
You told me you’re doing this in case some cookies break, like an insurance policy. But, you’re still giving away product and there’s no guarantee that they all won’t break. Want insurance? Then check off the little box on the shipping form that asks if you’d like your package insured. If there are breaks, your client can document them and you can claim the damages from Fedex, UPS, or even the Post Office, if I’m not mistaken, provided you’ve paid to have the package insured. Returning money or redoing the cookies (time permitting) shows great customer service on your part. Your clients will be grateful and are bound to use you again for another occasion.
Then there’s the ‘engendering good’ will reason. Think about it. Let’s say you charge $48 for 12 cookies. That’s $4 per cookie, right? Add two extra free cookies and you’ve just brought your cost down to $3.43 each. A difference of $.57 per cookie. Now, let’s say you have orders for 12 orders of 1 dozen cookies per month. If my math skills are correct (and notice I’m using easy numbers so I don’t get myself screwed up) you’ve given away 24 cookies and roughly $13.68. Multiply that by 12 months a year and bingo: you’re up to $165.00! And, that’s if you only make 144 cookies per month!!! I understand including a few bonus cookies to a client who orders frequently and hypes you to friends. But, new customers? I think you’re subliminally telling your clients that the price you’ve quoted isn’t the real price at all.
Which brings me to the next subject: the importance of proper packing. Bridget shares her packing expertise over here. I ship alot of cookies, but I agree with Dani Fiori who wrote that she only ships certain styles. I will not ship a champagne glass cookie. Even with a piece of cardboard slipped into the bag to shore up a structurally unstable design, I won’t do it. BUT, I do use a lot of bubble wrap, foam sheets, crumpled newspaper and FRAGILE stickers in and on every box I ship. And, when faced with a cookie disaster, I file the appropriate paperwork with the shipper, and then quickly return money or credit the customer. Thankfully, this hasn’t happened often. But, it’s happened.
It’s becoming more apparent to me that this cookie business has a split personality. It’s a business/it’s cookies. You and your cookies nurture and cuddle your clients/friends. You probably have a never-ending supply of taste-testers and reject-acceptors ready and willing to ‘help’ you out day and night. It’s complimentary, I realize that. But that’s not a business where goods are sold in exchange for money. I can’t imagine saying to a banker “hey, if you have any reject 100 dollar bills, I’ll take ‘em off your hands.” You wouldn’t dream of it, right? But, that never stops anyone from making mindless remarks like that to us.
If you have a retail shop and inventory is mounting up, slashing the price at the end of the day to move product is how spent money is salvaged. Donating to a food bank is a great way to get a tax deduction and build strong community relationships. But, as owners of small, custom order businesses, we don’t have inventory waiting to ship. We create new product for each and every order that comes in. And that can make it even harder to eke out a living, especially when clients don’t realize that labor is the major component of the price structure. Add to that the skyrocketing cost of ingredients! So, to me, I might as well tape dollar bills to my boxes, sooner than including the extra cookies.
Your clients have chosen to place an order with you because you’ve enticed them with the offerings on your website, and/or prior experience with your product. Many of you said you include the extras as a ‘thank you’. Does your butcher give you an extra steak to say thank you? How about the gas station owner; is he offering up a gallon or two to be nice? I thank clients, new and old, by sending a short email after their event asking if everything went well and thanking them for choosing me to create something special for their celebration.
So many of us open our businesses with wide-eyed optimism, only to be broken by the harsh reality of 15-16 hour days and very hard physical labor involved to sustain the work we love. It takes time and patience to keep the love in the cookies. And the money in the till.
What do you think? I’ll be right here waiting for your response.
I think I’ll have a cup of tea and an extra cookie while I wait.
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In my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined the conversation this little rant o’ mine caused recently. If anything, I truly expected an avalanche of negative comments, and I braced myself for that onslaught. But, it didn’t happen. It struck quite a chord with you all, and I thank you for all positivity!
So I thought to myself, I COULD write a post for you now about the nuances of ten different royal icing consistencies. But, it seems that these fine cookie makers (and many more) have that covered. You don’t need me for that right now.
You’re different. You like to dare me to talk about these forbidden subjects. And I fall for it.
That said, the next runaway circus elephant that has showed up in my living room is tattooed with the word discount.
Here’s a sample of that scenario:
A potential client phones and wants to place an order for, say, 100 cookies. That’s a tidy little order, you think to yourself. Before you can say “vanilla or chocolate cookies?”, the question is asked: ”Can I get a discount on this because I’m doing volume?” Which do you do:
- Become paralyzed from head to toe.
- Cave instantly by saying ‘of course’ and fumble over your words because you don’t want to lose this order, no way no how, even though you’re livid with rage.
- Calmly and sweetly tell the client that these cookies are being created expressly for them and the largest portion of the cookie costing formula is labor, and you can’t possibly discount labor, much as you might like to.
If you said ‘C’ unequivocally, then shut this thing down and go do something productive with your time.
WHY O WHY would you give a discount? Because you’re getting Trump wealthy on all these cookies you’re making? It doesn’t make much sense, does it? If you’re creating cookies especially for this client, then there’s no real reason to give a discount. It’s not like you have a big inventory of baked and decorated cookies that are sitting in your cookie warehouse, and you just have to make room for all the other cookies that need storage. No-siree. You’re making these cookies expressly for this client. And, as we went over in the last post that made my blood boil, you and I both know you’re not getting rich doing it.
What happens if you do give in and provide a discount? It could be a percentage, a few cents, maybe even a few dollars off each cookie because you believe this client is IMPORTANT! You begin the work. And, low and behold another person wants to order cookies. No mention of a discount. Hhmmm….take the order and give up overrated showers and sleep? Now you start to really get steamed because you’re working your decorating digits to the bone for less money than ever, AND turning away business.
Do not fall into this trap. Re-read #3 and repeat after me: my labor is what fuels these cookies. It is my work that you admired and made you come to me for my product. Without my labor, these cookies mean nothing. Chances are, if you explain honestly (like you’re letting them into your world) that the labor really is the biggest expense of the cookie, the client will understand, especially if that client is a small business owner, too.
It’s okay to say no and not feel guilty. You are the master of your cookie domain. But remember, once you give a particular client a discount, they will always ask for a discount. The precedent will have been set.
Ultimately, you have to answer this question: is it better to take a huge order at a discounted price that may or may not cover your costs, time and labor, or is it better to take smaller orders with a larger mark-up for the week? And have time to shower?
No matter what you decide, I have a feeling that you’re going to be answering these queries with a lot more confidence now. Reward yourself with a cookie. And send this elephant back to the circus.
Or this cake.
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Choices. We face them every day.
Pancakes or oatmeal? Tuna or grilled cheese? Chocolate or vanilla cookies?
Then, there are the more difficult choices. The ones that have consequences. The ones that really matter.
Last week, our dear friend Ilene called me and asked if she could order some cookies. Ilene told me she was going to Washington on March 1 (today) with her Planned Parenthood colleagues to visit a number of Senate offices. She thought leaving an edible calling card would be a nice idea.
I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t care about how much work was already on the production schedule. You see, for years now, Ilene has devoted her time and energy to Planned Parenthood. Ilene will never sing her own praises, but I will. Recently, Ilene was presented with a prestigious award honoring her almost 20 years of service in various volunteer capacities. I wouldn’t and couldn’t say no.
Sex education and reproductive matters are hot button topics in this country of ours. Congress has recently voted to defund Planned Parenthood. The Senate is expected to vote on the matter shortly, too. Suffice to say, removing federal funding would have a devastating effect on this organization.
I’m not going to preach, I’m not going to filibuster. I have always been a firm believer in freedom of choice. I have always supported Planned Parenthood’s efforts to educate women and men, here and abroad, about disease prevention and family planning. I want to see them continue providing low-cost health care to those with limited resources. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, plain and simple.
I Stand With Planned Parenthood.Read More »
Hey..I’m blogging! See? Oh yeah, I’ll be chitting and chatting about my confections and savories, opining on foodie matters. What’s that you say? There are already food bloggers out there? Gazillions of ‘em, for like, 10 years or more? That’s okay with me. So I’m not the first one to arrive at the party.
I am a late bloomer. Literally, starting with being born 3 weeks past the due date. Daring to take my first steps at 17 months of age. It’s not like I was a total dud….I practically spoke in full sentences at that age. I just couldn’t talk AND walk. Speaking of athletic endeavors, I took tadpole swimming lessons at age 12. Me & my breast buds flailing about with 6 year olds. So, I’m not athletic…big deal. Artistic leanings? Nope. Not that either..I got a ‘D’ in 7th grade art class (only one grading period, not the whole year). That one might not be entirely my doing; Mrs. Whatshername wasn’t particularly inspiring.
When I reached my forties, I had two life-altering revelations that normally occur twenty years earlier: (a) that there were more ways of doing things than my mother’s way or the wrong way, and (b) that you can make what you love to do into your work. The second one was almost as powerful as the first one (more about that one in posts to come). It was particularly important because it explained why I didn’t have that fire in my belly for selling designer fashions, and why my daydreams were only about all aspects of food. I liked clothes well enough, but never qualified as a fashionista. Frankly, selling fashion isn’t as glamorous as you might think. Imagine holding up a dress that’s been made out of what looks like car upholstery and crooning to unwitting buyers “it’s fabulous” when you know it’s really not, but there are 750 of those puppies hanging and collecting dust bunnies in a faraway warehouse, and SOMEBODY has to buy them. All the while fantasizing about a cake featured on Martha Stewart, a new recipe in the late, great Gourmet Magazine. It’s a wonder I ever made a sale.
In the spring of 2003, I said goodbye to fashion or should I say, it said goodbye to me. I was collateral damage in a downsized business. That was a curve ball I didn’t expect to have to catch. But after that freaky feeling wore off, it was time to act so, I enrolled in The French Culinary Institute’s Pastry Arts Program. 21 students in the class between the ages of 18 and 28, and me. Late bloomers like moi don’t worry about age differences, no-siree. We’re the same as the other kids, except we have some money, own our apartments, and have a car. Yes, we’re all alike…..except when it came to pulled sugar roses and chocolate sculptures, but that wasn’t an age thing. That damned art thing got in the way again. Six months later, we’re graduating. And, I graduated with honors, mostly because moxie trumped artistic flair. But it didn’t matter. Honors are honors and I felt great.
In all this time, though, it never dawned on me that I would be embarking on a new career that takes a physical toll on its grunts. Standing on my feet (almost 50 year old feet, don’t forget) for 12 – 14 hours/day is exhausting. But, it also feels really good: a feeling of a task completed from beginning to end. And, when I began to work at a popular Chelsea bakery, I learned I could really whip out the product when someone else washed mixing bowls, pans, and utensils. I became an unstoppable baking machine, dressed in elastic waist pants and wearing clown shoes called clogs to make room for the bunions that were sprouting like onions on my feet. So long Manolo Blahnik, hello Crocs.
Then, I got it into my head to intern for a famous cake designer. I thought it would develop help my art skills. Failing gumpaste accents (hippopotamus feet, terra cotta roof tiles, ribbons, bows and tissue for a gift box cake) it became abundantly clear that sculpted cakes would never be my game. I switched my focus and began working with a cookie designer, creating little bites of edible art. One could argue that if sculpted cakes are the confectionary equivalent of the Great American Novel, decorated cookies are nice little short stories. It all came together: outlining and filling those cookies, I was the “Rain Man” of this cookie business toiling (for peanuts) practically 14-16 hours a day, 5 days a week, another 8 -9 hours on Saturdays. This is devotion. This is love. This is madness. There has to be another way.
There is. June 2005: One Tough Cookie, Inc. was born. At the age of 50, I opened my own business when most pastry chefs my age are considering consulting gigs. I’m getting orders, lots and lots of orders. People compliment my ‘art’. MY ART! DO YOU HEAR THAT, 7th GRADE ART TEACHER? Magazines want me to make cookies for ad meetings, cookies for photo shoots. Urban Baby wrote the first press piece about me. I’ve even dubbed myself ‘a confectionary artist’. I’m learning new tricks and even inventing some. I’m still standing on my feet for a good 12 hours a day, but, I swear, it doesn’t feel like work, because it’s what I love to do and think about 24/7/365. If I say so myself, I’m getting pretty darned good at this. Good enough that other bakers come to me for advice….and expertise. Me. Art class almost- dropout.
Which leads me here. Blogging. Joining those ten gazillion food bloggers who’ve paved the way for newbies by sharing their work, how-tos, and photos. The blogosphere party is in full swing and I’ve just arrived. You see, in my world, better late than never is perfect timing.
Note: This post looks very barren because I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how to add a photo. I click and click, and nothing happens. By the time I add another post, this should be remedied.Read More »