You might say I chose this particular mission — prepping chocolates — as an easy way out in the “How Hard” enterprise, whose credo, if it had one, would run something along the lines of “How hard could it be for one neurotic, I-have-a-note-from-my-psychiatrist Valley Girl to attempt some new venture that takes her far out of her comfort zone?”
Making chocolate? Pffff! Isn’t that like how hard could it be to get a massage, or to drink Campari and soda with George Clooney?
But I’m asking one of Life’s Big Questions here, and my goal is to receive the answer after an afternoon with Marguerite Cook, accomplished chocolatier and owner of the Good Ship Lollipop at the top of Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs.
The Big Question? If you’re like me, and your control blows a gasket when surrounded by sugary treats (with perhaps the exception of Fig Newtons and a particularly dry Jewish pastry called mandel breit), how hard could it be to actually work in a candy store and resist munching one’s way through the stock (asking the proprietress, of course, to run a tab — a big tab)? And this made me wonder: How many of us go wobbly-kneed at the sight of a cupcake or even an after-dinner mint? And conversely, what percentage of us eat very few sweets? Or none at all?
Turns out, hardly anyone is able to hold back, at least according to my own double-blind study when I posed the question to Facebook friends, asking how they’d address a bag of macadamia nut cookies left over from coffee with afternoon guests. Would they scoff them all before their heads hit the pillow? (As I had done the day before.)
Out of the dozens of comments that flooded back, the plea for abstention ran something like 20 to 1 against. Respondents related sugar consumption of epic proportions, such as Carole Flanders, originally of Oak Bluffs, now of Florida, who wrote, “I recently demolished three-quarters of a carrot cake at a single sitting.” Barbara Beichek of Oak Bluffs shared, “I’ve gobbled Nestlé Quik dry ’cauz I had no milk.” Jim Bishop, also of Oak Bluffs, revealed he would polish off the cookies immediately, because “it’s not worth waking up in the middle of the night unable to go back to sleep because there are certain uneaten cookies in the kitchen.” Nancy Slonim Aronie of Chilmark bravely admitted, “I have thrown cookies into the garbage and retrieved them two hours later, let them dry out from the pickle juice and finished them off.”
Exactly three souls identified themselves in the “just say no” camp: Lynnda Blitzer from Santa Barbara wrote, “Throw them away, they’ve served their purpose.” Susan Wilson of Oak Bluffs maintained, “Leftover cookies turn to shards and crumble in my cupboard.” Debbi Kanoff of Westwood, Calif., ranked herself in the “self-restraint/deferred gratification department.” As usual, the grownups among us are few and far between.
So if most of us occasionally — or always — weaken in the grip of Back Door Donuts straight from the baker’s vat, was there any wisdom I could winnow from an afternoon of chocolate making? Could I resist munching my way through my apprenticeship?
I showed up at the candy shop on a freezing November afternoon. Amid festive displays of toys, stuffed animals, and every brand of candy in the known world, Marguerite already had her three Hilliard kettles rolling and gently heating to 90 degrees. One kettle held milk chocolate, the second dark, the third white. The sweet fragrance from the drums was so seductive. I was ready to plunge my face in the white chocolate cylinder and sing as I slurped, “Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo!” like the Disney character caroling away on the sound system.
Fortunately, Marguerite kept things on the sane and sanitary side. I was given a lavender scrub with cartoon drawings of Pinocchio figures. I’d already had the foresight to cover my hair in a pink bandana. We washed up at a specially designated sink, my mentor filling my dry hands with so much soap, I rinsed under hot water all the way through Annette Funicello’s rendition of “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”
Yes, it’s clear from the music and the memorabilia that Marguerite is nostalgic for her childhood in small-town Braintree in a family of 12 kids. Yowzer! On the same block, another family had 13 kids, yet another 15. Nowadays, she and husband David have two grown daughters and five grandkids, all of them living on the Island. Her extended family has just taken over a small city in Bavaria.
Marguerite showed me how to feed a spoonful of melted dark chocolate into trays of turkey-shaped molds. The chocolate hardens fast, so you don’t want any to spill over, and of course, mine did; I have the motor ability of Lucille Ball on the assembly line. No prob. Marguerite wielded a putty knife and slid the surplus chocolate back into the kettle where it reformatted with the sinuously swirling, bulbous ball of chocolate. She taught me to insert a white stick, twirling this way and that, before the trays of chocolate turkey pops disappeared into the cooler.
I wanted to lunge after one of those yummy treats but, well, Marguerite would notice the empty mold and, also, my right hand was encased in a latex glove, my left hand meant to mind itself. No petting of dogs or patting anyone’s bottom. Or eating the product.
Next we poured milk chocolate into a tray, gave it a few minutes to harden, then Marguerite spooned white chocolate over it ever so carefully so as not to rile up the dark layer beneath. She handed me a hammer, and I bashed candy canes into tiny crystals which we sprinkled over the top. This confection too got whooshed into the cooler, but some 20 minutes later, Marguerite retrieved it and sliced it into small squares. She gave me one to sample. Heaven. The combination of chocolate layers and the poignant dusting of mint-flavored candy was a taste bud thrill of uncommon proportions; possibly the result of nibbling nothing else in the full time I’d worked in the shop.
Marguerite packed up three turkey popsicles and six of those candy cane babies for me to take home for my Thanksgiving with my son and his girlfriend in NYC. She tied a gold ribbon around the box, and said with a knowing wink, “I’m calling Charlie to make sure this ribbon was intact when it got to him.”
The ribbon remained intact all the way up my stairs. By the time I crawled into bed, however, I’d devoured four of the squares. My tummy churned, and I swore off candy cane bark for alI time. Conceivably I might have overdosed on sweets for the rest of my life.
Before falling asleep, I realized I’d stumbled on a major cultural breakthrough. Anyone can be treated for sugar addiction: Simply indenture oneself to a baker or a candy maker for an afternoon!
The next morning I woke up with something in my freezer with my name on it.