Long Live the Salmon King

farmers market stands.png

The canulier received the news that the salmon king had died.  She heard it from the scone man, who asked the Latvian sausage maker and the Japanese salad dressing specialist, then the fiery Italian pesto girl until he finally got an address. I knew you’d want to know, he wrote.

tent

For years they worked the weekend farmer’s markets together, sharing the Brotherhood of Waking Up Before Dawn On Weekend Mornings, rewarded by an eyeful of sunrise as they drove to the market,  shivering in light jackets and hats as they unloaded their trucks in the early morning chill, breath pluming as they traded gibes and offered each other help erecting their tents with the fairground peaks. The salmon king would direct others to help the canulier, who was small.   His muscles are younger than my back! he’d laugh as the jerky man would scurry to lend a hand.

Getting set up is a 30 minute endeavor unless you are the salmon king, who kept his crab cakes and wild Alaskan salmon steaks in a cooler, which he sat on, behind a table: voila, a market stall. Within five minutes of driving up and calling out his halloos to the canulier and the sausage maker he’d be open for business, chatting up the line of customers who seemed to apparate from other dimensions to queue up in front of his stand before his market mates had rung their first sale.  The not inconsiderable cost of fresh, wild caught Alaskan seafood is not a deterrent to the crowd at this market, one of whom once left a Tesla key fob among the canulier’s towers of pastry boxes.  She really knows how to barter, the Salmon King could be heard remarking.

copper-canele-moldThe canulier could be seen slipping behind the salmon king as he gabbed with his customers, leaving behind a crisp white bag of pastry – usually vanilla, though he favored pineapple and lemon too. In between waves of customers the salmon king would hold up the depleted white bag and call out to the canulier (“Thanks, Canelé Queen!”) then  turn to talk  back pain with the gruff, grudgingly friendly sausage maker. When he joked with the pretty salsa girl with her long hair dyed mermaid colors, their laughter would invariably bring the young pickle man, something the canulier suspected the salmon king of planning, though he would never say.

The rules of the market are clear: all tents must stay up til the end of the afternoon, but the salmon king has been there the longest of anyone and when he’s sold out he’s sold out, what’s the sense in waiting around? He’d spend five minutes loading up and before noon he’d be making his rounds to say goodbye til next weekend. Often, he’d save back a package of salmon or crab cakes for the canulier and drop them at her stall when she wasn’t looking, then  drive off with a honk and a wave of  his suntanned arm out the window of his old Datsun.

bxw salmon

The last time she saw the salmon king, the canulier didn’t know it was the last time, and neither did he.  She returned his wave, packed up her truck that just rolled over 250,000 miles and made the long trek home. She would be up before dawn the next day, but for now the window was cranked down to let the eucalyptus-scented air rush through her hair, and there was the happy  surprise of the salmon king’s gift of crab cakes on ice resting in the passenger seat. Barter anything good? came the husband’s text, and she sent the delicious answer All hail the salmon king. The end of the weekend beckoned with the jewel-like flash of sunset on a glass of wine.

The canulier’s fine husband prepared the crab cakes for dinner;  they opened the window and talked and ate with the mild California air breathing its fragrance into the room. It was such simple perfection the canulier felt her heart expand until it threatened to escape her chest, like light leaving a star.  They watched the sun’s slow descent into the Pacific, lighting up the distant blue of the water with a glittering red shimmerlane that stretched  like a path you could walk straight to the edge of the world itself, a sight the canulier would immediately remember when the sad news reached her that the salmon king had died.

sunset.png

RIP Dave

We Are All French American Berliners

thoughts while baking for the world

chocolate-caneles

In an age where people have never seemed so alarmingly disconnected from one another’s reality, it is reassuring to go out and about in the world, stumbling into unexpected moments of grace that remind us, we’re all in this together.

At the Farmer’s Market, a petite woman paused at my stand and exclaimed in the most charming French accented English imaginable, “Oh, canelés! My papa made me canelé every Sunday, how wonderful the kitchen smelled!”

She clasped her hands together under her chin and inhaled deeply through her nose, her eyes closed, to demonstrate, and I looked around half expecting the lowering gray clouds to part, the sun to come out, and a man to propose to her on the spot, she was that charming, it was that much like a moment that should be in the movies if it hasn’t been already.

amelie

Her eyes popped open and she bent down to look into the case, cooing “Really I must call my mother and tell her!”

Her gaze was filled with such delight I felt I had indeed done something worth calling if not writing  home about.

But why me? she wanted to know. How? Was I a Francaise? No, I tell her, my husband taught himself to make them, and over time we all – myself and the daughters included – became expert.  We each even have our own favorite flavor, but I knew she wouldn’t ask what was the best seller. All of our canelés sell well, but among our French customers there is only one best seller, the original Classic Vanilla Canelé de Bordeaux. Even the fondant flowers we sometimes put on top of the vanilla canelés for weddings is unacceptable to the French, who vaunt the original and want no truck with changes or even improvements.

She beamed at me and exclaimed “But you are so charming, the canelés, they are perfection!” (which sounded sexily like but zey cahn-uh-LAY zey ahr pair-FECK-shun!) 

Ever since, when I make canelés and they have been in the oven for about forty minutes, just when the scent begins to drift beyond the kitchen and send tendrils throughout the house, I think of this unnamed woman whose memory of a country kitchen in Bordeaux is now intertwined with my own story. In fact it was her voice I was thinking of when we needed a recording for an event we were catering: 

Just two filaments weaving themselves together in the tapestry that is humankind.

I sometimes think of her when I see the news – in her country, an extreme candidate is leading election polls, something not thought possible before the 2015 terrorist attacks on a newspaper and nightclub that killed more than 130 and wounded nearly 400 more.

Were all her family safe? Odds are, probably yes – her family was from Bordeaux, not Paris.  And what of my former colleagues, people from Paris and Lyon and Provence and Marseilles, people I boarded airplanes with and sat down for meals with, people who  invited me to eat birthday cake in the break room with them,  people who showed me pictures of their vacations and their kids during our coffee breaks before we returned to the business of whatever work it was we were working on.

Are they still going about their lives, and what are they thinking as the spring vote approaches with their own Le Trump rising and casting a long, sunset like shadow from the right?

So many lives touched, fate like a bee pollinating us with traces of one another.

I’d like to think the concentric rings of family and friends rippling around each of them are if not untouched by the terror (that is not possible), then at least unharmed, but the statistician in me knows the odds are slim, and what of it anyway? The tears of strangers sting with as much salt as my own.  The French had it right the morning after the World Trade Center attacks in New York on September 11th:

“We are all Americans! We are all New Yorkers, as surely as John Kennedy declared himself, in 1962 in Berlin, a Berliner”                    ~Jean-Marie Colombani, Le Monde

We are all connected, all the time, in ways that may have yet to reveal themselves.

woven

 

 

 

Things I Learned at the Bakery This Month: Notes From Entrepreneur Land

 

  1. garbageGarbage blows around, so contain it. The very best way to contain it is to keep a lid on it. This applies equally to garbage that resides in dumpsters as the detritus that resides in human minds.
  2. Complaining about the heat, no matter how irrefutable, doesn’t improve one’s ability to bear it.  Better to just turn on some tunes or an e-book, keep a bottle of water handy at all times, and forget about it.
  3. Everyone needs a quality vacation.  If you think you don’t chances are the people around you need a vacation from *you*.
  4. Your success as a manager is apparent in how your employees act when you are around, your success as a leader is apparent in how they act when you’re not.
  5. It’s often more expedient to be pleasant than right.
  6. optimismOptimism is fine but make decisions with clear-eyed facts.
  7. “The customer is always right,” my dad liked to remind me. When I was a kid, I thought this sounded pretty unfair – I always felt sorry for the clerk at the other end of dad’s complaint.  Even if he wasn’t exactly yelling, the threat of yelling was there, like an odor, and everyone cringed away from it, me included.  I didn’t really understand how customers could act like dad and  be ‘right’ about anything, much less always be right.  But the business owner who treats every customer as though they are not only right, but valued for being so, is gong to have far more customers than the business owner who keeps score.  In fact you should go out of your way for customers as often as possible. It’s not enough to say you are passionate –  words are easy.  You have to actually be passionate. And active passion requires you to get your hands dirty. For me, this month, it has meant….
    • Getting ready to go for a run  and then instead jumping in the car to run down to the bakery to meet a customer who wants to have a tasting for an upcoming wedding but is only in town for the next two hours.
    • Getting a text from a customer who has pre-paid but won’t be able to pick up due to a sick husband, so after working farmer’s markets from 5a to 5p, driving to that customer’s house to deliver the order myself, along with a get well pack for hubby too.
  8. Learn to control your stress or it will control you.  Even in the most difficult circumstances, you can choose to be happy. It’s a much better state of mind in which to find solutions to problems.
  9. Music makes everything better.
  10. It always takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you think it will.
  11. One of the great benefits of being a vendor at a farmer’s market is the opportunity for barter.  June is the season of stone fruit, cherries and avocados and plums shine darkly from the stalls.  I remember our plum tree in the backyard at the old house. So many plums, we couldn’t keep up. We were plum full of plums but still didn’t like it when three raccoons came to feast on them at night. The raccoons were really fat, and sassy.  They knew, even then, that the best plums are stolen plums.
  12. darncing cowsOur experience of fun is not unique to humans.  All animals have fun.  if you don’t know that you just aren’t in a place where you can look, and see.  On a recent trip to Norway my daughter accompanied our hostess to buy milk.  They bought milk not from the store but at the store, you might say – directly from the farmer who’d recently gotten it directly from the cows, and they’d been waiting for Sophia and Ingilvde to arrive to witness the annual rite of releasing the cows from the barn in which they’d weathered the famously long and dark and cold Norwegian winter.  The farmers  waited as a form of barter – because they get their herbs and blueberries from Ingvilde – but also, mainly, because they wanted to share the rare joy of the cows tasting springtime freedom.  The cows emerged nose first, sniffing then smelling the air deeply. Then they did something that can only be called dancing. The cows felt the springy ground beneath their hooves and the green spring air in their nostrils and they kicked up their heels and danced around.  Their joy and pleasure were  evident and unmistakable, just as it was unmistakable that experiencing it together, as a cow community/family, made the joy that much greater. In other Animals Experiencing Joy news, I have seen the following videos on the internet: a small wren inside an airport, flying to the start of the escalator, perching on the movable handrail and riding it til the end, then repeating the process. I have a seen a crane playing with a golf ball, bouncing it on the paved cart path to see how high it would go; I have watched a baby hippo running down the road with a baby goat, hilariously trying to imitate the springy little jumps. Joy is everywhere, when you look for it.
  13. like i said.pngIt’s never a good idea to start a sentence with “Like I said…”. It’s passive aggressive, whiny and defensive whether you mean it to be or not.   It says “You weren’t listening to me, I shouldn’t have to repeat myself.” When in fact, maybe  you should – maybe it’s your own darn fault you weren’t heard or understood the first time.  Like I said…don’t do it.
  14. It can all – and will, at some point – change in an instant. Stroke, heart attack, the headache that turns out to be a brain tumor, the stomach ache that turns out to be cancer, the unseen pancreas diseased, ceasing to perform it’s unseen job.  Losing control of the car, an oncoming driver texting and losing control of their car, a hospital acquired super infection.  A sinkhole opens up beneath your house in the middle of the night. A black bear strolls onto the trail.  You could be living your last normal day right now, and not even know it.  If you did know it – would you keep doing what you’re doing? If the answer is yes, you have passion.  If the answer is no, maybe it’s time to go find your joy.

French Pastry Sampling as Human Laboratory

3 amigosHow can you tell which one is which, your customers ask, looking at the rows of shining canelés, rows of vanilla with their yellow crowns, rows of deep chocolate with their semi-sweet dark coronas, rows of green tea with their dusting of imported matcha like dehydrated dragon’s breath, rows of shining hazelnut colored, cocoa-scented Nutella, rows of darkly caramelized pecans wobbling on their uneven base of knife-chopped toasted nuts.

You just know, after a while, you say with a grin and sooner or later they come back enough times they know their favorites by looking, too and everyone has a good laugh.

After two years in business there are all kinds of things you just know, in addition to the flavor of the canelé at a glance; there are so many things to know when you make the making of something your actual business.

2 yearsSome of your customers know this  – you know them by their sudden, warm smiles and sincere exclamations of congratulations when you tell them you’ve just celebrated your second year in business.

Most customers will not know anything about your business except the taste of your product, and that’s ok, because their choruses of mmmmms and ohmygods will more than make up for their blessed ignorance of the agony and the ecstasy of being an entrepreneur.

You know after two years of farmer’s markets what customers are likely to like; it’s not something you knew right away, but rather something you’ve learned from interaction after interaction, week in and week out, in rain, sunshine and  the damnable wind.

You know that the older your customer, the more the customer has been through, the more they are likely to, in one taste, recognize the effort, quality and value of what they just sampled and shoot you a sharp, considering, approving look that warms you right to the core, though no words are ever said, other than a brief “Good!” with maybe an even briefer nod.

You know that men over the age of 70 almost always prefer the Classic Vanilla; the flirty types, like the type that wears a homburg, will go for Caramelized Pecan.

men in hatsYou do not know why men stopped wearing hats but you wish they hadn’t. Those pictures from the 50s of men in hats in the street headed to Yankee Stadium are cool.

You know that almost all Asian women between the ages of 25 and 39 will probably like the pineapple because apparently it is similar in texture to a traditional Chinese dessert, and that very elderly Chinese men and women will stick with vanilla and maybe tea.

You know that the pretty Germanic-sounding woman with the dancer’s posture and the robust young son will never not get chocolate pecan, it’s been two years now.

You know that most people will want to buy the little ones, unable to resist the cutness, which you don’t mind because the little ones are 50% more profitable than the big ones though you know the big ones taste better.

You know that delivering by 5a Monday morning means catching the Wall Street crowd which means bigger orders from your wholesale customers which means less than 5 hours of sleep tonight and that’s only if you can get home from the bakery and packed up by midnight.  Which has never happened.

You know until you replace your driver, Monday deliveries will be an oddly contemplative part of the day, the streets not yet snarled with delivery trucks and Uber drivers. You know that while you drive, NPR droning int he backgrounded, you will be obsessed with thoughts on how to find wholesale customers  large enough to scale to your considerable production  capacity.

3 coffeesYou know that you will end the morning pleasantly jacked on caffeine, accepting all proffers of a beverage, it is good business to let your customers do  favors for you, and besides you love them all, the pour overs and almond milk chais and iced mocha lattes and cortados, even if you hands are trembling uncontrollably by the time you are finished with the sixth delivery.

france (1)You know you will get nervous when actual French customers from actual France taste a sample, even though you know, with the same certainty you know your bank balance at all times, that they will praise it and invariably ask you if you are French before ordering vanilla (and only vanilla, never any other flavor so help them God, or butter).

You know it’s hot and getting hotter and  you are staring down the oven-heated throat of a red-hot summer that is just weeks away.

You know that you have $4900 in outstanding invoices due to come in over the next 2 days. It’s nice to look forward to the mail.

You know summer is a time of big sales especially at the farmers market and you plan your pre-packaging strategies to boost sales by as much as 30%. People, you know, like and often even prefer to be told what to buy.  Especially if it’s delicious.

You know your electricity bill will be  60% lower this year than last year because you went to the Department of Energy website and learned to negotiate rates, because when every penny counts you learn to find savings in every facet of the business.  You feel a satisfaction in knowing this though no one you know will ever appreciate your penny-pinching ways.

You know when sampling that it is hit or miss with some kids, in the way that you know that the custard texture is not a common occurrence in a young American diet, in the same way you know that nearly all European and Chinese kids will love the texture and prefer chocolate, hands down

lemonis.pngYou know there will always be a dozen or so parents who buy their waddling toddler a single mini-canelé because the baby always holds the pastry triumphantly aloft, delighted at the perfect size for baby hands and generating many photographs and coos of isn’t-that-cute including from yours truly who sometimes manages to get our cancan girl stickers right on their chubby little arms, at the child’s own insistence and to the grinning proud delight of the parents.

You know there is no marketing like baby marketing and cheerfully hand out stickers to hundreds of kids, who toddle the market with your brand name adorably affixed to their noses, hats and sunglasses.

You know that after being up at 5 and working the market til 2p, a long evening of baking and cleaning at the bakery still lies ahead.  You know that your much-anticipated evening with your husband and your dog will include a perfect dinner of bartered farmer’s market food (crab cakes and artichoke hummus with snap peas in exchange for 8 vanilla canelés and 16 mini chocolate pecan cancans) and only 3 of the following: a nap, a walk, a run, an hour of writing, an hour of accounting, conjugal relations, yoga, meditation, closet cleaning, or desk cleaning.

no crying.pngYou know your lower back will start to ache by tomorrow afternoon but you’ll need to suck it up and get some sales calls in.  No crying in baseball – you know that too, because you actually played it (well, fast pitch softball) and you can’t remember a single instance of any player crying, ever, even injured teammates never cried.

And while you agree business is not the place for tears, you also know that crying every once in awhile because you care is not something to suppress, and being in touch with your emotions means you’re less likely to be ruled by them, and so you embrace crying when it happens though you know it shouldn’t, or at least not very much.
personallyYou know the cardinal rule of being an entrepreneur is  you can’t take No personally; you also know you don’t always have to take No seriously. Even and maybe especially when the No comes from a famous vc guy whose name is on the building and who the husband calls a friend, though he doesn’t seem much interested in being a friend, failing to interrupt his monologue about his acquisitions and club memberships even once to ask the husband a single question about his family or his life.

You know you should say something when the vc invariably mentions his wife and what a busy woman she is in that “aren’t you little ladies a hard working  bunch!” way some vcs have,  something that is polite and admiring and that certainly doesn’t mention that the vc’s wife doesn’t actually have a job, much less a business or a payroll or taxes or FDA inspections or a grease trap to clean every 3 months…but you keep quiet, because he isn’t really listening anyway, and because you know from experience the mention of the wife is merely the gambit of men who – even if they are surrounded by women –  do not actually work with women and have no intention of starting now.

You had low expectations but still you thought the vc would at least have some decent advice and could perhaps make an introduction or two but who instead delivers his no in his living room in a manner so droningly oblique that it actually isn’t til after the meeting  is over you realize the lack of a no was, in fact, the no.

Just as you know you shouldn’t take it personally when the vc makes odd, fragmented statements  that are so irrelevant to the details of the business you just outlined that you wonder for a split second if he has, in fact, been sleeping with his eyes open while you outlined your two year plan.

You know as you escape the stuffy manse into the bright spring air, that this no is one you will let go of as easily as a balloon, sending it sailing off into a bluebird sky.  You know this no is just another brick on the road to yes to your grand vision (something you see as clearly as the beauty of the day) and the thought makes you want to start running and get there, already!

But mostly you know that knowing all of this does not guarantee success, and that the most important thing to know is that which you don’t.  Which is why you better have fun….for after all,

what is the point if
when it is all said and done
you didn’t at the very least
have a lot of fun?

fun.png

 

 

 

 

The Accidental Francophile

When we have time for TV we like to pile on the couch with garlic popcorn and the dog and watch the cooking competitions.

It’s not how you start, our favorite chef is fond of saying, and we finish right along with him, “It’s how you finish!”

But really of course, it’s how you start *and* finish.

The week definitely got off to an interesting start, touched with a little French magic.  Before deliveries I go to meet Svetlana for coffee and a catch up and to review her second pass at the tattoo she is designing for me.

My drive to the cafe is  an obstacle course of  waiting Uber drivers, disembarking Lyft passengers,  a zillion meal delivery services  with their smugly flashing hazard lights and what seems like a billion cyclists pedaling nonchalantly through the hilly traffic, way way too trusting (if you ask me) that their fellow motorists are paying adequate attention to their small, vulnerable bodies whizzing through space just inches from tons of fast moving metal.

I am running a little late because my GPS has decided to be mysteriously silent and my knowledge of the neighborhood  is sketchy at best, and I am roundly cursing Siri when I turn a corner and I see a parking spot that I almost pass up, it is that too good to be true.

As I gather my purse etc. I notice the motorcycle in the spot in front of me.  It is a sexy black and orange street machine and as I get out of the car I ask the nearby owner if I can take a picture.

frenchman!“But of course!” he says, with a gallant little bow.  I do a countdown so he can be in the pic if he wants to, and to my surprise he wants to, and even with his helmet on you can see/feel his big smile.

“Here,” I give him a four pack of mini-canelés – the Dark Chocolate Chunk which are like little French kisses from someone maybe you oughtn’t be kissing – and he says

“What are zese?”  I tell him canelés de Bordeaux and he throws his arms out wide. “But I am French!” he says, then clasps his hands at his breast he says “Mademoiselle I love you!”

I reflect this is a good start to the week, when a man on a motorcycle declares his love  just on the strength of how my pastries look in the box.

bento menu.PNGDo three Frenchmen who love your French pastry= a trend? I am going to say yes.  Chef M is another Gallic fan of Dark Chocolate Chunk canelés – the full size for him, no fussy mini can-cans.

“Bring me some so we can take a picture for our smartphone app,” he texts me.  “Then I will EAT IT!”

I was hoping they’d advertise the canelés just that way on the app screen, –  maybe with huge stark words Eat It! superimposed on the shining, fluted sides of a canelé – but no such luck, it just says Chocolate Canelé.  Still it looks yummy and there is no validation in this business like a Frenchman’s (or Frenchwoman’s).

babelleIn other validating news, famous French restaurant person Pascal Rigo will be adding flavored canelés  at his new, rustic relaunch of La Boulangerie de San Francisco.  “You’re doing a good job here,” he told us when we brought him a tasting and trembled for the verdit. We’re betting he starts with pecan and bacon.

Across the pond, the sexy canulier team at  Babelle  are plying London with gorgeously flavored, richly decorated canelés, flirting with me on Twitter with that fizzy effervescent Frenchness that they have.  Her canelés look like bouquets of flowers (and sound like them too, with names such as Athena and Clea to denote flavors like lavendar and violet.)  We predict 2016 will be the year of the canelé.  Stay tuned.

Svetlana needs another week or two on the design which is fine, if there is one thing you don’t want to rush, it’s anything about the tattoo process.  She introduces me to the baristas and I wish I had a video of the time she ate four bacon canelés one-two-three-four at a party where she made and served us all borscht and we all  sat on her bed to eat it.  Somehow I left with a pair of her boots, and we’ve been friends ever since.

burl 1

We are at the market rain or shine, and Saturday is rainy while Sunday is, if not shiny, at least not wet.   Dave the salmon guy is back from knee surgery and the day is a a steady stream of customers asking him how he is recovering.

A woman I recognize as the Chocolate One (she always gets dark chocolate chunk and dark chocolate pecan) runs up to the table and dramatically announces that she ONLY comes to the market for our canelés and has been panicked! absolutely panicked! that I was no longer coming to the market. I tell her we just celebrated one year in business and anyway she can just order online and she actually claps.

Give me TWO boxes, she says, and adds THE BIG ONES, and she positively cackles and for a split second she reminds me, in her casual just-woke-up gray sweats and tousled hair, of Scrooge leaning out the window and shouting at the boy to got down and get the prize turkey in the window, “the one as big as I am!”.

All in all it is a slow day at the market what with the slanty rainy weather and the holidays just behind us. The till is down a few hundred from my usual take and on the way home I try to be philosophical about it.  After all I did get the chance to check on Dave after his knee, and talk acupuncture for back pain with Greg the sausage guy.  The scone guy now has not one but *two* bacon flavors and is thinking of ditching the HR thing and going full time on the scone thing.

How’d it go, my husband asks as my bedraggled self comes in.  Was it worth going?

I pause.  Our sales are down about 30% from average, but are already climbing, with the steady return of our regular customers.  There is Gail, who reports her husband is now pre-diabetic and we discuss the possibility of trying to make a canelé with Stevia. Hmmmm.  There is Ellen who is at the Saturday market instead of her usual Sunday appearance, appearing out of the umbrella crowd with a big grin and with a satisfying large order of classic vanilla.

There is the gluten free family – a very slender, nice mom and two daughters – one gets a mini chocolate, the older one with the mini-mom face gets a classic vanilla gluten free.  I always give the young one a sticker which she puts on her hand.  Thanks for advertising me! I tell her and she shyly looks away, then back at me, then bites the  chocolate top off her pastry.

It was  fine, I tell my husband, a little low. But good! As I speak my phone buzzes in my pocket. It is a notification from our online store, from the Chocolate One.

“Good to see you today!” it reads, where the space for “Messages” is on the order form. “p.s. I”m going to send these to ALL of my friends!”

My phone buzzes with each new notification of a new sale – boxes going to Pennsylvania and Texas, Ohio and Arizona and Missouri…..all of a sudden the weekend deposits are no longer anemic but positively robust.

And voila, just like that, the week has a magical finish equal to its romantic French start.

Try to start your week with a little French love, that’s my recommendation.  See where it takes you from there.

 

Between the Sausage Maker and the Salmon King

A two day break and the answering machine light is flashing desperately.

“You have one minute left on your message tape” the prerecorded voice warns me as I press “Play.”  I gulp, but there are no real emergencies, just anxious customers looking for me to provide *their* anxious customers with their fix.  It can be fun to make a product so regularly pronounced ‘addictive’.

But with great fun comes with great responsibility, naturally.

“We are totally out!” shouts a thickly accented voice I recognize as one of my customers, Ken. Ken always shouts on the phone, which is funny because in person he is so quiet and polite you have to lean in to catch is words.  Listening to his recorded bellowing, you get the sense he is trying to talk not in or through the phone, but around it or even despite it, to make sure you hear him over all that distance.

Logging onto email a message from another customer is at the top of the queue…the subject line makes me bark a startled laugh.  It says

“Urgent!”

We’re out of the vanilla, writes hipster coffee shop owner Wilson J.  Can I deliver more yesterday?

“You guys are starting to get a reputation,” he grins over the pristine white box with its daily delivery of two dozen nestled inside.  “I told you it would take off!”

He is right. Our biggest challenge has been the anonymity of the product.

row of caneles

Ooooh, what is it?  The question from a customer at the Saturday market is typical.  She gazes delightedly at the trays of shellacked canelés that a friend once likened to “pretty little soldiers all in a row”.

By way of answer I give her a sample.  Trust me, says one of my regulars as he tucks his white box securely under his arm.  This will be your new addiction.

He gives me a conspiratorial wink. I don’t know his name but I consider him a friend, and would call out to him in any crowd (though I don’t know his name and would have to yell something like Hey Canelé Man! (which would probably work)).

The Canelé Man and I have chitchatted every week for more than a year now, though sometimes our  weekly transaction is only 30 seconds: he stumps up with this cane, waving a ten spot, I hand him his oblong box of four grande classic vanilla canelé.

He grunts a gruff thanks! and stumps off, and somehow with this interaction I feel magically closer to my dad two thousand miles away, a man I have spoken to only a handful of times in the past ten years.  At the market, you sometimes receive as well as give.

I’ve never seen them before! the woman exclaims. I explain how canelés are made,  a story she listens to less and less as she chews more and more.  I wait for it, and she delivers:

Ohmygodmmmoholyshit! she moans.

I nod.  I’ve learned my customers can speak far more eloquently for our canelés than I ever could, even – especially – with their mouths full.  A small crowd gathers and a flurry of sampling and selling ensues.  When the crowd abates, Dave the salmon guy from two stalls over calls out “Hey Sandra, send some of those customers my way!”

It is generous of him, knowing as all market vendors do that nothing begets a crowd like a crowd.  Dave hardly needs my help –  he has worked the market as a sort of second job for 20 years, sending three kids to college selling crab and salmon shipped fresh from Alaska each week.  Later I will bring him a canelé I have saved back – mindful of his diabetes, it will be a mini size, but his favorite (pineapple).

The stall between Dave the Salmon King and me the Canelé Queen is run by a sausage maker whose heavy accent and woolen workman’s cap always make me think of men sitting around a table drinking vodka shots in Russia.  Valuable products like his are rarely available for barter but once, after I gave him a box of mini caramelized pecan canelés, he gifted me with a mysteriously shaped hunk of pork so smoky and delicious our dog lay in the kitchen for hours after it had been consumed and the dishes washed, hoping.

Each vendor has a different way of selling.  For me, it’s all about the sample, since almost no one except the occasional French tourist passing by knows what a canelé is.   The fourteen year old Mexican boy calls out “tamales!” in a surprisingly deep voice. His full apple cheeks turn bright red when I offer him a canelé.  It’s really good, he whispers. “I got the gift of gab, ” Dave says from his perch, as if selling is only a matter of being willing to chat people up (this may actually be true).  The sausage man yells out “Samples” in his straight-from-the-Russian-steppes accent (he is in fact, Lithuanian).

The sausage maker’s products are all cooked or smoked with the exception of his pride and joy, an uncooked lamb sausage. This  causes no end of confusion among customers woefully uninformed about the difference.  YES IT’S COOKED, he’ll say in a scolding voice when someone asks about the sample they are about to try. NOW BE SURE TO COOK IT, he will say as he hands over the lamb links (causing everyone at the stand eating a sample to look doubtfully at it).

During lulls we chat back and forth across our stalls, mostly about the Brotherhood of Back Pain.  It is an odd club to find oneself admitted to, these craggy faced old men, a life of hard work readable in the lines of their faces.

When friends ask me how is the business is going, I often pause, contemplating if there is a way to consolidate all the stories – the month of agony after a popped disk, the nights sleeping on the bakery floor, the relentless 18 hours days – into a palatable 30 second sound bite that adequately conveys all of the agony and ecstasy of starting your own business.  I usually give up and just say “Great!” because it IS, despite of and even because of the difficult parts, it’s been a wild and wonderful ride so far……thanks in no small part to a growing Greek chorus of addicted customers.

blondieWith the sausage maker and the salmon king, I can tell it all, and not worry about sounding negative. They see my customers, they know things are going well, so I can tell them about the popped disk, show them the back brace, laugh with them about the customer reaction to my sudden squatting to alleviate sciatic pain.  I even relish the telling, a bit, and they laugh and egg me on so that as I relate how I filled an order of 5,000 canelés alone,  filling the molds standing in a ‘tree’ pose, yell-singing at the top of my lungs to ACDC in order not to scream in pain, I stop feeling the incipient panic (my business cannot afford me to be injured) and start thinking instead maybe I’m a bit of a badass

When one of them misses a market and doesn’t tell me that they are planning to miss a market, I worry.  When the sausage maker’s son manned the stand one week, I kept quiet but the second week I finally blurted Hey, Your dad’s ok, right?  The son laughed in exactly the way you’d expect a sausage maker’s son to laugh and said sure, he’s on his annual vacation.  I was relieved and maybe a tiny bit indignant that no one had thought to tell me he was taking time off, didn’t he know I’d be worried?

Then I have to laugh because of course he doesn’t know that, we don’t speak all that much, after all; mostly we communicate  in the language of food.  I shower the sausage maker’s zaftig son with free samples and he happily accepts them all, in marked contrast to his dad whose predictable “Oh no Zank you” forces me to sneak canelés into his stall when he is not looking.

When I take a rare Saturday off, I come back and there are the usual Good Mornings and the occasional wisecrack floating overhead as we go about the efficient business of setting up our stands. Dave’s stand being mostly a cooler he sits on, it isn’t long before he bellows out “Howzit going Sandra we missed you last week! The rest of us finally got some customers!!” I laugh, knowing he’ll sell out well before noon and bug out, leaving the rest of us to tell the disappointed latecomers they are out of luck.

I tell him about the husband’s surgery and they being veterans of the maladies of age focus on the good news (benign) and not the drama (oh no, surgery!) which I find comforting.  The conversation is quickly curtailed by the early morning shoppers, almost exclusively regulars (like the Canelé Man) who will ask after your family and your business as you package up their regular order. They will not see the back brace under my chef jacket, nor will they see the four pack of crabcakes and a handsome salmon filet bagged in ice, neatly tucked away at the back of my stand, next to it, a large meat necklace of lamb sausage links wrapped in plain paper with the stern word COOK! written in Sharpie.tasting tent