Soft in the middle

3

I spent the first week of middle school seated alone at a table for eight. A round table, that extended out from my lunch like a balloon, as if to encapsulate my aloneness.  For seven days, I ate believing that there were two hundred and fifty sets of eyes on the back of my head. Watching me as I chewed my sandwich. Witnessing the mustard spilled onto my chin. Noting, with muffled laughter, the love note that my mom would always insert into the top of the bag. Have a wonderful day, xoxo Mom. 

As an adult, it is difficult to remember or even conceive of the complexity of social strata expressed in a public school cafeteria. Each table defined its inhabitants as clearly as if there were a sign. Here sit “the smart kids”, there sit “the jocks.” As a new member in this society, you chose carefully how it was you would define yourself. Even if at first, you were grateful to be defined at all. You moved, from table to table, as ambitiously as some move through positions in a company. Each table, a rung on the ladder, moving you closer to the top. Or at least that was the dream.

In the corner, near the door, was what everyone called “the royalty”: the top echelon of sixth grade society. All eyes, more or less, were turned here. Watching what they ate, how they ate it. What they wore. Who they looked at (so you see, I flattered myself in my embarrassment, I was of little concern.) And what was especially captivating, what would arrest the gaze of every inhabitant from every table in the entire cafeteria, was when a newcomer was initiated into this realm. A new seat pulled up into the row of glossy ponytails and collared Ralph Lauren shirts. It was like watching a person ascend to heaven.

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And then, it happened.  Making my way to my usual table, paper bag clenched in my hand, I was suddenly motioned over to “the table” by Lizzie, my strawberry blonde partner in science lab. A chair was skidded across the tiled floor, a clearing made for me. I sat down, in glory. “Did you see Mr.Blake’s armpits today? So gross.” It was the only thing I knew how to say to her, our overly worn commentary on our science teacher’s sweating problem. But she didn’t reply. She had taken hold of my brown paper bag, and was sliding it towards her. When you are invited to sit at “the table,” you do not question what the other inhabitants choose to do with your lunch.  Or at least I didn’t think you did. So I sat and watched, wincing as she pulled out the motherly love note, discreetly revealing it to the other half of the table whose eyes lit up with amusement. She pulled out my sandwich and tossed it aside. The banana, no good, discarded along with the tuna. The tiny pack of Jelly Beans she placed into her own bag, and then she slid the sandwich and the banana back. “I’ll just keep this,” she said, pocketing my mother’s note.

I had just begun the lengthy process of unwrapping my sandwich from the never ending layers of plastic wrap my mother insisted on using ( did she think I was taking it swimming with me?) when Lizzie turned suddenly and said, “how much money do you have?” I felt in my pockets. There was a social studies field trip coming up to the history museum down state  that required a $10 deposit to secure my place. My mom had given me the money that morning, and her signed permission note. “Well,” I looked up, there were twelve expectant faces looking back. “I have ten dollars.” Who needed to go the museum, anyhow? She did a few quick calculations on her fingers. “Perfect. That’s one for each of us.” And then she told me to go get in line, and purchase twelve chocolate chip cookies.

As far as cafeteria food goes, these cookies were actually quite good. Or at least I remember them that way. They were set on a hot plate, so they were warm, the chocolate melted and oozy, the tops cracked and cratered like cooling magma. The outsides were delicately crisped, but the insides, the middles, were soft and collapsing: nearly raw. The kind of cookie where there is something for everyone. I came back and Lizzie doled them out. One for each of the royal inhabitants. Except for me. Though, perhaps because I had been such a willing contestant, Lizzie broke off a small piece of hers and set it before me, my reward. I felt extremely pleased with myself.

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By that time, lunch period was nearly over. There was no time for the sandwich, or the banana. So I just ate the cookie, breaking off bite by bite and making it last. I listened to Sarah tease Lizzie about Karl Wilson, the curly haired soccer player she was in love with, and Jessica and Kristin discuss which colour of nail polish was better: blue or green. Just before the bell rang, in a hazy dream, I looked down at the end of the table and saw the queen herself, Megan Thomson, looking at me, smiling – as though she was just really pleased with my face, with my being there. I smiled back, nearly levitating in my chair.

When I got to geometry class and sat down in my place, the boy who sat in front of me, Will, turned around in his desk and looked at me.  I assumed, at first, it was because I had become a novelty now, I was someone to be looked at in a new light. And then he said, pointing to his upper lip, “you have chocolate on your face.”

Double Chocolate Pistachio Chunk Cookies

about 30 cookies

Feel free to sub in other nuts of your choice: hazelnuts would be particular good as well.

Adapted from a recipe in Small Plates & Sweet Treats, by Aran Gayoaga.

Ingredients

  • 1 stick (110 g) butter, softened to room temperature
  • ¾ (150 g) cup cane sugar
  • ½ cup (100 g) dark muscavado sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 ½ cups (210 g) whole wheat pastry flour
  • ½ cup (70 g) buckwheat flour
  • ¾ cup (75 g) cocoa powder
  • 1 ½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 cup (125 g) shelled pistachios, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup (152 g) dark chocolate, cut into chunks

Instructions

  1. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugars until pale. Add the eggs, one at a time, stirring to incorporate, and then add the vanilla extract.
  2. In a separate bowl, sift together the flours, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Add to the wet ingredients and bring together into a dough: you may need to knead the dough slightly to incorporate everything together.
  3. Add the pistachios and chocolate, folding them into the dough until well incorporated.
  4. Then, divide the dough into two. Roll each half into a log about 8 inches long and 1 ½ inches in diameter. Wrap in parchment paper and chill for at least 30 minutes. (You can put one in the freezer at this point to save for another day).
  5. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit or 175 degrees Celsius.
  6. Using a serrated knife, slice 1/2 inch discs from the log and place on a parchment or silicone lined baking sheet, giving them about a half an inch or so to expand. Bake for 8 - 10 minutes, then let cool for a few minutes on the baking tray before moving to a wire rack. When you take them out, they should still feel rather soft: they will solidify as they cool.

Comments

  1. You have brought back memories, Danielle… I was royalty in 5th grade and lost my crown when I moved across the country for my 6th grade year and began attending a new school. Oh, I did not like it. Everything ends up working out, eventually, but those beginnings can be brutal.

    • Danielle says:

      Yes – I hadn’t thought about that time in my life for ages, and suddenly it’s been coming back with a vengeance! And I think what strikes me most is that meanness is never so black and white as we would portray it. It is insidious and only realized later – and even then, cannot be separated from all the other possible intentions and layers of the human heart. Everyone wants to be accepted, and that will twist even the kindest aims. So that even now, I think “Lizzie” did at first intend to be kind, just as I, acting the part of Lizzie myself, always initially did. Oh what a complex world that was. Sometimes life seems simpler now!

      XOXO

  2. Lucinda says:

    Those cookies look simply divine!
    Your story made me sad, Schools in the US always sound like challenging environments to grow up in.
    It’s so sweet that your Mum left you notes in your lunch. It’s the kind of thing that is so embarrassing as a teenager but we would love to receive now. :)
    xxx

    • Danielle says:

      Did you not experience these sorts of things in school? It’s interesting – I’ve always assumed that it is just a universal phenomenon, kids being mean. But maybe it is an American speciality? Which, if true, is extremely sad, and confirms my belief even more that I was meant to be born in Victorian England, painting watercolours and learning French instead of having my Jelly Beans stolen :) But yes, what a saving grace my mom was with her love notes. I think, even then, below the embarrassment, I liked finding them buried beneath my sandwich.

      XOXO