On Matters Half-Sane and Not So

Suz Redfearn is not the type of ride-with-the-herd American you'll find grinning blissfully in the electronic presence of blue eels like Robert Novak, or such American consumer icons as Martha Stewart. Indeed, Ms. Suz rejects all pap-and-crappers. And her life adventures are like mythic struggles, the odds always daunting. How can we fail to be both entertained and enlightened?

Glazed and Confused

             by Suz Redfearn

I have an eating disorder.

It's not your classic eating disorder, the kind that involves afternoons dedicated to vomiting, laxatives and back-to-back cycling classes. My eating disorder isn't about getting food out of me, but about bringing food to me.

The problem is this: With alarming frequency, indelible images of super-satisfying victuals from my childhood taunt me. This wouldn't be so bad except that none of these culinary masterpieces is available anymore; all the bakeries and restaurants that supplied them have long since shut down. And so for decades now, I have stood wan, hand outstretched, haunted by dazzling memories that block me from truly appreciating nourishment available in the here and now. I guess it's just my hot-cross bun to bear.

Little did I know it at the time, but in the seventh grade, my unconscious mind was hard at work with its branding iron, forming my first such searing memory. Ah, Grandma's Bakery--the vision of it pains me still.

Grandma's was nestled on the corner of Dixie Highway and 2nd Avenue North, across from the biggest pawn shop in Lake Worth, Fla. The year was 1979. I had just started school at an all-girl's Catholic institution that was kicking my ass on the homework front, transforming me into something of a weeping, aspirin-popping wreck. A few weeks into the school year, with no explanation, my mom began taking me to Grandma's Bakery early in the morning before the bus came to whisk me to the bad place where the nuns fingered their rosaries and yelled at you about prime numbers.

The comfort at Grandma's was profound. It was plain old bakery, filled with worn tile, vinyl chairs and wandering elderly. But what mattered wasn't the vibe of the place; it was the contents of the pastry case. Or rather, one particular tray therein. I'm sure Grandma's had fine eclairs, excellent crullers, satisfying sugar cookies--but I was blind to all that. From the first time I walked in, all that mattered to me was one magnificent beaconlike offering: Grandma's Bakery's glazed doughnut.

Truly, it was like no other doughnut that had gone before. It was twice the size of the puny, processed abominations that called themselves doughnuts at the time (and still do). It was sweet, but not screamingly so. And when the haggard waitress set one down in front of you along with a glass of milk, everything was right in the world. And everything was right inside that steaming doughnut. Each one contained a mysterious little universe of ethereal dough wisps connecting doughnut floor to doughnut ceiling like so many cosmic cobwebs. So real, so irregular, so unprocessed, so sublime.

I must have lovingly ingested 50 or 60 of those puppies, along with gallons of milk, while chatting with my mom about my scary homework load and the neighborhood boys I had a crush on. Then, one day, around the beginning of the eighth grade, the worst happened: We pulled up to Grandma's to find a sign on the door reading "Gone Out of Business."

The feeling of loss was immense. But I shouldered on, willing to give other doughnut shops a shake, figuring there must be one out there that could measure up. Maybe Grandma's passed its recipes on to some other bakery, I found myself hoping. Silly me. Months later, after sampling all there was to sample in our town, I realized it was no use. Grandma's had been far and away the world leader in glazed doughnuts. There was no replacing it.

And so now I'm ruined for doughnuts--have been since that awful day more than two decades ago. I can't count the number of times I've said no to anemic, processed doughnuts just on principal. Why bother? Grandma is dead.

On the backburner of my mind, though, I've been on a vigilant quest to locate a doughnut that rivals Grandma's, a prospect made even more unlikely given the fall of most mom-and-pop shops and the corresponding rise of Dunkin' Donuts. Dunkin' Donuts, which doesn't even deserve to kiss the old, rotted Dumpster out behind Grandma's.

My quest has been futile. Krispy Kreme has come closest--when really fresh, its glazed doughnuts taste like they might be Grandma's doughnuts' feeble, inbred cousin who lives behind the 7-11. Obviously that's not close enough. And so the search continues.

If the doughnut thing wasn't bad enough, there are also my cookie issues.

These arose about halfway through eighth grade, when I accidentally moved to New Jersey. My mom's boyfriend had some business dealings in New York City that were supposed to pan out into something big. I had a choice: Go with them and settle in seedy, industrial Secaucus, or stay in south Florida and live with my hermit dad in his bachelor pad. I dug big, sweeping change, so I chose curtain number one. It took less than a month to reach a verdict: New Jersey sucked. I had to leave the public school after three weeks because my life was threatened (they didn't like outsiders, especially not chipper, tan ones from Florida), and the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church School wasn't much better.

At the time, my brother and sister were in their early 20s and trying to make their way in the Big Apple, sharing an apartment. The handful of positive memories from my tri-state area experience came from the weekends when Lisa and Paul would come get me and take me into the city. Invariably, we'd go to straight to Macy's on 34th Street, and I'd make a beeline for David's Cookies.

As I recall, that Macy's was the only one that had David's, a gourmet cookie shop that inspired lines snaking well past the perfume counters. I'd patiently wait my turn, buy a box tied up in a very New York bakery string, and proceed to eat one cookie right after the other.

I put on about eight pounds because of David's, but so what? Those babies were like something that dropped to earth from chocolate nirvana. They were large, and flatter than most cookies, with chunks of chocolate that extended from one side of the cookie to the other. The taste of the chocolate was otherworldly; the cookie itself was equal parts gooey and crispy. Together they seemed dangerous, spiritual, borderline illegal. It was like nothing I'd ever had before.

And then, one Saturday, it happened. Again. I ambled into Macy's, made all the proper turns through all the proper departments, and when I rounded the final corner expecting to see cases filled with beckoning cookies from another planet, I saw instead a forest of New York Yankees paraphernalia. Out of the blue, David's had been replaced by baseball stuff. And there was no explanation.

I was devastated. Like the ephemeral white light of a shooting star having passed through the night sky, David's brilliance was gone forever.

Now, I'm not an idiot; I don't refuse to eat any other chocolate-chip cookies. Doughnuts I can bypass, but chocolate-chip cookies? Hell no -- they are one of the finer things life has to offer. But I'd be lying if I claimed any cookies I've ingested in the last two-plus decades have really measured up. And I am haunted, pained. Even today, I can still smell David's very distinct aroma wafting through Macy's, permeating women's accessories and costume jewelry like some kind of magnetizing chocolate hashish.

Is it my fault for not being more mainstream in my tastes? If I'd become fixated on Chips Ahoy or Entenmann's, I would be a whole person right now. What I craved I could get, easily. End of quest. Alas, I pine for products that were so obscure, almost no one remembers them but my blood relatives and me. It's what binds us.

But there's more -- other cravings that condemn me to an ongoing state of dissatisfaction, though a lower-level one. First on the B-list are the positively unmatchable calzones at Four Brothers, a gas station that reopened as an Italian restaurant when I returned to south Florida after the eighth grade. And there was the Sicilian-style pizza at Crusty's, which we regularly drove two towns over to pick up. Both Four Brothers and Crusty's closed eons ago. Since then, I've had Italian food all over the world and nothing rivals those big, cheesy calzones and that crispy square pizza. Nothing.

Oh, I'm not blind. I've noticed that most of these memories were formed during early adolescence. Of course I've wondered whether they had something to do with my taste buds suddenly coming into their own around the time Grandma's, David's, and Crusty's came into my life. Perhaps uneven hormones surged during my visits to those places, creating an odd, colorfast euphoria. Or maybe adolescence was really freaking me out and I took solace in good grub.

What really threw that pattern off, though, was a spontaneous new A-list fixation I formed in college. A bit different than the others, this one was focused on a liquid: Holland Brand beer. It came in an irresistible milky-white bottle with a forest green label and was crisp and light. I quickly fell for it, asking for it at nearly every bar I entered. New Orleans, where I went to college, has more bars than can really be counted, but only a small percentage carried this obscure Dutch brew. When I got my hands on one, I was triumphant, jubilant, twinkly eyed, reveling in both the look of the bottle (I've always been drawn to all things flea-collar white) and the taste of the beer.

And then, of course, the company went out of business and there was no more Holland Brand beer. Not another full bottle left on the planet. And believe me, I've looked. Loving that which the masses do not also love can really leave you high and dry in this world.

Sure, I wonder sometimes: If miraculously presented with Four Brothers' calzones and Holland Brand beer right now, would they provide that same peak experience, or just an OK lunch? Who knows--maybe my palate is exponentially more sophisticated now. Perhaps these items would fail to make a strong impression today. I shudder to consider it, hate to even say it aloud and besmirch the sacred memories. But I can't help but wonder if it's true.

Once in a while I think I'm going to get the chance to test that theory. I'll run across "David's Cookies" or "Grandma's Bakery" on the Internet and my heart will start pounding, sending me impulses of equal parts fear and joy. I eagerly click on the links and then invariably find that these establishments are unrelated to the lovely places of my childhood. It's just the cruel joke fate feels she needs to plays on me from time to time. In those moments, I die a little death.

Sometimes there are face-to-face brushes. Like last year. Marty and I were having fried bologna in a dumpy little diner in High Point, N.C., when I looked up and saw a bottle of Holland Brand beer. Like a vision, it was nestled in with a bunch of other brews lined up behind the counter. The implied message: "Have one of these!" My limbs filled with tingly shock; I felt like I was seeing a relative rise from the dead.

"Look. Look. LOOK!" was all I could say. I think Marty was worried I was going to faint. He stepped in to order me one.

"She'll have a Holland Brand beer please," he said, stepping in to fill the role of The Calm One.

The waitress just looked at him funny. "Son, we haven't had that beer here in years. We just like the bottle."

I slumped forward, defeated again. I guess it's just my life's burden--perpetually wanting and not getting, and knowing with certainty that I will not get, ever. It's a torture I live with every day. Some would argue it's self-inflicted torture of a psychotic blend. But I say it could be much more pathological. Some people pine for lovers they will never land. They crave rock stars and married folks, and they curl up in a ball on their living-room floors, bawling and tearing their hair out, knowing the craving will keep them from ever settling into a fulfilling relationship. Others thirst to be football greats and film stars, when that's just never going to happen.

Me, I just crave cookies, doughnuts, and beer. It's not so bad. I'm still able to live a fairly fulfilling life, despite my burden. I think I'll be all right.

That is, until Haagen-Dazs goes out of business. Marty better have a straightjacket handy then.

Discovered an alien saucer motor in your garage? Watched a reality show and prayed for the asteroid to hit? Met a new love interest who speaks to you via sock puppets? Then buzz our Suz at germbag@cox.net.

Copyright Suz Redfearn 2003