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Not Just Desserts

It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it . . . and then the warmth and the richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied . . . and it is all one.

—MFK Fisher

The Gastronomical Me

I’ve been giving some serious thought lately to desserts. And love.

This came about in part because I spent a week on a remote Scottish island this past summer, engaged in questions about peace, justice and spiritual growth with a bunch of other people who mostly had sexy Scottish accents.

The landscape was rugged, the sleeping comforts minimal and the meals simple. Except, that is, for the desserts. Dinner after dinner ended with some lush confection—lemon sponge with double cream and chocolate pears with Chantilly cream and raspberries in pate sucre—with cream—and light-as-air pavlova brimming with cream and berries.

These were completely irresistible. They also guaranteed that I would do the requisite amount of hiking or walking or scrambling across the rocks needed in order to have my waist as well as my dessert.

Since then, of course, we have returned home and settled into the routine of school, meals eaten on the fly, night meetings, afternoon meetings and Pop Tarts.

As a high school senior my daughter, Madeleine, is taking health class because she can’t avoid it any longer. She can’t graduate without health. And it is all the things she thought it would be. Right now the class is knee-deep into a troubling and self-explanatory segment on nutrition called “Dine Healthy.”

One of the “Dine Healthy” assignments aimed at getting kids to eat better was to chart everything they ate for a couple of days. Madeleine, avatar of bagels and ice cream, was not thrilled.

Avoiding health class is one of the reasons I left high school early and I told Madeleine that. I knew at 17 that I’d want to live in continued denial about the amount of sugar, caffeine, wine and white flour I consume.

But after she completed the assignment and upon shared reflection (because I admit I do, in fact, keep a mental running tally of my toothsome habits) we both agreed that there was no-way, no-how either one of us would earn a gold-plated carrot in the Dine Healthy department.

Not while there is pavlova out there. Or coconut cream pie. Or Williams Sonoma caramel ice cream sauce. Or pistachio gelato.

My best guess is that we are not alone.

That being said, I notice a kind of delicious-dessert-sparing attitude when it comes to romance.

For all of those chipper self-help books that tell you to think of love and sex as the dessert of life, when we finally get right down to the ordering of it, a lot of people seem to be settling for Jell-O.

Now I’m not saying that you can’t do a lot with Jell-O. You can turn it into heart-shaped jigglers, stuff it with carrots and raisins, spike it with gin or top it with Miracle Whip, if that’s your kind of thing. But at the root of it, Jell-O is Jell-O.

Nor does just giving Jell-O a fancy name and a European pedigree—blancmange, for example, or junket—change a thing. It’s nothing you can really sink your teeth into.

I don’t understand why there is this hesitancy about pulling out the stops when it comes to the dessert of life, as if somehow it’s a grave threat to fitness.

But it’s emotional fitness that’s at stake. It’s dessert, for crying out loud. Dessert is not supposed to be modest or minimalist or bland. It’s not supposed to just sit quietly on the plate, waiting, while you talk and finish your decaffeinated coffee. It’s supposed to be the conversation stopper, la piece de resistance, the freaking crème de la crème.

Nor is it supposed to be shared. That’s a sure way to please nobody. But women, especially, do it all the time. With a half-guilty mutter they ask the waiter for the dessert list. Then they look it over carefully. One wants the Hot Indian Pudding with Maple Butter Sauce. The other wants Death by Chocolate. But neither wants to share either of those.

So what they do is they compromise. They order the crème brulee. Then, when the crème brulee is on the table in front of them they carefully avoid eating any more than a few nibbles of the lovely crackling caramel top. They want to be gracious and leave it for the other person. Of course, what happens predictably is that those delicious, gleaming shards of caramel just sit there absorbing leftover custard, becoming more and more like wet corn flakes by the minute.

I’m not sure what to do about the romance-and-dessert-sparing crisis. For one thing, lots of people don’t see it as a crisis at all. To them it’s just plain sensible to peel a spotted banana and call it dessert. They’re getting their potassium; they’re happy.

And I guess if potassium is what you’re really after that’s a suitable approach. But I keep thinking about those luscious Scottish desserts and about how inspired I was to hike and climb and move in order to keep room in my life for such delicious excess. It seemed a vivifying trade.

—Jo Page
You can contact Jo Page at

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