Sur La Table, located in that part of Berkeley known for its adorable little shops, is an adorable little shop known for selling useful and less useful kitchen items to gourmands in need. Besides peddling gizmos of every imaginable stripe, the store also offers cooking classes in every imaginable cuisine. "Gifts from the Kitchen" was one such class. Just the name itself conjured up images of adult kindergarteners making the culinary equivalent of clay ashtrays or clumsy but heartfelt potholders.
People who take such classes labor under the delusion that their loved ones would rather receive homemade jars of chocolate syrup or lavender honey than new DVD players or cases of Aveda makeup in the new spring colors. And once they've made up their minds, there's no talking them out of it.
Our teacher, pastry chef Charlene Reis, was an eight-year veteran of the Chez Panisse work farm. As she chatted and swished her long brown hair, a small army of Sur La Table Oompa Loompas made sure that everything we needed was within easy grasp. A tasteful green salad, a bowl of kalamata olives, slices of dry salami, Brie that was not too runny, and French bread in a basket were laid out for us to nibble on. For the winos among us, a 2001 Domaine du Salvard Cheverny and a 2000 Château La Roque Coteaux du Languedoc were available for quaffing.
People who enroll in cooking classes typically fall into certain categories, as politically incorrect as it may be to point this out. Students in our class unwittingly fit the usual stereotypes, uh, archetypes. Bossy Gay Guy, Let's Make Tofu and Granola!, and Sensitive Man Who Is Sick of All the Games and Just Really Wants to Meet Someone were missing, but all the other regulars were there:
Ma Kettle. She's a tough old broad and not to be messed with. Her interests include slaughtering animals, making her own clothes, and driving teams of oxen. Loves butter and only watches TV when Julia Child is on. Could teach the instructor a thing or two. Is not impressed by foodies.
Kindly and Tipsy Grandma. Watch out for the wine. Granny hangs out by herself in a dreamy fog, but perks up if there's any measuring to be done. Is a natural ally to Ma Kettle. Will offer a comforting comment to those being picked on by Ma Kettle, but will not suffer fools or vegans.
Smug and Annoying Foodie. Every cooking class has one. Comes in any gender. He or she is mainly taking the class to brag and feel superior to everyone else. Loudly talks about making homemade ice cream from flowers, or sniffs when the teacher uses an appliance that the rest of the class has never seen before and says, "Oh, I've owned one of those for years." Natural enemy of Ma Kettle.
Hapless. No class would be complete without one of these unknowing saboteurs. Usually the person who knocks over the container of flour. If by some miracle he or she doesn't knock anything over, Hapless compensates by asking a bunch of dumb questions instead.
Ma Kettle kicked off our class by offering "suggestions" to the instructor. Smug Foodie was already chattering about which farmers' market was best. Kindly and Tipsy Grandma took notes and nipped the wine like Prohibition had just ended yesterday.
As for Hapless, two of us were initially in the running. The other contestant was a girl with a smile as sweet as pure cane sugar, and a giggle as infectious as anthrax. The thoughtful and somewhat codependent way she made sure that everyone had knives and cutting boards made us wonder if she was on speed.
Then there was Food Fetish, who would have measured in two cups of flour instead of just one, thus inciting a riot and ruining the scone mix for everyone, if it weren't for Ma Kettle's eagle eye.
With the scone mix safely finished and poured into cellophane bags festooned with ribbons and bows, it was time to start making the chocolate syrup. As we chopped up massive bars of chocolate, my competitor for Hapless naively announced that her favorite chocolate was Hershey. A vast and terrible silence descended. In this land of the holy Scharffen Berger bar and pesticide-free cocoa beans, admitting to liking Hershey was the worst thing she could have said, except for maybe declaring her love for canned vegetables or the KKK. This horrible confession was met by dirty looks. Even Kindly and Tipsy Grandma looked pissed off. We had our Hapless.
Things really got interesting as we made the spicy mustard. The teacher started out by innocently recommending that we use a certain type of dry English mustard renowned for its spiciness. After the class prepared the condiment, she dished out the mustard in little cups so everyone could taste their handiwork.
"WHEW! This sure is spicy!" exclaimed Ma Kettle, none too discreetly. She then turned to the other students, stuck out her tongue like a lizard sunning itself on a rock, and dramatically fanned her mouth. Turning around to face the teacher, she asked loudly, "Do we HAVE to use this kind of mustard?" The students eagerly awaited the showdown.
"Yes, that's what I would recommend," Reis said, bravely standing her ground.
Ma Kettle sighed heartily. "Well, I'm going to cut mine with regular mustard; this other stuff is too much," she said defiantly. Kindly and Tipsy Grandma nodded her head in agreement. "Okay," said the instructor, in a calm and even voice usually reserved for teaching teenagers in prison. "Use whatever mustard you want." The rest of the class looked disappointed.
The whole class was feeling lethargic by the time we got to lavender honey, milling around, eating the last of the food, and drinking whatever wine Kindly and Tipsy Grandma hadn't gotten hold of. Smug Foodie was discussing the pros and cons of stoves with anyone who would listen. "I bought a Garland, but I also like Wolf," she offered. "I like microwaves myself!" poor Hapless volunteered. This information was met by a withering glance.
The teacher brought out a bunch of lavender and a large jar of honey. The class grew excited and started talking all at once. "Can you use potpourri lavender?" the perpetually bold Hapless asked.
Ma Kettle started coughing uncontrollably. Struggling to regain her composure, she turned away from poor Hapless and addressed the rest of the class. "Oh, my GOD!" she rasped.
Apparently, Ma Kettle wasn't the only one disturbed by the lavender question. Smug Foodie smirked and rolled her eyes to the ceiling. Kindly and Tipsy Grandma raised her glass to her lips and gulped down the last of her wine. The teacher, a shining gentlewoman who had probably heard it all before, managed to act nonplussed at the question. "No, I wouldn't recommend using potpourri," she said as if it were the most sensible thing she'd ever heard.
Finally, we finished all the recipes and put the products in cute little jars. We put the little jars into big bags and took off toward the parking lot. "Well, that was okay, but actually I already knew most of the stuff," Smug Foodie offered. "I learned a lot," said the honest and earnest Hapless.
With that, they each got into their cars and sped away; one to a Garland stove, the other to the simple pleasures of microwaved scones.
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