The Bread of Kings by Teresa Lust

Fake Pies and Pig Thighs by Rachel Komich

An Essay in Which Pam Greer Oozes Out of Her Clothes by Richard LeBlond

On Pierogi(s) by Mark Lewandowski

Vegetexting by Jennifer Bal

The Benefits of Eating Too Much in the Desert by E. M. Eastick

A Question of Taste by Meredith Escudier

The Beauty of Pizza by Austin Rogers

Marmalade: The Melomeli of Modern America by Michael Pennell

Three Elizabeths, One George, Hot Cross Buns, and Hampstead Heath by Paula Panich

Duck by Eileen Shields

Food for Thought by Kathryn Jenkins

Playing Mass by Catherine Scherer

My Big Fat Orthodox Thanksgiving by Ruth Carmel

The Astrophysics of a Sandwich by Raychelle Heath

Tantric Chicken by Mara A. Cohen Marks

Full by Kelly Ferguson

Monkey Eve by Carolyn Phillips

Capon by Natasha Sajé

The Paella Perplex by Jeannette Ferrary

The Right to Eat by JT Torres

This Isn't Supposed to Happen in the Morning by Heather Hartley

Recipe for Winter by Khristopher Flack

Step One by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Flour Fool Meets Great Poet and Pie Instructor by Amy Halloran

Everett by Jason Bell

The Intrigue of Aaron Barthel by Kristy Leissle

Personal Sugar Defense Kit by Sari M. Boren

Kitchen Tirade by Eric LeMay

Eat Dessert First by Iris Graville

Parsley by Natasha Sajé

American Zen Breakfast by Dick Allen

This May Make You [Sic] by Paul Graham

Prisoner's Thai Noodles by Byron Case

Lavender Fields by Susan Goodwin

Ménage à Fongo by Kathryn Miles

All That She Could Make with Flour by Katherine Jameison

Weasel by John Gutekanst

Into the Deep Freeze by Jason Anthony

Defining Gluten by Ann Lightcap Bruno

The Text(ure) of Pleasure by Tara Deal

On the Perils of Food-Buying in a Foreign Land by Tony Eprile

Eat Dessert First

by Iris Graville

July 2013    

Its official name is Stehekin Pastry Company, but everyone in the valley refers to it as, simply, The Bakery. A framed quote greets all who enter there—“Eat dessert first; life is uncertain.” The bakery’s glass case, filled with cinnamon rolls, breads, muffins, cookies, and pies, serves as the exclamation point for that command. I thought of the bakery’s instructions over a decade of annual vacations in the remote village in Washington’s North Cascades. It was where I sought renewal as my fire for public health nursing sputtered. Finally, one year, instead of vacationing in Stehekin, my family and I moved there. My husband and children welcomed the novelty of living in a community to which no roads led, just a ferry stop at the end of 55-mile long Lake Chelan; the wonder of bear cubs digging for grubs outside the cabin; the drama of being at the mercy of a finicky hydroelectric plant, a river flooding its banks, and forest fires. I embraced adventure, too, but even more, I sought escape in the solitude of rock and pines. In Stehekin, there would be no newspapers, radio, or TV newscasts to link me to the rest of the world. No phone service for updates about families I had worked with or the latest communicable disease outbreak. And no doctor or public health clinic. I took a job making pastries and kneading dough into loaves.

The afternoon before my first day of work at the bakery, I stopped in as a customer. My co-worker, Tammy, confirmed my start time of 4 a.m.

“See you tomorrow, dark and early,” she said as I left, clutching a paper bag filled with black bottom cupcakes. I considered myself a morning person and was accustomed to nursing jobs that started at seven or eight o’clock in the morning, but I was a little intimidated by the thought of arriving at work before dawn. The early part was one adjustment; the dark was another.

That first morning, I slid out of bed at 3:15, brushed my teeth, pulled my shoulder-length hair into a ponytail, and slipped on the t-shirt and jeans I had set out the night before. I crept out of the house and started my three-mile pedal to the bakery.

The only light to guide me came from the moon, the stars, and the headlight clamped onto the handlebars of my bike. I wondered which animals’ sleep I disturbed by the crackle of my tires through gravel. I imagined the brown eyes of a mother black bear, watching me, this possible threat to her cubs, wobbling along the road. I prayed that the jingling of the Minnie Mouse bell above my left handlebar grip was enough to keep me safe.

I pulled open the screen door at 4:00 on the dot.

For the next two hours, Tammy and Robbie, the bakery’s owner, explained and demonstrated. In a little notebook, I sketched and scrawled diagrams and measurements for bear claws, hazelnut rolls, and croissants. I slid pans of bread dough and sheets of cookies and pastries in and out of the hot oven and onto the six-foot tall metal cooling rack. Timers beeped at intervals and Robbie ordered me to open the oven doors and rotate pans so everything baked evenly. Each shifting of pans warmed the air and infused it with smells of butter, sugar, cinnamon, fruit, and chocolate.

By the time I flipped over the open sign at 8 a.m., my t-shirt was damp with sweat, my back was aching, and a small burn on my forearm from a collision with a hot pan was stinging. My perspiring temples throbbed with the timelines and techniques Robbie had peppered me with during the previous four hours. As a nurse, I knew how critical it was to give the right dose of a medication, but I hadn’t expected a similar demand for precision in the bakery. Just as I began to wonder if I wanted that kind of pressure, I pictured myself at that hour if I were still working at my former job at a county health department—soothing a crying infant after giving vaccines, interviewing people about when they’d last eaten at a restaurant where a worker had hepatitis, or tallying patient visits to the immunization clinic. Gratitude erased my headache.

Within minutes of opening, locals and tourists started streaming in. Customers practically shouted, “Mmm, it smells so good in here.” I grinned, and noticed Robbie roll her eyes at Tammy, even as a half-smile escaped. She probably was accustomed to the praise, but I’d never heard that comment in any of the health care facilities I’d worked in over the years.

Later that morning, sweaty, dirt-caked hikers stopped in after being picked up at a trailhead by the Park Service shuttle bus. Waffle-soled boots and bulging backpacks weighed down their lean frames, most of their body fat depleted after trudging for weeks on the Pacific Crest Trail and eating only dehydrated food.

“Wow! Are we glad you’re here. We’ve been thinking about sticky buns for ten miles,” one hiker said as he placed his order with Megan, who had just arrived to staff the counter. “Uh, would you put that gooey part that’s stuck on the pan on my plate, too?” he asked.

I would think of those appreciative words often in the coming months as I unraveled my disillusionment with nursing. Troubled pregnant women with complex needs don’t always welcome a public health nurse’s help. During E. coli outbreaks and measles epidemics, the public views you with suspicion or fear. The hiker licked sticky caramel from his fingers, and I grinned again.

As I tapped four steaming loaves of whole grain bread out of the oil-stained pans, I noticed another back-packer looking up at the sign about eating dessert first. His green eyes peered out from under a faded red bandana and slid over to the row of pies on the bakery case’s top shelf.

“What can I get for you?” Megan asked.

He pointed to a blackberry pie with one slice missing.

“A piece of pie?” Megan asked as she slid open the glass door at the back of the case and reached for the pan.

The hiker cleared his throat and looked again at the sign. “I’ll take the whole thing,” he said.

“Ohhhkay,” Megan said.

“With two scoops of vanilla ice cream on top,” he added.


After the morning breakfast rush, Tammy and Robbie taught me how to make the bakery’s lunch items—pizzas and pizza pockets. Seven hours into my shift, the bakery’s sweet scents were replaced with oregano, garlic, onions, and peppers.

The regulars knew when the pizzas came out, and they lined up to get the first slices with the melted mozzarella stringing over the freshly cut edges. I slid the first one—dripping with sausage, mushrooms, olives, and onions—off the baking pan and onto the wooden chopping block.

“Cut that into 18 equal pieces,” Robbie said.

I squinted my right eye shut, notched the dough with the knife and glided it the length of the pizza.

“That’s crooked as hell, Iris,” Robbie said.

My face warmed as I looked up at her, then returned my gaze to the cut veering toward the pizza’s lower left corner. “Sorry about that.”

“Well, just don’t let it happen again,” Robbie said, a partial smile again tugging her mouth. I would come to learn that was a clue that she was teasing.

With just a few minutes before clocking out, Robbie said, “Time to scrape the floor.” No smile on her lips then.

“Scrape the floor?” I asked, noticing for the first time clumps of butter and flour and bits of berries smooshed onto the cream-colored linoleum.

“Yep, it’s the last thing we do every morning,” Tammy said, handing me a bench knife. I clutched the four-inch wide rectangular implement by its wooden handle. It’s not really a knife, though it does have a wide, dull blade. I had used one earlier in the morning to transfer warm pastries from baking sheets onto cooling racks. Now I watched as Tammy knelt down on the floor in front of the refrigerators, grasped the handle, and used the blade to loosen the ground-in food bits.

I hadn’t expected this assignment. I got down on all fours; my ponytail flopped over my shoulder as I scraped and inched backward. After a few minutes, I leaned back on the heels of my tennis shoes, massaged my lower back, and contemplated my spot on the floor.

I felt I had been brought to my knees as a nurse, humbled and disappointed and under-valued. Had I left my job without cleaning up the mess of my confusion about nursing, health care, and the public health bureaucracy I was part of? This was the internal labor I needed to do. On my knees. In prayer. Seeking and opening myself to whatever work I would be led to.

“Good work today, Iris,” Robbie said as I washed the floor’s grime from my palms. “Get yourself something to eat before you go, and I’ll see you in the morning.”

I slid a chocolate chip cookie into a paper bag and stuffed it into my backpack along with my little notebook full of baking instructions. That day, I wasn’t ready to literally eat dessert first, but I conceded that somewhere along the line, nursing had come to feel like the toil I had to do before I could savor mouthfuls of joy. I rode my bike home more slowly after my hours behind the bench, my Minnie Mouse bell jingling its greeting to the bears still hidden in the forest.

  Iris Graville is a writer from Lopez Island, WA. Her first book is Hands at Work—Portraits and Profiles of People Who Work with Their Hands. She’s an MFA student at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and was the first place winner among students in Oregon Quarterly Magazine’s 2013 Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest.

Photo used under Creative Commons.