An Essay in Which Pam Greer Oozes Out of Her Clothes
by Richard LeBlond
The attention needed for driving can be stressful even on quiet rural roads, and road-stop comfort food lives up to its name. I am particularly fond of maple bars while driving in the western U.S. According to Wikipedia, where unproven assertions lurk in the interstices of legitimate research, maple bars are “a rectangular pastry topped with a maple glaze. It is a regional term from the Pacific Northwest, specifically Oregon and Washington. Elsewhere it is known as a maple-glazed Long John.”
Although I have lived on the East Coast since the late 1960s, I have never seen a maple-glazed Long John or a maple bar by any other name east of Delta, Utah. Frankly, I’d hesitate to put anything in my mouth with the words “Long John” in its name.
The nearest thing to a maple bar I have seen back East is Dunkin’ Donuts’ maple donut. By comparison, the maple bar is elegant and aristocratic, with thrice the load of my sweet brown childhood opiate. The authentic version has the consistency of glazed rather than cakey donuts, is about six inches long and three inches wide, and more than an inch high. The maple topping is thick and soft like a frosting, not a hard and veneer-thin glaze.
While I was growing up in Portland, Oregon, circa 1950, a bakery truck made regular stops along our street. It was a highlight of my week and I knew the schedule well, rushing to the back of the truck as the driver gathered together a neighbor’s order. (My family never ordered from the truck; mom baked our pastries.)
“Got any empty maple bar sheets?” I’d ask. The bars were on sheets of wax paper large enough to hold about three dozen of the chewy rectangles. They were so fresh when placed on the wax paper at the bakery that some of the still-warm maple frosting ran down the sides of the bars and gathered in thick pools. As these heavenly excesses dried, they adhered to the wax paper, remaining after the bars had been removed. These were the lode of the maple sheet, whose final and most redeeming use was to line my belly, and my dentist’s wallet.
“Got one just for you,” said the bakery truck driver in the old movie that plays in my head. The sheet had to be handled carefully so no loose glops of maple frosting would fall to the street. Most glops continued to adhere to the sheet and were scraped off with the lower incisors. This childhood experience welded a life-long romance with the maple bar that now has to endure long periods of absence with only brief reunions, like a sailor returning to his love between voyages.
A few years back, while gathering maple bars early one morning in a Portland Safeway store, I encountered another gatherer who like me was a maple bar exile, living in barren lands.
“Can’t get these in Wisconsin,” he said.
“Nor in North Carolina,” said I. For a moment we were a spontaneous maple bar deprivation support group.
* * *
Tim Hortons is Canada’s Dunkin’ Donuts equivalent, likewise with a multitude of fresh-baked pastries, a coffee addictive to many, and a seemingly constant line of customers. Hortons also has a maple-frosted donut, called the maple dip, plus a borderline pornographic maple-frosted cream bun called a Canadian maple. But these are only stop-gaps for a maple bar, and each is tempered by its deficit.
Every summer I head from my home in North Carolina to the island of Newfoundland in eastern Canada. Coming up the island’s west coast, there is no Tim Hortons between Deer Lake and St. Anthony, a distance of more than 250 miles. With a maple fix out of the question, local bakeries become an important source of alternative comforts. I have learned where they are – and sadly, where they used to be. Small businesses in Newfoundland come and go like roadside weeds.
Back in 2005, I found a bakery in Port au Choix run by an attractive woman with warm eyes and long brunette hair, maybe in her late 40s. Her body expressed what I interpreted to be a gentle enthusiasm for her product, headed in the direction of Pam Greer in the movie Jackie Brown. Pam is voluptuous to the point of oozing out of her clothes, a human mocha cream pastry. Two years later the Port au Choix bakery was gone, leaving in its wake ungratified desire.
In February 2009, the bakery in Flowers Cove shut down its ovens. I had stopped there frequently, and its loss was a blow, the partridgeberry muffins particularly missed. Of all the government subsidies in the world, I can’t think of a commercial enterprise more deserving than the independent neighborhood bakery.
In September 2009, I wasn’t sure I would find a bakery along the Viking Trail highway north from Deer Lake. I had spent the night at Cow Head, and was surprised to find a bakery just up the road in Parson’s Pond. Like so many businesses in outport Newfoundland, it was nondescript, the front wall with one small window and a simple “Bakery” sign tucked up just below the eave. Its customers needed no other encouragement, and most lived within walking distance. But I nearly missed it at 25 mph.
It was just past eight, early for Newfoundland, and there wasn’t much freshly baked to choose from. I settled for an unglazed cinnamon roll. I don’t eat them often, and avoid those that come with a thin and hard sink-white glaze.
Back on the road, this cinnamon roll turned out to be flakier than most, even a little crunchy, at least at the edges. It had a tendency to crumble, raining crumbs on my shirt and crotch, so I set it on a napkin on the passenger seat and ate it by unrolling it, breaking off bite-size pieces.
I had barely crossed Parson’s Pond River when the unrolled bits of pastry became a portal to the past. They had the taste and texture of the cinnamon strips my mom had made from purposefully left-over pie dough in the 1940s and 50s. She buttered the strips, sprinkled them with sugar and cinnamon, laid them crisscross on a pie tin, and baked them in the oven. I probably hadn’t thought of them in more than half a century, and was suddenly flooded with memories of my first home, especially from the kitchen. Mom continued to bake pies until she died, but I don’t think she ever again made cinnamon strips after her children left home.
The cinnamon roll – thought to have been invented in Sweden, where Oct. 4 is Cinnamon Roll Day – had potential as a maple bar proxy. It couldn’t substitute for the oral qualities, but it might work for the spiritual ones. It became part of the morning hunt on road days.
The next day I had a cinnamon roll on the Strait of Belle Isle, out from St. Barbe on the Apollo, the two-hour ferry to Labrador. The roll, baked in the ferry’s cafeteria, appeared to have been made in a hurry, or in too hot an oven, or with an improper apportioning of key ingredients. It looked like an old sandlot baseball, its cover unraveling like a great distended tongue stained with dark russet dirt.
* * *
The south coast of Labrador, from L’Anse au Clair north to Red Bay, is known as the Labrador Straits. It is culturally similar to the Newfoundland on the other side of the strait, having been settled mostly by the English, Scots, and Irish. The French, who used to fish there, left behind nothing but the names of a few towns, another being L’Anse au Loup.
With 600 people, L’Anse au Loup is the largest town along the Labrador Straits, and one of very few rural towns in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador that was actually growing in size during the first decade of the 21st century. This may have been due to its modern fishing facilities, to banking and other regional services, and to a generous public spirit. At the annual two-day L’Anse au Loup Days festival in August, meals are free and available to everyone. The town’s several non-profit organizations are staffed by over 100 volunteers, a significant percentage of the population.
And then there’s Dot’s Bakery and Coffee Shop, the only bakery I found in southern Labrador. Even the smell was fattening. There were the usual donuts, muffins, and tea biscuits; cookies, cakes, and pies; date squares and Nanaimos; things mingled, topped, or stuffed with partridgeberries and blueberries; loaves of bread, congregations of molasses buns. And the best cinnamon roll I have ever eaten. At first glance it appeared to have the detested sugar-hard white glaze. But a closer look revealed a thick and generous cream-colored frosting festooned with swirls and arcuate peaks, and coating a roll the size of a small continent.
“What kind of frosting is that on the cinnamon roll?” I asked the plump serving woman, her shape apparently an unavoidable consequence of working in this habitat.
“Cream cheese,” she said with a shy smile and just a hint of mischief, as if she knew the power she held over men’s lives.
* * *
On my way home to North Carolina, I stopped to visit friends on outer Cape Cod, where I had lived for two decades beginning in the late 1960s. I stayed in Provincetown, and each morning went to a back street grocery store that had great coffee, pastries, and a few places to sit and socialize, read, or open a laptop. During my first morning at the grocery, the baker came out of the kitchen with a large tray of pastries. We looked at each other with great surprise and delight. She was a friend I had known since the 1970s but had seen only once in the last 20 years. I got up, she set down the tray, and we warmly embraced, swaying side to side. She invited me back to the kitchen to talk while she worked.
“Remember our trip to New Hampshire?” she asked.
“It’s a good memory,” she said, smiling.
During the first years of my time in Provincetown, we had not been close friends, but rather part of a community of friends, a fellowship. In those days, 30 years ago, she had a small seasonal business, and once a month I balanced her books. One day she asked me if I would help her deliver an order to New Hampshire. Neither of us was in a relationship at the time, and the two-day trip became a romantic interlude that continues to be a good memory for me, and as it turns out, for her as well. Although it didn’t result in an outward change in our relationship, the adventure brought us closer together. From then on there was a comfortable feeling of familiarity in our everyday encounters that has continued to the present, in spite of long absences.
As we spoke of old friends and new lives, she continued her baking. Laid out on the large metal table in front of her was a great rectangle of dough. She brushed melted butter over the entire surface, then added sugar and – what else? – cinnamon. Making a small fold in the long edge nearest her, she rolled the rectangle into a long beige log nearly half a foot in diameter.
“I can’t believe you’re making cinnamon rolls,” I said. “They became part of the adventure on this trip to Newfoundland,” and I told her about the pastry pilgrimage that began with mom’s pie dough strips recalled by the roll from Parson’s Pond. There was a bit of magic at work in my old friend’s kitchen that morning, and two very good memories.
|Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. He has been writing about life experiences, travel to Europe and North Africa in the early 1970s, and more recent adventures in eastern Canada and the U.S. West. His essays and photographs have appeared in several U.S. and international journals.|