Press Here For Cookies!-Bratseli- 84 eggs, 64 1/4 cups of sugar, 63 1/2 sticks of Butter, and 76 cups of flour used so far- 127 recipes to go!

August 7, 2010

Martha's Bratseli

André's Bratseli

“And the bluest ink

Isn’t really sky

And sometimes I think

I would gladly die

For a day of sky.”

-Stephen Sondheim lyricist – I Remember- from An Evening Primrose

I really don’t believe in kitchen appliances that only accomplish one specific task. Garage sales across America are filled with avocado slicers, omelette-makers, and novel egg-separators. This is why I was more than skeptical of Martha’s crisp, little waffle-cookie, Bratseli. This ice-cream-cone-like disk requires the implementation of a bratseli or pizzelle iron- a purchase I was not eager to make. Luckily, a fan and friend of my cookie efforts thoughtfully sent me one- from Home Depot of all places! I have a hard time believing this was a top seller at the orange warehouse. Can you picture it? A husky, weathered and worn contractor preparing to install drywall for the better part of the day stops into the Depot for a box of nails and anchor screws when he’s encounters a pizzelle iron on the shelf and thinks to himself, “Hmmmm. I haven’t made a good lavender-infused, pressed tea cookie in ages!”

So, why is it called Bratseli and not Pizzelle? Well, Pizzelle is an Italian cookie consisting of a liquid batter flavored with anise and almond, it is delicate and light and often shaped after baking into a curved disk or horn.  Bratseli, however, is Swedish in origin and is not baked from a liquid batter but rather is made by pressing small, round balls of dense dough into crunchy, flat disks. They are flavored with lemon zest, lemon extract,  cinnamon and vanilla and are absolutely delicious with coffee and/or ice cream. (I tried them with both. Don’t judge.)

Martha’s recipe yields about six dozen of these cookies. Mind you, a pizzelle iron can only bake three cookies at a time, and even though the bake time is only about 90 seconds, it is still a repetitive and tedious process. Plenty of time for me to think about what to write.

Italian cookies, Swedish cookies, French cookies, Middle Eastern cookies… These are all little reminders that I have never been overseas. Outside of a brief time spent in Montréal and one ill-begotten road trip  to Tijuana, I’ve never been outside the United States. Lately I’ve been reminded of this fact several times as friends and friends of friends have boasted their extended vacations to various ports of call around the world. I ask them to bring back photos, and I mean that sincerely. Their snapshots help fuel my rich fantasy life where my partner and I travel to new lands every month or so to sample exotic cuisine and experience cultural traditions far different than those of the American Midwest.

Back in 2001 I planned an extended trip to Eastern Europe. I’d spent that Summer teaching music to overprivileged adolescents at a pricey Summer camp in Maine. My cabin was located next to the cabin for the female kitchen and maintenance staff. The camp was in Casco, Maine and hosted children with some very prominent last names. The same names you’d see while perusing issues of Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar. The camp, to maintain a facade of being a cultured, safe, and protective environment for their young campers sends a recruiter to Prague, Warsaw, and Bratislava each year to find young, cheap, and most importantly- caucasian laborers. These Eastern Europeans were attractive, educated, motivated, and desperately wanted to earn American dollars. The exchange rate for American currency within their countries was favorable and so they were willing to work for far less than minimum wage. What they didn’t know was that once they arrived at the camp, they would work from 5:00 A.M. to 11:00 P.M. every day for almost three months. They would mow the endless lawns, clean dishes, sweep floors, move boxes, do laundry, make beds, rake leaves, weed garden beds, and never interact with the campers or other counselors beyond being told what item they were to serve during mealtime. It was unforgiving, thankless, and backbreaking work. It was also an assault to their dignity and intellect but they never complained. They endured the daily and relentless grind by focusing on having enough money at the end of Summer to make it through another college semester when they returned home.

I found myself spending more and more time with the “Eastern Block” -as I called them. They were funny, smart, and opinionated young people. I found their conversations in broken English far more engaging than the insipid conversations I had with fellow instructors and counselors.

My cabin-mate was a tennis-instructor, husband, and father of two in his early forties who identified himself as a born-again Christian. He would speak to me of the Lord’s love till the wee hours of the morning. He would also comment on which young counselors had the nicest tits and ass. I decided to tell him I was gay about a month into Summer camp in hopes he would stop talking to me about the Lord and tits. Instead, he crawled into bed with me in the middle of the night and wrapped his fuzzy, naked body around me. I pushed him off, turned on the light and listened to him cry and softly pray the rest of the night. The following weekend, he and another counselor went to Montréal to prepare for a new group of campers. Within moments of arriving at the hotel my roommate went missing for twelve hours. They found him stumbling into the hotel on Rue Ste-Catherine hungover and weeping because he had gone through his life’s savings at the casino, and worried his wife would kill him. He was promptly fired and sent home, to what I imagine was quite a speedy divorce proceeding.

During my time with the Eastern Europeans we developed quite a friendship. I was a good bit older than the entire group and they latched onto me for advice and protection from inappropriate advances from many of the male staff. As the Summer came to a close and I prepared to head back to my new apartment in Harlem, many of the “Eastern Block” decided to follow me and spend a few more weeks in NYC working menial and under-the-table jobs. I found them a couple of cheap rooms at a chain hotel in the financial district just across from the World Trade Center where ten of them stayed in each room.

I had made plans to tag along with them to Prague in a few weeks and made arrangements for a month-long stay in Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic. A week later everything changed. Two planes flew into the World Trade Center and the world was turned on its head.

My apartment quickly filled with my Eastern European friends who were now unable to get to their hotel rooms containing their meager possessions. Every inch of my apartment was covered in twenty-somethings who only spoke in broken English. We had gone from a camp in Maine to a “camp” in Harlem. We stayed up late and sang songs, drank beer, and ate junk food. We became very close, When the city police finally opened the Southern tip of Manhattan below 14th Street, I helped my friends retrieve their belongings from the hotel and transport them back to my apartment. Everything downtown was covered in a caky, white dust. It was as though the towers had disintegrated into a coarse powder which now painted everything around the destruction. People, including myself, couldn’t believe the devastation. The devastation of property, yes, but also the devastation of spirit. People were numb and the numbness was reflected in every one of the thousands of faces that lined the streets. Numb faces of people carrying luggage, artwork, pets, photo albums, as if they had been evicted, not just from their homes, but from ever feeling safe and secure again.

Over the next week, as we waited for the airlines to resume a regular schedule, we found things to do to fill our time. Radio City Music Hall had been offering free screenings of popular movies to lift people’s spirits. We all went to see West Side Story. The vast auditorium went dark and the screen lit up with the first image from the film. A panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline- the skyline before the towers ever existed. The audience gasped. A roar of applause began in the front of the house. It grew and reverberated throughout the hall as New Yorkers leapt to their feet, hooting and whistling with joy and excitement. It was one of the most profound experiences I had ever had. People discovered hope. Everything was going to be alright. I looked over at my Eastern European friends and they were all holding hands and quietly crying moved by the sudden sense of community.

Weeks later I gave the last hug to my last guest before she entered the gates at JFK for a long and well deserved flight home. I decided to leave New York. Not being a New Yorker myself, I felt as though I was a guest in a close acquaintance’s home during a terrible tragedy. I felt out of place and felt I should politely leave. I used the money I had put aside to travel through Eastern Europe to relocate to Indianapolis. My sister and her husband had just moved there and it seemed like a place that I could get some local work in theatre and maybe a teaching gig or two. When the time was right I’d come back to NYC.

I’ve always regretted not taking that trip to Eastern Europe. Since then I’ve not had the opportunity or the funds to embark on such a trip. I know I’ll go eventually, but the expense and worry of home ownership and fiscal responsibility have always seemed to present obstacles.

The quote from a Sondheim lyric at the beginning of this post has always resonated with me. I am, at heart, a dreamer. Sometimes the soul want something just out of reach. Mine wants Italy, France, The Mediterranean Sea, but these desires have been repeatedly postponed due to multiple pourings of new concrete, aluminum gutter replacement, medical bills, and expensive raccoon removal.

I guess I’m tired of purchasing all that blue ink, when all I really want is sky.


3 Responses to “Press Here For Cookies!-Bratseli- 84 eggs, 64 1/4 cups of sugar, 63 1/2 sticks of Butter, and 76 cups of flour used so far- 127 recipes to go!”

  1. littletricia Says:

    You shall have your sky, as long as you have your dreams…

    and remember, you are someone else’s sky!

  2. Eri Says:

    Andre, you are such a good writer! I just enjoy your stories. You’ll get there, and I like what littletricia says…

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