Shacking Up With Martha!- Iced Hermits! -234 eggs, 177 1/4 cups of sugar, 178 1/4 sticks of Butter, and 221 cups of flour used so far- 39 recipes to go!

August 13, 2011

Martha's Iced Hermits

André's Iced Hermits

Although not the most appetizing name, Martha’s Iced Hermits are one of the more delicious cookies from her cookie tome. Essentially a dense gingerbread bar, Iced Hermits also feature a thick drizzle of brown sugar icing and chopped crystalized ginger giving each nibble a strong  gingery bite and a bit of a burn at the back of the throat.  Chopped crystalized ginger is also added to the batter along with chopped raisins (I used currants instead). Ground ginger, cinnamon, salt, ground cloves, black pepper, brown sugar, dark molasses and freshly grated nutmeg are the many spices that come together in a richly complex flavor pattern. I baked these as part of a farewell fete for our Summer intern. My work group is quite small and there were a number of us out of town so these Hermits managed to survive for a few days. People seemed to really enjoy them… if they liked ginger. I did notice a few colleagues managed one bite and covertly discarded the rest. Not everyone likes raisins (or currants) and there are a lot of people that can’t handle the intensity of naked crystalized ginger. That’s okay with me. I thought they were yummy.

There’s a TV show that’s hit the airwaves recently featuring America at its sequined worst. It’s called Dance Moms and I can’t help glancing towards the set whenever it’s on. I don’t linger too long lest I turn into a pillar of salt but I will give it at least ten minutes of my time. The premise is a simple one. A troupe of young tween and teen dancers go from competition-to-competition led by a plus-sized instructor who has the subtlety of a flatulent rhinoceros. These marginally talented young girls are taught to smile broadly, how to apply eye makeup with a mason’s trowel, how to deliver spectacle and shake their undeveloped money-makers. It would be interesting if any of them learned how to actually dance.

The Summer before my senior year in High School, I took a part-time job helping to set up a new business just off of the I-10 called The Klown’s Kloset. It was a costume shop owned and operated by a woman of fierce determination and questionable taste. She’d been a fixture in the Baton Rouge subculture of competitive dance teams and her name was Jessie Jean Barton. For over fifty years she taught the young future wives of Republican congressmen how to smile broadly and how to work a boa, skills most Republican congressmen value in a spouse. To meet Jessie Jean in person was an encounter one would never forget. She was an assault to just about every sense.

Jessie Jean was a woman in her mid-seventies with long platinum hair twisted into a large, voluminous heap atop her head like a bountiful serving of spaghetti in an all-you-can-eat pasta joint. Her coif was held together with a yellow lace headband tied into an enormous bow that sat on the side of her head like an impeccably fashioned tumor. Her skin was spackled with a thick layer of foundation with generous helpings of the pinkest rouge smeared on each sunken cheek and around her hairline. Dark, heavy painted  lines encircled her sagging lids and mascara caked each lash with such impressive weight that I imagine after blinking opening her eyes again took serious effort. She wore a bright yellow jump suit of heavily zippered pleather, a slick vinyl white belt and thick chains around her neck including several crucifixes and a rosary. Madonna was a popular figure of the time and Jessie Jean was determined to stay current by presenting herself as a geriatric and, I imagine, semi-continent version of the Pop Queen.  Like a Virgin? No. Like a Version? Yes.

Jessie Jean had bought the inventory from another costume shop and moved it to her new storefront as part of a real estate development her meek husband had built on the edge of a busy intersection. Having worked at the defunct costume shop and being familiar with the inventory, Jessie Jean hired me to organize. That said, “organization” was not a part of Jessie Jean’s vocabulary. Often after a day of sorting and merchandising I’d come into the store to find everything I’d done sitting in a large pile in the corner. When I asked her what happened, she shrugged it off and told me she was looking for sequined appliques. This is how things continued with Jessie Jean. I worked for two months and we still were never able to open the doors to the public because Jessie Jean would tear through the shop wreaking havoc on the inventory while seeking out a certain boa or ostrich feather.

Her daughter Jenise had taken over most of Jessie Jean’s classes at their studio and, like her mother, she embraced the art of dance as an homage to sequins over substance. She was the only person on the planet who could talk back or argue with Jessie Jean and they bantered quite a bit. Often I’d hear them in the stock room squealing at each other. Jenise’s distinct whine matched with Jessie Jean’s low raspy growl, from years of smoking and yelling at her poor husband I imagine, would crescendo until there was a drawn silence broken by laughter. This was the foundation of their relationship. A futile battle of wills that would always end with Jessie Jean getting her way. They both knew this but would they really seemed to enjoy the confrontation.

Jessie Jean taught her classes with a standard prop used by many dance instructors, a walking staff. I’ve played piano for and have even taken quite a few ballet classes in my life and so I am quite familiar with the endlessly rhythmic tapping of the Instructor’s cane. Jessie Jean’s cane was encrusted in rhinestones and while she’d tap it often in her classes, it was rarely to any discernible rhythm. Most often it was a violent and threatening thwack here and there to indicate that smiles weren’t big enough and energy was too low. I did see an interpretive dance that she and her daughter had “choreographed” to Madonna’s Pappa, Don’t Preach  that could easily be one of the most rehearsed exercises in bad taste I’ve ever witnessed. Imagine fifteen tweens dressed like Madonna flouncing about the stage in synch while emoting to an imaginary “Papa” hovering somewhere over the audience’s heads and begging him to “Keep Their Babies.”  At several points a few of the girls did cartwheels, splits and flip-flops, not smart moves for a large group of sequined pregnant tweens. It was delightfully ghastly.

As my senior year began, I stepped away from Jessie Jean Barton and the Klown’s Kloset which never opened that Summer as planned. Jessie Jean begrudgingly paid me my last paycheck. She hated spending money almost as much as she hated fat girls who couldn’t do gymnastics. I didn’t step back into the shop until almost three years later.

I was visiting my family after a semester at Marymount in NYC. I popped in to say hello to Jessie Jean, having talked about her to so many of my New York friends who’d squeal with delight at the notion of this dance diva of dreck, this sequined goddess of bad taste. Jenise was behind the counter of the costume shop that finally opened. It was still a mess and barely shopable but the sign outside said, Open, so I stepped on in. Jenise was happy to see me and gave me a hug. I asked about Jessie Jean and Jenise’s face went blank. “Oh, André,” she said. “Mama passed away last year.” Jenise explained that Jessie Jean had a bout of pneumonia that ended up taking her life peacefully in her sleep. Jenise then did something I wasn’t prepared for. She reached behind the counter and produced a framed photo. It was Jessie Jean in her final performance. The photo was of her mother laying in state in her rhinestone encrusted casket. She wore a black sequined leotard embellished in red and black feathers around the neckline. A large red boa encircled her shoulders and her pale hands with red, sculpted nails grasped at her rhinestoned cane. I was shocked that a photo was taken and kept so close, framed even. It seemed like a macabre tribute to a woman who was, pardon the cliché, so filled with life. It seemed in such poor taste. Then I thought, this is Jessie Jean we’re talking about. Of course there was a photo. She probably had requested the photographer in her will. It was her grand exit, after all and it was going to be choreographed as tastelessly as everything else she’d ever touched. I began to tear up a bit. I looked up at Jenise and she, too had tears welling up sending dark rivulets of mascara down her rouged cheeks.

“That’s probably the quietest she’d ever been,” I said with a wink.

Jenise laughed and gave me a another long hug.

Jessie Jean taught dance for over fifty years in Baton Rouge. She was a hard-edged woman of questionable taste but she touched more lives than most of us ever could or will. She marched to the beat of a different drummer tapping her arhythmic thwacks with a gleaming shillelagh of rhinestones. She was harsh and easily irritated and centuries from now when future paleontologist dig up a bejeweled casket, they’ll probably determine that, by virtue of her adornment, she must’ve ruled us all.


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