The sound of the door closing behind him rung loudly in her ears. She sat in the heavy silence of her newfound independence for several minutes. She thought she might just spend the next week or so padding around her apartment wrapped in a soft blanket, eating cheese slices and peanut butter straight from the jar. After one day, however, her restlessness overtook her anguish and she woke naturally without her typical 4am alarm. She loved bakers hours; the early mornings, the dim blue light of pre-dawn that quiets even the noise of cars on the highway. Someone once told her those early morning hours were the most dangerous, the time when the most murders occurred. But she felt safest in her own company.
She stretched her long limbs, tied an apron over her pajamas, and dusted the countertops in flour. She got to work patiently proofing, rolling, and chilling layers of butter and dough. She felt proud as rolled out a delicate sheet of butter, tissue thin and scented with fresh grass and salt and the slightly animal tang of dairy. The sourness recalled a memory of his dewy skin, which now tugged painfully at a point deep beneath her ribcage. She pressed and caressed the dough to rise and take shape, to stiffen as the gluten structure formed. Finally, after hours of gentle caresses, firm hands and light touches, she would finish. It can take up to three days of work and waiting to make croissants.
It turned into a humid day, oppressive with its wet summer heat. Her hands felt hot against the chilled butter softening too quickly in her grasp. She worked the elastic dough, folding it in thirds, rolling, turning, folding in thirds like a letter, rolling, turning. Chilling. Waiting. Beginning the process all over again until the dough got too hot, the gluten structure too stiff, until she needed a break from the repetition of pressing, rolling, touching, the yeasty scent of rising dough thick in the musty air. She needed to stretch out her neck and shoulders, stiff with the anxiety of unrequited love. Flour dust drifted in the brightening light of day, glistening like daffodils blown into the breeze. It made her want to sneeze.
Several glasses of wine later, as the light thickened and turned roasted gold towards the end of the day, she returned to the dough, finished building it into many layers of butter and flour and air and hope and frustration. She slept fitfully, her body exhausted from the day’s labor but her mind unable to stop its fits and starts. She awoke, once again, to greet the eerie pre-dawn light and her puffy, perfectly proofed dough, squishy like taught skin over soft flesh of breast or buttocks. Gently, she sliced it into triangles and caressed each into a rolled crescent shape with practiced hands. She nestled them into the warm oven.
When they emerged, steaming and warm and ready, she pulled one apart, it's crispy brown edges shattering into sharp flakes across her plate, revealing the lacy center of lightly layered pastry, like a doily or a set of fine lingerie. She paced her kitchen as they cooled, eating just one too many as she wrestled between sending him her love letter, layered and sweet and delicate, or simply eating her self pity over the course of the languid afternoon.
Interview by L. Valena
Can you describe what you responded to?
It was a sculptural piece that had a middle bowl section with four corners that were almost shaped like lambs ears.
What was your first reaction?
My first reaction to it was about the layers. I thought of lamb ears, and then about the layers- a croissant was the first thing that popped into my head, which is how I ended up starting my piece.
Where did it go from there?
I got the prompt, and of course I got it at the beginning of two super busy weeks. I work for an athletic wear company, and it was two weeks before the Boston Marathon, which is one of our biggest events of the year. So I looked at it, and then went into that world. It's kind of nice to get a prompt and then be able to sit on it for a little bit- let your subconscious do some work in the background. I write pretty exclusively non-fiction, and I thought what if this is a fiction piece? I wanted to see what would come of that.
I didn't initially intend to write about food, I'm usually a food writer, and I thought I would do something different, but what really resonated with me was the layering of the different colors in the piece, and it looks like when you're making croissants and you laminate the dough with butter. It's just this really beautiful creamy layer in the middle of the whole thing, and that's what just kept coming back up for me. When laminating dough, the first step is to actually roll out a sheet of butter and to tri-fold the dough over it like a letter. So that was the other piece that kept resonating with me- it kept bopping around. The idea of that letter fold, and that image of croissants. So that's where it started, and just thinking about what it would look like if this was a woman writing a love letter to an ex lover. The only way she knows how or the way she knows best is by baking croissants.
This idea of croissants and unrequited love- is that an association that you have for any particular reason? Tell me about that.
No, but I do think there is something very romantic about a laminated pastry. The labor that goes into it. I've never actually made croissants from scratch, but I remember my friend did, and it took him three days! Three days to make croissants! And I think there's something really beautiful about the labor, and the finished product is so delicate and beautiful, and so sensory. Super aesthetic, it's buttery, it's indulgent, it feels really romantic in a lot of ways. I think unrequited love has a sorrow to it that feels especially romantic, and the labor of something as skill-intensive and time-intensive as croissants for someone who is not going to return any of that care, or time, or love, just felt really melancholy and sweet in a way. I wanted to kind of take it there, and let that be kind of the overarching tone of the piece. I think that with what I originally got as a prompt- the sculpture- it spoke to that in some way, of being an empty vessel. I felt like it's supposed to hold something, but I couldn't quite figure out what it was intended for, and that resonated too.
It's so interesting to think of that vessel as almost a lonely object.
You said you looked at the prompt, and then sat on it for awhile. How much do you think that affected the process?
I'm a pretty chronic procrastinator, so that does tend to be my MO. I'm really good at thinking about things for a long time, and then actually doing them just in time to get them done. I definitely lean on the incubation period as an important part of the process, just as I'm going about my day to day, it will kind of pop back into my head. And then when I sat down to write the piece, I had thought of this woman, and pictured her and her face.
Is she based on anyone you know?
No, not at all. She's totally imaginary. Who is she creating this love letter to? Why? What is she all about? Which is not within the normal practice of my writing, so it was a fun exploration of what that looks like, and how to create that world which doesn't exist.
I think it's really cool that you're a food writer, and here you're writing about somebody who is almost using food to write with.
Fiction freaks me out because it's so ungrounded, and it feels like a lot of pressure to have to create this whole world for these characters to live within, and this space. Having food as the grounding point was really helpful for me to be able to focus around that. I know I can write about that- how can I build a world around that in a way that feels new?
Now that you've been through this process twice, do you have some new advice?
I think what I definitely walked away with, is feeling like this is just so valuable. It's a chance to play and explore something that's maybe a little outside your normal wheelhouse. Having something that's in essentially a completely different language that you get to read and respond to, in your own language, is a really interesting privilege, and it's something that you don't get to do very often. The time limit gives you a totally different way of working than most artists are used to. You can really take the opportunity to stretch yourself and do something weird. Which is only going to make it more fun for the next person as well.
Call Number: Y9VA | Y13PP.knoLo
Ariel Knoebel is a writer based in Boston, MA. She is interested in exploring gender in the kitchen, the history on your dinner table, and where she can find the world's most perfect grilled cheese. For a taste of her work, check out sipandspoonful.com.