I first got into baking because of a book. It’s not a cookbook. There are no recipes, no lush photographs of frosting or chocolate or perfectly glazed fruits. Nor is it nonfiction. A manifesto about how to eat or why we eat, it most certainly is not.
It’s a children’s book, The Worldwide Dessert Contest by Dan Elish, and it’s my favorite book of all time.
I won’t give away any of the plot – go read the blurb on Amazon – because there’s nothing I can say that would do this book justice. It’s a real treat – it’s imagination at it’s finest, filled with descriptions of amazing sweets (here’s a teaser: roller skating apple pies) and charming illustrations that were quirky long before quirky was a thing.
It sounds melodramatic, but this book changed my life, y’all (regardless of who says it, I always hear that phrase in Paula Deen’s voice, so the “y’all” is obligatory) and set me down this sweet, cavity ridden path of baking from an early age. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I would not be the half-naked housewife I am today without this book.
My history with this book is actually a long, drawn-out affair, spanning over a decade, no joke. The story goes like this:
- Girl meets book.
- Girl falls in love with book.
- Amazon doesn’t exist yet and no other bookstores carry it, so girl can’t buy book.
- Girl moves away, grows up, thinks about book from time to time, but ultimately forgets about book.
- One day, Amazon happens and girl is overjoyed to finally find book again.
- Amazon doesn’t stock book and girl is heartbroken.
- Bitter and jaded, girl gives up on book.
- Girl serendipitously finds book one day, after countless years of searching.
- Book teaches girl how to open her heart and love again.
- Girl and book live happily ever after.
In all sentences, skipping 3, 5, and 6, replace “book” with “Leonardo DiCaprio”, and you have a sure to be Oscar-nominated film. You know it’ll be Oscar-nominated because Leo will be in it and it’s based on a true story.
The really charming part of this love story is that I finally found it at the Strand (just last year!) and it turned out to be a used book that was signed by Dan Elish himself! It’s dated November 14, 1989, which is exactly 16 days before I was born. You and I were written in the stars, book.
And that’s the love story between this girl and her book.
It currently sits in my kitchen, on the shelf with the rest of my cookbooks, and even though it’s not a cookbook, that’s right where it belongs. Dan Elish’s protagonists John Applefeller and Captain B. Rollie Ragoon have taught me just as much about baking as Julia Child, Dorie Greenspan, and Martha Stewart have. The latter have taught me what is possible in cooking and baking – bread, cakes, pies, etc. – but Applefeller and Ragoon have taught what could be possible – pies that speak Swahili and pancakes that double as trampolines.
Imagination and innovation are words that are more often applied to the tech or automobile industries, but they are words that should also be used about food too. Cake decorating and molecular gastronomy are just the tip of the iceberg, folks!
This post started out as a book recommendation, turned into a love story, and has now dissolved into a call to action. I get really emotional and attached to children’s books, okay?
To bring us back where we started, I’ll end with my favorite lines from the book, in the words of my hero, Captain B. Rollie Ragoon:
Yes, I live by a motto that’s noble and true:
Don’t ask what dessert can do for you!
Instead you must bake! Bake till it hurts!
And ask yourself what you can do for desserts!