Friday, February 23, 2007


Buttermilk. The word just sounds sweet and easy, doesn’t it? It’s an image, a feeling, a taste, a roll of the lips that seems so distinct from anything indigenous to the city. I like to say that we Southerners talk and carry ourselves with a light buttermilk coating. We can be easy on the eyes, ears and mind—nothing too severe, difficult, bitter—unless you get a good taste of us, rather, one taste too many. There’s a kick. It can be sour. Or, it can just be tart. It depends if you’re the kind of person that takes your coffee black or with cream and sugar.
Valentine’s Day and the “New York Times” “Dining In/Dining Out” section runs a gorgeous feature piece on Red Velvet Cake. Valentine’s Day and my pinup spread runs on “Gawker.” I’m proud and embarrassed and empowered and enervated by the images. “You went too far,” “You didn’t go far enough.” “You took a leap and the fickle soul of Manhattan was your golden parachute—nothing is ‘too much’ up here, not when you reside below that magic cut off line, age 30.” I look at the picture in the “Times” and admire the whimsical and gaudy crimson-layered cake. I glance at my computer screen. Email from a friend in Texas: “You’ll adore these pictures when you’re 80 and your bosoms are hitting the floor!” Agreed. And the “Gucci” and the “Chanel” fit so nicely. Even the tacky, white number—the “Jessica McClintock”—made me feel good. Second skin. Distracted, I lick my lips and read the icing recipe, cream cheese, mascarpone, cups and cups of powdered sugar. Something has to make all that cheese palatable.
I grocery shop and find every ingredient but the buttermilk. I have to have it. There’s no substitution. The buttermilk has to go into the cake batter, making it both sweet and sour, interesting, almost acrid. The shelves at the “Associated Supermarket” have Kaffir milk, soy milk, goat milk—everything but that Southern staple. I go to “Joe’s Dairy” on Sullivan Street. “Buttermilk?” the old Italian asks me. He makes the sign of the cross. Maybe it was because the St. Anthony’s church bell struck six. Maybe he was praying for my palate. “Dean & DeLuca,” that bastion of over-priced perishables, saves me. I have all my ingredients, I can now make that tall, 3-layered, tacky wonder.
The cake has such height and presence it’s almost vulgar. I top it with three pink roses. There, that’s better. Off with the black, slinky thing and into an eyelet sundress. A piece will go to all my favorite downtown neighbors: the bartender at “Raoul’s,” the butcher, the baker, the doubtful cheese-maker. It’s too bad I have to slice her up into different parts, I think. They should take her all in at once: gaudy, sweet, decadent, difficult, a throwback to a different era. N

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