What is it about the pastry display?

Even when we (meaning me) don’t have a sweet tooth that dictates our eating, that stunning show of pastries from here to France and back again is enough to give pause. And cause drooling.

My husband has a mad desire for sweets, but most often restricts it to cookies or his nemesis: cannoli. Alex has sampled cannoli from Pittsburgh’s Little Italy Days in Bloomfield to every Italian restaurant he’s entered. (Learning along the way that not all Italians are fond of serving this Sicilian specialty.) 

Alex thought he’d met heaven when he nibbled a Belgian waffle in Brussels—from a food truck and enveloped in paper, he swooned as he devoured it. In Hawaii, he can’t wait to get his first (and second, and third, etc.) Shave Ice. As soon as he discovered a penchant for iced Lychee, he repeated it daily.

My brother-in-law craves sweets like most of us crave air when we’re underwater. My nephew quipped that his dad had eaten so many Hostess Ho Hos that if they dug him up 50 years after he dies, he’ll be perfectly preserved. Having seen boxes of Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies and Nutty Buddy Wafer Bars disappear in record time, I can attest to the full preservation of John’s innards.

As a child, my nephew hid his Easter and Christmas candy from his dad. My sister still does. A secret stash of M&Ms is the only safe stash of M&Ms.

The sole thing that saves my husband and bro-in-law from paying the price for their decadence is that their metabolisms burn off every danish in record time.

My sister and I hate them. We eat twenty potato chips and gain a pound. What’s up with that?

Back to the enticement of bakeries.

In our travels, I photograph people, architecture, and gloriously unusual skies and mists. My husband photographs food. Handmade and gayly wrapped chocolate in Lucerne, tender Italian pasta in a saffron sauce, and by all means, pastries. Put the camera in his hands and I download pictures of tarts, crullers, baklava, and so much sugar my teeth hurt..

If I’m honest, I’ll admit to being stopped in my tracks a time or two by the colors and creative tiers of cakes and cookies. Sue’s Pantry in Saundersfoot, Wales has a window that could draw the most ardent non-sweet eater in. I especially don’t care for cupcakes (in my regular life), but get me to this little town in Pembrokeshire, and I’m off to Sue’s.

Why does the baked good display have such an effect on people? Or is it only the folks I know? What is it? The colors? The artistry? The pending jolt to your taste buds?

And why does the desire for a sweet strike from nowhere?

Alex nearly fell over in shock a few weeks ago. I finished mowing, was tired, hot, sweaty (very pretty image, right?) and he asked, “What can I get you?” 

Without hesitation, I said, “An eclair.” 

“An eclair? Did you say eclair?” I did. Off he went to his favorite place: the bakery department at our local grocery store.

Now, I was not sure what an eclair was when I sent him on this errand. Choosing it was right up there with my answer for when Alex asks, “What are you hungry for? I’ll make you anything.” (Gosh, he is nice to me, isn’t he? I had better respond in kind.) I generally reply, “Chicken Corden Bleu.” I have no idea what is in that dish and only began eating poultry this year after two decades avoiding it. That’s what I say, and he laughs and hey, wait—he has not yet made me Chicken Corden Bleu. So much for me stopping work this afternoon to whip him up a bunch of cookies. 

My travel memories—okay, sometimes they connect to food.

I remember trips by the people, the unique churches or castles, by the experiences of being there.

Alex remembers places by food. If I ask, “Where did we have that ice cream thing that we ordered by mistake and it took two of us to eat?” He doesn’t miss a beat, “Hawaii, Duke’s, hmmm, Kauai, 2015.” I’ll go to my photos for that trip and darned if he isn’t right.

Occasionally I tie food to location. I can tell you that I dared try black squid ink pasta because the utterly charming waiter at Solferino’s in Milan recommended it. But beyond the dish, I remember the moment. We were the first people there—early of course because we habitually dine earlier than Italians. I hesitated as we walked in at seven o’clock and asked, “Are we the first?” The waiter beamed, “You are the best,” and showed us to a lovely table. How could I refuse his recommendation?

I can tell you that when Jackie and I took our famous trip to Italy’s Cinque Terre National Park, we got gelato every day from 5 Terre Gelateria in Manarola. The first day the proprietress told us, “I make everything with all my love.” How can you resist such passionate sincerity?

At Melin Tregwynt Woolen Mill in Wales for my 59th birthday, Jackie, her daughter and I luxuriated in a five-star lunch. The scrumptious dessert was an unusual order for me—chocolate cake smothered in cream. 

Out of our element in London, Jackie and I stuck close to the hotel for dinner. Our lavish apple pie with custard sauce demanded that we walk up and down Piccadilly’s sidewalk for an hour to recover.

Do humans have an innate connection to sharing ourselves via food?

Maybe there is something that bonds us over dessert even more so than the main course. How else do you explain that Americans can be stuffed to bursting after eating our Thanksgiving meal and yet, without fail, we manage to eat pumpkin pie? There’s no logic to cramming one more thing in our stomachs. But we do as we continue to visit and chat and share family and friendship time.

Is it the same way when we stand together in front of the pastry display? Is there an unspoken comradeship as we each think we’re about to get away with something—even as adults—in which we shouldn’t imbibe? That treat, that sweet, that utterly gorgeous work of art that someone created out of flour and sugar and mystery ingredients will be ours! 

All we have to do is ask or point—just wipe away the drool first.

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Read: Further Italian Adventures