I have been a trade (also known as business to business) journalist since my first internship-turned job right out of college. First, I wrote for hedge fund managers, then chefs and chef-instructors, then supermarket directors and marketing teams for consumer packaged goods companies and now bakery owners.
Trade journalism has its benefits. Unlike consumer food magazines that primarily serve to swoon over Chef So and So’s tireless dedication to local produce or show you how to make things you should never bother to make at home, like lamb lollipops with kiwi yogurt dipping sauce, you get to dig deeper and find out how expensive it is for restaurants to source locally and why lamb is chosen over beef or pork for the lollipop appetizer. You get to see what’s really going on behind the scenes–from the painful process of doing P&L sheets to dealing with high staff turnover and customers’ growing list of food allergies. You also get to talk shop with business owners. Spending a few hours flinging jargon around with chefs or bakers offers the kind of high a seventh grader would get from an invite to the cool table in the cafeteria.
But trade journalism was never part of my plans as a 20-year-old college student, when I wrote my first feature story for the Wisconsin State Journal about how young moms in Madison shed their baby weight (not that I was thrilled about that type of journalism, either). I simply needed a job, and I was willing compose and edit stories about almost anything. And now I find myself on a business writing path I can’t seem to get off of. Thus is life.
So I started blogging about cooking and trying my hand at short stories–though rarely showing anyone outside my family or close circle of friends. While both satiate me on some level, I still secretly long for 10 best-selling cookbooks and a byline in Food & Wine or Bon Appetit. I quietly curse the Amanda Hessers and Julie Powells of the world for thinking up Food52 and The Julie/Julia Project before I did. I know my career is still young, but patience has never been my strong suit.
So instead of a recipe post, today I’m going to share a short story that was written (and unsuccessfully submitted for publication) during the wee hours, when the urge to be a storyteller comes on like a craving for cold pizza. I love my day job, and I’m good at it. But sometimes I need to write like this, just like sometimes I have to stand in kitchen late at night, munching on leftovers with the refrigerator door open.
Das Nusrollen was inspired by a story my mom once told me about what it was like growing up in a food-centric home with European immigrants as parents. Her mother often baked Nusrollen, a leavened German-style breakfast pastry. Because of her obsession with maintaining the perfect environment for fermentation, my grandmother kept the kitchen on lock down most of the day, berating anyone who threatened the collapse of the dough.
When I sent the story to my mom (who’s an artist) for approval, she replied, “Cute story Marge. I like the part about the cold cuts! Have you thought about submitting a little drawing with it?” The drawing below took me almost as long as it took to write the story.
by Marge Hennessy
Madeline sat on the cold cement of the cellar steps, pressing the backs of her legs against the concrete. She listened to the hurried footsteps in the kitchen above.
It was hotter in the house than the mid-July afternoon outside. Both the oven and the heat were on full tilt in preparation of das Nussrollen, leavened German Danish studded with nuts and gobs of sugary butter. Though her parents always raved over it, she thought it smelled far better than it tasted.
Her mother Louise insisted that the only way to allow the sticky yeast dough to rise properly was to turn the kitchen into a veritable incubator. All day, Louise guarded the kitchen door like a warden, forbidding anyone from coming or going, since that someone would likely be stupid enough to slam the door and collapse the fragile dough.
Madeline’s stomach rumbled. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast, barred from the kitchen during prime fermentation time. So she waited in that dank, musty stairwell while the warden padded above, lovingly tending to that heaving, swollen dough. She imagined it beading with condensation in that sweltering kitchen like a sweaty, fat face. What was so great about that sticky sweet Gebackstuck anyway? She half believed the whole process was just a strange myth, like when old Sicilian grandmas stir their heirloom tomato sauce in figure 8s.
Suddenly, the footsteps died down, snapping Madeline out of her daydream.
“Mom?” she called out timidly. She crept up the steps and listened at the door. Louise must have run outside to water the tomatoes. She maybe had two or three minutes. She noiselessly placed a hand on the doorknob and turned it. A gust of steamy air puffed through her thin brown hair as she pulled the door open a few inches.
Through the crack she could just make out the curve of a ripe nectarine on the counter. She slipped through the door, shutting it quietly behind her, grabbed the nectarine and took a bite. The sweet juice dribbled down her chin and she caught it with the back of her hand. Basking in the aroma of sweet, yeasted dough and enjoying a hard-earned snack, she lingered in the kitchen a moment too long.
As if by some terrible magic, Louise suddenly appeared in the doorway, her small, curvy frame trembling in the late afternoon light.
“MADELINE LOUISE! WAS DENKST DU MACHEN?” she thundered. “You’re bringing cold air in!”
Madeline’s eyes darted to the oven, the door slightly ajar. Inside, the swollen, shiny Gebackstuck bulged over the top of Louise’s favorite scratched up glass bowl. She hated that old bowl. Edging background, she felt for the door, the dripping, half-eaten nectarine still in her other hand. Louise’s eyes were trained on her as she snarled, “Don’t you dare slam that door!”
“Nothing’s going to happen!” Madeline cried. But there was a tremble of doubt in her voice. What if it collapsed? She imagined a tiny puncture forming in the thin skin of the sweating Nussrollen, the air wheezing out of it until all that remained was a deflated, knobby bag of dough. There was no telling what horrible retribution awaited the deflator of the Nussrollen.
She decided to make a run for it, dodging an impressive arsenal of curses and threats as she fled through the door. She flinched a little as she heard it slam followed by a single, piercing shriek. Unsure whether it came out of her mother or the dough, she decided to avoid the kitchen for the rest of the day.
A few hours later, the aroma of sweet bread baking drifted lazily into her room. The Nussrollen had been spared, though she was fairly certain she had not when she heard her mother’s shrill voice from the kitchen. “Madeline! Come down here!”
She half listened to a second helping of scolding, this time about her lack of appreciation for her mother’s tireless effort to keep the family fed. She periodically reinforced her mother’s comments with an occasional nod and apology. “OK, get something to eat,” Louise finally sighed. “I didn’t have time to cook so we’re having cold cuts.”
Madeline grabbed her plate and heaped it with pate, hard salami and ham; butter kase, gherkins, spicy mustard and thick slices of marble rye. She helped herself to her mother’s favorite salad, prepared simply with homegrown lettuce kissed with oil, lemon juice and scallions. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was.
Behind the feast of preserved meats and condiments sat the Nussrollen, gilded with a sugar topping it must have gotten just before baking. Louise had sliced it and carefully arranged the pieces on her best silver platter atop a makeshift pedestal in the center of the table. Was Madeline supposed to have some? Feeling her mother’s eyes boring holes into the back of her head, she timidly reached for a slice.
“No dessert tonight, Madeline,” said Louise, her voice ringing with satisfaction at what she clearly thought was a just punishment for the afternoon’s ordeal.
“No Nussrollen? But mama!” she protested meekly, smiling to herself.
“Don’t worry. There will be plenty leftover for breakfast tomorrow.”