Kings among men

During the week of Mardi Gras, the kids went to play at our pod fremily’s (portmanteau alert: “friends” plus “family” equals “fremily”) house and were treated to their first-ever slices of King Cake. Our fremily had purchased the cake from a local café+bakery owned and operated by a married couple I don’t know personally but respect a great deal (and who have two adorable daughters for whom the shop is named), and Arlo was absolutely smitten. He talked about the cake for days and days, declaring that it’s his choice for his birthday when he turns six in June. Ok, I thought. I’ll figure that out when the time comes, but he’ll most likely change his mind before then.

He most certainly did not. No baked good under the sun could hold a torch to that King Cake. I knew that anything I could drum up in my kitchen would pale in comparison to the local shop’s professional product, so as the weeks drew closer to June, I decided to give them a call to see about the possibility of ordering a replica of the one in Arlo’s mind, its sweetness distilled by memory. The man named Jason who answered the phone informed me that the cake had only been available the week of Mardi Gras, but he would check to see if a special order might be possible. He called back two hours later and apologized for the delay (it didn’t feel like a delay to me), saying that he’d checked with Patrick (one of the owners) and, unfortunately, it just wouldn’t be sustainable for them to make just one of these cakes for a single occasion. Here’s how the end of the conversation went:

Jason: “I’m sorry we couldn’t make this work for you.”
Alison: “Oh, that’s ok; I totally understand! I just had to ask because I know yours would be far superior to mine. Thank you so much for checking, anyway! I know better than to ask for the recipe, but please tell Patrick that he has a big fan in my son, and—“
Jason: “Do you have an email address?”
Alison: “Um, yeah.” (I dictated it to him.)
Jason: “I’ll get you that recipe.”
Alison: “What? Are you serious?”
Jason: “I’ll get you that recipe.”

I had no idea how this person was going to whip that rabbit out of a hat (sorcery? subterfuge? illicit cookbook larceny? ), nor could I fathom WHY he was proposing to do it for a perfect stranger, and I was shocked that he’d even suggest the possibility. Less than 24 hours later, I received an email from him saying that he didn’t have the recipe yet because Patrick was converting it from large-batch format into single bake proportions, but he wanted me to know that he hadn’t forgotten his promise. I was overwhelmed by this gracious gesture while feeling further perplexed as to why they would go to all this trouble for me. Who was I? Not a family member or a recognizable regular or a VIP or someone who had some kind of advancement or honor to offer. Then I looked at his full name in the email signature and realized that this Jason was THE Jason, the other business owner, Patrick’s husband, parent of those two little girls. Something clicked, then, and I realized this email wasn’t from the guy answering the phone at the bakery. It wasn’t even from a business owner taking down a customer request. It was from a father. Here was a man who heard a woman on the phone making a special request for her child’s birthday, and he didn’t even let her finish her sentence before making up his mind that he would grant her this gift, except it wasn’t a man on the phone with a woman anymore; it was a parent on the phone with another parent.

The next day I got an email from Patrick, pastry master himself, with a personal note and the recipe written out in full detail, including a list of “equipment needed” and special instructions for every step. And this isn’t your simple “whip it right up” situation; Patrick’s King Cake is a two-day process involving fifteen ingredients and a dough hook and pounding butter and two proofings and a ruler. It has a filling and an icing and requires folding and twisting. The words “rectangle” and “cylinder” and “circle” feature in the creation of this cake’s geometry, and the ingredient measurements are all listed in grams. This is a megalithic, philharmonic kind of bake. The kind of bake you practice a few times before expecting anything resembling success. It must have taken Patrick at least an hour just to reconfigure and transcribe the recipe.

His email ended with “Don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions,” and I continue to be dumbstruck by the generosity of these two men, these two entrepreneurs, these two fathers. This isn’t just good business or customer service or a graceful response to community outreach. This is hospitality in the old-fashioned sense, the Greek sense, where the word “stranger” and “guest” are interchangeable concepts, where a bedraggled seafarer washed up on shore could easily be a deity in disguise. This is heartfelt goodness simply for the sake of giving a parent the gift of being able to give to her child, to make manifest that child’s hope. Not a greedy hope, but a pure hope that comes from loving something and wanting it a whole lot. Hope is a lot like love that way: it’s so powerful partly because it implies the potential for disappointment, which isn’t really so different from heartbreak sometimes.

This is for certain: I will be making that King Cake. Multiple times, surely, until I get it close enough to Patrick’s to be good enough for Arlo’s birthday. And though I’m no deity in disguise, I hope I can do something that feels even a fraction of this kind of kind to show Jason and Patrick how grateful I am for what they did for us, in addition to how grateful I am to experience gratitude of this amplitude, a feeling which is a gift in and of itself.

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