I returned to Oberlin after completing the stint at Hostellerie Bourguignonne. This time, I had some sense of where I was going. I was determined to finish my education, this time in Biology, since that’s the closest science to cooking.
I arrived in January. Instead of staying in some non-descript dorm, I applied to live in Asia House. By now, I had the wanderlust, and the world’s cultures all appealed to me. The first day I moved into my room, I had lunch with Maheema Devadoss, the house mother. I had never been this close to an Indian woman before, and I was totally enchanted. Her daughter, who was maybe 8, bounced up and down on my bed. I felt at home. And, I had South Indian food for lunch, complete with a very spicy coconut curry and idli, which are steamed rice cakes punctuated with a myriad of black mustard seeds. I had never seen spices used in this way! The French were so conservative with spices.
My roommate was an English major who played the classical guitar—quite well. He was so thoughtful. He smoked cigarettes, but he did this outside and put the butts in a glass jar. I was so grateful to live with someone who was so considerate.
I took lots of biology courses during my remaining two and a half years at Oberlin. I also minored in German, as it had appealed to me so much.
On Sunday afternoons, I religiously joined a group of hard-core botanists who hiked local forests with one of Oberlin’s greatest teachers, Dr. George Jones, who died in 1998 at the age of 100. He reminded me so much of Miss Truran, my piano teacher, who had taught me so much about the interpretation and performance of music. Dr. Jones could pick up even a scrap of a leaf and identify it; he was the Sherlock Holmes of botanists!
In order to stay centered, I worked for the dining service, making pastries. I made a lot of éclairs, I remember that. Usually, I worked in the wee hours of the morning.
I remember one morning I was making éclairs. The kitchen was l-shaped, and I was piping out éclairs in one leg of the “l” while boiling sugar and water to make caramel in the other. Well, at 2 AM, time has a habit of passing faster. While piping, I heard a small explosion. I rounded the corner, and on top of the stove was the pot that used to contain the caramel in process.
However, it wasn’t caramel. It was a giant, black cylinder with a lid perched on top, rising slowly, inexorably out of the pan.
I turned off the burner and threw the pan in a snow drift and forgot about it until later in the spring, when I gave it a proper burial in the garbage can.
Living at Asia House was a real privilege. It was a tight-knit community. Even though I was “French”, I still felt a thrill being there. I got to eat lots of Asian food, as many of the students were really good cooks.
I remember eating “Pepper Water”, a South Indian version of Mulligatawny soup. It practically melted the container it was served in. I remember learning that in Chinese families, the bottom of the rice pot, where the rice was a golden brown and crispy, was the best part. Years later, I connected that bit of crisped rice with the starch reaction, dextrinization, in which the hydrolysis of starch molecules causes a breakdown of large starch molecules into much smaller dextrins, which are sweet and soluble. No wonder people thought it to be the best part—same reason that the crust of French bread is lustrous, sweet, and wheaty in aroma and flavor.
I remember cooking for 120. Many of us Asia House residents took turns cooking for the others. I don’t remember what I cooked, but I do remember the dessert, which was most memorable. Being the ambitious type, I decided to make my own ice cream and my own cake for the dessert.
The ice cream was made with a crème anglaise that I froze in a salted snow drift outside the kitchen. Of course, it took a bit of stirring while standing there in boots and winter clothing.
The cake of course was genoise. I drizzled all the cakes with rum-scented simple syrup, and covered the ice cream with meringue that I piped decoratively on the outside. As is customary, I embedded egg shells in the meringue containing rum fortified with Everclear (to make it burn well). I had students standing in the dining room and flambéing on cue
Nobody burned their hair or called the fire department. I’m sure it was all totally illegal but in a building that always smelled of marijuana and incense, what does “legal” mean?