Friday, February 27, 2009

Napoleons


In L.A., we shopped often at a grocery store called Vicente Foods, which was (eponymously) on San Vicente Boulevard and directly across from my elementary school. It was (still is, I believe) a small market, convenient to Brentwood neighborhood residents and known to carry exclusive foodstuffs not found at the mega-stores. For convenience and quality, one paid a premium, but it was worth it for certain shopping. Vicente Foods was where you'd go for excellent produce, a great butcher, and an in-house bakery. (For things like paper towels and toilet paper, there was always Ralph's.) My mom and I loved the little bakery section tucked into the back left-hand area of the store, and it wasn't too hard to make a convincing case for stopping and picking up a dessert to accompany that night's dinner. The modest pastry case was always filled with fresh temptations. Perfectly iced cakes, pies, and glazed fruit tarts, plus the smaller French standbys: eclairs and napoleons. At the time, those French desserts seemed extremely sophisticated to me (I had a lot to learn). I preferred the eclairs, but I'd happily eat the napoleons, too. The thick yellow custard/pastry cream was the best, then the "thousand" layers of flaky-sticky puff pastry; plus, I admit I was in awe of that chevron pattern of chocolate drawn through the gooey white fondant. Over the years, I think we ate quite a few of them, but there was definitely a last. It was the one before this day: Mom and I stopped at the bakery. The woman behind the counter greeted us and asked what we would like. My mother ordered three napoleons. Today, if you did the same, you might well be served by someone wearing disposable sanitary gloves. Back then, no one wore them. But really, the hands were not the problem. The woman bent to partially slide out the tray containing the napoleons, reaching for one and pulling it out to place it carefully inside the square white bakery box. And this is when she sneezed, onto the napoleon. My mom looked at me. At the time, due to my age, I'm not sure I understood just how icky and awkward the situation was. In retrospect, however, I can pinpoint this as a moment of defining character: what would my mom do? How would she handle a sneezed-on napoleon? "Excuse me," she said, going on to explain as politely as possible (largely out of shock, I think) that she didn't want that one, that it had been sneezed on. Denial followed, and there was a brief back-and-forth (still polite on my mom's side, increasingly hostile on the part of the woman) about whether the pastry had in fact been sneezed on. (It definitely had.) And of course my mother prevailed, insisting that, after all, we would not be taking any of the napoleons. I don't recall whether we ordered something else. I think not. I do know that the napoleon in question went back into the case. We were horrified, but left the store without complaining to anyone else. Within a matter of days, the scene turned into a family joke. Any time my mom or I wanted to put on mock outrage, we'd look aghast with wide eyes and say (and for some reason this was always voiced with a High British accent that none of the players in the real-life drama possessed): "You—you SNEEZED on my napoleons!" It still gets a laugh. To be fair, this was not a repeated incident at the store, and we never had any reason to complain about anything else, at least not to my recollection. This was more than twenty-five years ago now, and should not reflect badly on Vicente Foods. Still, the mere idea of a napoleon provokes two responses in me: mild disgust, with a dose of hilarity. I do believe that I have never eaten a classic napoleon since.

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