"French Wedding Cake"

It was the worst time to take a serious reference question.  Right after opening, this Monday morning, a young man asked for help finding information on the "French Wedding Cake".

Monday mornings at the main library begin with a rush of people wanting Internet sessions and the daily papers, and with a flurry of phone calls.

But you take it as it comes, and at least we had three librarians on the floor.  He and I looked in the cake books in the Cookbook section.  Nothing on French wedding cakes.  We looked at the books on weddings, some of which had good chapters on choosing a cake.  None mentioned a French cake.  Had he looked online?  Yes, but he wanted more.  He was enrolled in a culinary course at Keiser College, and had to research the topic for class.

We had spent ten minutes looking, and already I felt the need to get back to the desk.  We checked the reference collection, looking in Larousse Gastronomique without result, though it referred to the wedding cake, as such, as an English creation.  He showed me the printout from his online search.  Aha!  His cake was a croquembouche, and for that we found an entry in Larousse.  It was not a cake for weddings only, but it might be served at one, and at other special occasions as well, such as baptisms and first communions.

By now I really had to cut him loose and go help at the desk.  Could he check the cake books for croquembouche on his own?  He thought he could.  Poor MF seemed a bit mauled when I got back.  I apologized for being away so long, but I also felt bad about having abandoned my patron to his own efforts.  Triage, I guess.

It shows how misleading a reference question can be.  Neither he nor I knew how ethnically English the idea of a "wedding cake" was.  Looking at home, I find in Google Books that Wedding Cakes and Cultural History, by Simon Charsley, (1992), expands on this:

Viewed from the European mainland this wedding cake has always seemed a peculiarly English development. In periods of Anglomania such as the 1890s in France, it might be viewed with friendly amazement. Montagné in his great Larousse Gastronomique, originally published just before the Second World War, is more guarded. He identifies it as based on the distinctively English plum cake, by then marginally incorporated into the French and Belgian confectionery range. The wedding cake itself is 'a monumental cake', 'a symbol rather than a delicacy, a tradition handed down from one century to the next, whose origins are lost in the mists of antiquity.

If the French, Dutch, Germans, Italians, or other continental Europeans were to celebrate marriage with a cake of some kind it would be altogether lighter. It might share in the tendency to rise high and to be relatively large, but the standardisation and specialisation which are such marked features of the British cake developed much more hesitantly.

In France and Belgium there were two main styles. Regarded as the more traditional was a giant croquembouche.  This is a cone, wide at the base, built up of small round choux pastries which are filled with confectioner's cream and dipped in hot toffee. As the toffee cools it solidifies, making a light brown glossy construction. This can then be decorated with ribbons and sugared almonds, birds and flowers, and often, for weddings, a small bride-and-groom mode on the top. For baptisms, first communions and other events, a similar though probably smaller cake may also be prepared with slightly different decorative motifs. Each guest will be served a number of choux broken out from the whole as a sweet course in the wedding meal.
 At home tonight, over supper, I told R. of my search for the French wedding cake.  "Oh, a croquembouche!", she exclaimed, "You should have called me."  We had watched a program, years ago, in which Martha Stewart and a quite elderly Julia Child each made one.  Martha's was, of course, perfect, while Julia's was more, well, rustic.


Blogging Reference

 The Reference Desk

10:00  Open

He wants Batman and Superman novels, not graphic novels.  "I call 'em comics!", he says.  Find him Batman:  No Man's Land by Greg Rucka, Batman:  The Ultimate Evil by Andrew Vachss, Batman Forever by Peter David, and Superman Returns by Marv Wolfman.

It's Homecoming weekend for FSU, with the Seminoles playing the Virginia Cavaliers tonight.  A beautiful day, bright and cool, perfect for a football game.

Do the Dewey numbers in the reference collection match the ones in the circulating collection?


Open conference room for Sister-to-Sister Support Group.  She wants to post a flyer.  Tell her where the community bulletin board is.


Where can he check out a netbook?  Media desk.

10:45  S. has to see a doctor.  I have the second floor to myself for a while.  It's quiet, but all public PC's are in use.

Do we have a study guide for the Commercial Driver License?  Yes, for in-library use.

Mr. Ellis says he wants to find out who has died, and may he see the Thursday paper?  Thursday?  Yes, that is when the black funeral homes publish their obituaries.  I've wondered why the Thursday paper goes out so much, and occasionally goes missing.

Cartoons by Charles Addams.  Find her The World of Chas Addams, Night Crawlers, Drawn and Quartered, Creature Comforts.

Phone:  Mr. L. wants contact info for The Minka Group, a lighting company.

PC 45 has a fake antivirus virus.  Power off and restart.

PC for Ellery

Phone:  She wants Prison Writings:  My Life is My Sundance by Leonard Peltier.  Both copies lost.

Help woman find articles on end-of-life care for the elderly in Gale.

Today's NYT.

Mr. Ellis trades Thursday's paper for today's.

PC's for Marvin, April.

11:34  NYT comes back, WSJ goes out.

DC introduces me to her sister, down from NJ for the holiday, and may they have copies of Sunday's and today's NYT crosswords?

PC for McKnight.  He doesn't like the location, turns it down.

Teen boy doesn't know how to work copier, make copies for him.

Show man how to upload résumé to a job application.

Phone:  How to spell "Cheyenne", as in Wyoming.  Put Mr. L. on hold.  S. is back, yay!

Books on liquidation and corporate taxation.  Sorry, try FSU.

12:50  Back from lunch.  Holding a book for Shapiro, Call Center Success.  He goes down to check it out.

PC for Isaiah.  PC's for Samuel, Dante.

Call Audrey D. back.  She wants to donate books to the troops.  Suggest Operation Paperback.

Where is program room?  Tallahassee Authors Network is meeting.

PC for Lamont.

Today's paper.

He wants Facebook & Twitter for Seniors for Dummies and Easy Computer Basics.  Just returned, find in check-in room..

S. goes to lunch.

Returns paper, how can he get a library card?

Phone:  She wants The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  Pull, place hold, take to circulation desk.

Does he need a library card to check out books?  Yes, tell him where to get one.

Restart her PC.

Jeff returns USA Today, gets PC.

2:08  PC for Eric. Check sound for another man.

Holding The Friday Night Knitting Club for Carol G., who is here to pick it up.

Mr. Ellis is dismayed.  He is writing a paper on territorial Florida, and has discovered that someone has already written on his topic, 70 years ago.  He must take a new tack, but it's due Dec. 1.

Help her find articles in Gale on budget issues for non-profits.

He needs to pick a play for school.  Take to shelf.

Do we have A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael by Elisabeth Elliot?  No, offer interlibrary loan.  She doesn't have a card yet.

PC for Yolanda.

Job listings?  He is a carpenter.  Has he ever done a job search online?  At Workforce, the state employment agency, but I can see in his face that he's not "computer literate"  I give him the Sunday classifieds.  Later, he wants to copy an ad for an apartment.  I show him the copying machine, but he says he doesn't know how to use it.  I'm helping someone else, but S. does it for him.

He gets to talking with S.  He's 54, has his wife and kids in a motel room.  The children are in school, at Cobb Elementary.  "They didn't ask to be brought into this world.  I'm out here for them", he says.  He must earn at least $45 a day.  He wants to get them into an apartment.  Says he'll do anything.  It breaks my heart.  But I see hope and determination.  St. Joseph, pray for him, a good father.

3:51  Just had a flurry of ILL renewal requests.  Girl asked for anything on "Juneteenth", the celebration of Emancipation Day.  She's looking through the Black History vertical file now.  Tallahassee's local celebration is earlier, in May, Juneteenth having originated in Texas.

Phone:  How can she get to the Favorite Authors Notification page.  The FAN club lets people "subscribe" to new hardback releases for bestselling authors.  Talk her through the links to it.

PC's for mom & daughter, Bridget & Shyla.

Today's paper.

4:30  30 minutes to closing.


Another Working Day

By Wednesday, the press of need at the service desk that we see at the beginning of the week slackens, and today I caught up with the requests queue.  In the workroom, I boxed Baker & Taylor lease book returns, marking them on my inventory list.

I had a request from a journalist in New York for Associated Press football polls ranking small college teams in 1967.  He had been unable to get them at the NYPL or from AP, and somehow found that they had been published in our local newspaper, the Tallahassee Democrat.  They appeared here because Florida A&M was one of those small colleges.  I found all the polls he wanted save one on our microfilm, scanned them, and e-mailed them to him.  The missing one I found in the Billings (Montana) Gazette, using the Access Newspaper Archive.

A grey-goateed father approached.  He needed The Lady and the Tiger, by Frank Stockton, for his daughter, and couldn't find it in our catalog.  It rang a bell.  The title was actually The Lady or the Tiger? And Other Stories.  Another student had asked for it in the last year, and I remembered that it was a tattered paperback shelved in the paperback fantasy carousels.  It is not really fantasy, but a fable and a puzzle.  You can read it at Archive.org if you are curious.


The Call of the Desert

I have formed the habit, in recent months, of roaming the world's deserts online, using Google Maps, Google Earth's simpler, in-browser cousin.  I turn on Terrain and Photos, and search for desolate vistas that people have uploaded with Panoramio.  This image of La Sierrita Ojinaga in Chihuahua, Mexico,  was uploaded by rrca8.  There is something about deserts that soothes my soul.

I lived on the edges of the desert in the '80's, in Albuquerque and Austin.  There are only a few livings to be had in the desert:  rancher, storekeeper, scientist, artist, tour guide, hermit.  There is not much call for a librarian in the desert.

Lately, my viewing has narrowed to a couple of areas on the edge of the great Chihuahan Desert:  the "boot-heel" of New Mexico and Southwest Texas, around Alpine.  R. and I camped in the Davis Mountains one night  in 1981 on our way to California.

It was a happy coincidence, searching for titles for a "Cozy Mysteries" display, to discover Allana Martin's Texana Jones Mystery, Death of a Saint Maker, set in Presidio County, Texas.  Martin draws a fine portrait of life in the border country near the Texas Big Bend.  Texana Jones runs a trading post, and is married to a veterinarian.

A bonus, for me, is that she is a Catholic.  As a nervous passenger in a light plane, she says a Hail Mary.  She goes to Mass.
 Nothing much happened on Sunday.  I went to Mass, prompting a remark from Clay that my unaccustomed piety wouldn't impress the watchers from the DEA.  I laughed at the joke, but my purpose was serious.  When the world closes in, nothing expands the horizon like reflections on eternity.
She burns a candle to St. Jude.  It might not seem like a big deal, but evidences of religious faith  are rare in mainstream fiction.  Yes, "Christian Fiction" has its own genre now, but how often, outside that genre, does anyone routinely go to church?