Feast of Fools
A word to the wise: If it’s April 1, don’t judge a cake by its cover.
By Leslie Bilderback 04/01/2010
April Fool’s Day was a brilliant idea. Let’s have one day every year when we can act like jerks and suffer no real consequences.
As I understand it, this day of goofing has its origin at the end of the French Renaissance. In the early 1600s, Louis XIII, who had learned to cook his own food for fear of being poisoned, decided to pull a prank on his 14-year-old bride, Anne of Austria, by filling her sugar bowl with salt. Anne, who is credited with popularizing chocolate throughout Europe, thought it hilarious and suggested they both pull a prank on Cardinal Richelieu, Prime Minister of France. They commissioned the original set of dribble cups from royal dishmakers Limoges, which created a special set of porcelain hot chocolate cups with tiny pinholes near the rim. Tim Curry, the actor who portrayed Richelieu in the 1993 movie The Three Musketeers and a student of historical pranks himself, insisted that the front of his robes be spotted with chocolate stains. (I learned this minoring in food history.)
April Fool’s Day is the perfect event for smart alecks, a group that, as you can probably tell, I proudly identify with. I can appreciate a well-devised prank, but I prefer that it be pulled on someone else. Just because I am a smart aleck doesn’t mean I am a good sport.
When I was a waitress in college, the cooks pulled an April Fool’s trick on me by repeatedly moving my tickets to the back of the line, which is just plain mean, made me cry and obviously caused my customers to walk out. I have since toughened up, and I know now that pranks are a part of restaurant life. They usually occur between the front of the house and the back of the house (or to put it in layman’s terms, it’s waiters vs. cooks). Such good–natured rivalry is a natural response to mutual envy on both sides. Waiters make more money, and cooks hate that. But the cooks are the talent, and the actors, um, waiters get jealous of our rock star status. (I know this because I minored in kitchen psychology.)
Come to think of it, waiters really do get the brunt of the pranks. Don’t most late-night dining escapades end with either the unscrewing of salt and pepper shakers, or suspending the tip in an upside-down glass of water? Those poor waiters.
Of course, when I was cooking, my cohorts and I enjoyed hours of fun at the expense of waiters. Like the time we plated a pile of used espresso grounds (which come out of the machine packed tightly in a tart-like shape), garnished it with a few sauces, whipped cream and nuts and asked the waitstaff to try our special dessert. And then there was the time we were warming popped popcorn in an oven in preparation for caramelization. (It must be hot when it’s added, or the caramel will crystallize.) The waiters saw it and thought we had popped it in the oven (which is not possible—I know because I also minored in grain physics). But we told them we had, and for months they kept asking us what they were doing wrong, because their popcorn wouldn’t oven-pop at home.
Good-natured jokes, that’s my thing. I don’t want to be mean, like the chef I knew who served the consommé raft topped with marinara sauce to his waitstaff for dinner. (The raft is a mixture of ground meat and egg whites that floats on a consommé, soaking up the broth’s cloudy impurities, and is then discarded.)
My jokes are friendly and fairly predictable. They are usually food-related but do not result in a big mess. For instance, once in a while I will create the Meat Cake, which looks like a cake but is actually layers of meatloaf frosted with mashed potatoes. It’s deliciously disappointing. I have also enjoyed nestling a piece of perfectly cut fabric between the bologna and lettuce, so that my unsuspecting victim is unable to get a clean bite of sandwich. One may also achieve similar results with an unwrapped single piece of American cheese, if one is so gauche as to have such a thing in one’s fridge. This results in fumbling about in front of friends, and a guaranteed hilarious time for all. Unless, of course, you eat lunch alone on a bench surrounded by mean girls, which is why I stopped pulling this prank when my kids started middle school. (I minored in pre-pubescent humiliation diversion too.)
Speaking of mean girls, my college roommates had the audacity to pull the dreaded Saran-Wrapped toilet trick on me (in which an invisible shield of plastic wrap is placed over the bowl, just below the seat). But ha ha, the joke was on them, because after the prank, I skipped out on the rent. (It was all perfectly legal. I know this because I minored in collegiate rental contracts as well.)
My kids discovered short-sheeting at summer camp one year and delighted in pranking us several nights in a row, a feat easily accomplished, as their parents are old and feeble-minded and cannot remember something that happened a mere 24 hours earlier.
If you are unaccustomed to pranking, I suggest you start off easy, with a standard crowd-pleaser, like Super-Gluing coins to the sidewalk, or adding a few drops of green food color to milk. Then when you feel ready, you can graduate to grand public pranks, like an Australian news channel did when it reported its country would be converting to metric time, and each day would now be 20 hours, each hour would have 100 minutes and each minute 100 seconds, sending people all over the country out for new clocks.
Or you could try to out-prank the genius Taco Bell Corporation, which announced that it had purchased the Liberty Bell from the federal government and renamed it the Taco Liberty Bell, causing thousands of irate taco-haters to flood Washington phone lines with calls.
I know! Let’s announce that Starbucks has bought the Statue of Liberty and is replacing the torch with a cup of Starbucks coffee. Or how about McDonald’s announcing its purchase of the St. Louis Gateway Arch? It will now be painted gold.
However you choose to celebrate April Fool’s Day, stay on alert. (I suggest this, because I minored in tactical holiday readiness.)
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master chef and baker, a cookbook author and a former executive chef of Pasadena’s School of Culinary Arts. A South Pasadena
resident, Bilderback teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.