I freely admit that this "Skeptic's Collection" column is shamelessly self-indulgent. I wrote it about a year ago this coming Christmas, and it was one of the 2 or 3 most fun columns I have ever written in the five-plus years I have been Beguine's Skeptic-In-Residence. So, as a Christmas present to myself, I am republishing it here. Enjoy and merry Christmas!
I have good news and I have bad news.
The good news is that the week preceding Christmas Eve, my wife and I took the ferry up to Victoria, BC, where we had high tea at the venerable Empress Hotel. The weather was cold enough in Victoria to make Seattle by comparison seem like a giant hot-yoga class, since both our hotel and the Empress fronted the harbor. Notwithstanding, Victoria was, as usual, one of the two or three most sheerly civilized places on the planet, especially given that the primary occasion was high tea, one of the most civilized hold-overs from when Britannia ruled the waves, conclusively demonstrating that imperialistic colonialism has its upsides. We arrived back in Seattle just in time for Seattle’s white Christmas Eve and white Christmas, which always puts me in a pipe-and-old-cardigan, carpet-slippers, Robert-Frost mood (“I’m going out to fetch the little calf / … / I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too”). Good news, ne c’est pas?
The bad news is that – ironically, because of high tea at the Empress – I was tempted to embark on a life of crime, a temptation I may yet not be able to resist. So read the following as a cautionary tale in the tradition of “scared straight”, and take note.
Our waitress at high tea in the tea-room of the Empress brought my wife and me the usual lavish – and, one more time, eminently civilized – multi-level tray of miraculous confections comprising scones on the bottom level with raspberry preserves and clotted cream; on the middle level, dainty little sandwiches that, as far as I am concerned, amply the justify the trouble evolution took to create anything as otherwise superfluous as cucumbers; and on the top level of the tray, exquisite little jewel-like petit fours and mini-cookies that were miniature works of art in themselves … all of it to-die-for delicious, provided only that one would contrive to die in the most civilized way possible. ("I say, Color-Sergeant Smedley-Hopkins, old bean, is that a bloody Zulu assegai protruding from my middle abdomen with such vulgar prominence?") And the tea … one would need a separate vocabulary to do justice to my chai-spice tea and to my wife’s English breakfast tea.
(To state the matter as categorically as possible: Americans do not have tea. At best, we have only a wretched tea-like / quasi-tea simulacrum, a y’gotta-be-kidding-me tea approximation spawned -- I dare not say "brewed" -- by pouring boiling water over a pendulous object that looks like nothing so much as a desiccated adolescent-squirrel testicle. [Don’t believe me? Humanely trap an adolescent male squirrel, gently flip it over, and examine its testicles. I rest my case.] I have drunk real tea – i.e. brewed tea – in England, Ireland, Japan, Holland, and Singapore. No squirrel-testicle simulations for me! I know and appreciate the difference! In the most precise sense, the term “brewed tea” is quintessentially redundant. But I digress. Onward … )
After Marlene, our waitress, had brought round the tea-tray and after my wife and I were perhaps 2/3 of the way through the minor miracles thereon, she came through the tea-room and gave all of us high-tea diners fair-sized slices of what looked to be very pale fruitcake. Now, if your experience of Christmas fruitcake is anything at all like mine, you anticipate Holiday fruitcake with approximately the same level of enthusiasm with which the Spartans anticipated meeting the Persians at Thermopylae, or that the Army of the Potomac anticipated meeting the Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg … only less so. The word “anticlimax” immediately leaps unbidden to mind. Other words leap to mind, but are not mentionable in a "family" column.
But -- mea maxima culpa -- I was wrong. For the actual event was such as to inspire chastened reflections about the true meaning of Christmas, the immanence of the Transcendent in the mundane world, the inviolability of physical law, etc., even on the part of Resident Skeptics like the undersigned. For the ostensible fruitcake turned out not to be fruitcake at all, despite the superficial similarity thereto, but a Heaven-sent German dessert known as Stollen. (Out of respect for Stollen, I retain the old-fashioned German practice of capitalizing nouns.)
So impressed was I with Stollen that I even went so far as to whisper conspiratorially to Marlene that ... gawrsh ... contra etiquette and gluttonous though it might be ... I really would like another piece of the Stollen. She brought the tray over and laid another piece of the Divine pastry on my plate. (My wife was ready to cover her head with a brown paper bag and excuse herself to the women's room just long enough to don her "I'm NOT With Him" sweatshirt.) When we finally finished our tea, had paid the bill, and were ready to leave, we took left-over tea desserts in a to-go bag. When Marlene presented us with the little box, my wife and I discovered that she had supplemented the left overs with four extra pieces of Stollen. That is what unleashed my incipient Stollen lust and thus precipitated my moral crisis.
For the question that began to plague my steps, both then and now, was and is "Once the four extra pieces of Stollen are gone [which they are as you read this], how and from whence do I obtain more Stollen to feed my new addiction?" I hadn't a clue. My thoughts took a decidedly sinister turn. Break into a German bakery and steal Stollen? Lacking criminal skills, I would surely be caught with the evidence on me: stolen Stollen. So I would be apprehended and charged with the crime of stealing Stollen. I began to hatch elaborate and -- to a mind unravaged by the gustatory seductions of Stollen -- utterly unworkable schemes, for example: break into a furrier's shop and steal a stole (mink, ermine, sable, etc., natural or fake fur, makes no difference) and use the stolen stole to conceal a stolen Stollen. (Perhaps most reprehensibly, my larcenous fantasies were not in the least mitigated by imagining the piteous complaints of the furrier or the bakery owner to the police: "My stole was stolen" and "My Stollen was stolen", respectively.) If I were caught, the charge would no doubt be "Stealing a stole in order to steal a Stollen -- then steal away". Finding the stolen stole in my possession would conclusively prove both premeditation and felonious intent: by stealing the wrap I would have made it impossible to beat the rap. Merely writing about all this makes me nuttier than the fruitcake I eschew and always try to avoid.
I do not know what the outcome will be. So I am unable to write the end of the foregoing story. But let this be a lesson to you, Gentle Readers: if you yield to the manifold enticements of Stollen and choose to embark on a life of crime, remember that you must first steel yourself to enduring the penalties you will surely suffer if you steal Stollen to slake your lust for stolen Stollen -- no matter how skilfully you use the stole you stole to steal the Stollen.
James R. Cowles
Sliced stollen ... Pixabay ... Creative Commons CC0
Stollen with candied fruit ... Whitney ... CC 2.0 Generic
Sapphire mink stole ... Libricool ... Public domain
"No Theft" logo ... Artist unknown ... Public domain
Empress tea tray ... Robin Zebrowski ... CC BY 2.0
Tea room, Empress Hotel ... Bobak Ha'Eri ... CC-By-SA-3.0
English continental-breakfast ... Pixabay ... Public domain