Sunday, May 22, 2011

Rhodes to Nowhere: A Mortifying Adventure (and a Recipe)

I could have been a contender.

I was SUPPOSED to be a contender. I breezed effortlessly through grade school and high school, earning A’s on almost everything I touched. I boasted an impressive array of extracurricular activities, from multiple honors societies to volunteering at a local hospital to playing electric bass in my high school’s jazz band.

Just as I was supposed to, I got admitted to Stanford (there are advantages to being both a baby-bust kid and a legacy). There, the kindly teachers at my small Catholic high school warned, my golden years as a big fish in a small pond would end. Colleges, they warned, can be cruel and merciless places. You’ll be an anonymous face in a lecture hall of hundreds, graded on a curve against kids just as smart as you – and yes, there are a lot of them out there. No one will be there to pick you up when you fall. Or to warn you against making potentially dangerous mistakes. Danger! Danger!

At Stanford, they were honest enough not to deny this.

“Almost all of you came in here with straight A’s,” the admissions director (a hero to us incoming freshmen) told us during an obligatory orientation assembly, “But almost none of you will leave here that way.”

The class work at Stanford was – just as promised – more difficult and demanding by multitudes than it was in high school. I read more in a typical week than I did in a whole semester back home. Then the day came when I was to get back the first major graded assignment of my college career: a research paper in my Western Cultures class.

“I know most of you are used to getting A’s from high school,” the fatherly British professor leading my discussion section said, “But you’re not in high school anymore. This is Stanford, and you are being held to a higher standard. Do not take my grade to you as a personal affront. Read my comments and learn from them – that’s what you’re here for.”

I took my paper, trying to control the tremble of my hands as I flipped through it, skimming past the underlined passages and handwritten comments in the margins. Finally, I got to the last page, and there it was at the bottom: A -minus.


I got through my first quarter at Stanford with two A’s and one A-minus (in Western Cultures). Most of my subsequent quarters were an honorable mix of A’s, A-minuses, and the occasional B+. Meanwhile, I threw myself into extracurriculars – at some point or another, I ended up editing or writing for most of the major student publication on campus. I was an English major and I qualified for the department’s senior honors program. My CV was looking pretty darn good, if I did say so myself.

I wasn’t the only one who thought so. At Stanford, almost all the undergraduate dorms had a live-in faculty member – the resident fellow –who was supposed to help organize the dorm’s cultural and social events and be a positive role model for us. He or she was also supposed to act as an informal academic advisor. The resident fellow in my dorm thought I was just the bees’ knees.

“You should consider this for next year,” he said, handing me a folded flyer one day during my junior year. “With your grades and extracurriculars, you should be a very strong candidate.”

I unfolded the flyer: announcements for that year’s Rhodes and Marshall Scholarship competition.

Wow. I was still pretty clueless then, but even I knew what these were. Dad had told me about the Rhodes Scholarship, way back in grade school: how the foundation chose two exceptional college students from each state every year, and gave each a two-year scholarship to Oxford, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious universities. Rhodes Scholars became presidents, senators, and captains of industry. Maybe, Dad said smiling, you will get one of those scholarships someday, if you work hard enough.

That someday was now on the horizon.

When the same flyer (with the dates changed) re-appeared the following year, I made note of it. At the obligatory orientation meeting for potential applicants –there weren’t as many as I had expected – we were told that the process involved several interviews. The first of these was the only one we’d all do: it was with the campus-internal Rhodes selection committee, which would recommend candidates to be sent on to the next round of competition.

Okay, this was do-able. The written application would be a boatload of work but well within my capacities. It involved several essays, and I was good at essays. And most of the other applicants – at least the ones I recognized – didn’t seem any more impressive than I was, at least from what I knew of them.

The day of my interview arrived. Suddenly, I was nervous to the point of catatonia. What were they going to ask? What if I didn’t know the answer? This was my moment of reckoning, and I was so tense and numb I could barely breathe, let alone speak insightfully about my grand plans for Oxford and the rest of my life.

I found myself in a narrow meeting room dominated by a heavy wooden conference table. Around the table were about half a dozen grey-haired figures, each of whom had a copy of my application and a yellow legal pad in front of him. A large glass pitcher of ice water was about to drip beads of sweat onto the table, and so was I.

“Miss Lee, welcome!” one of the grey-haired figures said, standing. He introduced himself as the chair of the committee. “Please let me introduce you to the other members. We’re looking forward chatting with you about your application.”

As he introduced each member – I no longer remember their names, if I even registered them in the first place – the member extended his hand and I reached out to give it an appropriately firm-but-not-too-firm handshake.

“...And this is Professor Smith,” the chair continued.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, reaching across the table towards his outreached hand--

I never reached it. Instead, something hard bumped my elbow and crashed against the table. Professor Smith leapt to his feet, water and crushed ice rolling off his crotch. The water pitcher was on its side.

My life was over.

Trauma victims often report having no memory of the very worse parts of their traumatic experiences. For that, a friend of mine told me, she is grateful: it's as if her subconscious deliberately deleted those terrifying and degrading images so she'd never have to relive them again.

That's probably why I can't remember how the rest of my interview went. But I do remember the sinking realization that my star had fallen – hard. With one stupid strike of my elbow, I had gone from Promising Young Thing to washed-up has-been.

Back at the dorm, I locked myself in my room and dialed the one person who could make this all better—my buddy Jeff. Jeff was one of the campus’ golden boys (I was surprised that he wasn’t in the running for a Rhodes himself), a perpetual optimist, and a strong brotherly shoulder to cry on. He answered on the first ring.

“Hey! How was the big interview?”

“Awful! I was being introduced to the selection committee, I tried to shake hands with one of them and guess what? I knocked a pitcher of water over into his lap!”

I heard him gasp. “”

I waited. He took a loud breath. There was a pregnant – and I assumed, sympathetic – pause on his end of the line.

“...THAT’S SOOO FUNNY!” I heard Jeff’s footsteps pounding away from the phone, then his voice somewhere off in the distance. “HEY GUYS! CHECK THIS OUT, IT’S HILARIOUS! Felicia had her Rhodes interview just now and guess what...?”

He was still laughing when he picked up the receiver again. “Seriously, they HAVE to send you on to the next round now! You know that, don’t you?”

They didn’t. And yet I’m still alive, many, many years later.

Like every other stressful, difficult thing that happened to me at Stanford, this taught me a lesson, even though I didn’t realize it at the time: Laugh and the world laughs with you. But it still won’t give you that free ride to Oxford.


In honor of my Oxford idyll that never was, I present an atypically luscious English dessert: banoffee pie, a toothsome combination of caramel, bananas, and coffee-flavored whipped cream. It was invented by chef Ian Dowding in the 1970s.

Appropriately enough, it was invented in an attempt to replicate a recipe for a toffee-coffee pie that almost always failed. Dowding discovered that the temperamental toffee recipe in the original pie could be replaced, and improved upon, with dulce de leche (though he doesn’t call it that) – caramelized sweetened condensed milk. He added bananas to the mix, and his new invention soon spread all over England. The pie is a flavorful and comforting reminder of the redemptive potential of embarrassing mistakes.

Banoffee pie, like a good melody, is subject to riffing and variation, and numerous versions exist. Some use pastry crust (as does Dowding’s original recipe) while others use crumb crusts. Pace Dowding, I think the relentless mush and creaminess of bananas, caramel, and whipped cream cry out for a dramatic textural contrast, so I’ve used a nubby crumb crust made with whole-wheat digestive biscuits (borrowing an idea from a recipe in Saveur) combined with finely chopped hazelnuts for extra crunch and flavor. Sadly, most banoffee pie variations use plain sweetened whipped cream rather than Dowding’s coffee whipped cream. To me, the coffee flavoring is non-negotiable: it really makes the pie special.

Besides the nuts in the crust, my other twist on the dish involves a trick I learned in cooking school: Whipped cream, if left to sit for more than a few hours, tends to separate and lose its volume and shape. Dissolving a little unflavored gelatin in cream before whipping it helps it keep its texture and shape for several days, so I’ve added a bit of it to the pie topping. The gelatin does not affect the flavor of the cream or make it even remotely bouncy, but makes the pie slice more cleanly. I deliberately kept the sugar level down in the coffee-flavored cream because the caramel and bananas provide sweetness enough.


For the crust:

1 7-ounce package digestive biscuits

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted

1 cup whole, roasted hazelnuts

For the dulce de leche:

1 ½ cans (21 ounces total) sweetened condensed milk

For the coffee whipped cream:

1 ½ cups whipping cream

1 1/2 teaspoons instant coffee

2 teaspoons sugar

½ envelope unflavored gelatin powder

2-3 ripe bananas, sliced

finely powdered instant coffee for garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Grind the digestive biscuits into fine crumbs in a food processor, then place them in a medium mixing bowl.

3. Put the hazelnuts in the food processor and pulse them until they are finely chopped but not powdery. Add them to the bowl with the crumbs, along with the melted butter.

4. Combine the melted butter thoroughly with the crumbs and butter, then press the mixture firmly along the sides and bottom of a 9-inch pie pan. Press firmly with your hands or the back of a spoon so the mixture will cohere and form a layer of even thickness.

5. Bake the crust for about 15 minutes, or until nicely browned and fragrant. Remove the crust from the oven and set it aside to cool.

6. Meanwhile, make the dulce de leche: cook the sweetened condensed milk in the top of a double boiler over simmering water, stirring occasionally, until the milk has caramelized and turned golden. This will take about an hour and a half.

7. While the dulce de leche cools, make the whipped cream: Heat ½ cup of the cream, along with the instant coffee and sugar, just until it feels hot to the touch. Stir to dissolve the coffee completely.

8. Remove the cream from the heat and sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the surface of the cream. When the gelatin has softened, stir it into the cream until it is fully dissolved. Set the cream aside to cool to room temperature.

9. When the coffee-flavored cream has cooled, add it and the remaining cup of cream to a mixer fitted with a balloon whip. Whip the cream at high speed until stiff peaks form.

10. Spread the dulce de leche evenly over the bottom of the baked and cooled pie crust. Top it with an layer of banana slices (they should cover the dulce de leche completely). Then top the bananas with the coffee-flavored whipped cream – use a piping bag and star tip to apply it in decorative rosettes, if desired.

10. Chill the pie for at least an hour before serving. Garnish with the ground instant coffee just before serving.

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