Cafe Society

A Hell of a Place

For nearly half my life, I watched no TV. When I tell people that, a squint of fundamental distrust screws up their faces, and they look at me like I've got lobsters crawling out of my ears. They always treat me differently afterward -- as though I've just admitted to being the second gunman on the grassy knoll or wandered too far from the short bus without my helmet.

Even though saying I watched no TV isn't entirely accurate, I say it anyway because I love the reaction, the horror of the cathode-ray addict. In this modern world, saying I lived without the succor of the glass tit is like saying I'd held my breath for fifteen years or was a virgin on my wedding night -- an impossible feat of pointless self-deprivation that makes me not a better man, but rather one of questionable mental fitness who might at any moment pull some literature out of my bag and begin talking about my personal relationship with Jesus.

The truth is, for about a decade I watched no prime-time TV. I missed anything that was on the gogglebox before, say, midnight, and I had virtually no conception of what I was missing, because nobody I knew was watching, either. This is one of those easy, unspoken sacrifices that chefs make to their work: The hours they keep prevent them from participating in the simple American ritual of the Tuesday-night lineup or any version of Must-See TV. This helps explains why cooks watch so many movies, why The Simpsons has so many fans among the culinary community -- because it airs on Sunday, the one night most have off. I never saw an episode of Seinfeld in its first-run time slot, never saw Friends or Frasier until I left the kitchens.

Since packing up my kit, though, I've become an inveterate junkie for yesterday's pop culture. I can tell time by reruns now. I watch everything, all jumbled up and out of order, while slowly reintegrating myself into that weird kind of syndicated longing for imaginary places that seizes those who watch far too much artificial life unfolding on the telly. My uncle used to live in the real Providence, Rhode Island. Shortly after an imaginary Providence began its TV run on Providence -- all those tree-shaded neighborhoods, the flaming October foliage, the old stone churches and climbing ivy -- he sold his house for almost three times what he'd paid a few years before. The city, he told me, was almost entirely overrun with people chasing after that phosphene dream of idyllic New England life. Many of Providence's original residents were more than willing to indulge this fantasy, so they sold high, packed their things and moved into huge houses one town over.

It's powerful stuff, this virtual homesickness, this desire to find a town just like the Cicely, Alaska, of Northern Exposure, to have a White House populated by the sort of fiercely smart characters created by Aaron Sorkin for the West Wing, or to hang out in a coffee shop like the one on Friends, in a mythical East Village in a mythical New York -- and I am as infected with it as anyone, not yet hardened to the inevitable disappointment, perhaps because I got started so late. I once thought I found a Cicely in Madrid, New Mexico, and came close to opening a restaurant there before heading north to Denver instead. The White House? Well, we're shit out of luck on that one; Scott McClellan is no C.J. Cregg.

But now I have that coffee shop -- that idealized, comfortable, broken-in neighborhood spot as friendly as Studio City, as easy as the Thursday-night routine. It's Devil's Food Bakery, a patisserie and java joint that's been operating without much fanfare on Old South Gaylord since 1999.

Make no mistake, though: This is a dangerous place firmly dedicated to enabling those with a weakness for the venal wrongs of gluttony to pave their way to hell with pastry. With real lemon curd, with Devonshire cream, fondant, butter cream and mousse. Profiteroles with handmade banana ice cream and banana-caramel sauce. And doughnuts, especially the signature Devil's Food doughnut: as big as the spare tire on a clown car, as dark as a black hole and with the same kind of inescapable gravity for those who venture too close, enough to tempt a saint to sinning with its skin of gleaming chocolate and dark chocolate lace covering squishy devil's food cake. It's a soft pastry, one that really requires a fork, but not everyone bothers with such social niceties. There's an undeniable joy to ripping into it with your bare hands, licking chocolate off your fingers, chasing such decadence with a two-fisted hit of warm cafe au lait, then going back in for more. It's pure indulgence, this doughnut -- what dances through the fever dreams of squirrelly Atkins dieters, what your inner fat kid screams for after too many green salads and rice cakes. And because I have suffered from a lifelong lack of any reasonable impulse control, I had two for breakfast on my first visit to Devil's Food, washing them down with bittersweet espresso, and spent the entire afternoon chittering away like a monkey before slipping down into a twelve-hour sugar coma as black as baking chocolate.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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