Soo Ji Lee

At 6 am I am standing in a line that stretches along the gates of Vesuvio Playground, a small urban park on the corner of Spring Street and Thompson Street in Soho. At 6:30 am, a CBS news van pulls up to the corner across the street. A young brunette woman and her cameraman jump out of the van and sprint into action. Panorama shots of the line are taken.

At around 7 am, a homeless man, who has been sleeping on a green bench on the other side of the park gates, gets up and walks over to a blue S.U.V parked on the corner. The stench of garbage and dirt settles into the air near the line as he starts to pee.

At 7:30 am, the guy in front of me puts down his copy of Game of Thrones and starts to stretch. He looks down at me and I give him an awkward half-smile. Despite the fact that we have not exchanged a single word in the last two hours, we acknowledge the bond this experience gives us.

“What is compelling you to wait on this line?” the voice of the young, brunette news anchor rings in my air. “Is it worth it?” she presses on.

I turn around and see her shoving a mic in a short blond man’s face. He shakes his head and waves her off. She continues her prowl, searching for the person who will be the voice of what she thinks is a crazed group of people on this line.

At 8 am a weak, tired cheer erupts at the front of the line. The doors of the Dominique Ansel Bakery, home of the cronut—the most coveted pastry of the summer—have opened.

When I tell people that I waited three hours in line for the cronut, they think I am insane. Most people refuse to believe that anything, let alone a pastry, is worth that long of a wait. I always attempt to explain to them that choosing to wait on line for the cronut was less about the pastry and more about my relationship with food.

When I was younger, I was a picky eater. I would not touch anything unless I knew with certainty that it was going to taste good. I frequently smelled my food before I put a fork to it—a habit my mom remains embarrassed about. If it looked or smelled weird, there was no way I was going to eat it.

As African immigrants in America, my parents refused to stand for this and blamed the “culture of Americans” for my bad habit. After I turned 8, my mother began taking action. She refused to raise a picky eater.

Like a commander at war, my mother became ruthlessly strategic. She started cooking every meal from breakfast to dinner. Gone were the days of Doritos, Hostess treats, and eating out. There was a new rule in the house: if you didn’t eat during meals, you didn’t eat.

As a stubborn 8 year old, I refused to be brought down by “the man.” I firmly rejected eating food that looked or tasted weird. Sometimes, my dad, out of pity and fear of raising a malnourished child, would relent and buy me a hamburger and fries from Burger King. When my mother found out, which she always did, she was livid. This was war and my dad was getting in the way.

I lost the war in the summer of fourth grade. It was a humid August evening and my father was out with friends leaving just my sister, my mother and me for the night. For dinner, my mother cooked spicy groundnut soup with rice and okra. Besides the rice, everything sounded unappealing to me.

At 6:30 pm, my mom called my sister and me to the kitchen.

“Dinner!” she yelled, her voice ringing through our small one-bedroom apartment. We ran into the kitchen and grabbed our plates. I looked down at mine and scowled before I sat at the table. My mother looked at me and smiled.

“Adowa, eat,” she said to me. I shook my head and poked at the rice on my plate. She shrugged her shoulders and started eating. Twenty minutes passed, Sandra finished her meal and asked to be excused. My mother nodded, not looking at me.

Another twenty minutes went by and I had still not touched my food.

“Do you want me to reheat your soup?” my mom asked. Her dark brown eyes met mine and I shook my head with such vigor that the colorful beads at the end of my cornrow braids clacked together. She let out a half laugh and started clearing her dish.

At 7:30 pm, my dad called to check up on us. My mom spoke to him in a hushed tone before she handed me the phone. I grabbed it and started to plea with my father, trying to conjure up some tears for dramatic effect.

“But Daddy, I don’t want to eat this!” my mouth started to quiver.

“Adowa, you will eat or go to bed hungry,” he said and I knew that I had lost. My stomach started to growl and without speaking I handed the phone back to my mom. After a few more whispered words, she hung up and sat back down at the table.

“I am going to braid Sandra’s hair. When I am back you will have finished your meal,” she said in stern Twi.

Gone were the smiles and the cajoling words. I waited until she disappeared into the bedroom before I started eating. The soup was tepid, making the spice dull, and the rice was no longer warm. The okra slid down my throat like an oyster, which initially grossed me out. Regardless, I trudged on and cleaned my plate. Perhaps it was a combination of my hunger and immense fear of punishment, but to this day I remember that being one of the best meals of my life.

After that showdown with my mother, I ate everything she put in front of me. From gari and friend yellow plantains with black-eyed bean stew, to etor, a mashed plantain and peanut dish garnished with more peanuts and boiled eggs, I embraced the food of my culture and the accompanying spice levels.

Unfortunately, my openness was limited to just the food of my culture and driven mostly by the fear of my mother’s wrath. At this point, I still did not love food. To me, it remained singularly a source of nourishment.

However, this all changed when I entered high school. Perhaps it was a product of living in New York as a teenager with limited funds and, but my foodie experiences became more frequent and adventurous. It grew into a fun challenge for my friends and me to try and find the next great (and cheap) location. Serious Eats and Grub Street, two blogs dedicated to the NYC food experience, became my bibles.

Every time I had a good meal, whether it was a cheeseburger at Harlem Tavern, pork buns with duck over rice at Momofuku Ssam Bar or a butternut squash soup at wd~50, a rush of excitement overcame me. I started a running list entitled “Places to Go” with an elaborate rating system of a “smiley face” if it was a delicious experience and a “sad face” if it sucked. Food became more than just nourishment; it was an exciting world that I craved to be a part of.

“We are almost at the front!” my friend squeezes my hand and squeals.

A new excitement falls upon the line as the five people in front of us rush inside. I was now face to face with Dominique Ansel, the chef and creator of the Cronut, and he was holding the door open for me.

“Welcome,” he says with a smile.

It is 9 am. The next thirty minutes are a blur of nervous hellos and awkward exchanges of praise and awe. We shuffle into the bakery with a new sense of purpose and in frenzy I order $35 worth of baked goods. I stand by the fact that you cannot go into that bakery and buy one thing: it would be like opening a bag of chips to only eat a single chip.

At 9:45 am, we walk to the seating area at the back of the bakery, each with two golden boxes in hand and smiles plastered on our faces. I sit down and carefully open the first box, revealing the circular treat. My friend immediately starts snapping photos of our celebrity pastry.

Slowly, I hold the Cronut to my mouth and take my first bite. My mouth experiences a complex explosion of sweet, savory and lemony flavors. I decide that it tastes more like a donut. I set the pastry down and look at the thin, flaky croissant-like interior. The lemon filling slowly leaks out onto its cardboard case. I take another bite, and after the third, I change my mind—this was definitely more like a croissant. Halfway through my first cronut, I stop trying to make a decision—after all, it was meant to be both.

My friends and I exchange looks of pure satisfaction. To us, this pastry was more than its physical form; it is a combination of 2 months of trial and error, 10 different recipes, a three hour wait, and a steadfast dedication to the quest for good food.