July 19, 2012

Dammit, I'm a Ma'am
(+ Chocolate Dulce de Leche Bars)

I phased into old age this week while shopping for dinnerware.

 I had driven to Home Goods because my photography could use some improvement.  Since shopping is more fun than practice and learning, I had decided to attack the problem by acquiring a collection of photogenically mismatched saucers and bowls.   This is called logic.  Or laziness.  Sometimes I confuse my “L”s.  As I was packing the newly-purchased props into the car, my brain spoke to me out of the clear blue sky, sighing:

“Dammit, you’re a Ma’am.”

I won’t say this wasn’t disconcerting.  I’m not sure if other people’s brains do this.  I mean, you never really know what’s going on in other people’s minds.  Maybe when Joe looks at grass and Granny Smith apples, he sees the color I call “red.”  How would we ever know?  Brains are weird.  So I don’t know if other people’s brains chat sociably with them.  In books and movies, people always think in “I.”   “I’d like to see the new Batman movie.  I wonder if nacho cheese counts as a fruit.”  But my brain always speaks in “you.”  “I cannot believe you just said that.  If you don’t get in the shower soon, squirrels are going to start falling out of trees as you walk past.”  The voice in my head isn’t really me, per se.  It’s more like one version of me: snarky and hyper-observant and completely without mercy.

This is starting to sound a lot like Son of Sam.  Don’t worry.  The worst thing brain-me has asked me to do is to slap on some lip gloss before going to the store so the stockboys don’t mistake me for a shambling zombie.  The minute it starts asking for ritual sacrifice or reality TV, I’ll be on the psychiatrist’s couch.  The Bachelor is nothing to mess around with.

But back to my internal dialogue:  brain-me must have been stewing over this little gem since before I left the store.  The cashier had called me “Ma’am.”   Not “Excuse me, Ma’am, I can help you at this register” called from across the room.   An actual “Have a good day, Ma’am,” as I was leaving – after a greeting, purchase, and inane chat about the weather.  The woman had plenty of time to adjust any overhasty age estimate and use Miss the next time around.  But after deliberation, she still went with Ma’am.   “Have a good day, Ma’am.”   Daggers.  Heart.  Gah.

For those of you from the South, this may seem baffling.   I’ve heard many a Southerner defend the use of Ma’am as “just good manners.”   To leave it out might signify a lack of respect.  “Is that there goat wearing pantaloons?”  “Yes, Ma’am, he surely is.”  Respect.  In the time I spent in the South, I found every conversation peppered with Ma’ams.  And while there, I appreciated the word as it was intended.

But here in Michigan, no one says “Yes, Ma’am” unless they’ve spent some time in the military.  Here we use “Miss” or “Ma’am” only when trying to get a stranger’s attention.  It’s not a sign of respect; it’s just the politer version of “Hey, You” – a version that distinguishes between men and women, and between younger women and older women.  College student?  Miss.  Bachelorette party?  Misses.  Woman with three kids in tow?  Ma’am.  And the evolution from “Miss” to “Ma’am” is a slow rite of passage for every woman.  

The Ma’am comes upon you early in life, and it makes you giggle.  When you’re Ma’am-ed at 15, it’s downright hilarious.  When you’re Ma’am-ed at 19, you start calculating your chances of swindling a beer out of the bartender.  When you’re Ma’am-ed at 26, though, you get a little touchy.  Now things are hitting a little too close to home.  Now there might be something more to that word choice than an inadvertent slip of the tongue.  You’re reaching the turning point: the age at which you no longer want to look older than you are.

Men don’t have this problem.  They’re always “Sir,” and so a stranger’s choice of greeting doesn’t force them to acknowledge that there is something about their physical form that signifies “No longer youthful.”   A crow’s foot, a grey hair, the haggard signs of sun damage.  “I see you’re getting old, Ma’am” is the unabbreviated form of the phrase, and we all know it.

At 32, I’m reaching the age of Ma’am.  I’ve lived a charmed life for the past few years while finishing my degree.  Attending classes full of 19-year-olds is like basking in the soft-pink glow of vanity lighting: reflected youth refracts the light from fine lines and wrinkles.  In the absence of grey hair, people assume you’re a 22-year-old grad student.  Those were good years.  At the campus Sbarro’s, I was always “Miss.”  But those days are over.

I’ve known for some time now that this day would come.  And in that parking lot, brain-me decided it was time to face the truth.  It spoke, resigned, the words dropping like stones.  Dammit, you’re a Ma’am.  And it was the dignity of this resignation that allowed me to stop fighting.   It’s time.  There are worse things than aging, and one of them is flailing pathetically against aging.  It was bound to happen sooner or later, and this is a better time than most.  I’ve got plenty of spare time  for baking goodbye-youth-cookies right now. 

And there are plusses.  For one thing, being old makes my opinions eminently more respectable.  The strong political views of a Miss can be discounted as brainwashed hippie ravings.  But a Ma’am?  You may disagree with her, but you probably respect that she knows her own mind.  And if her opinion is that a pan of gooey, chocolatey bar cookies makes the perfect lunch?  You’ll just have to respect that too.  Besides, a Miss may get a lecture about healthy eating habits, but nobody’s gonna try that on a Ma’am.  I may grow to like being old after all.


Chocolate Dulce de Leche Bars
adapted from Gourmet
recipe by Shelley Wiseman

Dulce de Leche is a relative of caramel sauce:  quite thick, and with a very slight bitter note.  In this recipe, its flavor is largely masked by the chocolate; what it gives to the recipe is a delicious texture: not quite gooey, but with far more chew than would be possible with chocolate alone.  Paired with an amazing, crunchy brown-sugar shortbread crust, these bars are as close to perfect as it gets.

Unsalted Butter  [ ½ cup, softened ]
Light Brown Sugar  [ packed, 1/3 cup ]
Vanilla Extract  [ ½ teaspoon ]
Salt  [ ½ teaspoon ]
All-Purpose Flour  [ 1 cup ]

Heavy Cream  [ 1 cup ]
Dulce de Leche  [ 1 cup ]
Egg Yolks  [ 3 ]
Bittersweet Chocolate  [ 5 ounces, finely chopped ]

1.   Heat oven to 375 degrees.

2.   Spray a 9-inch square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.  I like to line the pan with foil first, so that the bars are easy to remove and cut.

3.   Mix Butter, Brown Sugar, Vanilla and Salt until fully combined. 

4.   Mix in Flour with a fork until the mixture forms a soft dough.

5.   Press dough into bottom of prepared baking pan; prick all over with a fork.

6.   Bake until dough is golden, about 15-20 minutes.  Set pan on rack and allow to cool completely.

7.   In a small pot, heat Heavy Cream and Dulce de Leche to a simmer, stirring until dulce de leche has fully dissolved.

8.   Whisk together Egg Yolks in a bowl.

9.   Very slowly, whisk warm dulce de leche mixture into Egg Yolks

10. When fully combined, strain mixture into original pot to remove any bits of egg that may have cooked. 

11. Over Medium Heat, cook mixture until thick enough that the bottom of the pan is visible as you stir (a thermometer should read 170 degrees).

12. Remove pot from heat and stir Chocolate into mixture until completely combined.

13. Pour mixture over cooled shortbread.

14. Place bars in fridge until cold, then cut as desired.

Keep cookies refrigerated until serving.

[ Notes:   (1) Dulce de Leche can usually be found in the Mexican food section of larger
 supermarkets; it comes in a can that resembles sweetened condensed milk cans.   
 (2) These bars stayed great for over a week in the fridge – the crust even stayed crunchy. ]


  1. Lordy that looks good. I love a tin of dulce de leche - dessert in a flash. And yes, totally sympathise with the ma'am revelations. I'm just in my 20s and got called ma'am the other day. In Australia no less! The ego certainly suffered a blow.

  2. It's always so disconcerting, isn't it? Gah. :)