Keep Playing (featuring Mini S’mores Cupcakes)

I have played online, random-opponent Scrabble for about eight years.  I play it obsessively on my phone every afternoon or evening.  Enraptured by the competition of simultaneous games with strangers, I don’t pay attention to tv or movie plots, dogs, cats, or husbands.  I love playing it and no, I don’t want to start a game with you.

When my online Scrabble addiction began, I was a small-time private chef and caterer looking for work in New York City.   After a long day of trying to connect with prospective clients, I would turn on the tv and grab my phone for a game.  I won all the time.  It was incredible.  I was never this adept in the real-life, real-friend board game of Scrabble, and it boosted my self-esteem immeasurably.

What I hadn’t taken into account was that most of the people I was playing with were really young.  They hadn’t lived long enough to experience the qis or xus of the Scrabble world.  They weren’t careful about leaving an open space on a triple word score with the possibility that your opponent has an S tile.  They thought jk or lol were playable words.  I hadn’t considered any of those things, so when players who were older and more intelligent than me downloaded the game, and I started to lose, I was devastated.  I honestly thought I was some fucking online Scrabble prodigy and this failure spiral felt like I was dying.  Should I delete the app?  Should I throw my phone away?  Should I disassociate from my friends and family?  Who could continue to love me after these epic slumps in my Scrabble game stats?  Honestly, I had one of the most dramatic responses to failure that I’ve ever had, and I’m a dramatic responder.

I didn’t stop playing, though.  Its hooks were deep in me.  Instead, I figured something out.

I learned how to lose.

I’m not saying that I haven’t endured incredible heartbreaks, disappointments, and tragedies in my life.  If you’ve read even two posts in this blog you know I’m very familiar with misfortune.  But I learned with Scrabble that I could win or lose for so many reasons.  Sometimes I was careless; sometimes I was cocky, sometimes I was brilliant, sometimes I just got the wrong goddamn letters.  If you keep playing for years, you start to recognize patterns, some of which you can control and some you can’t.

This lesson is easy to forget though.

Now I’m in Portland.  I’m a freelance private chef and caterer looking for work in a relatively new location.  The past six months have been very challenging for my business.  I feel like I’ve taken a million steps backward.

The other day I was explaining to a friend that I have a million personalities.  There’s the ‘clueless website updater’ and the ‘frustrated dog walker.’  There’s the ‘desperate job applier’ and the ‘dirty dishes denier.’  There’s the ‘trying to work out more but my sneakers are so old they hurt my feet’ lady.  There’s the ‘let’s just throw caution to the wind and spend a pile of money at a fantastic local restaurant’ girl.  There’s the ‘I just wanna lay in bed and watch mindless tv while eating cookies’ princess.  There’s the ‘I hope someone out there reads what I write’ dreamer.  There’s the ‘god; I can’t believe how much I love to be in the kitchen cooking’ enthusiast.  There’s the ‘I’m so scared this isn’t going to work out’ realist.  There’s the ‘I am focused and ready to try again’ optimist.  There’s the ‘I love my husband more than I knew I could love anyone’ romantic.  There’s the ‘all I want to do is hug Amelia’ mom.  And once in a while, for maybe a millisecond, all those personalities align like planets, and I see myself clearly.  Me, in all my shapes and forms–struggling, searching, persevering.


Two weeks ago, I said screw it.  My running shoes (a gift from my ex-boyfriend six years ago) were trashed.  The support was gone, and the small holes in the soles soaked my feet if I walked in the rain.  I live in Portland, for crying out loud.  Dry sidewalks aren’t likely.

I felt motivated for a fleeting moment.  I would march myself into a fancy athletic shoe store and spend money I don’t have on a new pair of sneakers.  These shoes have been a point of contention for me because, though I’m not athletic, working out is one of the only things that shifts my depression.  I hate sports stores though.  I don’t want to talk about arch support.  I don’t want to talk about the pronation of my gait.  I don’t have a fitness plan.  I just don’t want to feel gross anymore.

Deep breaths, Alison.  Deep breaths.

I crept into the fitness shoe store quietly.  If I could start by looking at the display alone, I might have a chance at not getting too overwhelmed.

“This one is greaaaaaaaaaaat for trails on the west side of Forest Park.  The east side is waaaaaaaay too wet right now, but won’t be for long.  It’s way bettaaaaaaarrr in the summaaaarrrrrrrrrr.”  The salesman had bulging calves and a vocal fry that made me long for the tranquil sound of fingernails on a chalkboard.

The distressed shopper was trapped in his sales pitch and tried to interrupt.

“I’m not really sure what I’m looking for exactly.  I don’t work out much, but I’m hoping…”

“Suuuuurrre, these are great for getting baaaaaack on traaaaaack.”  He lifted a day-glo pink pair from a box and loosened the laces as the shopper sighed.

I stood in front of the wall of sneakers, each levitating on its clear acrylic perch.  This bunch for hiking, this group for triathlons.  This set for CrossFit, this one for mud runs. I lifted a striped shoe from the ‘outdoor adventure’ set and looked at the tag.  $149.  Huh.  Wow.  I gently placed it back on its plastic mantle and snuck out in my worn-down burgundy lowtop Chucks.  This was too much for me in every way.

Sulking at home, I lost three Scrabble games in a row.

My frustration led me back in the kitchen, into testing out a new recipe: s’mores cupcakes.  These would have the perfect mix of crunchy graham crackers, moist and rich chocolate cake, and melty charred marshmallow.  It took a couple of tries with a few adjustments, but I’m no quitter.  Finally, I landed on the perfect measurements.  I thought to myself, “This is what I’m meant to be doing, this feels so right.”

That Sunday, Francis and I took Amelia for a walk.  It was a beautiful early summer day, not a cloud in the sky.  Francis ran into a store and grabbed a bag of summer cherries, which we ate as we strolled together.  In our neighborhood, people often leave boxes of items out on their front stoops for anyone to take.  Normally it’s stuff like lidless Tupperware containers or dog-eared copies of books like “Our Bodies Ourselves.”  It’s not all junk though.  We approached a box on the corner that had “Free” written in Sharpie on a piece of cardboard.  Francis peered inside.

“Hey, what’s your shoe size?”

I snorted, not seeing what was in the box.

“7 ½.”

His eyes lit up like he’d found the golden ticket.  He picked up the pair of sneakers from the cardboard box.  They looked barely worn.  They were running shoes.  I slipped them on, and they felt like they were made for me.  I looked left.  I looked right.  Paranoid New Yorker, I never believe it when good things happen to me for no reason.  I let it in though.  They were for me.

A couple of days later I started booking jobs again.

And yeah, I won a bunch of Scrabble games too.

So, what’s the moral?

Keep playing.

And eat s’mores cupcakes.

And if you know any 13-year olds with solid B averages, give them my email.  I’m always looking for new Scrabble opponents.

Mini S’mores Cupcakes

Makes about 30 minis



For the graham cracker layer

  • 9 graham crackers
  • 5 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
  2. Pulse the graham crackers in a food processor until they are fine crumbs.  In a bowl, combine the graham crumbs, the melted butter, and the sugar and mix with your fingers until it’s sticky and well blended.
  3. Place mini cupcake skirts in mini cupcake pan and, using a tablespoon scoop (or a #70 scooper), fill bottom of cupcake skirts with a scant tablespoon of graham crust.  Press crust down to make that layer dense.  The crumb layer should come about a third way up the cupcake skirt.
  4. Bake for 12-13 minutes.  Let cool for a few minutes.  Do not turn off the oven.

For the chocolate cake layer

  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 ¼ cup sugar
  • ½ cup cocoa
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup milk
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup boiling water
  • Mini marshmallows
  1. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, the sugar, the cocoa, the baking powder, the baking soda and the salt.
  2. In another bowl, beat the egg.  Add the milk, the oil and the vanilla.
  3. Slowly beat the bowl of wet ingredients into the dry ingredient mixture and blend thoroughly.
  4. Carefully add the boiling water and mix thoroughly.
  5. Using the tablespoon scoop or #70 scooper, drop a scant tablespoon of cake batter on top of the baked graham cracker layers.  The cake batter should not touch the top of the cupcake skirts, but will be close.
  6. Place one mini marshmallow in the center of each cupcake and then bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.
  7. There will be a little more chocolate cake batter than graham cracker crust layer.  Don’t worry about this.  Just make chocolate cupcakes (or chocolate marshmallow cupcakes).
  8. When you’re ready to serve, you can place another marshmallow on top of the marshmallow that baked into the cupcake.  I have a brulee torch that I use on the marshmallows to give that slightly charred barbecue effect right before serving, but it’s not necessary.

14 thoughts on “Keep Playing (featuring Mini S’mores Cupcakes)”

  • I used to run in Forest Park in my Chucks. Once, on a run, talked myself out of despair because some fancy east coast university rejected my application. (The Chucks were a year old; foolish New Yorker that I was, and penniless, I walked in the snow in them too. I’m still here.)

  • Awesome Alison, not only does someone out here read what you write, she reads it out loud to her husband, who loves it. Then she reads it again the next day at work, while she’s supposed to be working. Then she — not generally a fan of s’mores (because all she needs is dark chocolate and why waste the other stuff?) — seriously considers making your S’mores Cupcakes, because you said to. See? You reach people, and you expand horizons, and you make lives happier and better!

  • That is by far your best story yet – except maybe the one about finding Francis again – and these cupcakes will definitely be on the summer menu when the family comes to the beach.

  • Wow! This might be my favorite blog ever! Your writing is sooooo satisfying. And I’ll bet those cupcakes are too.

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