055 – Pie Anxiety and Self Sabotage. Plus a Recipe.


Trying something just a bit different. It’s a piece of food writing. But it’s also a podcast episode. What do you call that? A Blogcast? I don’t know. What I do know is I had great fun creating it and I hope you have just as much fun listening. Or reading. Your choice. Happy Thanksgiving. “That pie” recipe is below. Still not sure it deserved an award, but I’m trying to get used to it. Feeling incredibly grateful this November despite the world in which we find ourselves. We actually have a lot to be thankful for. You just have to look a little harder to find it sometimes. But it’s there. It’s always there. Cheers.

Pie Anxiety and Self Sabotage. Plus a Recipe.

Or how I finally learned to accept compliments and not sabotage myself every time I experience a tiny bit of success.

I used to roll my eyes at Oscar winners. At the way they stumbled to the stage mouthing, “Oh My God,” acting like Bob Barker had just told them to come on down. Eyes a hazy daze as if they never expected this and they didn’t prepare anything because we all know they did. Except now I can’t anymore. Because I know how they feel. Because a few weeks ago I won a pie contest.

I’m not saying this is on the same level believe me. A small town pie fest slash benefit hardly registers. There’s no red carpet judgment for one thing unless you count some of the more seasoned bakers clucking and nodding approval and/or criticism toward the pastry leaves and perfectly crimped edges of crust. But that feeling of stumbling toward a stage to accept an award you never once in a hundred full moons thought you’d ever win? Oh yeah, that’s the same.

In that moment everything went hazy like maybe the acid just kicked in. I moved, at least I think I did, toward a makeshift stage in Crozet Mudhouse as if my death sentence was about to be carried out. Leaden legs. Whirly swirly dizziness. All the stage fright clichés inserted here for your consideration. Yes, God help me I got to that stage after what seemed like a gabillion years only to discover when I got there head judge Brian Geiger hadn’t expected me to. Hadn’t expected me to say or do anything at all in fact and now looked at me as if I’d just asked him to dance the Lambada. Fuck. Now I’ve won an award I don’t deserve *AND* made a fool of myself. Great. I stood there flummoxed for a half-second before giving half a beauty pageant wave to the gathered crowd and slinking back to my corner. The corner where I’d been sitting all afternoon watching the festivities and intermittently jumping up to gather empty plates and cups in my capacity as a pie fest volunteer. Symbolically rubbing my skin to remove the accumulation of Winning Winner and Imposter Syndrome accumulating there quicker than a bad rash. Praying I could remove it and just go back to being a simple entrant in a simple contest. Citizen Jenée instead of the title just decreed.

I’d entered the competition despite crippling baking anxiety. I mean CRIPPLING with a capital “C-I-told-you-I-couldn’t”. The result of having a Momma who was Martha Stewart before she existed, exacting and perfect with Baked Alaskas on Tuesday night and a full set of parfait glasses purchased at Williamsburg Pottery. While other mothers were throwing their kids Ho-Ho’s, Momma was perfecting her fondant skills. The vocation of food writer comes with a preconceived expectation of baking proficiency. But I’m not a baker. I’m not a cook. Every trip to my kitchen requires a lot of deep breathing and handfuls of Xanax. It’s not a pleasant activity, something more akin to having your wisdom teeth removed with a hammer and chisel which in fact happened but that’s another story for another time.

People who know me well are aware of this fear. They tease me about it. My blog, my social media presence, my podcast ramblings, in fact my entire writing career is based around the fact I hate to bake and cook. Winning a pie contest? Sounds like that would be some sort of tipping point, right? A cure-all. The lynch pin draining away my fear once and for all. Sadly this was not the case. Somehow winning just made it worse. It felt like a wormhole had been sucked open in the universe and I was being dragged through it by my toenails never to be seen again. I’m not exaggerating when I say it felt like I was dying. I could feel people’s eyes on me. Winning felt like a big label that was somehow attached to another label called Imposter Syndrome where they mingled and formed this giant sticky film that resembled those huge diaphanous parachutes you used to run under in gym at elementary school. It settled on me, clung to my skin, and I couldn’t breathe. I stood around the remainder of the festival feeling it sink into every nook and cranny, enclosing my eyelashes, sticking to my chest and legs, gripping the backs of my calves, wrapping itself around my teeth, tongue, and throat until I physically couldn’t breathe. Rather than stay behind to help clean up I gathered my things and made a quiet Irish exit. I needed space. I needed air.

The next few days were no better. I kept telling myself this winning spotlight beam was a good thing. It would mean great exposure for the podcast. The television, the paper, all the friends and family expressing congratulations? It’s a good thing. Be happy. Be proud. Of yourself! Go on, you can do it! Now you can finally be rid of your baking fear forever! You won a damn contest!

Except when I told my mother-in-law she teased, “Well, the contest was obviously fixed.” She meant it to be funny. But I took it as gospel. Because she echoed what my inner voice had been telling me on a loop. And that nagging little voice (I call her Brittany) didn’t stop there. She went further saying, “What now? What are you going to do now, Jenée? Because now you have something to live up to. Now that you’ve won a contest people will expect things. Things you can never live up to because this was a fluke.” God, I hate Brittany. Especially when she’s right.

Why had I even entered a pie contest at all? And why am I completely incapable of enjoying a tiny small win that folks will have forgotten by next week? Because underneath the baking fear is a much larger issue. A basic and primal fear of success of any kind. Like comedian Marc Maron says in his book Attempting Normal, “I have to complicate everything to protect myself from success and to remain complicated and overwhelmed.” I underlined that passage. Twice.

Winning just feels weird. It always has. Not that I’ve won a lot of things mind you just little stuff here and there. Never expected and always accepted with a mix of genuine shock, disbelief, and a healthy dose of okay where’s the camera because I know any minute Alan Funt is going to pop out of the shadows like a Whack-a-Mole. Which reveals my age more than I’d like.

It sounds douchey to say I never thought I’d win but believe me when you walk through life with crippling self doubt, self hatred, self consciousness and self awareness bordering on the level of Tibetan guru navel gazing anything threatening that bargain basement level of confidence you have about yourself can topple your reality as if you just swallowed the blue pill. Or was it the red one? I can never remember.

Anyway, winning has never felt good to me. Never. There was that time in elementary school when I came in second to a 5th grader in the spelling bee final because I left the “e” out of “journey”. Not a Steve Perry fan I guess. The finals were held in the cafetorium while classes continued and when Kappy Gross beat me (yes, I still remember his name) I slunk back to class dejected. My teacher asked how I did. When I looked at the floor and whispered, “2nd place,” fully expecting a stern reprimand to my shock the whole class cheered. Which felt like electroshock therapy. Zing to the cerebellum. Spinal taps. Root canal with no happy gas. Real, live pain.

Why couldn’t I enjoy this? Because in my mind I’d failed. I’d lost. Where others saw victory I saw letdown. From a young age success for me has always meant an all or nothing experience. And even the “alls” don’t feel great. Because I just don’t know what to do with it.

There was that time in 7th grade when we were given an assignment to draw our “Dream Desk”. I sank into it with glee, gathering my colored pencils and my ADHD tendencies to focus like a laser on designing a colorful place to study that had every gadget you could think up. Shaped like an egg you could sit in, not only did it have blue shag carpet walls, disco lights, and a fridge, it could also fucking fly. I spent hours losing myself in the design. Labeling every feature meticulously. Little did I know this was a contest. When the teacher announced I’d won in front of the whole class? And my parents showed up? I wanted to stab myself in the eye with my green colored pencil just to MAKE IT STOP PLEASE.

I’ve never like competition. Being best. Second best. Placing. Any of it. When I came in first runner up in my high school pageant? Thought to myself are you crazy? What the fuck? I only entered because my drama teacher never gave me any parts and I knew the pageant had a talent requirement that I had the perfect monologue for. Mary Katherine Gallagher ain’t got nothing on me. That Best Food Blog of 2010 in C-Ville Weekly? There were no other food blogs in town publishing with any regularity that year. Believe me I checked. Then didn’t show up to receive the award because who needs that aggravation.

And here we are again. I won a pie fest. My mind immediately thinks great, now I’ll be stuck making sweet potato speculoos for the rest of my life. I’m that woman. In that box. With that label. Yes, I realize all this “me-me-me”–ing about fear of success sounds completely ridiculous and narcissistic, particularly in the wake of the shitstorm of events that is 2016. Get over yourself, Jenée. It ain’t no big thing. You’re absolutely right. It isn’t. What is a big deal is how this hatred of winning goes much further and deeper to a deeply ingrained fear of success. And what I subconsciously do to avoid it at any cost.

I sabotage myself on purpose so as not to be successful. Yes, I actively interfere so I have no chance of achieving anything. With a frequency that’s downright scary. What does that look like? Well, for starters I overschedule myself so I have to cancel things. So I can be considered unreliable because when you get down to it I suck, right? I stay up late, eat badly, procrastinate before a big career milestone or an important event so I can show up late or ill prepared or maybe not at all. I spend weeks not writing, days not working, doing all sorts of other mindless, useless things because deep down I don’t feel I deserve to be happy. I don’t deserve success. Deep down inside I know I suck and through my actions I want others to know I suck too.

But why? When did all of this originate? I’ve done it for so long I don’t even remember. When you do something for decades, your whole life in fact, it ventures beyond the realm of simple habit. It becomes a part of you. It becomes who you are.

It sounds weird but the podcast has become my way out. Because I have a set schedule, one episode every two weeks, it forces me to show up. To be accountable. It’s different from a 9-5 gig. It feels different. This is something I created myself. From scratch. It took years. Real effort. This podcast is wholly mine from the clicks of my dry mouth on the microphone to each flutter of my heart when I walk into an interview to the real trepidation I experience right before hitting the “Publish” button. The self hatred is there start to finish but the act of making, of creating, when it’s this all-consuming, it becomes the only thing you think about. Ever so gradually, over time, the self loathing becomes background noise. It never leaves, no chance of that happening, but it does lessen. It helps that podcasting is mostly a solitary activity like writing. So the only expectation you have to live up to is your own. Wait, that actually might be worse now that I think about it.

Anyway, what I’ve noticed is when you start small, when you begin with one small step, showing up every two weeks for an episode for example, good things start to happen. There’s a ripple effect. People start complimenting you and you actually hear them. You don’t believe it yet, but you hear them at least. You start thinking maybe shooting yourself in the foot every day isn’t the best way to live your life. Maybe every other day for now. Three times a week tops. And when you win a pie contest out of the blue, instead of cringing, gritting your teeth, running and hiding until it’s all over, you write about it instead. Then start thinking up recipes for next year. Maybe you do that.

Here’s that recipe I promised. Folks thought it was good enough for an engraved pie plate and some accolades. And for that I remain grateful. Happy Thanksgiving.

Sweet Potato Speculoos Pie
Adapted from these recipes:
Emily Hilliard, Nothing in the House
Patti LaBelle, Diva Eternal

Makes one 10-inch pie
Prep and Cooking Time: About 2-3 hours, plus time to chill

Baker’s note:
I used organic butter, local sweet potatoes, organic heavy cream, and pasture-raised eggs, and spices from The Spice Diva

For crust:
2 cups gingersnap crumbs
5 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon sugar
Pinch of kosher salt

For filling:
3-5 large orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, scrubbed (enough for 3 full cups of purée)
Pinch of kosher salt
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon ground Vietnamese cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2-3/4 cup of Speculoos (cookie butter)

For the crust:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Pour gingersnap crumbs in a bowl and add melted butter, sugar, and salt, stirring until well mixed.
Pat the buttery crumbs into a 10-inch pie pan, pressing mixture into the bottom and sides to form a pie crust.
Place in the oven on the middle rack and bake until crust is lightly browned, about 10-12 minutes.
Place on a cooling rack and let cool to room temperature before adding filling.

For the filling:
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat.
Add a generous pinch of salt, then the sweet potatoes. Reduce the heat to medium.
Cook until the sweet potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife, about 30 to 45 minutes.
Drain the sweet potatoes, letting them fall into a colander.
Run under cold water until cool enough to handle.
Discard the skins; transfer the cooked sweet potatoes to a mixing bowl.
Use a hand-held electric mixer to blend until creamy and smooth.
You’ll need 3 cups for filling, if there’s any excess scoop it out to reserve for another use.
Add the 7 tablespoons of melted butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, eggs, heavy cream, and spices.
Beat on medium speed until well incorporated.
Pour into your crumb crust, smoothing the surface.

Warm the Speculoos in a spouted measuring cup in the microwave for 20 seconds. No more! It should have the consistency of thick pancake batter. Enough to pour easily, but not runny. If it’s too runny, stick the cup in the freezer for 3-5 minutes to firm it.

Now starting from the outside of the pie, pour the cookie butter in a spiral, working inward to the center. Probably two spirals total for a 10-inch pie. Then take a chopstick and drag it through the pie from the outside to the center like you’re making a marbleized cheesecake or brownies. Don’t be afraid, the surface of this pie should turn out rough like the soft rolling mountains we live in.

Bake in the middle rack until a knife inserted in the center of the filling comes out clean yet the filling still jiggles a bit, 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely, then cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.


Leave your comment

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  • Justin vesser


    Been a big fan of your work since finding it after that 2010 Cville win. It was great to meet you at the Piefest. Savor that win, because it was a terrific pie.

    • Jenée Libby


      Thank you so much! So terrific meeting you too. And thanks for the kind words. Not sure I’ll “savor” it but at least I hear it 😉

  • Liz Finkelstein


    Your reaction was so cute when the winner was announced!

    • Jenée Libby


      That was the reaction of complete, utter terror 😉

  • Rachel


    No expectations placed on you. Be free of them. Take pleasure in the beautiful simplicity of that winning pie. And remember that the reservations we feel inwardly that prohibits is from accepting the beauty others want to give us inhibits their act of giving. And I also came in second place in a spelling bee by missing the “u” in beautiful. Last time I have ever forgotten that beauty is found fully in the “u” that is in front of me. Look out and see that.

    • Jenée Libby


      BEAUTIFUL Rachel. Thank you. These are words I will remember and take to heart 🙂