Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Clogs Abroad, October 11, 2010: Pressure Cooker

'Twas Brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves
And the mome raths outgrabe.
- "Jabberwocky", by Lewis Carroll,
from Through the Looking Glass & What Alice Found There

After three years of having all the answers, or at least knowing where to find them, I find myself in a world in which I know nothing: the tiny galley that serves "Victoria."

At least I know how to do dishes
, I think, as I wash up the few plates and cups left from a meagre passage repast of grilled cheese sandwiches washed down with instant lemonade. Although even that wasn't true when I came aboard Victoria in Tonga -- young Thomas had to show me the procedure of pumping sea water over the dishes, washing and rinsing with seawater and then dribbling a few drops of precious fresh water over each dish. I grew to love the slight salty tang that clung to cups, as though every chilled beverage were a salted margarita, every hot coffee a play on salted espresso caramel.

A wave hits the bow, the boat swishes her tail and tips (nautical terms) way over to starboard, the washed plates go tumbling off the counter onto the floor, then we tip the other way, and I have to hold on to the side of the sink as I climb uphill to pick up the dishes, which are now sliding along the floor past me, knocking against the base of the swinging stove. Okay, so one step toward doing dishes, one step toward the drawing board.

As I chase the dishes, I keep one eye on a pot of leftover stew on the stove. Of course, the pot on the swinging stove is level the whole time, which is why the floor isn't covered with a hot mess, and why my arms and face aren't covered with terrible scalds and burns. The beauty of a gimbal! I'd draw a force diagram of if I weren't so worried about the right-hook-left-hook waves we might take at any time, which will lift the pot off the stove and really change the timbre of the evening.

Nobody is particularly hungry tonight anyway: the seas really started to hunch up beneath us earlier in the day, and the wind is singing through the rigging. But what do I know? Nothing. Except that the boys are probably hungry, and it's my job to feed people, so let the stove swing, let the waves crash: I will bring a meal to the table. Okay, not to the table (more sliding, more mess, food all over the floor, cups tipping over, forks getting lost in the settee cushions, lots of yelling and holding on). I will provide the option of a hot meal to those willing to eat leaning in a corner, or crouched on the stairs to the cockpit.

And the stew really is just what the doctor ordered. I lean in the corner and eat before starting my next watch, grateful for the warm core as I creep into the water-filled cockpit every twenty minutes to check our course and scan the horizon when the waves lift us above the troughs. That's what food is for.

There is something liberating about knowing nothing -- without the context of previous experience (and consequence) I'm free to believe that any meal is possible on a small swinging stove in the middle of the open ocean. I look out at the heaving sea and try to determine whether the waves have flattened a bit, maybe the wind is down below 35. At least it isn't raining, right now. If the seas drop, I think, as Victoria rises up and up and up on a wave and I look around, holding on as we surf down into the trough, tomorrow I will make a large, hot meal and a hot dessert. Roast lemon pepper chicken and pear cobbler....What could possibly go wrong?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Clogs Abroad, September 13, 2010: Hearts of Palm

One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny. - Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

That can of palm hearts arrived earlier this year, a stowaway from another restaurant, one that had been closed: scuttled. I put it away on the top shelf of the Dead Stock area in dry storage, tucked behind a lifetime's supply of fenugreek. When Inventory rolled around, every 28 days, I put a small "1" in the Hearts of Palm row, month after month, just as I plugged in an astonishingly unchanged 4.5# of dried mint, left from the Greek menu of early 2008, and .002 of a 10# bag of Israeli cous cous, leftover from a failed black cod pitch, Cote d'Azur menu, Spring 2009. I finally used the cous cous in a fun little salmon special, the tiny semolina balls a jolly evocation of roe. The dried mint will be in dry storage until the end of time (thyme?), however, and the hearts of palm kept slipping through, until my last day at the Hi-Life.

See, the thing about hearts of palm is that they are not delicious in the usual sense. Their production is labor intensive and wild harvesting kills the entire tree, thus the charmingly old-fashioned name "Millionaire's Salad". In their cannedness they hold the same promise as artichoke hearts, pickled asparagus, water chestnuts and baby corn: ingredients from a cocktail party appetizer, circa 1978, soon to be featured in a retro-fancy Bloody Mary at your local brunch joint. I rate hearts of palm on a different scale altogether, one that measures the satisfaction found from eating bamboo shoots in food court Chinese at one end, to the splintery split of a well-chewed tongue depressor or popsicle stick at the other. Given the chance, though, I'll eat them straight from the can, one after another, as though I were plucking and eating woody shoots grown in slightly brackish water. Were I to try doing that in the kitchen, I'd have to hide by the mop closet and hunch over the can, gobbling up the white spears, Gollum-like, before anyone could catch me at it. Embarassing. Which is why I left that can alone.

Tonight I'm staying in a palm surrounded enclave, almost a week after the stowaway can of palm hearts was finally cracked open, finally mixed -- by another chef's hands -- into a beautiful salad of frisee, red onion, palm hearts, out-of-season pears, hazelnut vinaigrette...a salad greater than the sum of its parts. Tomorrow I'll fly from Nadi International Airport to the really rather remote Vava'U Group of islands in the Kingdom of Tonga. Once there, I'll meet my Uncle, Aunt and their twin 11-year-old boys, Patrick and Thomas. With them, I'll sail from Tonga to Australia on SV Victoria, a beautiful 41-foot Lord Nelson cutter. In almost every meaningful way I've jumped ship from my life as a chef in Seattle. Tonight will be my last night spent on land for a long time.

As I look around, soaking up the green, no water in sight, I reflect that palm trees need not be eaten at all -- they are perfect for waving fronds in gentle tropical breezes. But perhaps that's part of the appeal of canned palm hearts: they are culinary reminders of vacations involving sand and salt, stowaways from sunnier climes. That can in dry storage was one of those lucky stowaways that escaped detection until discovery brought an element of delivery: to safety, to land, to Deliciousness. I hope to be so lucky.