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.


  1. I used at least a good two teaspoons of that mint in mid september...barely dented it may live forever