Monday, September 19, 2011

Fall Menu, 2011

We would never call inexplicable little insights “hunches,” for fear of drawing the universe’s attention. But they happened, and you knew you had been in the proximity of one that had come through if you saw a detective kiss his or her fingers and touch his or her chest where a pendant to Warsha, patron saint of inexplicable inspirations, would, theoreticaly hang.  The City & The City, by China MiĆ©ville

We’ve reached the season when I begin to cast about, assess the work completed during the year versus the work yet to be done, and shake my head at the predictable results of doing the math. I begin to eye my sweaters with a certain anticipatory fondness. I oil my boots. This used to be the time of year for new pencils, protractors, compasses, and Trapper-Keepers™, items supplanted over the years by knives and Sharpies™. Here in Seattle, the sky shows off its cheeriest colors: Orphanage Grey, Bedlam Bedding, Paper-Pulp Pewter, and the days become acutely, palpably shorter. 
For me, these depressive forces conspire to make eating in good company, already a true pleasure, an absolute must. And if you’re in the business of feeding people, this is the time of year when you can safely ramp up the butter and cream, sprinkle on a bit more cheese, and help a brother mammal out with his layer of fat. When I was writing a new menu every three months, for my last job, this was the time of year when the narrative thrust behind the food was the most graspable for me, when I was most able to articulate to cooks, servers, customers and management the idea that food is story, and story is food. Maybe because Autumnal food is often the result of community efforts like harvesting, and putting produce up, and that telling stories to pass the time during the tedious, necessary work to preserve enough food for the winter is simply part of the human experience. 
At its best, menu writing felt like channeling, as though a great swirling collective Memory of Meals had gathered, storm-like, on the horizon, and I had only to set out pots to catch whatever fell from the sky. At its worst, however, menu writing was like a scene from the latter half of Danny Boyle’s "127 Hours," hours 85 through 119, perhaps. Most often, writing a menu meant a prolonged idyll among ideas about food and geography, time and people and gatherings, surrounding myself with books detailing whichever region’s food I was pitching, weighing the various menu items according to how much whimsy, accessibility, deliciousness and prettiness they had. And then I turned the menu in to the higher-ups and waited for the inevitable changes. Not everyone thinks whimsy needs to be on the menu.
I could not talk about menu writing without including a favorite bit from an early chapter in John Lanchester’s ridiculously delightful book, The Debt to Pleasure:
It seems to me that the menu lies close to the heart of the human impulse to order, to beauty, to pattern. It draws on the original chthonic upwelling that underlies all art. A menu can embody the anthropology of a culture or the psychology of an individual; it can be a biography, a cultural history, a lexicon; it speaks to the sociology, psychology, and biology of its creator and its audience, and of course to their geographical location; it can be a way of knowledge, a path, an inspiration, a Tao, an ordering, a shaping, a manifestation, a talisman, an injunction, a memory, a fantasy, a consolation, an allusion, an illusion, an evasion, an assertion, a seduction, a prayer, a summoning, an incantation murmured under the breath as the torchlights sink lower and the forest looms taller and the wolves howl louder and the fire prepares for its submission to the encroaching dark.
That pretty much sums it up, and includes the word “chthonic,” which I never get to use. Ever. Although future hangman games may be spiced up accordingly. 
As some of you may know, I am a reader. I am also a re-reader. I will revisit a story over and over again, despite the teetery stack of books not-yet-read, books-not-finished, and books-I-should-read-but-probably-won’t. In some cases re-reading is a retreat, a way to escape immediately from day to day kitchen life that doesn’t involve whiskey, a trap-door to another world.  Sometimes a re-read recontextualizes events in the daily life – a clear case of the subconscious reaching out and shoving a book into my hands when that story is the one I most wish/need to hear, or a story containing an element previously ignored or unnoticed, simply because that detail wasn’t (yet) pertinent. Those moments of discovery are to me what the glint of something shiny in the sand must be to a beach-dweller, who believed his stretch of sand well-combed.  And sometimes the only impetus is sentimentality, the indulgence of the desire to stroll along familiar paths, to run my hands over touchstones from my youth, to console myself that I am still the same girl who cried until she had hiccups the third time through Where the Red Fern Grows. All of these books have become a part of my subconscious’s library, a place I’d like to imagine cozy and fire-lit, without the overflowing file cabinets and piles of papers and dubious sense of organization employed by my conscious mind.
So, come menu-writing time, all these books – fiction, non, atlases, picture books, cookbooks – all those ideas, places, pictures, and thoughts, are at the disposal of the Subconscious, who, still in pajamas, eating a piece of toast with peanut butter, sipping a nice cup of coffee, puts together a little something and sends it up to the Worker Brain, who skipped breakfast and is running late but who will nevertheless recognize the value of the idea behind a Hemingway Menu, featuring foods from Spain, France and Africa…and look. Worker Brain missed the bus. But there is an Idea in hand. 
As I’m no longer in the business of writing a Fall Menu for an actual restaurant, I asked my Subconscious if I could take a look around, maybe see if I could come up with a Clog Blog, get a little work done. The reply was vague, the directions terrible, but I did find my way to a library where two books sat on a coffee table. Interestingly, it was the same coffee table we had in the house I grew up in. There was a note, but I couldn’t read it, so I turned my attention to the books.
The first, The Sugarloaf Mountain Cookbook is a community cookbook, printed on humble brown paper, bound the way things were bound in the ‘70s, with a black plastic spiral. The recipes were contributed by women who lived on the mountain where I grew up, some of whom suffered from a late-season overabundance of zucchini, others sharing tips about high-altitude cooking (a science lesson for another time). This cookbook is an especial favorite because my mother did the illustrations – when I wander through the pages I’m not really looking at the food, I’m looking at pen-and-ink evocations of my childhood.  
The other is never too far from my thoughts. I’ve read it over and over again, each time taking away something new –  the trials and tribulations of leadership, the buoyant force of hope and optimism against the oppressive forces of fear and ignorance, the value of teamwork, the sometimes pleasantly surprising outcome of talking to strangers, youth surrendering to old age, the usefulness of Story when a group’s cohesion begins to disintegrate.  And lately, as Seattle’s urban landscape more and more includes chicken coops, which means that hutches can't be too far behind, I can’t help but think about the deliciousness of rabbit.
I left the Subconscious library with a draft of “The Watership Down Menu.” Along with such items as “Owsla in a Blanket,” “Pipkin Surprised,” and “Chervil Chimichurri,” the menu would include Beer-Braised Hindquarters, with Roasted Swedes (rutabagas) and Flayrah Thlayli, with an especially hoppy beer and a nice tuft of lacinato kale and radicchio. Perfect for a Fall dinner with friends.