Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Deep

"Release the Kraken!" - Zeus, "Clash of the Titans." 
"Keep clam and carry on." - Ivar Haglund

If I could write in David Attenborough’s voice, I would start by saying something like, “The Natural World is full of surprises…” and then we’d all climb into a nimble, deep-water explorer sub and have a look around the dark depths of the world’s seas. Maybe we’d run into a giant squid. Probably not. Which would be okay because the sub is too small to carry a fryer, a bathtub filled with a spicy flour dredge, and the vat of dipping sauce required by such an enormous order of calamari.

But if we looked around on the seafloor, we would probably spot some clams and scallops. Which, believe it or not, are in the same family as the squid and octopus – the latter are the turned-inside-out version, with a more efficient Get Away Plan. Bivalves are the poor bastards without legs (but with a “foot”) who are delicious in so many preparations. Just throw them into a hot pan while they’re still alive and, voila! After they give up their savory ghosts, we can sprinkle some parsley on top and serve them with a nice hunk of bread for sopping.

There is an interesting (to me) confluence of themes occurring right now: I’m reading China Mieville’s Kraken, about a cult that worships the giant squid, written in Mieville’s modern-British- pattering-along-dark-hallways voice, while working separately on a piece about clams, a piece I hope to sell. When I referred to my McGee to find out more about clams, and learned that the family Mollusk includes not only scallops, oysters, clams, mussels, and abalone, but also the very mobile squid and octopi, I felt as though I was looking at a family album photobombed by cephalopods. But clams seem cooler now that I know who their cousins are. 

I work with many members of this family: cleaning clams, cleaning mussels (I will never eat another mussel again as long as I live, and if I am reincarnated as an otter, I will be a vegetarian), watching other people clean and shuck oysters, cooking octopi….In the course of my cooking career, I have fried up more squid bits than you could shake a stick at – well, you could shake a stick at the pile of squid, but I frankly don’t think you’d want to be within five miles of it – but my current restaurant doesn’t have a calamari on the menu. We do have many other animals present and accounted for, including finches and bats, both baked into flaky pastry crusts and served with a delightful dipping sauce and an arugula “salad.” Not really.

But this isn’t really about work. I could describe the ways in which a thawed, raw octopus resembles a dangling clump of old wet pantyhose, and how the legs shorten, tighten and curl up as soon as they hit the hot water.  I could provide recipes for steamers, clam pastas, chowders, and some appropriate accompaniments. But the conflating themes I’ve encountered are not so much about food as about how to write about the responsibility we have to our ingredients.

I can hear your eyes roll from way over here. But hang on, maybe you can help.

Recent food trends, like “nose to tail,” “local and sustainable,” and “free range,” all propound the idea that the closer we are to our food sources, the better. That’s great. Pretty obvious, really; very high “duh” factor. And I don’t want to sound cynical about trends that may, in the long run, illuminate (maybe even eliminate?) certain practices that will make our (your) grandchildren think us barbarians. What I want to do is figure out a way to write about the inevitable death of one thing to feed another without using terms like “carcass fatigue,” or sounding like a whiner, or making people feel bad about their cioppino.
One of the less tangible roles a chef plays in the larger community of farmers, butchers, fishermen and foragers is that of companion to matter that used to be alive along a path that respects the source, minimizes waste, and transforms an ugly process into a beautiful, nurturing meal. A cross between Virgil and Chiron, with a hint of Escoffier? Maybe.

And, in my world view anyway, one of the roles a writer has, one of his or her responsibilities to the world he or she seeks to examine, is to peer into some of the world’s darker corners and report back. (J. M. Coetzee’s book Elizabeth Costello examines that process, and mulls over the effects of all that abyss-staring on the writer.  Unsurprisingly, the guy who brought us Disgrace and The Life and Times of Michael K, leaves us feeling pretty uncomfortable around Ms. Costello.) Because I write about food and restaurants, I'm compelled to stare at bags of clams, and boxes of bones, and cases of bacon, and think about the proximal effects of slaughter, and to wonder whether others feel the weight of it, and if so, what are we going to do about it?    

Navigating these merging currents is good work for this time of year, because colder weather tends to steer me toward rye whiskey, a brooder’s quaffer. Though I think I should abstain, actually, and keep a clear head; beyond this place lie monsters.  

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