Monday, June 1, 2015

Spaghetti Westerns

The Spaghetti Harvest
I don’t have the numbers at hand, but I’d hazard a guess that I’m asked, “What’s your favorite thing to cook?” seven times out of every ten conversations about careers. In terms of questions unanswerable in polite society, it’s right up there with, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever read?” and “Hey, how’s the novel coming along?”

There isn’t one dish I consider “my specialty,” just as there isn’t one book I’d pick out of all the others. Cooking, eating, reading – these are all activities based on mood, availability, time, and inclination. It’s an altogether reasonable possibility that my favorite book has yet to be read, and I’ll practically die when I finish the last page, but the first 300 pages may be so incredibly boring that the discovery of this favorite is contingent upon being shipwrecked and finding the book in one of the suitcases bobbing in the lagoon of my desert island. And me! With so much time on my hands! Read away, girl, while your soft shell crab skewers brine in equal parts sea and coconut water, flavored with palm fronds and a pinch of crushed scallop shell.

But what if we look at the cooking question from a different angle? Rather than thinking about “a specialty” item, perhaps what the question really points to is a preferred technique. Instead of getting hung up on “what do you like to cook?”, I should instead think about how I like to cook. Much less of an annoying question, much easier to answer! I’m a pretty old-fashioned cook in this area – until I learn more about modernist techniques, I’ll stick to high-temperature cooking, an exercise in profound transformation. Indeed, watching the way heat changes the ingredients’ molecules provides a ready source of keen pleasure, and may be the number one factor keeping me in this profession. Of course, the way heat and stress work on the molecules of my body may be the number one reason to leave this profession. A story for another time.

Occasionally, the What’s Your Favorite Thing To Cook question rides in tandem with, What’s Your Favorite Thing to Eat? Again, does it really have to be just one thing? As with reading, my eating doesn’t really have any one genre to which I cling hard and fast. Well, there may be a correlation between my fondness for tacos and my affection for Los Angeles-based, homicide-detective-driven mysteries. But that’s different.

There is one dish, though, the Watership Down of my culinary cravings, and that is a humble plate of spaghetti.

I took a long break from eating pasta, mostly because I have the self-restraint of a St. Bernard puppy when it comes to semolina and sauce, but also because I had started feeling a bit loogy the morning after a spag bender. Granted, a strand of spaghetti isn’t a nutritional powerhouse, and if you’re eating half a pound at a time, either right before or right after two in the morning, you’re not going to feel so great. But life is better with spaghetti in it, it just is. So, I decided to try having a Lunch Pasta, take it slow, and just see how I felt later in the day. And hey! Despite a mild headache and racing heart brought on by the blood sugar influx, the daytime pasta experiment was a success.

Spaghetti was the meal eaten most often in my home when I was growing up. Shake cheese and butter. Chili flake. A perfect demilitarized zone on my plate between the saucy area and the pasta area – that way, I could enjoy three different dishes: saucy spaghetti, buttery noodles with cheese, and the middle area of slightly saucy, slightly buttery, slightly spicy. In retrospect, I suppose the third area was my first experience with umami. Whenever I ate spaghetti at a friend’s house and his or her parents mixed the sauce and the pasta together before serving, I experienced a sense of disappointment altogether disproportionate to the actual travesty playing out in the dining room. I may have even sulked a little bit, staring down at a landscape of uniform red, a plate of food wherein every bite tastes like the last one. Gross.

Making spaghetti sauce became more complicated as I grew older. That’s not quite true. My involvement in the process became more complicated, especially as spaghetti was a meal we could make with very little parental oversight, and we could usually cajole the youngest into doing the dishes. Thinking back on the process behind making a meat sauce out of a frozen block of ground chuck, an onion, a can of tomato paste, a can of tomato sauce, and some dried oregano, fills me with olfactory nostalgia. The opening notes of butter and onions, the gradual swell of browning meat, the sudden bright notes of tomato paste caramelizing on the bottom of the pan, the earthy, shrub smell of oregano, while on the big burner the metallic smell of heating elements on copper-bottomed pans gave way to the slightly low-tide smell of boiling salted water, which in turn gave way to the starchy wet flour smell of almost cooked pasta…..these were the instruments in a dinner concerto.

Spaghetti at home was delicious, mostly because I could control my saucing (again, no control, whatsoever, when it came to portion size). But there have been other hot spots, as well. While I was living in a dorm, an impossibly long time ago, my roommate always made a point of letting me know when it was “spag night” in the dining hall, and I’d feel a glorious excitement about not having yet another bowl of cereal for dinner. There was Neopolitan’s (I mean, Neo’s, of course), a tiny hole-in-the-wall spot in Nederland, an old mining town up the canyon from Boulder. Their plate of spaghetti in meat sauce had a ratio of sauce to pasta that normally would have put my hackles up, but there was something about having such a generous ladling of sauce that I enjoyed. It was sort of like eating a vat of sloppy joe filling with a few strands of pasta left over from the pot’s previous use, as though they only had one pot in the kitchen and didn’t really clean it after cooking the pasta, the way I picture cooking for overcrowded summer camps.

My love affair with spaghetti may have hit its prime during “spaghetti special” nights at the Gondolier, a Boulder restaurant that has been in my friend Guy’s family for fifty years. Under the Gondo’s roof, I met a type of homemade spaghetti that inspired a lifelong love of wide-wale corduroys. There was also exposure to ravioli, garbanzo beans, olive oil and garlic “sauce”, tortellini, ricotta cheesecake, and so many other flavors, so many culinary collisions, so many glimpses into a world I had no idea I would belong to for this much of my life.

In terms of transformative processes, cooking pasta doesn’t necessarily have the same drama as cooking meat. The relaxation of a stick into a ribbon isn’t nearly as cool as the Maillard Reaction, but it does have its charms. It actually sounds kind of nice, almost like relaxing into a hot tub, or just taking a minute away from the fires and knives. Spaghetti and I are going to become a little closer in the coming weeks, not only because it’s relatively inexpensive, but because I’d really like to be able to answer that last question, the one about the novel.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Into the Fire

"...the firelight of their party was a pocket torch held under the blanket of the universe." July's People, by Nadine Gordimer

When we meet Buck for the first time, he is a dog drawn in spare strokes: Large, handsome, protective…all the things a rich Judge with a passel of grandchildren would want in a country-house dog. As the story progresses, however, and Buck becomes the hero of his own story, we see his transformation. We cringe when he’s beaten again and again, and worry, after 3,000 words about dogfights, whips, clubs, human-stupidity, and really bad weather, that he might not make it to the end of the book. But then, just as Buck decides to give up the ghost, he is rescued by John Thornton, a prospector with a heart of gold. Thornton rehabilitates Buck’s body and soul, and Buck responds to such ministrations as any thinking creature would. He falls in love with the man, and when Buck isn’t studying Thornton’s face or romping about the camp with him, he lies next to him, watching the campfire. As Buck’s eyes grow heavy, he sees visions of a primordial self, walking next to an equally-early version of human, visions of the deal struck so many years ago between these two species, flickering in the flames.

The fire, and the visions in the dancing flames, mesmerize Buck ever so slightly, just enough for him to ignore the call he hears ringing from the mountains, echoing among the black-barked trees in the dense dark forests, singing through the icy rivers running through the Alaska backcountry. As you know if you’ve read the story, the call becomes too strong to be ignored and Buck, who leaves and returns, leaves and returns, really only because he loves this man, finally leaves camp for days, harries a bull moose to a sad end, and then returns to John Thornton’s camp to find death and disaster. Not a dry eye in the house. But now Buck is truly free, unencumbered by any ties to humans, and off he goes, into the wild.

The Call of the Wild is, admittedly, an imperfect analogy for my career as it stands right now. Really, pretty flimsy. First of all, I don’t expect this current job to end with the sacking of the restaurant by invaders. I don’t expect to come back from a weekend to find overturned coffee urns, cutting boards on the floor, broken glassware, and slit-necked servers. That would be weird. I could, perhaps, make the case that I have pulled sleds with the best of them, over terrain that would have broken a weaker team’s collective heart, a case made in hyperbolic Londonian prose. I guess I could compare sled-drivers to head chefs, but I think that would make for really awkward reading, not to mention writing. But there are enough points of contact here that I’m going to make a loose effort, if only for the opportunity to talk about the infierno within the parameters of a story about returning from the forest.

This fire, the one I now cook on four nights a week, is mesmerizing in the way all fires are. Buck’s campfire, the warehouse fire in Backdraft, the yearly torching of Christmas trees at Golden Gardens. Fire holds us transfixed. This fire is the centerpiece of an expensive, popular, Downtown Seattle restaurant; in a profession that prides itself on its fire and knives, this is a one to be proud of. And, in the age of knobs and propane tanks, working with live fire is a throw-back skill almost as cool as mastering scrimshaw, or thatch. (Francis Mallmann's cookbooks are a great inspiration in this direction; his food eloquently illustrates the ways in which fire can consume, transform, destroy, and make delicious.) 

The infierno was custom-built for the restaurant. There are two grills on either side of a three-foot wide coal-rack and chimney. Periodically, when the bed of coals becomes too ashy, one of the cooks throws about twenty pounds of charcoal into the grate, or sometimes, depending on who I’m working with, he’ll throw the entire forty-pound bag atop the grate, a bag twice as wide and long than the ones I buy filled with dog food. After a few moments of dwindling returns in the coal department, the bag ruptures, spills out a belly of fire, and whooshes into a hot lavender and white-gold phoenix. And then we’re back in business.

As it grows, the fire devours the oxygen in a twelve-foot radius. I notice a slight headache as the area around the grill, my cutting board, the rack where I hang my tongs, my neatly stacked pile of kitchen towels, becomes as inhospitable as the interior of an active volcano. The familiar quick dance-steps of professional cookery become sluggish as I struggle to breathe, fighting with the beautiful monster for a mouthful of air. Reaching into the fire to set a cast-iron pan on a pillow of salmon-colored coals is like reaching into a kiln; the heat smacking into my forearms and face is a physical force, a wall I must reach through, and I’ve learned that exhaling as I step close and reach in to the fire seems to help, as though my tiny tithe of air was found a sufficient token, and I’m allowed to pass. My towel, on the other hand, comes away from the fire burning, as though tiny orange insects are eating holes into it. I smudge the insects out on the brick wall next to my station, and reach back into the fire to flip over the scallops searing in their cast-iron hell.
Sound doesn’t carry across such a short distance, as though the fire is consuming our very voices; thinking about it now, I can’t remember whether the blaze makes its own noise, or if it just eats our words along with our air. When a new ticket comes in, I cross the space between us with one hand flung in front of my face to call steaks and temps to the other cook. My silver necklace heats up and leaves a red line around my throat. The pen clip sticking out of my apron pocket burns me when I cross my arms across my chest, and I let out a startled noise. My t-shirt is soaking wet within seconds, which means that if I leave the grill area, and its 900 degree environment, I will immediately be beset with violent shivers, as though I’ve been wrapped in a wet sheet and set on a mountain top.    

Fresh charcoal spits sparks in every direction as if protesting its transformation from inert object into fuel. As we rake the pile of coals into heaps beneath our grills, the sparks are like bees spilling from a kicked hive, but I learned almost immediately to ignore their tiny stings and to continue working through the swarm.

When the fire rages from the grate in flames three-feet high, the coals drop from the grate like newborn fire-salamanders, a species skinned in coral and rose. Eventually, the sparks simmer down. Eventually, the heat settles down to a bearable 500 degrees. If we don’t have any tickets working, I stare into the face of the beast and again, think about Buck watching a version of a world in which he is tame, struggling with the call he hears from the Wilds beyond the small ring of firelight. 

Like being a doctor or a lawyer, being a chef can supplant other identifiers. When people ask what you do, the question heard is, What are you? This is a question I’ve struggled with for years. I’m a chef. No, I’m a writer. No, I’m a chef and a writer. No, I’ll never cook again. I’ll starve before I go back into that world. I will write and illustrate children’s books and medical manuals. No wait, I’ll open my own restaurant, with sage colored walls and vermillion curtains, west-facing views over the water, wood-fired oven, a menu that speaks to the glacial moraine of the Riviera, the culinary intersection of Sea and Alps. And on, and on, for years, the answers changing depending on the audience, the mood, and the amount of vodka percolating through the system.

When the last chef job ended with the suddenness of being thrown off a moving bus, and I went into seven months of unemployment, I was free to run around and howl at the moon. I wasn’t making decisions based on paychecks or other people’s expectations, or my visions of food on plates, or my crippling case of carcass fatigue. Management style and the politics of restaurant hierarchy ceased to mean anything. These months graphed the geometry of freedom versus security, and, to a lesser extent, proved ol’ Janis Joplin right.

But there came a time when the freedom of having nothing left to lose made me take stock. I should have something to lose, right? I have a career, a resume, a future, all of which require returning to the traces and pulling again. And this doesn’t have to be a bad sled pulled over pitted snow. So I waited by the edge of the forest until I saw a fire I wanted to be next to.  And now, having found it, I will pull.