Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I Brought a Hand Grenade to the Potluck

Food is love. I've read about this concept in various places over the years. The gathering of people and ingredients, the sharing of cooking talents, making and eating. I think they said it best in the wonderful documentary "I Like Killing Flies", "Making food is about as intimate as it gets, I mean, they're going to put it in their mouth."

However if making food for friends and family is a way of bonding, a way of loving, making food for the public is War. Yes, I try to put Love into everything I make. I'm not joking. I think it tastes better that way. But working behind a sushi bar, where horde upon horde comes flooding through the door. There's an overwhelming feeling that we are out-manned and out gunned. How can these people still be hungry? Where are they coming from? Didn't we feed everyone in town already?

Prep time, before we open is all about getting ourselves ready. What are we preparing? Food sure, but more accurately: Ammunition. We want to make sure you never run out of bullets. So we stack our ammo, our tuna, our avocado, our rice, our sauce; we stack it high. On a busy weekend we'll go through 200 pounds of fish and 300 pounds of cooked rice. When we run out, things begin to spiral out of control, that foreign army gets a little closer, a little more irate, a little more unpredictable and we start to lose the battle.

Sometimes the noise level in the restaurant rises to the point that I have to use hand signals, two fingers pointed to my eyes and then at a table to let the waitress know from across the room to look at them. I found myself shouting out at customers mere feet from me because if I didn't they wouldn't understand. I turn my head to hear their response directly into my ear and nod, as if we're all hunched under a chopper that's about to take off.

While our bar works best in it's U shape, to maximize seating capacity, it's hard not to think that we've dug a trench and are now surrounded. When you leave the trench, to go to cash register, to help the helpless at the door, you feel as though your exposed, somehow in danger of being taken to floor and beaten for what little sushi you might have left.

To top this, more than half the time I have an extremely sharp knife in my hand, that I have, on at least one occasion, threatened a customer with and on many more occasions secretly thought of stabbing someone with. Think I'm crazy? Try not to think of it as a weapon when someone is yelling at you.

This brings me to final point. You see the face of Evil working in a restaurant. The way humans treat other humans can be both amazing and horrifying around meal times. I've seen the most disfunctional of dysfunctional families. I've see food thrown as live ammo. I've seen spitting indoors. I've seen grown men puff out there chests over who was on the list to sit down first. I've heard parents tell their kids that they're too fat to have any more. I heard jeaous wives ask their husbands if they wanted to just "fuck the waitress and get it over with".

And yet, like some kind of adrenaline junkie, I keep coming back to work. Because every night I get that rush, like I just might not make it out alive this time, but somehow at the end, they all go home and I live to fight another day.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Dear Eater

First credit where credit is due: Shea needs to be lauded not only for discovering, testing and disseminating this carnitas recipe but for mailing me a package of the specific Mexican spices required and making it harder for me NOT to try it than it was to just make it. And boy was I happy I made it, as were my New Year’s Day companions if the number of helpings I saw consumed were an accurate indication.

I’m linking you here to the recipe on Shea’s other blog. Get it. Make it. It really does live up to any hype I can give it. A side note, I simply made the carnitas and tomatillo salsa for sandwiches and didn’t mess about with eggs or cheese.

What I really loved about making this particular carnitas recipe (aside from a renewed appreciation for the values of patient slow cooking) was how unexpectedly and completely communal it felt. Food creates community by bringing us together around a table and binds us together in shared experiences and shared tastes. This recipe sent from the other side of the country was just that.

Cooking this carnitas recipe from Shea, with spices he sent, for my family and some DC friends he has yet to meet was like reading a well written, deliciously filled letter to them. You remember those letters right? Before the internet took over? Those letters that made you feel like you'd just had a great chat with an old friend? It was one of those.

It was as if Shea sent me a complete moment in the mail. Almost like sharing a meal…..with a slight pause between bites.

Technology has broadened our horizons in so many ways and has clearly made communication across great distances far easier. Shea and I can both contribute to this blog despite having lived a continent apart for almost ten years (eek). Clearly we’ve embraced new technologies. But food, at its core, is still a fundamentally sensory experience. The taste, the smell, the texture can’t be replicated in bits and bytes (note I’m resisting the urge to go for a trite bites v. bytes joke).

At a very basic, human level communing over food still involves an in-person experience. Which this most definitely was. And a delicious one.

Clearly, nothing can replace the joy and connection felt in sharing a meal with friends and family. It’s time to be savored whenever possible. But in the absence of having all my nearest and dearest living right next door, this meal that was mailed to me was almost as good as the real thing. Almost.

P.S. Both of the recipes I made over the holidays that garnered the most positive feedback came to me via friends. This Pumpkin Ginger Cheesecake Pie via my book club compatriot MissMangoHands was also a hit, and well worth making (scroll about halfway through October for the recipe). Particularly for any ginger lovers.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Holiday in Menus

The holidays always mean food and lots of it in my family. Luckily the family is packed with great cooks, although I volunteered to spearhead a good portion of our eating regimen for the last week. Resolution for 2010: volunteer in much lower profile ways. But it was great fun. The weather cooperated to make the holidays appropriately snowy....and justified some of my favorite comfort foods as well as providing ample opportunity for snow activities and board games with family and friends. What more do you need at the holidays?

Christmas Eve-a Valenta tradition (courtesy of KV and co):
a multi-ethnic buffet

Christmas morning-an ironic breakfast:
Bagels and Lox

Christmas Dinner in NJ (a team effort):
Sausage crostini
Winter vegetable soup
Grilled herb and garlic crusted lamb with a port/red wine reduction
Coq au vin
Mushroom risotto
Honey glazed carrots and parsnips
Green beans in a shallot vinaigrette
Horseradish mashed potatoes
Roasted sweet potatoes
Braised red cabbage
Apple pie, rum cake, assorted cookies….all topped with a Cognac whipped cream

Boxing Day (this was all JV with some sous cheffing)
A trio of grilled pizzas: prosciutto and gorgonzola with balsamic glazed figs and shallots; white pizza with broccoli and a lemon wine sauce; roasted peppers and mushrooms.

Second Christmas in VT:
Pan seared steak with a red wine tarragon sauce
Oven roasted potatoes
Butter braised carrots

A Healthy Respite:
Red lentils and rice

VT Welcomes DC (courtesy of my sissy Abby and pops):
Butternut Squash lasagna
vegetarian chili

NYE-a fridge purge:
Broccoli with shallots and balsamic
Copious amounts of champagne/VT beer/maybe a little mescal direct from Mexico

New Year’s Day- a comfort food bonanza:
Breakfast: hash brown casserole and eggs
Dinner: outrageous pork carnitas with tomatillo salsa (Shea's recipe)

A snowy visit with the G-parents:
Macaroni and cheese
Spiral ham with a brown sugar glaze
Pumpkin Ginger cheese cake