Thursday, June 25, 2009
I've been on a roll, lately. When I say roll, I want you to think of a soft, squishy bun piled high with tasty vittles. Vittles that are carefully selected, with extra points going to meaty bits with an address of origin I can visit. Last time I wrote, we were driving to Olympia, Washington to pick up 1/4 of Lil'Runt, a steer from a rancher named Gary Iverson. The whole way back to Seattle, with over 200 pounds of local beef weighing down the back of our Lil'pick-up, I envisioned that quintessentially perfect hamburger; the iconic one that appears in your mind while you're driving home, vying for precious real estate with the co-opted McImposters on billboards. There was a time when the meat from the quintessentially perfect hamburger didn't have a home address that I knew of, or a name. But those days are fewer and farther between. Which is both easier and harder. Better and less convenient.
So, despite my best intentions, those co-opted burger encounters still sometimes happen. Case in point: this past weekend, April and I arrived - starving -at a local hamburger joint on Orcas Island. I was hungry and grumpy; a recipe for mindless wolfing. To play the game of instant gratification (without all that messy consciousness-raising), all I had to do was pretend, despite all signs to the contrary, that the source of my hamburger was happy and just had one, very, very bad day.
It's a fool's game.
I know this.
But it helps with the digestion, so I play it every once in awhile.
Contrast this with a recent experience that is more commonplace for me these days. My buddy Jet and I took a day trip to Anacortes last weekend and found ourselves at the docks, talking with a woman about her catch of trapped, local, spot prawns. We asked for a few pounds and she presented them. Live.
I've killed many things in my career. More crab than I care to count. If there is a hell for me, it is run by a very large Dungeness crab with a tiny chef hat perched jauntily on his crabby head. In this hell I'm Lily Tomlin in The Incredible Shrinking Woman and I'm being pinched around my middle by a pair of tongs twice my size. There's lots of steam and hot, hot water and then everything goes black. Just like in the movie, Consuela can't hear my screams.
I've killed sea urchin, abalone, geoduck, billions of mussels, clams and oysters and some small finfish from my youth. But, as of last week, I'd never killed a live prawn. You might think you'd just throw it in some boiling water. You'd be wrong. You need to keep spot prawns alive or else the head can cause enzymatic breakdown in the flesh. We didn't have a cooler with us and a few hours separated us from home. "Simple," said our helpful fisherman, "here's how you twist the head off." And with that, she cleanly dispatched our first prawn, twisting its head off with an adroit snap of the wrist.
Jet and I took our prawns to the other side of the dock, swung our legs over the side and steeled ourselves for the job at hand. I won't lie, it was sort of brutal. Especially the first few. I never realized how powerful their tails are. They are beautiful, in their own way, and taking a life - even a shrimp life - is still taking a life.
I hope I'm not disturbing you here. I don't mean to. What I mean to do is open a small window onto a path most of us are on - usually indirectly- that includes the taking of life. On September 12th I'm looking forward to cooking a farm to table dinner at Dog Mountain Farm in Carnation. I will be serving duck, every part used, over 6 courses paired with Alexandria Nicole wines. We went out there a few weeks back and while touring the place and visiting the horses, ducks, turkeys and chickens I made a decision. If I am to serve duck on that long farm table in the middle of the fields, then I need to do something I've been reluctant to do. I need to kill those ducks myself. I am not looking forward to this, and I'm not insinuating that if you eat meat, you must kill it yourself, directly. However, as someone in the position of teaching people about cooking, and cooking for many, many people each week I feel like I need to do this.
Dog Mountain is raising 10 ducks for my dinner. One week before the dinner I will go out there and kill those ducks. It will be a hard day for me and a harder day for those ducks but a farm to table dinner is just the kind of venue to challenge myself to do what I haven't. If I'm going to eat meat and teach people how to cook meat, I need to do this. Stay tuned.