Saturday, August 29, 2009

Damson plums make the best jam.

NYC Union Square Farmer's Market, Photo Credit: j_bary

There are many possible paths to take if you contemplate the life cycle of a piece of fruit. A biologist sees flower, pollen, pollinator, fruiting body, seed dispersal. A farmer sees drought cycles, fertilizer, pests, hybridization, ripeness, seed saving. A poet sees the developing fruit, a blush of color appearing on the skin and then turning to rot, and how it makes them think of rebirth and love and death.

A lover of food sees pies, sauces and jam and hopes that they will catch that fruit at the apex of flavor. I am a lover of food, no doubt, but I am more so a lover of people. When I contemplate the life cycle of a piece of fruit, I taste it in my mind but I also see it passing from one hand to another; I am as interested in the string of people that have touched that fruit, and their cascade of stories, as I am in the fruit itself.

"I have a friend on a Damson plum quest," said my friend Zoe, typing on her computer in Washington, D.C., "do you know how to secure some?" Her friend and colleague is British and was having a homesick craving for this particular type of plum and the jam it makes, supposedly the best. Damsons are easily available in Britain, but after a month of searching in Seattle it felt like I'd sooner spot a hairy-nosed Wombat skulking around my neighborhood than find one of these plums. People had heard of this plum, they thought - vaguely - but no one had ever tasted it or seen it.

This made my quest even more obsessive and the subsequent jam it may spring forth necessarily more incredible in my mind. It is nearly impossible to separate our emotions and our stories from what our taste buds are experiencing, or in this case, may someday experience. I can't imagine contemplating pizza, for example, in a complete emotional vacuum. Impossible. Pizza, the food, is on the same neural pathway as pizza, the memory; grease sliding down the inside of my arm, walking with my brother out of Ray's in NYC, the neurotic buzz of the city rising like steam from the molten cheese.

Whether or not Damson plums truly make the best plum jam or not is purely academic. What is more interesting to me is that when they find their way into this woman's hands, she will be holding on to a piece of home in small tart plum form, and therefore her experience of this jam will be quite different from anyone else's. If I ever taste this jam, mine will be too, just for being on this quest. Of course, it can work the opposite way. Long anticipation and/or work can disappoint you if the final product is less than stellar. This also proves my point, because perhaps you would have been more pleased had you not personally put the sweat equity into the final product. I'm thinking here, right now, of the blackberry wine Langdon Cook and I are working on right now, as I watch it bubble and ferment every day. You can bet, after all this work, this wine will either be the BEST blackberry wine in the world or the very WORST blackberry wine in the world.

But back to plums: I trolled the internets for a local source and came up empty for about a month. No one knew where to find the coy Damson plum, the little bastard being grown somewhere, but not here. Or so it seemed.

And then along came Jenny. She writes a blog called Purple House Dirt, happened to be breezily, innocently mentioning on Twitter how she had some (oh my GOD) Damson plums given to her by a neighbor. I then asked her - someone I didn't really know - if there was any way I might have a small amount from her neighbor, another complete stranger.

Before you consider this forward of me, you must understand that the Seattle Food Twitter world is full of strangers becoming fast friends over staccato bursts of food conversation. These random acts of culinary kindness abound and you need only tap into it to find it. And, whatever, I wanted the damn plums so leave me alone.

As it was, it was my lucky day.

There they are, the sneaky little bastards

There were still a few pounds left and Jenny could meet me at the Queen Anne Farmer's Market to drop the goods - aka the plums that would come from her neighbor Emma's old boss' 10 year old tree on Lake Washington. From the boss to Emma to Jenny to me, in exchange for my gratitude and a pint of raspberries, and a story.

As it turns out (and this is the very sad part of this story) Zoe told me that her colleague is taking refuge in cooking and jam-making because her husband is very sick. I shared this with Jenny as I took the fruit and prepared it for shipping.

Six pairs of hands will touch these plums before they are turned into jam. My hope, beyond simply that everyone's hands were clean, is that some small piece of refuge will come to this woman in DC that I don't know, that Jenny does not know, that Emma does not know, that Emma's old boss does not know. Zoe tells me she will send some jam back to me for my "troubles" which I will share, in turn, with Jenny and Emma, and Emma's old boss. Perhaps we will sit together, now no longer strangers, slather it on toast with butter, and follow the trail of hands in the life cycle of these Damson plums.

They say it makes the very best jam.

Friday, August 14, 2009

For the love of oysters, sushi and nephews

I remember eating my first raw oyster just as surely as others remember their virginal lake dive, hands pointed together in prayer, toes death-gripped to the splintery edge of the dock, knees knocking together like that obnoxiously fun kid's toy Clackers, moments before cracking open the still black surface of the water. I approached the oyster with the same knocking knees, sure that my culinary plunge into raw shellfish would mark my very last bite here on earth.

Truth be told, my first oyster was a culinary half-step. I couldn't quite get myself to tackle the beast itself, so I licked shyly at the liquor. Surprised at how delicious it was, I then drank it with gusto, letting my friend eat the oyster itself, while she puzzled at my strange workaround. When I finally sucked it up and went whole hog, I soon realized all that fear and trepidation were for naught. The lost oyster years, as I call them, were to be found at the lake bottom sharing sand with my pride at having finally overcome my fear.

A little fear before trying something new is to be expected; but surely it is the wise who know that working through that fear as quickly as possibly can lead to a lifetime of (culinary) enjoyment.

It was my oldest brother and sister-in-law that offered me my first bites of sushi. I was a teenager, maybe 18 and I insisted on eating the sushi-with-training-wheels, aka cooked fish rolls. It took me until I was 22 or so to start eating my fish raw. I'm still due at least 4 or 5 whole wild sockeye salmons worth of sashimi to make up for those years.

Just as memorable as my first oyster was the first time a meal made my eyes well up with joy and trust me when I say, I'm not the crying type. It was at Tojo's, an icon of a sushi bar in Vancouver, British Columbia. We had ferried my other brother and sister-in-law up there as a gift, a mecca to one of my favorite restaurants, where closing your eyes while eating is a prerequisite. It was a lobster hand roll that caused my emotional undoing. I remember opening my eyelids for only a moment to look to my right and catch the glint of a tear in the corner of my brother's left eye just as one was forming in my own.

I have never before or since been moved to a tear because of food.*

Meals like the one at Tojo's are rare, once in a lifetime sort of experiences. Hard to know if it can be attributed solely to the freshness of the food, the artistry of the chef, the seamless service, the company you're keeping, the mental state you're in or a combination of several of these things. Frankly, it almost doesn't matter.

My family and I share more than our dark dark hair, our fondness for word games, our penchant for collecting things, our profoundly nonexistent rear ends. We share a love of food and a notable spirit of culinary adventurousness. To wit: my nephew has been eating me under the sushi table since he was 1. I truly don't know where he was putting it, but it was clearly putting his parents in the poor house.

So it was with a fat wallet and an empty set of stomachs that he (now 14 and even hungrier) and I showed up at Mashiko the other night to test out Hajime's evolving sustainable sushi menu. I'll save the reviews for others though I encourage you to check out this restaurant, especially since - as of August 14th, it is the first established sushi bar (in the world) to go totally sustainable. What I'd rather talk about is the joy bestowed on me that evening as I watched my nephew eagerly slurp down his very first raw oyster, declare it "delicious!" as he moved happily along to geoduck, rainbow trout sashimi, raw spot prawn with lumpfish caviar, chuwan mushi with shrimp and other bizarre and unusual delights. When the spot prawn's head appeared in front of him, crispy antennae tangled, black eyes empty of light, he had only this to say, seconds after popping it in his mouth: "I ate the brain. It was yummy."

That's my boy.

Later in the evening, my stomach threatening to propel the button from my jeans into an unsuspecting diner's eye, Alex leans over to me and tells me the rice was fantastic. I encourage him to tell Chef Hajime, as a great sushi chef is nothing if his rice is less than perfect. Hajime graciously bowed his head, genuinely complimented that this very hungry and adventurous young man appreciated its quality.

We left the restaurant, giddy from our sushi high, Alex sporting his new button proclaiming the Mashiko doctrine that "Soy sauce is not a beverage." I left with mine in hand, "Boring food sucks." As we were leaving, he tells me in a stage whisper that's he's burping the most excellent sushi rice burps.

The Romans would have been (almost) as proud as I was.

* A note: Recently a friend and I were talking about the audacity of monikers like "foodie" in a day where so many people go without food. It is true that the obsessive focus on all things food in our land of obesity and excess is in bitter contrast to the way most of the world lives their lives. However, another tragedy, in my opinion, would be to eat blindly, scarfing down food on the way from point A to B. If I am so lucky and privileged as to be able to make the trek to a restaurant where a chef cares so much about his food and his art that my eyes uncontrollably shut to isolate the perfection of that moment, than what am I, if not absolutely appreciative of what I am lucky enough to be able to experience? The enjoyment of food, prepared beautifully, from the hands of a master - this I will not take for granted. I am lucky. I know this. I close my eyes to respect this moment.


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