Posted on June 24th, 2013
I apprenticed in the furniture making shop of a surly old Swiss man with strong opinions and no desire to keep them from anybody. He would shape high finish masterpieces from rough slabs of lumber while telling dirty jokes and comparing the breasts of the women he had dated in his youth. He would pause in his work to belt opera and then, in the same breath, call the radio host the c-word for pronouncing the composer’s name incorrectly. He was quite a contradiction, but one thing that held steady in every aspect of his life was a fine attention to detail and a high level of pride in his work. I expected, of course, to learn more than my brain could retain about design, joinery, hand tools and the like during my time in his shop. What i didn’t expect was to also acquire a wealth of knowledge about food.
I spent my first few months in his shop (once an old train station it was still nestled in against a live railroad line and would rumble and shake whenever the big engines rolled by) nervously sawing away at the scrap wood that he provided me, learning to hand-cut traditional joinery such as dovetails and through tenons. I carefully pulled the blade through every cut, wanting to get a nice tight result and impress him. I cared very much about earning his approval and feeling like I deserved my place in his shop, and his stoic demeanor and sparse words when it came to reviewing my work made it hard to know if I was going in the right direction.
Every day at noon he would head home to have lunch and I would set my tools down, pull my dust mask off, and head out to the porch to have my sandwich and tea. He returned one day while I was still sipping out in the sun and handed me something as he headed back to his bench. I looked down and saw that I know clutched a fist full of radishes. I popped back in through the door and looked quizzically at him.
‘Eat them,’ he said simply.
I do not tolerate radishes well. It’s not that I don’t enjoy them, it’s that they are spicy. My guts don’t generally get down with that type of thing. But. What choice did I have? He wanted me to eat the radishes. I had better eat the radishes. So I did. I could see that he was watching me. As I felt the first ripples of fire spreading beneath my sternum I smiled and told him how great they were. He nodded his approval and went back to work. I stepped outside to gather my lunch things, lurched off the porch, and vomited beside the train ties. I swept some leaves over the pink mush and went back to work.
Sometimes he would recite recipes to me, which I would scribble down on stray pieces of maple and cherry. I would return home with instructions for baked apple tarts, turkey thighs, cheesecake, and proper ‘pasta bolognese’. Try as I might I knew my renditions would be considered inedible by him, but I choked them down and reported back on how great they were. This was because, in addition to being a far superior craftsman, he was also a far superior cook. Having been to his house once for an incredible dinner (even the salad dressing blew my mind) my wife and I feared returning the invitation because we knew we could not meet his standards. Luckily I knew his favorite wines and I think that helped him accept the dinner that we put together for him.
After a trip to the Caribbean I returned with for-real fire sauce and watched in amazement as he guzzled it down while telling me that the peppers in the Caribbean were far hotter than any you could get in New England. He explained that he had to eat it up fast before it lost its potency after mixing with our bland air, and lamented how much his asshole would burn that night. I was schooled on which birds you could hunt in the area and how to prepare each one, went ramp hunting in the woods behind the shop and dug up bagfuls of the pungent bulbs to kick spring into gear, was taught to distinguish wild mushrooms from their poisonous look-a-likes, and learned that ‘all Europeans’ think peanut butter is filthy and disgusting.
I left after four years with a shiny new collection of Japanese chisels, a keener sense of design, a u-haul full of boards, and a much fuller appreciation of and passion for good food and careful cooking. I no longer shoved meals thoughtlessly into my face, but put them together much as I did the pieces of furniture I built, in a way where I would taste and appreciate each ingredient. I had learned that careful craftsmanship should carry over into all aspect’s of a person’s life. But. I will always eat peanut butter like it’s my job. Because not every lesson can be absorbed.