Posted on August 16th, 2012
Stockings have always been my favorite part of Christmas. No matter what grandiose lumpy mystery package awaited me beneath the tree, the real prize that hauled me out of my bed in the pre-dawn of Christmas morning was the knitted bulky oversized sock that hung by the fireplace (with or without care).
When I was younger, it was an endless stream of trinkets, (anchored down at the toe by a corpulent orange), whose number seemed to approach the infinite. How many tubes of sparkling lip balm can this stocking hold? A billion. That’s how many.
When I graduated to the realm of more sedate adult gifts, including genuine enthusiasm for woolly socks, the plump, swaying, charcuterie-esque bulge of my Yuletide stocking still held sway over my desires. Only now, this stocking came equipped for Grownup Needs. This stocking, during my first Christmas as a prep cook, came armed to the teeth. It came with Little Green Knife.
From the first moment that a brand new chef’s knife had silently crimsoned my startled thumb in the walk-in at work, I had fallen hard for knives. I had been nervous then, that first morning, minutes after learning how to hold one properly for the first time in my cooking life. By the time December rolled around, however, I was hundreds of cases of vegetables in to a serious burning crush on all things sharp, shiny, and steel. There were three knives in the rotation at work that were a little shorter, a little heftier, than their ten inch counterparts, and I hoarded their attentions jealously, as a lover might. Their weight felt like an extension of my arm. Their movements through lettuce, peppers, cucumbers, mushrooms, were things that I didn’t have to think about, the way you absently go about the business of breathing. When I thought about graduate school, which I still thought that I would attend at that point in time, I also thought “but what will happen to my hands and these knives?” There was knowledge locked away in my forearms. I didn’t want to lose it.
Months later, I’d made a series of decisions. The first was to abandon my fledgling career as a future social worker in favor of professional cookery school. The second was to choose pastry over the savory. And the third was to move to the other side of the country to pursue it. In amongst the pots and pans, a slender vestige of my vegetable dismembering past, I slipped the little green knife, and drove hell for leather across the country to Portland, Oregon.
There are people who experience geographical certainty upon arriving in new locations. Everything in their blood says ‘here we stay’ or ‘yes, this place’. Mine, upon arriving in Portland, didn’t. Pastry school didn’t start until December. The city’s contours wouldn’t stay put in my head, and I drove around in a daze, looking for anything familiar. I had a day job working in a produce department chopping up fruits and vegetables, but, the knives were all the wrong size, and I worked alone, far from the caffeinated hum of a kitchen. When school started at long last, it brought more displacement—gone were the last minute additions of salt, the sudden need for rosemary, the secret ingredients. Pastry was precision. Pastry was having hands that didn’t get too hot (mine always did). Pastry was a soft touch, a deft hand, and exact weights. My hands knew nothing. And my knives were gone.
Slowly, however, my hands became less useless. And amidst the delicate heaps of flour, the downy drifts of almond meal, and the deepening dough, the need for a sharp edge crept back in to our daily work. There were oranges that needed to be severed into supremes. Peels needed to be pared into future orangettes. Like the refrain of a familiar song, linking me to home and to the secret savory heart of my culinary organs, the little green knife found itself in my hand, time after time. Riding shotgun next to my thermometer, pens, and butter-stained notebook, it was equal parts talisman and classroom joke, each time it appeared to trim candy, pare fruit, or pull raspberry puree through a pale sea of crème anglaise. I decorated nearly the entirety of my first wedding cake armed solely with its ever-sharp charms, determined to keep this slim link to my shadow self, the east coast vegetable wench who dreamt in brunoise.
It wasn’t fancy. It wasn’t expensive. It came at the tail end of a Christmas stocking, one of a number of dangling enticements on the darkest day of winter. But it stayed sharp. It stayed true. It reminded my hands of what they’d been, and what they might someday be, again. It was a scant five inches long. But deep in my pocket, its small weight contained multitudes, and sang its own sweet song—the one that said ‘here we stay’. The one that said ‘yes, this place’.