Joseph F. Conway
Posted on July 20th, 2012
Sure, you can source your ingredients, prep everything, follow your own recipe or someone else’s, recognize when it’s all just so and serve it up to friends and family, but can you eat it? Probably, if you’re an amateur like me. That end product, the meal, is what it’s all about, right? But there is a point where that’s no longer true. For some it happens in a suburban home on Thanksgiving with a 26-pound turkey, a red wine spattered apron and a legion of in-laws close at hand. For others, the transformation occurs in a commercial kitchen on the bad side of someone’s threshold for cursing, bumping elbows and burning oneself in a haze of smoke and other people’s B.O.
I’ve known cooks whose spouses require that they ditch their clothes outside their apartments and shower immediately upon arriving home from work. The job can be just that consuming, so much so that you actually bring part of the restaurant home with you. The smell, or the intolerance of it, is really just a byproduct of the demystification process though. At a certain point, that entrée you just sent out stops being just a beautiful cut of meat kissed with a hot pan and topped with pretty-looking delicious stuff. It becomes instead a symbol of everything that went into it — not just the ingredients, but the experience of cooking it. It represents hours and effort, with the steam from the dishwashing station, the scum under the floor mats, that server’s over-the-top-cologne, and whatever somebody burnt the living shit out of last night all wrapped into one tightly wound package. That’s why some fine dining people subsist on cereal and takeout Chinese, and why your buddy who works at that incredible pizza place won’t touch the stuff. They’ve got a mix of porn industry cameraman syndrome and P.T.S.D., which means they’re perpetually unimpressed and actually kind of appalled by something that to the rest of us embodies all that is right in the world.
Knowing this, I always wondered how farmers did it. Just as life in the kitchen ain’t exactly all pressed chef’s whites and wine tastings, the realities of farming stand in direct opposition to the popular bucolic ideal. In fact, it turns out that food mostly comes from the ground. It is dirty and sometimes covered in poo and feathers. That bacon you had for breakfast? Not too long ago it had hair and a snout and burrowed in stinking heaps with its siblings (ideally). And while the act of coaxing sustenance from the soil inherently involves bring about life, the taint of death is never far away, never mind the potential for failure, and the preponderance of backaches. “In the shit” is not a euphemism on most farms — farmers are often literally ankle-deep in shit and work hours that make a restaurant shift look like a cotillion. But I’ve seen these people take huge swigs of milk after staring at the business end of a heifer with G.I. issues for hours on end.
I had been mulling all of this over for a while when I got the opportunity to work on a mussel farm recently. “I love mussels!” I thought to myself, and signed right up. About a week later, as I was sweating through my t-shirt in the morning sun, I wondered what could make me hate them. Shoveling several hundred pounds of them a couple of times over might be a pretty good start. At the time I was also standing in a borrowed pair of rubber overalls with a tear in the knee, covered head-to-toe in mud and seawater. I looked and smelled not too different from the mussels themselves and felt like I, too, had just been pulled off a rope hanging in the bay. The truth of the experience lay open and exposed like the unlucky inhabitants of a few errant black shells my feet: getting food in this way was hard, dirty work.
Slowly, we migrated the haul — just over 1,000 pounds in all — through harvesting, processing and packaging. At the end of the day, what had emerged from the ocean with unruly strands of beard, covered in barnacles, seaweed and a few itinerant hangers-on, sat on ice, in neat parcels of ebony shells, complete with a little note that explained where they had come from, and when. They were clean, lustrous even, like a bunch of reformed Hell’s Angels headed to a job interview after church.
I, on the other hand, was in shambles. I smelled like fish and rubber and sunscreen and sweat. My hands — rendered almost useless by the departure from my usual routine of keyboard pecking and fussing about — hung limp at my sides. Crusted over with mud and fatigue, I shocked myself by still replying “Yes” when my boss asked me if I wanted to take some mussels home.
Later that night, after causing a bit of a stir while picking up a six-pack on the way home, I emerged from the shower, cracked a beer and stood in front of the open fridge door contemplating my spoils. I had hated parts of the day, but also loved parts of it, too. Now, all of that was wrapped up in a mesh bag, sitting in a metal bowl. The sunrise over the water, the hum of the skiff’s engine, my reflection in the glassy water at dawn, the rhythm of the work and the smells and sensations that came along with it. I had waited for the end of the day, and wondered what would happen at this very moment, when I thought about dinner, and thought about the mussels.
All of the trepidation disappeared as soon as I stuck my nose into the bowl and breathed deep. The flood of briny minerality washed away the bad and begged for butter, onion, garlic and white wine. I was hungry for mussels, and everything was going to be OK.