Bros Don’t do Subtle

In the Pacific Northwest we feel very smug and confident that we make and drink some really amazing beer. Problematically, we often think an aggressive assault to the palate, akin to a fraternity stunt, is an epicurean delight. We could say that American microbrew is the Loony Toons expression of European beer:

You like IPA do ya? WELL HOW ABOUT THIS MONSTER TRIPLE IPA, HOPPED IN 12 STAGES WITH 5000 POUNDS OF UBER AGGRESSIVE NORTHWESTERN HOP VARIETIES RAGING ACROSS YOUR TONGUE LIKE A BLAST OF PINE SOL DOUSING A GANJA FOREST FIRE!?! YOU DON’T LIKE IT? WHY DON’T YOU GO DRINK A COORS LIGHT LIKE A CRYING LITTLE SORORITY SISTER? BECAUSE WE TOTALLY BALANCED IT OUT WITH AN ENTIRE CARGO SHIP OF MALT!

Mmmm, unfermented sugar. My lips are stuck together now. Which is fine, since I’m done drinking.

I don’t know if you ever had a British IPA, but that’s not how it tastes. Likewise with the Belgians.

You like Belgians, huh? WELL WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT HOW WE SHOVED A BURNING CLOVE TREE UP THE ASS OF A BANANA PLANTATION, BOILED THAT MOTHERFUCKER UP IN THE WORT WITH 400 POUNDS OF ROCK SUGAR, FERMENTED IT AT 90 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT FOR MAXIMUM ESTER FORMATION, AND PUT A WHOLE NUTMEG NUT IN EACH BOTTLE? PRETTY FUCKING KILLER, HUH?

Maybe, but right now all I can taste is the little pukes that keep coming up in the back of my throat with every sip. I will say, I’d always liked Belgian beer until that banana-clove ester assault from the American Belgians left my palate with PTSD. Now my taste buds invert themselves whenever a hint of that flavor comes along.

I refuse to drink any more American sours, since the few I’ve had have threatened to leave me similarly scarred, and I couldn’t imagine a life with Flemish beer.

Still, I’m in a tough spot. I can’t drink Reinaert every night, English IPA is tough to come by, and even American pale ale is going all EXTREME™. Brewing has gone to the bros, and bros don’t do subtle. Give a bro a canvas, and he will cover that motherfucker, edge to edge, in the loudest colors that come in a can.

But I found a little workaround… a little… what the fuck do you nerds and terrible writers call it… hack. Indeed, a hack! I water it down! With sparkling mineral water like I made in my previous post. Four ounces of sparkling mineral water to 12 ounces beer makes a pint of something that you could drink two or three of without scraping the finish off your palate. I enjoy drinking beer again!

Post Script:

To be clear, there are a few local beers I like straight out of the bottle:

Most everything by Upright, but especially the Engelberg Pils, which is clean and dry, and the #6 rye.

Oakshire’s Line Dry Rye. I like rye, I cannot lie.

Everything by Heater Allen.

And everything, absolutely everything, that Captured by Porches makes. They get it, the fact that you don’t need to color every corner, every square inch of the canvas with the loudest possible color. They leave what’s called negative space, which is where refreshment happens, since it tastes like water.

 

Sympathy for the Restaurant Industry

When I got laid off from a restaurant in an employer retaliation situation some dozen years ago, I decided to get the fuck out of the abusive relationship that is cooking in restaurants. I’ve come back around now and again, a year here, pick up some catering shifts there, get a little action from the old flame, but I cannot take that shit seriously as a profession anymore.

I looked ahead and thought, what’s the fucking point? Will I make more down the road? Yes, of course. Will I make more per hour? Not really. And I came to see the world not in terms of salary increase, but in terms of quality of life increase. And I saw that, in cooking, there is no such thing. My dad still works 60, 70, 80 hours a week, and I am terrified of being that overworked in my 40’s, much less my 50’s. I’ve spent some time like that, but had always considered it a temporary thing. It’s not temporary if you want to be a chef.

I could go into corporate. But why do it at all then? Aren’t we doing this shit for love? Yes. Love. As every young-buck line cook will have you know: “We do this shit for love, man.” That’s good, ’cause we sure as hell ain’t doing it for money. The guy who stacks the proverbial Pepsi products, he works for money, and gets paid more from the start than the vast majority of line cooks make even after a few years on the job. And that’s no fucking lie (I know because I applied for that job.) What is a lie is working for love. Love is the emotion they use to manipulate the young romantic into doing a stressful, dangerous job for shift drinks and pride.

And people do love it, too. I used to dream about turning out plate after plate of perfect food. I had plenty of nightmares too, and sleepless nights when the shift drinks couldn’t erase the thought of the plate that went out poorly. The potentially dissatisfied customer loomed large in my adrenaline-addled mind. The job asks for far too much personal investment for it’s pitiful financial recompense.

Six of the ten worst-paying professions in the United States are in foodservice. A lot of these jobs are in fast food, but many are in full-service restaurants. Line cooks, in the link above, are for some reason classified under “combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food.” So next time you feel all yuppity behind the line at Le Pigeon, or French Laundry for that matter, remember that in the eyes of the US labor department, you are essentially the same as the fry guy. Oh no, the fry guy is on the next page, and he actually makes a little more.

According to Indeed.com, which appears to search the web for job openings and compile and average posted salaries, a line cook in Portland, Oregon averages $17000 a year. That seems a little low to me. I’m gonna guess it’s more like $20000-$25000, gross. This is in a town with one of the lowest vacancy rates in the nation, and rents going through the roof. If you’re single, you ain’t living in a one bedroom, you got roommates, probably a few.

But cooking offers opportunity for advancement!” Yes! So does high school basketball. We only need so many chefs, and far fewer stars.

Lest you think my sympathies lie only with the cook on the line, I ask you to consider the sous chef. Why is he so often such a raging asshole? Because he barely has time to rub one out before he slips on his clogs and goes in there to sweat on his feet for 12 hours with a bunch of idiotic, 20-something knuckleheads. Meanwhile, he takes the brunt of the abuse from the chef. Customer complaint? Where’s my sous chef? Labor or food costs too high? Get that redheaded son of an Italian in my office. The chef meanwhile, how old he looks now, just a few years after opening his own spot. The restaurant industry spares none its ravages.

I know its tough, and the margins are thin, but this business employs too many people (4,438,100 people in foodservice and related professions in 2012) and is beginning to take itself a little too seriously ($73,000 for an associate in culinary arts from New England Culinary?! You are too fucking insane!) to run itself like a scrapyard anymore. It doesn’t even work, as evidenced by the fact that so many restaurants serve such poor food. Do you think it’s just the nature of the business? Would it be acceptable if that were the nature of the aerospace business? Or are restaurants just that much more complex than airplanes and rockets? We know the answer since, whenever somebody fucks up in the restaurant, sous chefs from here to Atlanta shriek the same refrain: “It’s not fucking rocket science!” No, neither is it hairdressing.

Cooking on the line shouldn’t be seen as a rite of passage on the way to your higher calling as a celebrity chef, it should be a job you can reasonably expect to hold for some years. It should be treated as a profession. Were the restaurant line considered a place where professionals come to do their very highly regarded work, the food would improve. Instead, it’s seen as a place where the excess energy and aggression of young men can be harvested and channelled into a food production machine. The successful chef is simply one who seamlessly channels that energy. Women in the kitchen certainly help change the culture, imagine the difference if there were more 30 and 40 something lifelong professionals. Imagine how much easier the chef’s job would be. No, people are encouraged to either move up or move out. Again, imagine if they ran the airplane factory that way. Lots of crashes.

Well, that’s one less whiner in the kitchen. Now I can get back to work on becoming the next Mario Batali.”

Sure thing, but first, here’s my suggestions for improving the restaurant industry:

  1. Stop working for free! Just like my new gig, writing, people who work for free — because somehow they don’t need money, or time to sleep — bring down the wages of the entire profession. I don’t expect that to change because, you know, love. But all you kids doing unpaid internships and stages, you are stealing from the people who actually need money to live.
  2. Unionize. “Oh no, he just said the dirty ‘U’ word.” I sure did. I don’t know how that works when you all work for a ton of small shops, but it’s worth figuring out. When I left cooking, I went to work in the meat department at New Seasons, a non-union shop. Still, the mere historical existence of a meat cutter’s and packer’s union brought up the prevailing wage for the whole industry. I should have gone to work for Freddy’s, which is a union shop, but I was pretty content with the $17 an hour I was making by the time I left. I saved money. I bought a car and moved out of the roommate situation, which was a vicious hell. I went to Mexico for a real vacation. I traveled Europe. On and on. Sure, your employers all have your best interests in mind, just like that new intern is going to take great care of your brand new Masamoto high carbon gyuto. Ha!
  3. Change the business model (and “small plates” does not qualify as a new business model.) If you’re thinking of opening a place of your own, you should know that there’s more than two or three ways to serve food and drink. In Europe, if you aren’t busily rushing from gastronomic temple to gastronomic temple like a perfect little aristocrat, you’ll find a lot of types of service. For example, tapas does not mean you sit at a white tablecloth while a black-clad, manicured hipster brings you plate after plate of 15 dollar appetizers. It means you stand at a bar, drinking in front of a spread from which you might choose perhaps a five different items that cost from 1 to 10 Euros a piece. The menú or carte du jour doesn’t mean you pay through the nose for 15 carefully plated courses with a wine pairing, at the end of which you go eat a cheeseburger and drink a beer. It means “this is what we’re serving today” for a reasonable price, with an optional bottle of cheap wine. Creative business models can mean larger margins, and better pay.

Picnic Trip

We all love picnics, this much is sure. Yet the picnic grounds remain vacant. I used to have my share of picnics, when I was single. If you can’t get action on a picnic, maybe the morgue is more your speed.

I have to admit that, after the picnic that hooked my wife seven or eight years ago, I can’t remember but maybe half a dozen small picnics. There’s been plenty of camping food, drinking and snacking while fishing, and hiking to the tops of small mountains to consume sandwiches and chips. But leaving the property with the explicit purpose of consuming food in the great outdoors has gone by the proverbial wayside (pun intended).

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This is a good spot for a picnic. Small mountain looks better from here than on it.

I was recently walking to the top of one of these small mountains, which is when I do all my thinking, and I thought, no one has time to picnic anymore, but everyone still loves picnics; I should start a picnic business! And I thought how lovely it would be to take van-loads of pleasure seekers to beautiful picnic spots, replete with baskets and blankets and beverages and even service, where I could cook beautiful roasts and whole fish and vegetables, outdoors. Real china, glass, cloth napkins and silver would provide the ambience to civilize an appropriately rustic activity, like target shooting, or huckleberry picking. Then I remembered how I don’t really like other people, especially outside the city

A picnic must, absolutely must, include a blanket. Tarp is optional.

A picnic must, absolutely must, include a blanket. Tarp is optional.

So I decided to have my own picnic. After an abortive attempt to walk up a small mountain, and suffering from a protracted acid flashback, we ended up at a spot I’d been eyeing for some years as potentially conducive to aesthetic appreciation. After giving up on removing all the trash from the grill (indeed, through the static of paranoia, the logistics of such an operation were totally beyond me,) I focused on the task at hand: light the coals.

Coals working, I had decisions to make: should I make food at all? Because despite having had only a granola breakfast, I had no interest in food. Besides, how was I going to get my hands clean? Everybody knew my hands were dirty, they had to. Germs. Task at hand. Be cool. Put the sausages on the grill. Use the tongs. Tongs! Yes tongs! You can touch the food with tongs and avoid those dirty hands. Struggle with the grate; which way does this thing work? Fuck. Okay. Sausages on, turn, turn, turn. Sausages done enough. Do I trust these sausages enough to cook them less than black? No. Less-than-busy Romanian butcher shop sells old cheese. But then there’s the salt and nitrates. Thank god. Okay. All good.

Are those sausages... diseased?

Are those sausages… diseased?

Sausages are done; buns are done; mustard, pickles, peppers, horseradish, sauerkraut, all spread out on this nice soppy-wet piece of black plastic the park service has thoughtfully nailed over top of this picnic table. I think I need to dry the water. Brought a towel! That’s good. Sop sop sop. Everything’s sitting there and no one’s eating. Everybody’s staring off into space. Plotting my downfall. Fuck. I don’t know why I’m such a bad person. Okay, be cool.

“Is anyone hungry? The food’s done.”

Mumbling all around.

Man, I am really not into eating right now. I should though, maybe that’s what I need to bring me back down. Oranges! (I’d brought some Satsuma Mandarins.) Wasn’t there something we used to say about tripping and drinking orange juice? Makes you happy right? No, makes you trip harder. Okay fuck that. Looks like I’m going to have to be the first. Take a sausage; put it on a bun; go down the line; load that son-of-a-bitch. I’m eating; I’m gonna eat. What about this sauerkraut? Looks suspect. Definitely full of germs. Get over it; be cool. On goes the sauerkraut.

"This guy is kind of freaking me out."

“This guy is kind of freaking me out.”

Standing in front of the spread, just to say: look guys, it’s all cool. The germs aren’t that bad. I take a bite. Oh, nice Snap! Chew… Chew… Chew. Man, this sausage is pretty stellar. Three, four, five bites. Now they’re coming up. Now everyone will eat. Then it will all be cool again.

And they do, and then it got cool again. Relief. I can speak — without first attempting to consider every possible interpretation of every innocuous utterance. I can move around, naturally! I must of been pretty hungry.

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All cool now. Note the black plastic over the table. Boo on that.

I didn’t really bring enough food. The grill bottom was too littered with cigarette butts to roast the potatoes next to the fire. Brought chips and salsa and bean dip to snack, but with sausages? Please.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a simple picnic, but I fear that this pared-down version of a picnic is becoming the new bar from which all picnics are measured. If I say picnic all I hear back is about some cheese and bread and wine. Almost not really a picnic. That clever little aphorism, “Keep it simple,” effectively relieves us from the duty to challenge ourselves, but the hard truth is that everybody loves a nice spread.

Is what I perceive as the demise of the picnic due to the platitudinous “busy modern life,” or does the busy lifestyle leave time only for activities that drench the nervous system in an intoxicating stew of hormonal secretions, quickly? The picnic lacks the adrenaline- endorphin- dopamine burst that characterizes our new favorite outdoor pastimes. I myself have plenty of things I like to do: Hike, hunt, fish, forage, shoot &c, that stimulate hormone secretion. I notice lots of people mountain bike, windsurf, mountaineer and ski, and I’m sure they eat while doing those things, unless they get by on Clif bars, gel packs and Gatorade. But treating the meal as an aside, and your hunger as an annoyance or, worse still, an enemy to be defeated, is a prescription for an anemic life. People who regard their sexuality like that are usually considered neurotic.

This is aesthetics.

This is aesthetics.

The picnic is more than a meal outside; it is an aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experience — I’m pretty sure — is largely seen as an academic pursuit for people who don’t know how to have fun outside of their own minds. I’m not sure if this is a sign of the times, or universal to human existence, but utility rules. Hiking is healthy; fishing provides food and dopamine squirts. Whitewater rafting and mountain biking provide exercise and adrenaline squirts. What does the picnic “provide” that a meal at home does not? A chance to gaze and reflect? So does meditation and Yoga, I hear. But the picnic lacks that misty, exotic cachet, and hence the redeeming social value. It’s also not about self-denial or discipline, which are very in demand amongst the satisfied. Instead, it’s about indulgence and pleasure. It brings the gustatory and olfactory senses to the fore in a situation that would normally privilege sight and sound. It is therefore about total sensory — sensual  — engagement. The picnic doesn’t exercise our legs, or chest, or pituitary glands, or core. It does exercise our aesthetic sensibility. And looking around here, at the world we’re building, we could all use a little exercise there.