Friday, July 31, 2020

Always Bee Cooking #12: Kitchen Roles - Scavenger

We are, all of us, many people. Across time, certainly, but also in any given moment. Often contradictory, as often complementary. I am, in the kitchen - as this column, I hope, can attest - primarily a student. Of technique and of popular (read: often pseudo-) science, of flavor and ingredients and patience. I am many things, though. One of these is a scavenger.

If I were to break down my cooking in purely quantitative terms I suspect a plurality of it would be to feed myself. A late night omelette or a chicken roasted for eating over a week or two. Herb butter pasta that I would be embarrassed to share, but sustains.

A plurality, but not even a majority. Even in strictly audience-oriented terms I am nearly as likely to be cooking for others - or, frankly, for no one - as I am for myself. Whoever ends up eating that polenta casserole or that chicken fried rice is immaterial. I cooked it for an audience of refrigerator space and carrots just before they are overcome by mold. I cook because I need to scavenge, to clear out, to make use.

I scavenge in part because of how long I spent not cooking. My early memories of kitchens aren't at a grandmother's knee, stirring red sauce for sixteen hours. They are trips to the pantry at two in the morning, thinking I am sneaking because I have no sense that everything here is here by design, by labor exploited for a wage that is spent at the supermarket in time allotted for the reproduction of the self, bagged transported and unbagged in precise places. That is only counting the work of the consumer (my mom in this memory), not the producers, the shippers, the logisticians.

I think, in this memory, that I am sneaking when in reality stored food is only forgettable in its presence. The second it is gone it becomes unforgettable. "Do we have chips? check the pantry!" becomes "I just bought a variety pack on Wednesday! You can't have possibly eaten all of them!" the second there are no chips in the pantry.

I scavenge because I have hated grocery stores since long before the novel coronavirus turned each trip into a desire to hoard. Partially from lack of knowledge, which I am slowly overcoming. Partially from social anxiety, from the pressure of being around bodies, each with a mind as full as yours, each with stresses or joys radiating off them. Partially from the analysis paralysis that accompanies a shelf full of identical products, packaged differently, sold at price points that only don't seem arbitrary if you've spent years working in supply chains. Partially because until two days ago I hadn't driven a car in six years and had lived in a variety of food deserts, where grocery stores meant liquor stores or a minimum round trip of an hour, walking. So when everyone started complaining that they couldn't just pop by the store to grab a couple things when making dinner, once shelter-in-place began, a small part of me thought: hello. Welcome.

I scavenge because I have often lived with others who have full time jobs when I didn't. With people who buy things to use and then don't get around to them. Through no fault of their own. We are each of us many, and each of those selves need to be reproduced in order to labor under capitalism. That means eating and sleeping, but also dedicating time to read or play games or socialize. Which is all time spent not cooking. And it's necessary time, every fucking day. So the time I save shopping is the time I spend eyeing what's about to go bad, considering how to flip it into something edible, researching technique and trying to feed myself and my comrades.

I scavenge because I have a hard time getting rid of things, and seeing how others lose them helps me let go. I scavenge because I have a hard time getting attached to things, and seeing someone else's food getting moldy gives me a sense of what it might be like to care.

I scavenge because I'm fucking broke all the time. Even when I'm not, I can't help it. I don't buy things for myself. Except, well. I did just buy this thing. It's a 10" nonstick skillet, and it's the absolute best purchase I've made in the kitchen (because my chef's knife was a gift).

The only pot or pan I had ever bought was BC. You know. Before Cooking. Okay that's really bad. Take two:

The only pot or pan that I ever bought, prior to this skillet, was a cast iron wok that I used all of a half-dozen times over the course of four years. I gave it away as a gift just before I moved back to San Francisco. As in, immediately prior to starting to take cooking seriously. Since then I've scavenged, cooking on really nice cast iron, really shitty aluminum; in pots that are tiny or enormous. The things that others have bought themselves or been gifted and I've "accidentally" ended up using as much, or more, than the people who will take (or gift!) them when they move.

If I'd been asked a year ago what piece of stovetop cookware I would purchase first, a nonstick skillet would have been my last answer. They were what were in the kitchens I never used, scratched up and barely functional. When I started learning about them, they seemed like a scam: here is a surface that cracks under the slightest pressure of a fork or even the abrasive side of a sponge, and when it fails it becomes the worst possible pan. They don't get as hot as aluminum or carry heat as evenly as cast iron; they don't have the magical bullshit people attribute to copper or even the aesthetics of steel. It's just planned obsolescence: the pan. But then I started watching a lot of Jacques Pepin, which is annoying of me, to me. That fucking classic omelette.

For those who don't know: Jacques Pepin is one of the original celebrity chefs. He had a show with Julia Child. He's probably best known at this point for the "classic" French omelette, a creamy, simple omelette, often without filling, that involves no browning at all. It tastes good - it's eggs and butter - but it's mostly a test.

Pepin prefaces the many tutorials for it available on YouTube in precisely this way. It's the way he can tell if a new chef has good technique. It's kind of a pain in the ass, and you kind of need a nonstick for it to even be possible (or a really, really, really well-seasoned cast iron). It's the opposite of scavenging: using only the highest quality ingredients in a very simple way that requires a ton of practice to do right, much less consistently. I may be a scavenger, but like all of us I am also many, and one of that many can't turn down a challenge. Maybe especially when it involves eggs. And, I think, the first one many people learn to cook. Or at least one of the first ones I did. You can't exactly scavenge three-egg and toast breakfast, after all.

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