Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The China Goalie

Photo courtesy Flickr user dbnunley
A witty pal mentioned that when one of her many pieces of vintage restaurant ware is on its way to the floor, she simply blocks the fall with her foot. The food spills all over the place, the dish survives, and presumably her faithful Lab takes  temporary care of the clean-up.

I never earned a merit badge in social engineering, but my friend offered me service for four from her stash, over which I had been quietly salivating. In a case of casting bread upon the waters and receiving sandwiches in return, I find myself the happy owner not only of the usual deep bowls and varied sizes of plate, the names of which I have yet to learn, but of a set of, dig it, clear soup bowls, the kind with two handles from which one is intended to drink. No more living like an animal. It says much about the culture that a ca.1900 utilitarian china pattern included such refinements.

The original pass pantry in this 1890 building connected the production kitchen and the dining room. The two doors in the tiny space created an airlock between the noise and smells of the kitchen and the, presumably, dignified and edifying atmosphere of the formal family table. The cooks in my life have been family, not staff, but I understand from early editions of The Joy of Cooking and various American novels that it was a privilege for children to be permitted in the kitchen. Cook guarded her turf with vigor. I can see the value of the practice: my favorite gumbo recipe from Paul Prudhomme begins with “get all the children out of the kitchen”. That’s step one for producing what Prudhomme calls cajun napalm, or roux.

Surprise is a major element of historic preservation and restoration. The new place settings turn my old production kitchen into a comfortable, efficient leisure area. The room is modeled on local cafes that began in business pre-Mermaid Coffee, when owners could afford to tolerate customers who lingered over coffee during slack hours. Mermaid itself is modeled on Mr. Pete’s legendary Bay area coffee stores with, originally, free coffee bars and all-day student drinkers. 

All the amenities in my kitchen are utilitarian, nothing is built in but the sink, and the floor is simply painted. The quality of the architecture and varnished woodwork communicate respect for domestic advantage. An 1870 drop leaf table from a local garage sale (“Anything can be anywhere.” Cadillac Jack, Larry McMurtry) centers the room, as it was designed to. The new china comes quickly to hand when we are setting out an ordinary feed.

Years ago, I learned about the food industry’s practice of “family meal”, the midday repast a cooking crew produces to nourish themselves. The first example I ran across was a description of the engaging social atmosphere of an old world Italian restaurant. Later, Thomas Keller’s analysis of a successful family meal in his informal venue raised my awareness of acute standards of design and presentation for the table.

One of my grandmothers had old and new world inn-keeping genes. Over many long visits, she trained me in the domestic arts. In writing this I realize the gentle rigor of her approach to the table. When we shared even a simple work night dinner of, say, a small steak, salad, and piece of toast, the table was carefully laid and the service equally careful and deliberate. The first moments of the meal were devoted to a critique of the food. We each discussed how we might have managed our cooking a little better. The process was an automatic, invisible tutorial, a treasure of genuine culture, and a contradiction of behavior at the formal table, where it is assumed that the food is as good as it gets.

My partner is an enthusiastic cook. I have to elbow him out of the way to get in some time at the stove, but he does not have my training in the three squares grind that is the engine of domestic bliss. Surprisingly, the new dishes integrate our approaches and facilitate the focus and planning that make the very most of every critical food dollar and minute.


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