I spent two hours last night with my arms submerged to the elbow in a bucket of slick yellow pork fat, slimy and viscous, pulling apart the tender meat of pork confit. I first slid my hands slowly under the thick layer of skin on each piece, using my fingers to separate the attaching fibers – the leathery squishiness was at first alarming but soon its wonderfully disgusting texture was almost comforting in the warm oil. The skin came off in one long piece; “perfect to make a mask with,” as the sous-chef A. told me. (An image of the kitchen staff, all wearing elaborate pig’s skin masks, dancing around the deep fryer immediately sprung to mind…) The skin will be dried and baked, a richly flavored chip. And then, discarding the cartilage, bones and gristle, I shredded the meat – so tender it practically dissolved in my hands. It smelled like a cozy winter’s night; a delicious olfactory journey away from the 100 degree kitchen. It tastes like the best pork you’ve ever had, only richer, more delicate and infinitely tender.
Confit, according to my newest idol Harold McGee, is a word “used loosely to describe just about anything cooked slowly and gently to a rich, succulent consistency: onions in olive oil, for example, or shrimp cooked and stored under clarified butter.” Or, in the case of my little restaurant, an array of heartier meats: hunks of pork, chicken thigh, lamb and duck tongue. The meat is cooked slowly in the oven at a low temperature, submerged in fat (either thickly rich pork or duck fat) for around 8 hours. Once cooled, I take the tender meats, cradling them delicately in the palm of my hand like a baby animal, and place them neatly into plastic tubs. I strain the cooking fat over the top to remove impurities until the meat is completely covered. This concoction is stored in the confit refrigerator; the meat is preserved by burying it under the airtight layer of fat. One month later it is removed and the great skin-removal and meat shredding begins.
It was one of the first times I was asked to handle a finished meat product for service. I felt much more a part of the production aspect of the restaurant, if only for a brief few hours. In the last two weeks The Chef has (somewhat grudgingly) given me more responsibility after a sous-chef quit. Along with the confit, I have been tutored in the preparation of ice creams (thyme, lemon verbena, crème fraise) and the dough for mini-donut beignets. The increased responsibility, no matter how brief it will be, makes me feel more of a person in the restaurant rather than a dishwashing work-horse.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to watch, however, the treatment of my co-worker S., a 31-year-old El Salvadorian who speaks no English. He is nowhere near abused, certainly; everyone is very nice. But as I have gained a bit of responsibility and a modicum of respect, his status of dishwashing work-horse is painfully obvious. I have been thinking about this a lot and will soon write more about him. But last night after the last plate went out, beers were passed around in the kitchen, a clink of good work on a busy Saturday night. The Chef handed me one (sweet reviving coldness pouring down my throat) and a pat on the back. He saw S. watching, yearning to be included, but only shook his head. No beer for you while working, S. Maybe later, man. S. did not understand The Chef’s words exactly, only the fact that he is the only one not allowed to have a drink at the conclusion of service. S. looked sad, eyes softened. But he also nodded in acceptance; he is resolved to his lower status. I don’t understand why, really; I had a guilty lump in the back of my throat as I drank.
I would gladly have given up all the pork confit in the world for S. to just have a beer with the rest of us.