Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The State of the Fava

For those on the shipping and receiving crew, there are boxes to unpack in the produce area.

The omnipotent intercom-voice directed; I obeyed. It was my first shift as a working member of my local Food Coop.

I unpacked and organized boxes of bright oranges, radishes, banded bunches of asparagus, a vivid color differentiation of beets, soft loaves of bread, multitudinous buckets of cottage cheese and yogurt. I swept up the remains of spilled farro wheat, rolled oats, and red lentils. I stood on a little step stool in order to crane my too-short body over the edge of the top shelf to rearrange more packages of rice cakes than I ever knew existed.

Are there any workers in the shipping and receiving crew who feel comfortable handling raw meat? Calling all non-vegetarians; we need meat handlers.

In the apparent dearth of carnivorous coop members, I had the opportunity to spend a long time unpacking cool chicken carcasses wrapped in plastic. Thighs, drums, legs, breasts; I organized all organic body parts with my small band of fellow meat-eaters. Grass-fed beef steaks, short ribs, stew meat. Racks of lamb. Pouisson. Tiny capons. Pates and smoked delicacies. Duck and Turkey. A ready phalanx of diverse and organic meat showered itself into the shelves as we organized. I entertained myself thinking on the deliciously endless cooking possibilities.

The hours of menial labor were pretty boring. But worthwhile, certainly. I am happy to have a nearby organization of people who care about the quality and diversity of their food. I am delighted to have things like Meyer lemons and blood oranges available at an affordable price [especially since it seems that I have zero grocery store self control]. And not only has it inspired a few interesting new acquaintances [how many Passover Seders can a girl actually go to?], but has also given me a root-like sense of community, important in this new city.

At one point in my shift, as I waded through the swamp of vegetable containers in the produce arena, my gloved hands ripped open a damp cardboard box. The contents were covered in a sheet of white paper; I could see a hint of green in leafy protrusions on the side. But it wasn’t until I crinkled and tossed the paper into the nearby trash that I fully realized what, in fact, I was dealing with. Fresh fava beans. Bright green, slightly fuzzy. I hadn’t realized they were yet in season; the large pods contain the delectable crunch of spring.

As I tossed the beans into the bins in the produce section of the Coop I was immediately back in The Restaurant. It has been almost a year since I worked as a dishwasher at the intense Boston bistro in a (sadly, aborted) attempt to work my way up the line of the culinary world. On one of my first nights working in the kitchen, I was thrown in front of a monstrous pile of fresh fava beans. I had never seen them in this unpeeled state before. My co-dishwasher S. and I spent a few bonding hours together as we pierced open the thick outer pod and freed each light green bean with our fore-fingers, tossing the edible nubbins into a metal dish.

No matter what the exact hour, as I peeled those favas for the first time I was most likely covered in chicken stock, my white staff shirt stained with beet juice and a smidgen of chocolate, my hair a detached frizzy mess on top of my sweating head. That was my usual state of things. I did not yet have such an extensive knowledge of kitchen-Spanish and probably mumbled in an odd mix of Italian and English as I attempted to converse with S. I vividly remember, however, looking at the piles of bright empty pods and bowls of fresh cleaned beans. I wondered how they were cooked, how they tasted, and how The Chef would use them. I imagined the smiles of the eager restaurant patrons as they drank in the sight of the vibrant green favas with their eyes, their steaming plates set carefully in front of them. We did that kind of prep right before the first big wave of dirty dishes of the night; I remember feeling very happy.

I bought my own little bag of fresh fava beans before leaving the Coop on Saturday. And last night I peeled them while sipping a glass of red wine, relaxed and chatting with my apartment-mate. I worked slowly, relishing the crunch of the open pod, the delicate color of the inner bean. I blanched them in a pod of salted water and then quickly slipped them out of their outer membranes. In a salad of plump farro wheat, fresh cherry tomatoes and arugula, dressed simply with olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt and pepper, the fava beans were a bright addition.

The fava beans were a vivid reminder of where I was a year ago and simultaneously a token of where I am now. No longer am I entrenched in the culinary world; I am finding my way in the confusing mash of NY. I’ve been sad, these days, as I watch my life continue in a path that veers farther and farther from my original culinary plans. My days (however short) as a dishwasher were a concrete jump into a passion and now seem very far removed from my current existence. Today I am not ‘sure’ of anything, really. I’m having trouble thinking of a job that I really want. The majority of my physical body has recovered from the accident. I can walk comfortably with both legs. Run, even. (Well, nothing close to a sprint. But jog a bit when I’m running really late). I can sit cross legged and can again do a mean yogic backbend. The only lingering losses from the accident almost 8 months ago are my sense of smell and my professional convictions. And I miss them. A lot.


Anonymous said...

When one wanders a place without a map, without a compass, one may well happen onto tiny corners and whole esplanades (and the occasional dark passage) that would have been otherwise missed ...

Rainey said...

Molly, you know best, of course, but can you explain again why you've given up on the CIA? I understand — I promise I do — that you haven't yet recovered your sense of smell. But that's not all there is to food.

Molly, you wrote so rapturously and credibly about the visuals, the textures, the traditions & sociability on every level, the absolute presence of food that I can't believe it isn't still your destiny. This unsettled, undirected sense that you're describing — particularly in the context of a rich food experience — only intensifies my personal hunch that you still belong in a kitchen.

Have you been in touch with the CIA? Are they not capable of some flexibility? Is there not some chocolatier in all of NYC that you might want to apprentice with?

Excuse me for the inappropriate excitement I took (nurtured by my profound conviction that you were a new light in food) in the thought that circumstances were conspiring to make you take a new look at those important aspects of food aside from taste and aroma. What other delights do they mask with their overpowering assault on the other senses?

Please excuse my expressing my own wishes and views. I don't mean them to be more than a thought to throw in to all you have to consider. But I hope you'll read your blog from the time before the accident and see what I see in them.

In the end, I wish you a return to that happiness, hope and sense of purpose however you achieve it. And I continue to thank you for sharing this long road with us.

Anonymous said...

Dear Molly, I found your blog via a link from Cybele's Candy Blog (in an entry about the Independent Food Festival & Awards), and I am so glad that I did. I have been hopping around here, following your links, and truly enjoying myself (nevermind that I am at work and should not be surfing the internet). Several things strike me about your story, principally that there is so much honesty and craft in your writing, and that I cannot help but sympathize about your loss of your sense of smell. I have a very good sense of smell, and so many of my memories are connected to scent. One summer day, while walking out of the library at Northwestern, the smell of the trees and other flora transported me to the suburbs of Tokyo, where I had spent several summers. My friends thought it so funny when I said, "It smells like Japan." In college I read A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman, and the story of a woman who had lost her sense of smell and then got it back at random fleeting moments was heartbreaking. I highly recommend the book, if you don't know about it already. And I look forward to reading more of your blog.

Molly said...

Thank you all for your comments; I’m sorry I’ve been so derelict at responding.

Anonymous, I completely agree - and though at the moment I would perhaps rather not look into any of these dark corners, I'm sure down the line I'll look back at this experience as quite a worthwhile esplanade.

You’re right that I have not explained, in depth, my reasons for abandoning culinary school or, for that matter, moving to New York and what I’m looking for here. And while I do understand your confusion and, perhaps, disappointment, the reality is that I don’t have these answers readily available to explain. In the days immediately after the accident, while I was unable to walk and had a monstrous amount of time to sit and think, I was adamant about my future in the food world. I was certainly going to the CIA; I would look at every other aspect of food beyond smell with a professional future in mind. But as time progressed and the reality of my situation – up to years of diminished smell and taste – began to sink in, I decided that I needed to think beyond the immediate culinary. It wasn’t an easy decision – nor did it come about in any moment that could be pinpointed as a pivotally decisive. It has just developed, slowly.
I am still passionate about food and the culinary culture, certainly. I have been in contact with the CIA; they are indeed flexible. But, in the end, the accident has taken away a good deal of what I had always thought to be concrete. Before August 30, 2005 I was positive that I knew what I wanted, that I was on the right track, that everything would fall soon into place, and basically, that I was immortal. In the last eight months that has all fallen apart in one way or another. It was a surprise brush with mortality; its effects are lingering in places beyond my nose. As I wrote in this entry, what I previously ‘knew’ now hangs in a floating world of ‘perhaps.’ And that is why I am shying professionally away from the culinary world. Concrete answers as to why, how, or where things are going for me are not available right now. I am following what I feel in the moment. When I moved to NYC I just hopped on the bus with a small suitcase, I was so ready to leave Boston and the pervasive aura of ‘injured’ that seemed to lurk around my mind there; right now I’m not thinking in terms of ‘life plan’.
I do indeed hope to be able to return to a full focus on food and food writing. But right now an immersion into the hands-on food world (as I found in my experience at the bakery this winter – or the short time here in NYC I worked at a gourmet chocolate shop) inspires only a sense of loss and confusion. Food will remain important, a passionate part of my life. But it cannot be my life right now.
I greatly appreciate your concern, interest and opinion – thank you for your comment!

And Shawn, welcome to my blog! I’m happy that you’ll be here reading. I haven’t read The History of the Senses – I have heard of it though, and with your recommendation I'll send it to the top of my reading list. Thanks!