Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Orcas Code of Conduct

Another Saturday, another wedding. The dining room will still be open tonight—and is completely booked, with several 6-person tables—but the event hall will also be open for the wedding reception, a smallish one of 35 people. Little kids have been running all over the property, and exiting the cabin to walk to town for the Solstice parade, I see two of the young guests with their dad on our stoop, staring at some stuff in the front garden.

“Slugs!” they shout out. “Look at the slugs!” They point their little fingers at the big juicy bugs on the steps.

“We’ve got some salt you could sprinkle on them,” I say, “but that’s not very nice.”

“Ewwwww!” The slightly older one wrinkles his nose at my suggestion.

“Would you like to see our pig instead?” I ask. The boys perk up, and together with their dad follow me out to the pig pen behind the greenhouse to visit Kartoffel, our lone Mangalitsa left on the property. (Geddes started with a herd of 5 pigs, and will be the owner of a few more living off-campus.)
He’s a big beast, but pretty friendly, and as the boys approach, he starts rubbing his side against the fence. “He’s a little itchy,” I say, but warn the littler boy to keep his hands away. They walk back over to the main property again, and start shouting to one of their cousins, “There’s a pig! Over there!”
I couldn’t pretend to know what it’s like to be a kid on Orcas…I imagine that whether or not you’re predisposed to wanderlust kicks in at a later age, but watching a few kids discover this place, they seem to be constantly exploring and marveling at what they find. I entered the kitchen yesterday to find Geddes’s daughter Clare at work on a batch of carrot cake muffins—school’s wrapped up for the year, and her and Avery’s orange hair can be seen more and more around the Inn’s property. To grow up in a kitchen like this, on an island like this, has to carry with it an early access to how things work. Kids seem to know more about plants, gardens, and animals here than anywhere else I’ve been.
And at the Solstice parade in Eastsound, I start to see why. It’s not so much that today, as Luke warned me, “the hippies come out of hiding”, but more that you see kids and parents getting crazy side by side. Parents at the parade wearing homemade costumes pull their kids behind them in Radio Flyers, their faces painted and their clothes wildly colorful.
The theme of this year’s Parade is “One World”, and people are dressed as the Taj Mahal, as the Pyramids of Egypt, as London Bridge, as the Liberty Bell. It reminds me of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras—two girls dressed in patched-together patterns hula-hoop their way down the street as a bunch of horn players trumpet their approach.
Women well-past the age of innocence wear bustiers made of flowers and torn-up scarves, and a woman dressed in full princess garb leads the parade, waving her wand and shaking her hips to the funky music.

You might think I’d be inured to this after going to the New York Halloween parade a few times, but the sheer pleasure and collaboration people seem to find in this little parade, even as it starts to drizzle, beats anything I’ve ever seen in a bigger parade. Stilts, giant puppets, old people behaving like young people--I'm watching the whole thing with a grin from ear to ear.
It may be, in a community like this, that the default expectation is of decency and community—of open conversation and warmth and old-fashioned neighborliness. I don’t mean to be painting Orcas with too sunny a brush, and I know that in just one month I’m way more likely to view the best of the Island rather than the full portrait. But the way exchanges happen in town, on farms and in businesses, are less steeped in individual pursuits of excellence than the belief in a common good. The Inn’s resources predominately come from local farmers, and if one of them experience problems, it’s in Geddes’s interest to help them out. Mary-Ann comes into the kitchen and tells Geddes that one of our egg suppliers at Coffelt Farms had a problem with some ravens, and so the eggs won’t be available for a day or two.

“Ravens? What could ravens do?” I ask over family meal.

“Ravens are pretty predatory,” Luke says. “They’ll come into the henhouse and peck open the eggs, and just suck ‘em out.”

“Isn’t that like bird cannibalism?” I ask.

“They don’t seem to mind…ravens, man,” Chris says, stirring up a batch of aioli. “They’re nasty.”

The rules of animal behavior aren’t quite as regimented as those of our kitchen, and there’s very little we can do beyond scramble to make up the difference. And so it is with this wedding, which initially gets off to a smooth start. Geddes and I prep a series of hors d’oeuvres again—mini crabcakes (recycling the last supplies of the crab salad), melon with goat cheese and sweet herbs, smoked salmon and avocado crostini, and cucumbers with cream cheese and espelette. I’m especially proud of this batch, as Geddes left me to devise the plating of the cucumbers myself—I decide to do mini-quenelles of cream cheese, harkening back to that horse dinner so many months ago. They come out decently enough, though my hands are still covered with cream cheese.
The salad course goes well enough, too—shaved vegetables (thankfully julienned—I’ve kept my distance from the mandoline), fresh greens, and little crisps of parmesan cheese. We plate up quickly, so Geddes can head back to the totally-packed dining room. Luke takes pictures so I can focus on getting the salads with no cheese (silly vegans) out to the right people.
But the entrée course is where things go really crazy. As we carry over our proteins to the reception hall, Geddes says that this may be the easiest wedding he’s ever done—the entire wedding party has asked for salmon, so we’ll be able to plate up quickly and send everything out the door. (He’s cooked the salmon just a few minutes before serving—something that almost never happens for wedding receptions.) And it's a gorgeous dish, one of the prettiest ones we've plated yet...
But as we start sending out plates, Suzanne, one of our servers, comes back. “The bride and groom say they ordered steak.”

Geddes’s face goes blank. “I talked to the groom this morning and confirmed that we were a go on the salmon…”

“And the bride is saying she emailed the Inn about needing twelve steaks several times…”

There’s some kerfuffle over the missed communication, and Geddes ultimately throws up his hands to head back to the dining room. “What do we do?” the servers ask.

I pause and look at the hot chafing pans full of perfectly cooked salmon, steaming vegetables, and crispy rice. “Let’s keep plating up the salmon that’s available, and he’ll bring the steak when he’s got it.” Luke and I head back to the plates, drizzling sauces and garnishing each filet with shaved vegetables and a spring of flowering thyme. I silently pray that Geddes doesn’t have to cancel the restaurant’s steak orders, or worse, cut a new side of beef to meet this late-breaking request.

Before we know it, he’s back with a giant hotel pan full of hot steaks, with Annie bearing a cutting board and knife right behind him. (Each steak has a crispy buttery crust—I have no idea how he did it so fast.) At the very last second, and in an unprecedented moment in the Inn’s wedding-hosting history, we churn out twelve succulent steak plates in 10 minutes. Out of missed communication comes an ad-hoc triumph.

The guests don’t issue a peep of complaint, and when Annie sends out two different desserts—dense chocolate cake with crème fraiche, and meringued-rhubarb tarts with lime compote—the only words we hear from the wedding party are gushes of praise.
Little do they know how many people worked their butts off to make their dinner this good. The servers all look like they need big drinks, as they bear pots of coffee and tea into the reception hall.

I finally return to the kitchen, and Chris greets me with a glass of Viognier to enjoy during station break-down. It’s still too busy behind the dessert station to completely check out, and I get a little flustered trying to scoop out a bit of chocolate ice cream for an order. “Just once,” I mutter, “I’d like to do something right the first time.”

“Oh, you’ve gotta get over that,” Annie said. “A little humility will help you get over that disappointment, and move on.” I don’t like to think that it’s pride that makes me want to avoid mistakes, as much as a silent hope to impress my teachers. Every day I have to grapple with the possibility that I’ve been doing things wrong my whole cooking life—or if not wrong, imperfectly. And though people have gobbled up my food with gusto at home, there’s a vast chasm between what I can get away with there and what I do here.

But humility, as Annie said, isn’t a liability, but an asset. After wrapping up service, she brings Melissa and I with her to a birthday party near the Rosario resort (twin sisters celebrating their birthday.) The house is as gorgeous and wild as the Island, covered in wood carvings and paintings and sculptures. The guests are like extras from the Orcas production of Hair—gorgeous men with wild hair and women with long flowing skirts, drinking wine and eating baked beans, and dancing to a mash-up of hip hop and classic soul.
Out on the porch overlooking the dark treetops, people pass a joint around a little firepit and a lone guest lounges in the hot tub, sending steam into the chilly air. Not sure if they're on drugs or this is just what people call being high on life, but whatever it is, I want to be a part of it. They ask me what I’m doing on the Island, but not “what I do”—because what I do, in their eyes, is not the same as who I am.

This is what Annie’s talking about when she talks about humility: not a lack of pride, or a lack of ambition, but a lack of constantly connecting what you do to who you are. I am more than an imperfect scoop of ice cream, a repeatedly replated dessert, a less-than-towering tower of salad greens. I’m not my mutilated finger, or my lopsided biscuits, and though I can always do more and do better and try not to make mistakes, they don’t define my potential success in the kitchen.

And most importantly, I am not the central character in this story. The central character is the pursuit of something bigger than myself—participating in the act of crafting and sharing of food. I’m starting to understand why Geddes doesn’t freak out when he has to churn out a rush order of steaks, or why Annie plates desserts at an almost meditative pace. Anything you care enough about to share it with your neighbors—be it a homemade solstice outfit or a gorgeous and perfectly cooked plate of food—requires a deep breath and an untroubled, generous state of mind.

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