Monday, June 6, 2011

Sunday 6-5: Uphill Battles, Downhill Dumps, Pizza Picnics, Whiskey and Life Choices

I wake up Sunday morning with the odd realization that the ceiling is a mere foot away from my head. The thought suddenly occurs to me that having just one violent nightmare could send me into a midnight concussion without anyone being around to notice. Last night I'd fallen asleep too early to meet my housemate, Melissa, and I'm starting to feel like a jerk for not being more outgoing the night before. But I wasn't going to be a wallflower like I had been during my first day cooking in New York--I'm here for too little a time to risk being shy.

I tentatively ease my way down the loft stairs to find Melissa brewing a pot of water for tea. A slim, bright-eyed woman in her early 30s with an adorable pixie haircut, she was born and raised in Washington state, and earned her bachelor's degree in horticulture. After several years in a shift manager job at Starbucks, she packed up her things to seek out new work on local farms and agricultural communities. She discovered the Inn at Ship Bay, called about an internship, and has committed to staying on the site through the end of the summer season. She's sweet and laid back, even as I'm bashing about in the kitchen in search of coffee filters. She apologizes for not knowing where they are--"Ever since I quit my job, I've been laying off the coffee," she jokes. I munch on the last of my chocolate-covered coffee beans in sympathy. Even in this part of the country, Starbucks can still seem like the devil corporation. Melissa lends me her bike helmet so I can ride into town and pick up a few basic groceries. Though we'll be eating staff meals before the dining room hours, we still need some things to keep in our kitchen so we don't get too ravenous. I'm also concerned about getting my bearings on the bike and in the neighborhood before the full work week starts.

And it's a good thing I did, because the bike is FUCKED. I should've known that a quaint-looking vintage bike wouldn't have the gear settings--or any settings at all--to handle the Orcas terrain. The roads are paved just fine, but they're ridiculously hilly, and I'm only two minutes out of the Inn's driveway before I'm cursing and yelling at myself while heaving myself uphill. Either this bike isn't strong enough, or I'm not, I think as my legs start to burn in protest. I hop off and walk the bike up the big hills, swallowing hard and panting loudly. As I hop back on and take the bike downhill again, it starts to pick up until it reaches an unmanageable speed. I squeeze on the breaks, and it's like a screech owl is clinging to my back tires. EEEEEEEEEEHHHHHHH go the breaks as I try to slow down...and then I'm off the bike again, going back up another hill on foot. Fuck. This is going to be a very inefficient way to get around town.

An hour later, I'm back at the Inn. My legs feel like shredded brisket meat, but at least I have a few basics: bread, peanut butter, milk, and thank god, coffee grounds. Melissa sees me limping back onto the porch.

"How was the bike ride?"

"OK...but I think I have to take it into a shop," I say, still panting hard. "Either that or I am ridiculously out of shape."

"Were you able to adjust the gear settings?" She peeks outside at my bike parked on the porch.

"It doesn't have any."

"Oh, then it's definitely the bike, not you." 

$50 down the drain, I think. Leave it to a New Yorker to underestimate the necessary sophistication of an island bike.

Melissa, thankfully, has a car, and she suggests we take a ride to visit the Exchange, a kind of community flea market with a blissfully open-ended barter system. It's a wonder--clothes, junk parts, old appliances, pots and pans, hundreds of little items to look over from the community. Family photos, weathered by age, hang on a greeting board just outside the main entrance.
I pull all kinds of useful items from the shelves--two lightly used cutting boards for our kitchen, a bicycle helmet. I ruefully look over the bike materials, wondering if I could've cobbled something better than my lousy ferry-side exchange. As she tries on a discarded pair of Seven for All Mankind jeans, Melissa reassures me that there's an extra bike on our porch with more than enough gears to get me into the town on future rides. I make a note to make her dinner one of these nights.
It's a veritable forest of junk, but I'm loving it. And all kinds of people from the community have shown up to contribute their stuff. The clothes are worn but well-mended, the dishes are clean, the books are lovingly spine-broken but still readable. For a summer community of travelers, and a year-round community of craftspeople, this is a phenomenal resource. And when I step up to pay for my selections, I get to set the price: $7 for the haul.
Back at the Inn, Melissa and I are put to work setting up for Annie's wood-fired pizza oven. This is a new feature at the Inn: from 3-8pm you can buy three different types of pizza made in an outdoor oven, along with arugula salad and Marionberry cobbler, and set yourself up with beers and sodas on the lawn. (I chuckle quietly as I think of a dessert to honor a crack-smoking mayor, but keep this thought mostly to myself. I don't want to impugn the cobbler's reputation.)
 Melissa and I lug out the tables and spread the dingiest Inn quilts on the lawn--this is Annie's event, a real change in tone from the Inn's more elaborate, elegant set-up, so it's OK if there will be pizza stains on the blankets. We bring Mason jars out to the garden and fill them with stalks of flowering herbs--pungent yellow mustard, pale purple rosemary blossoms, and spiky clusters of chive blossoms. We shred some of the chive blossoms into a ramekin by the pizza station--with their pretty color and subtle onion flavor, they're perfect to sprinkle on the pizzas just before they go out.
 There's also plenty of basil in these pizzas, a planter of which goes right out front on the ordering table, along with a mason jar ready for tips. Customers over the next few hours will ask me many questions about the basil--how we got it to flower so early, whether we've transferred it to a ground garden yet--that I just can't answer. I don't have Melissa's green thumb, so I redirect them to her.
Melissa points out the borage she's collected from the garden as well, and tells me to taste one of its blue flowers, careful to mind the thorny stems. It's got the woody sweet taste of honeysuckle--I make a mental note to incorporate it into a later dessert. Maybe scattered over lemon sorbet, tossed with berries and caramelized rhubarb. And Melissa's a good resource for learning these plants--Annie sends her to the greenhouse in search of tarragon and fennel for the salad, and she returns with an armful in no time.
At 3:00pm, trucks start to pull into the parking lot--there've been signs up all over the island for this special feature, and as this is only the fourth week it's been open, the word of mouth has helped enormously. Annie and Jay (helping out in addition to securing the Inn produce from Maple Rock Farm) have spent the morning rolling out sheet pans full of dough into thin crusts.
Annie mans the pizza-making station, and Jay mans the "love oven." It's been heating up all day, and finally producing a wonderful smoky scent.
As customers to arrive, we quickly establish a rhythm--Melissa and I greet customers, take orders, and make change. We slip the incoming tickets under Annie's prep station, where she tosses salads and decorates the rounds of dough. We scrawl out the options on old Inn menus--#1 is a basic margherita pizza, #2 adds salami, and #3 is all Orcas Farms spinach, sweet herbs, green garlic, and mozzarella. This is by far the prettiest pizza, but all of the options seem to be popular. Geddes's son Avery stops by and asks for a pizza with cheese only. We oblige him. He looks like a little Ron Howard.

 Jay shovels the pizzas into the novel, waving them closer and closer to the flame until they get a nice blackened crust. We run them out, calling out names--"Diane!" "Richard!" "Buck!"--and people perk up and wave their arms in anticipation. And it's worth the anticipation--the pizza is great. We nibble on a few throwaway slices between taking orders.
But the rush starts becoming hectic--the slips piling up under Annie's prep board are at least 2 inches thick, and we have to start reusing order slips to keep up with the requests. I begin to unconsciously micromanage on the receiving end, asking Jay what's coming up instead of stepping back. It's been 6 years since I last waited tables, and my office impulses--to ask where something is when it doesn't immediately present itself--are asserting themselves. But Annie gives me a look, the look of all chefs who know what works in their kitchen, and I quickly step back into place. And it's a good thing too, because the customers are enjoying us more as pizza runners than as heads of the operation. As Melissa and I run salads, pizzas, and cobblers to the folks collected on the grass, I hear one or two older Orcas men mutter to Geddes, "You've got some cute girls here this summer." What might tick me off in Manhattan suddenly feels flattering. I make sure to book it back to the table in my shorts.
And in the meantime, people keep ordering beers, keep nibbling on pizza, and start to line up for cobbler. One of the locals brings his guitar, opens a fake book of classic folk songs, and starts to doodle away. A few families have young kids with them, and they spent their time running over the little creek bridge, looking into the water, sneaking a glimpse of Kartoffel, the Inn's remaining Mangalitsa pig. (The others are either being bred with local boar or being served in a multitude of delicious ways in the main dining room.) A couple sits on a blanket nearby--they've booked their wedding to be held at the Inn, and they come back for two more pizzas after they polish off the first one.
Though it means the rush lasts longer, I'm happy that people finally start lining up for dessert. The marionberry is a special blackberry that grows solely on Vashon Island (one of the other San Juans), and it's got a seed-filled, slightly tart taste. It's perfectly offset by the crumbly cornmeal-filled shortcakes, sweet and salty and not too hot for the blazing afternoon sun. Annie's 4-year-old niece Ava comes running up to us. Her face is painted with purple juice. "I'm done," she proclaims, and offers up the dish, covered with the telltale signs of fingers being run through the last bits of juice. I wish I'd taken a picture--her face says it all: happiness is an impending sugar rush after gorging on sunshine, thin-crust pizza, and fresh air for five hours straight.
The pizza pan is finally at rest, and the sun starts to go down. We took down the roadside sign as soon as we ran out of fresh dough, but customers have lingered long past the ordering point. They stop by to chat with us as we clean up around the oven, which is finally cooling down enough to be touched by a curious hand. "This was such a wonderful idea," they say,  and we redirect all the praise to Annie and Jay, who've been troopers, turning out almost 100 pizzas in the space of five hours. My shoulders and ears are sunburned, and there's cobbler juice down my arm, but even though I haven't cooked a bit, I'm feeling utterly satisfied with the work, and the decent tips to be split. We pack up the leftovers, quickly change into cleaner clothes, and head into town for a drink at the Outlook Inn with Annie and a few of her family friends. I sip whiskey and share some duck macaroni and cheese with Melissa--the first true meal we've had all day.

One of the middle-aged women with us, Maureen, asks me how I'm finding the kitchen work. "I love it," I gush. "I may have been brainwashed, because right now this is looking a lot better than a desk job."

Annie, who is savoring her hard-earned martini, doesn't want to dampen my enthusiasm, but she immediately chimes in. "You should know," she says, "that it doesn't pay. And it will be hard to see the people you love. And the hours suck."

"But it's not New York," I say. "And right now, I'm loving that."

She gets it--but Annie spent some of her formative cooking years in New York, and from the way she talks about the place, I can tell she's still a little bit in love with the city. "If you live in New York, you see life, all parts of life, everywhere," she says. "You see the guy dying in the street right next to the single mother who's screaming her head off, and next to them are the supermodels and the bankers on his cell phone. They may not always talk about it all, but you do get to see it all. That's life, right there in action."

I know it's not the martini that's generating this contradiction--Annie, who could take on any New York chef when it comes to sheer talent, was born and raised on Orcas, and has found her way back here. Isn't this a lot smaller, a lot less challenging, than what she might find if she stayed in the city?

"Wait, so I have a question...if you loved New York so much, then what was it that made you decide to move back here? I mean, you could definitely stay in that race, of making it as a cook in New York..."

"I could," she says, taking a pause before setting down her drink and picking up a french fry dusted with truffle oil and sea salt. "But I missed this place. When I used to hear an ambulance go by in the city, I knew something was happening somewhere. But here, when I see it go by, I know that that person I know intimately has just died. And it affects me--directly. I want to be affected by the people I live with--I want to know them, to feel that connection with them and with what I do. I am so satisfied when I cook for someone I love here, because I know that I'm giving them so much."

It's a bit crunchy, I think as I sip my whisky, but I get it. Earlier in the day Annie lent me her copy of Shopclass as Soul Craft, a book I've been after for some time. The message of the book, I've heard, is that we've lost the connection between what we do and what we produce. It's a little Marxian, to be sure, but the idea that we no longer feel value in our work because we can't see or hold the final product makes a lot of sense to me. Annie spent the entire day with her hands in dough, in tomato sauce, in berry juice. Even after she's cleaned up and put things away, her hands might still carry the aggressive smell of green garlic. The people she's fed will still go home nourished, their grumbling stomachs satiated. How often have I, at the end of a work day, generated something so definite that someone's life is truly different because of what I've done?

She's not sugarcoating the reality of the situation--chefs work late nights, long hours, and for little pay. They have a hard time seeing their families, their relationships suffer, their health and well-being takes a hit. But while Annie and Jay were splitting out the pizzas, and Melissa and I were running orders, I watched Geddes, MaryAnn, and their kids chatting with the patrons. Mary Ann said that Annie's pizza night was one of the great things that was enabling her family to get a solid night together at least once a week--and here they were, longing out on the lawn with customers who've known and loved them for years, and who will come back just to get another taste. That seems like a fair trade to me, even with all the hard labor.

And the community part means that you can talk about anything--which, as we all order our second rounds, means discussing the benefits of natural childbirth versus cesarean. Being unversed in the ways of child-producing and rearing, I stay mostly quiet, but hearing the women chatter around me, I suddenly realize how rare these kinds of conversations have been for me. This is a multi-generational conversation happening among women with wildly different backgrounds, all while slinging back drinks on a Sunday night in a town where we could walk home if necessary. It's a privilege to do this after a day of feeding people, and though I'm far from tipsy, the flush of happiness is high in my cheeks.

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