The Nasty Bits
My apartment was boiling hot on Sunday. I woke up early, struggling in my sheets, and gave up trying to sleep. When I sat up and extracted myself from the leg-trap I’d twisted in the sheets, there was a gingerbread-man-shaped sweat stain left behind. Disgusting. I showered and toweled off and was still sticky and sweaty. Disgusting. I got dressed and fixed some breakfast, the effort of which soaked big horseshoes of sweat into the armpits of my shirt. Disgusting.
I figured I could loiter around the house, sweating all over everything I touched (disgusting), or I could accept that the day was going to be cloying, regardless of whether I sat motionless or worked like an ant putting up supplies for winter. And, I could make jam. Or, jams. I mean, the place was already grossly over-heated, why not jack it up a few degrees more, instead of waiting till a nice cool afternoon then steaming the place up?
First, I walked to the fruit markets about a half-hour away, where I robbed the wasps of a few pints of red currants, three pounds of peaches, and enough blueberries for two preserves and a bag stashed in the freezer till winter. Seriously, the wasp hatchery was doing brisk business this weekend, and there wasn’t a green paper pint basket without at least one buzzing around its circumference or burrowing deep in the contents. A case of four-ounce jars, two kilograms of sugar, and a streetcar ride home (hot and disgusting) and I got to work poaching and blanching and skinning and slicing and quartering and skimming and processing and…sweating.
Thanks to the lovely recipes at Saving the Season, my pantry now holds enough peaches and blueberries with lime and coriander to make it if not through the winter then pretty close. And, thanks to my kitten, there are blueberry skins tracked through the apartment and up the vestibule walls. She was doing double-duty, messing around the kitchen and also hunting flies, and it wasn’t till late last night that I realised the endless stamps of purple originated from a twist of fruit skin wedged in the fur of her paw.
In addition to sweating and preserving and conserving, I spent my afternoon shooting pictures of the things I made, the raw ingredients, the bowls and heaps and pouches and bottles of this and that arranged on the table just so. I probably have more photos of the things I eat than the people I cook those things with and for, and if there’s one thing that gets to me about food writing and food photography, it’s the overbearing preciousness of it all. I do love me some food porn, and can think of few things sexier than a shot of a perfect, papery-white table setting with dewy purple fruit and a sprig of green puffing from a vase while a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream sweats in the background.
But, tidying up after my blueberry-stained cat, I was presented with the less charming face of cookery. The streak of juice splashed down the stove. The trickle of barbecue sauce between the pantry and counter. The fact that I made that sauce three months ago. The way the berry juice, just hours old and barely dry, had picked up lint and weed puffs
The chunk of I do not even know what, glommed onto the floor between the stove and the balcony door, dry and sharp enough when I chipped it loose, it cut me under my fingernail. Whatever this was, it was glossy and crisp as a fritter, surrounded by cooking oil splatters and breaded in a generous coating of cat fur and dirt from the garden. It might have been a lump of grated ginger root, in which case it was only a couple days old. On Thursday evening, I made gingerbeer from scratch and because I’m stubborn, when I realised I hadn’t read the recipe right and really needed a food processor, I was determined to see things through, hand-peeling, grating and pureeing three pounds of the stuff, along with countless squeezed limes, half the work completed outdoors before bringing it all inside for the truly messy part. The whole project took two hours instead of the fifteen minutes forecast by the recipe book, but was worth every second of labour.
But, it made a mess of the kitchen floor and cabinets and wall tiles and two linen table cloths that I used to drape the table while I coaxed the ginger out of its clothes. It burned my fingertips and made my hands wrinkly, and stained a good pair of shorts. How messy could ginger root be, I thought? And now, I know. The messiness and the wrecked shorts do not detract from the taste of the gingerbeer, or how fun it was to prepare. So, this evening, I made a pact with myself to photograph not just the pretty bits, like the perfectly blue-green bite of broccoli, but also the ugly bits, and the creepy bits, and the bits that make you maybe not want to eat that pretty-looking thing after all.
Things like the cabbage looper caterpillar snuggled beneath the florets, asleep in the fridge since last Tuesday, chilled in a sort of suspended animation then revived in the Monday night heat to crawl out and stretch its legs (according to a horticulture site I consulted, it has three sets of false legs, along with three true). I know it’s a good sign when our food is the food of something else; that the presence of insects and worms and nibblers is a sign that the vegetables and fruit are wholesome, safe, and well-raised. I’m not generally squeamish, but these little fuckers make me drop my broccoli and wring my hands and shudder and pace in small circles in front of the sink before I can pick it up and give it a careful rinse, working my fingertips gently between the fronds to find and evict all the worms (and believe me, in organic farm-fresh broccoli there is never fewer than a dozen per head) without crushing them and releasing their guts, missing any really good hiders, or tearing and crumbling the delicate veg.
There is a point where food is…well…food. And there is a point where food writing and styling becomes just so much blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. So, from now on, the nasty bits along with the sexy ones. And, from time to time, I’m sure those areas intersect.