Fourth Digression.....Politically Incorrect
Let us dispose of the latter category right now. Wanna buy a ranch in Cachagua?
While we were in Spain, on a Tuesday morning, we got a phone call from Brendan at The Store. It was midnight in Cachagua. The Sheriffs were prowling all around The Store.
Normally we have absolutely zero law enforcement. It really is the Law West of the Pecos. In the immortal words of Abbie Hoffman: "What you own is what you can defend"......and not a nickel, or a garden hose more. The attitude towards drinking and driving trucks and automobiles is still in the Eisenhower era: "Keep the rubber side down, and the shiny side up....you'll be fine."
The more sober and productive town people comprise our early seating and leave prudently early.....the later seating is the Rana Creek crazies, the Big Sur people, the Wine Geeks, local chefs, etc: the fun bunch. My people.
The appearance of the Sheriff put a serious dent in this scene. At midnight in Cachagua, the Sheriff doesn't need a breathalyzer. Leaving The Cachagua Store past ten pm is prima facie evidence that you are not a member in good standing of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. Brendan had moved into "Sleepover Mode": doors locked, wait it out. Kind of like New Orleans people in a hurricane. Omelettes and Beaujolais for everyone! Not to mention the zydeco music from Pat Clark.
The reason for the law enforcement presence? Our landlord.
This dear soul had come to believe that people were out to get him. Possibly true. His particular paranoia was that these people were armed with bows and arrows and were shooting through his windows. His response was to call 911, grab his 9mm and crawl out a window into the dark. He spent the next couple of hours creeping through the bushes and around the Mercedes in our parking lot trying to get the drop on the bow-and-arrow people while the Sheriff surrounded his house and looked for him.
His family was safe, though. His quick thinking wife moved them into the laundry room, and put the baby in the washing machine for protection. Who knew those Kenmores were arrow proof? Who knew bow-and-arrow paranoia was transferable?
The Sheriff eventually got our guy (the bow and arrow people were strangely hard to catch or see) and dragged him off for a night at the Steel Hilton. I am quite confident that his attorney will prove that there were no drugs involved......just performance art.
My clients were released from The Store onto the roads without further incident. Rubber side down, shiny side up.
Mmmm......Beaujolais and omelettes.....Even so, I am thinking that David Kinch does not have these problems at Manresa.....
Anyway, the whole Frogua thing got me going......memories of Etienne, L'Auberge du Cochon Rouge and the Upstate Duck Slaughter. These are the things that got me hooked on this business to begin with.....the natural, organic connection of food to the life around us, and the possibility of using skill, science and art to create a beautiful experience and beautiful memories.
And life does imply death.....can't get around that one. The dialectic is especially vivid in the country. Now we are parsing the differences between perceptions of cruel and painful lives and deaths for lobsters and ducks and cows on a level that would challenge a philosopher.
Don't kill the lobster, Wolfgang? What, ever? No more lobsters for you, Wolfie? Or, it is OK to kill him close to his natural waters, aka frozen Australian rock lobster tails. Is it cruel to refrigerate him and ship him somewhere in a dark box? How far is cruel? A block? One time-zone? And......exactly where is the cruelty here? Not being with his buds? Anticipation of something grim, or dis-orientation at exchanging a dark, cold, muddy hole at the bottom of the ocean for a dark, cold box at the bottom of the walk-in? Do lobsters anticipate? Do they anticipate more than Little Bobby Broccoli? Do I give a shit?
Or, if I am allowed to kill him....... is one way better than another? Boiling may take 30 seconds to kill. Kind of a bummer 30 seconds, true.....and all of us still have to steel ourselves for that duty. But, still.....it is a bug from the bottom of the sea. It is not a baby from Darfur......
At Auberge, back in the day, we did a lobster special every Friday night in winter. The Lobster Guy would drive down from Maine and drop off fifty lobsters or more. We had a dozen ways to prepare them.
The most dramatic was Lobster Thermidor. We would hypnotize the lobsters by standing them up on their noses until they stood there balanced, quietly. This was a busy kitchen: two guys, all sautées, a hundred dinners. Six or eight lobsters were always lined up ready to go. The sautée guy would grab a lobster, stab it in the head and immediately whack it up into parts. A lot of whacking and smashing. Shit would fly! The meat would go into the hot sautée pan, the tamale or roe would be reserved to thicken and enrich the sauce. Next! We had to hide the fact that we were killing the lobsters to order with a knife from the customers.......they much preferred "normal" boiled lobster. So much less violent and cruel.
I had a restaurant in Telluride in the middle seventies.....The Sheridan Hotel. We found an old menu from 1890 that listed fresh Long Island oysters. You can't get fresh Long Island oysters in Telluride nowadays, even with the jetport. These bivalves rode the rails packed in barrels in ice in the dark. Cruel? If not, what is the difference between a lobster and an oyster?
Etienne's father and mentor was Pierre Merle.....one of the classic old-school great chefs. The fact that I worked with him makes me a classic......and an antique, probably. His name for me was "Deguellasse"......."from the throat of an animal"......I was not very good about keeping a clean station.
Pierre was a poultry chef back in the day when 99% of the kitchen people would follow one particular metier for their entire professional lives. He wound up in New York in the French Ghetto in Hell's Kitchen after jumping ship from his job on the S.S. France as poultry chef. He was allergic to feathers, and in those days they used live birds. The cramped quarters on the steamship were literally killing him.....so au revoir. He wound up owning Le Berry on 51st Street between 8th and 9th Avenues (I can't type the address without being overwhelmed with nostalgia....sorry). Pierre married an American woman, fathered Etienne, and eventually probably slowly killed his wife with veterinary laxative...but that is the subject of the next digression.
Pierre's job before the France was at the Gare du Nord in Paris. The Gare du Nord had a number of cafés and restaurants: the regular commuter brasserie and a high end fine dining establishment on the second floor. Pierre was the poultry guy there.
Next door to the Gare du Nord was a whorehouse. Among the pleasures made available to the clientele were pretty much anything you can think of......but I bet you didn't think of this one! Discreet, country-style bestiality: the travelling salesman could get a room, buy a goose or a chicken.....and fuck it to death.
Ooops, there go all the brides and clients! Sorry...please don't shoot the messenger.
Pierre even shared the technique as it was described to him: the customer would grab the bird around the neck with one hand, close the dresser drawer firmly on the feet, and then........I still can't begin to picture the next part, but involved some timing in the throttling of the bird and the ecstatic moment of the........never mind.
Anyway, the French being.....well, French......the brothel would sell the perfectly good dead geese and chickens to the high end restaurant next door. Pierre had to face a not infrequent supply of freshly fucked dead fowl to prep upon his arrival at his station in the morning. This eventually wore on his morale.....for some reason. He jumped at the chance to sail on the France. I don't think they had OSHA in Paris.....
If this seems incongruous to you, you should know that they still keep live birds in French restaurants for eating. Ortolan, a happy little chickadee-style bird, often was found in cages in the garden of restaurants to admire on your way in (Hannibal Rising, the latest Hannibal Lechter novel by Thomas Harris describes this.....Hannibal lets the birds go). Nowadays it is more secret and cult-like, and the birds are kept in the back. They are fed on grain......duh. When an order comes in, the chef grabs a birdie, drowns him in a glass of Armagnac, quickly plucks him and sautées him whole. Whole whole. Guts, feet, head. Whole whole. There are special little ortolan pans for this. At the presentation in the dining room, the pans are brought directly to the table. The diners cover their heads in big ortolan napkins.....to capture the explosive essences.....and munch the little critters whole.
This is a savory course. After dessert, you see.
All this may seem a tad repellent....but it is part of my cultural upbringing. It won't be long that one of my apprentices will be posting to his kitchen blog: "I had this job back in the day.......we would take live oysters that had been scooped from their homes in the sea, shipped in boxes all across the country in airplanes......and we would man these displays at weddings and corporate events. We would seize the living oysters, cut open their shells and hand them to guests. The guests would squeeze a little lemon on them.....and smile when they saw the still living tissues contract in pain......."
Pass the tofu, Natasha......or shut the fuck up while I eat my lobster with foie gras.