Breakfast in Bruges

The simple egg, a culinary building block and inspiration for a poem.

Writes With Pencils

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It’s a good sound,
the sizzling and popping
of oil in the pan
over high heat
as the egg is freed from its shell
on its way to becoming breakfast.

The sound of time
and ease and care,
decadent in its
splayed open richness.

Even as the edges are singed—
albuminous white
the stuff of muscle and doing
grown firm and strong
from trial by fire,
the yolk remains
its perfect liquid center, golden orb.

The whole upon the plate
is as resilient
and delicate
as the human heart cracked open.

A boiled egg, in comparison
in the armor of its calcified shell
is quieter
reserved, and more demure,
even as it nourishes
the same.

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Morning Glory

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Denial can be so tasty.

Writes With Pencils

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The perfect muffin
has a base that is moist,
with a tender crumb
and crispy edges around its top;
two textures in one small package.
It is sweet enough
to satisfy your need for a treat
but with ample fruit, nuts,
or shredded carrots
to convince yourself
you’re having something healthy
rather than face the truth
that you’re eating cake,
for breakfast.

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The Dish Café

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Having been an early morning baker early in my career as well as working brunch service at The Harvest Vine, I’ve got great respect for those who help the rest of us ease into the morning. A poem of appreciation:

Writes With Pencils

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Long-haired waitresses with ponytails
serve plate-sized hash browns
and bottomless cups of coffee
to dinette sets of friends
and single men,
their elbows on the counter,
as they check their phones
or flirt to incite a friendly smile.

Undecided between the merits
of sweet and savory,
I order my usual
but choose bacon over sausage,
at the waitress’ recommendation,
as the salty counterpoint
to the syrup-soaked pancake
as big as my head
and the perfect over-medium eggs.

Generosity on a plate
feeds more than the belly.
These angels of the morning
take care of the hungry,
un-caffeinated, and sleep-deprived.
After estimating the tip
I round it up a couple of bucks
and start my day
fueled by the comfort
of the last bite of bacon
and a warm goodbye.

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Companion

Sharing the most basic meal, that’s how we build community and create peace. Break bread, my friends.

Yellow El Camino

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Companion

Middle English: from Old French compaignon, literally ‘one who breaks bread with another’, based on Latin com- ‘together with’ + panis ‘bread’.

Seems that sharing a meal with friends goes back a long way.

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Meditation 324

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For the past two years we’ve had a couple of different talented pastry chefs at the restaurant and I haven’t been working full time baking in the kitchen. But I still fill in for vacations or go in early to make jam or can cherries in red wine. One of my favorite tasks is to make the croissant dough near the end of the week for the weekend’s brunch pastries.

On those Thursdays I arrive in my sleepy kitchen before 6 o’clock, key in the code to the beeping alarm which assures me I’m alone, and turn on the lights. The first hour of my meditation requires a patient waiting. I assemble milk and yeast, honey and sea salt on the utilitarian stainless steel counter across from the stove. The copper pots, polished with coarse salt and lemon juice, are lined up in ascending size on the shelf above the black iron burners and hanging from the rack above my head, nearly out of reach. I choose one and think of pastry cooks in France using these same types of beautiful vessels a hundred years ago as I fill it with the rich whole milk and light the burner below. Using the back of my little finger I test the temperature, and then measure it into the waiting bowl. At some point during my pastry training in culinary school I knew the number of degrees the yeast likes best. That number has disintegrated into unintelligible digits in my brain but my body knows what’s right. I weigh out 1 7/8 ounces of the dormant fungus and sprinkle it evenly onto the quart of milk. Then I wait.

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On dry mornings I often leave the yeast to awaken unwatched and run the three miles to the lake and back. But on rainy days I move more slowly and make a ritual out of my first coffee of the day. I take my time to steam some milk and pull perfect shots of espresso, after adjusting the grind just right. Taking the straight-sided, white porcelain cup in both hands and raising it to my lips feels like lighting a candle to punctuate a prayer.

The yeast sips at the warm milk as I on my cappuccino, waking slowly and not yet ready for breakfast. Neither am I. As it sucks in a child’s first meal it swells and grows heavy until it sinks to the bottom of the bowl, gluttonous and craving real food. I feed the yeast its one-quarter cup of honey, stir in two and a half tablespoons of sea salt as well to season the meal, and once again wait. This time I scramble some onion confit with a couple of eggs from Alice’s chickens who run free in her fields up north and sit down to enjoy my own breakfast.

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As the yeast consumes the bee’s treasure it begins to sigh and breathe. Bubbles form and grow, showing that this mélange is a living thing. When it has nearly doubled in size I know it’s ready for the three pounds of flour which I stir in by hand until it forms a lumpy mass. That mass is the awkward adolescent I hope to raise to be a refined adult. I turn it out onto my altar of granite, dust it with flour and knead it three or four times just until it’s smooth, with the texture of a girls cheek, warm from the blush of thoughts new to her. After these preparations the dough and I are ready to begin our shared meditation.

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With a weighty pin of northeastern hard maple, I roll the dough into a 16 inch square. It gives easily under the pin requiring no effort on my part. In the center I lay a two and a half pound slab of sweet butter I’d tenderized with three-quarters of a cup of flour and two teaspoons of lemon juice, and shaped the day before. While the yeast was feasting, I removed it from the refrigerator and allowed it to temper and soften to just the right point. The dough likes an early fall, temperate climate. It will tell me immediately if it is uncomfortable. After laying this slab of soft yellow on the duvet of milk and flour, I fold up the four corners over it like laundry fresh from the dryer. This bundle begins with its first three layers of dough, butter, dough- what will become 324 before I’m done.

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I tenderly roll my pin across the top of the bundle, feeling the texture of the butter through the pillowy dough. This center is slightly firmer but softens with each pass of the pin as I coax it to 16 inches in width. I roll in the other direction until it’s nearly the length of the granite, pausing from time to time to dust it with flour and make sure it doesn’t cling to the slab of stone. I use a dry brush of natural bristle to brush away any loose flour. Then I slide my right arm under the right edge of the dough and cradle the 16 inches of its width, feeling it along the inside of my forearm and across the palm of my hand. I lay my left arm and hand on top of this same edge, palms together as if in prayer, and fold over one third of its length upon itself. I repeat a mirror image of this prayer, folding the left third onto the doubled middle. The three layers are now nine.

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The butter has softened and warmed with each pass of the pin and the dough cannot be rushed, so I put it to rest in the refrigerator and distract myself with another task. If I disturb its rest too soon, it will respond by weeping butter from between layers of toughened dough when I roll it out. If I leave it too long the yeast will have time to sluggishly feed some more, making an uneven rise, and the butter will chill hard and crack when I try to massage it with the maple pin. Ninety minutes seems to be its preferred nap time. But each time is different. Like with a friend one has known for years, each encounter is unique. The moods of those close to us vary depending upon the state of their inner and outer worlds, and so it is too with this living amalgam of mother’s milk and earthen grain. I listen to it, hearing its needs with my touch and answer them through variations of speed, temperature and pressure.

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After this first restful intermission I turn it out onto the flour-dusted slab of cool stone. This time its width becomes its length and its length its width, after I rotate the bundle one-quarter turn. I roll it to the previous dimensions and once again fold the ends of its length upon itself in thirds. The nine layers have grown to 27. After a second cool respite of an hour, we meet again on the plane of stone, I in my normal place and it turned again 90 degrees. I roll it to the consistent width but this time I push its length to beyond what my table can hold, and one end drapes over its edge. I fold one quarter of its length from each end upon itself and then fold them together as if closing a weighty volume by Escoffier. The 27 layers have now multiplied to 108.

With each rest and visit to the slab the dough grows stronger and less delicate. Its texture evolves and changes from that of a newborn to a child, then from a young adult to finish as that of a mature woman in her prime. Each time we join together in meditation, the dough and I, I revisit a home I never knew and a childhood I never had. As the texture evolves and changes I feel it grow in maturity and strength but also in sensitivity and vulnerability. This mirrors my own evolution through the first four stages of my life.

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I bring the dough one last time to the stony altar and complete a final chorus of silent chant through movement. I am grateful for the opportunity to do this work I love. I am grateful to do so in the warmth and comfort of this welcoming kitchen. I am happy to know that once dusted with vanilla sugar, shaped, proofed and baked, guests will receive pleasure from my hands’ creation. And I am humbled to know that these guests trust me with such intimacy, the intimacy of taking into one’s body the art and labor of another’s hands. I feel all of this as I fold these 108 layers a final time into thirds, and with this gesture complete my meditation of 324.

Spilled Milk

Food brings people together and builds connection not only when it’s served on a table. Sometimes it happens when it’s spilled on the floor.

Writes With Pencils

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As Tyler, the barista at one of my favorite cafes, spun around from the espresso machine towards the bar sink behind him, the stainless steel steaming pitcher he intended to empty failed to clear the counter’s edge and flew from his hand. When it crashed against the concrete floor, the half-inch of warm, frothy milk that was left in it from the last latte he’d made sprayed drops into each of 360 degrees. The back counter, cabinet doors, Tyler’s apron, my favorite fresh-from-the-dryer, long-sleeved, gray t-shirt and everything on the front counter including my open wallet and Naomi’s crisp croissant were all splashed. No surface was spared. I broke out laughing. As Tyler offered his mortified apologies while insisting that my order was on the house and the other barista handed me some dampened paper towels to dab my shirt and clean my glasses, I couldn’t stop laughing. The moment…

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Family Meal

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For much of the week, 21 individuals choose to share a space that is smaller than the average American home. What do you get when you concentrate that much humanity in that small a space and turn up the heat? A semi-functional family of the best kind. Although no blood ties are shared, we’re like parents, uncles, visiting cousins and kids to each other. Most leave home eventually, but many come back to visit and some even move back in for a short spell or indefinitely. As in all families there are squabbles and teasing, but also celebrations and having each other’s back. In the restaurant there’s a loyalty and community greater than many groups of friends share. We fill in when someone is sick; work on days-off from other jobs to cover vacations; play music and plant gardens together; bake birthday cakes, attend weddings, and move sofas and boxes for each other. Many of these ties remain even with those who’ve moved on to other restaurants or new careers.

One of the benefits of working in this industry is having the option to eat at work, often on the house. In other restaurants I’ve heard this called “crew chow”, “staff meal”, “staff infection”, “shift meal”, or simply “dinner”. It’s usually thrown together out of bits of leftovers, often tossed with pasta to feed the masses. But we’ve always called it “family meal”, because that’s what it feels like. At the end of each shift, brunch or dinner, the servers gather plates, flatware and everyone’s favorite beverages and set the counter around the open kitchen while the cooks set out that day’s meal. Most of us sit down around the counter; some cooks prefer to keep cleaning, being used to eating standing up, but all contribute to the camaraderie of a shared meal.

Family meal is such an important part of our day here that it’s often the first thing discussed when the kitchen crew arrives to begin prepping. Sometimes it’s even planned days in advance. Special ingredients are picked up in the International District or ethnic markets on the way in. An overabundance of produce from a garden is brought in to share. It’s a time for the kitchen staff, or even the servers on occasion, to cook outside the Spanish box.

The occasional late-dining guest will inquire about ordering a plate of whatever the kitchen is arranging on platters after 11 pm.  That’s how good it usually looks. But we spend most of our working days welcoming and taking care of guests. It’s why most of us are in this business. Although we’re usually happy to serve something special to a guest, we respectfully decline his request. Sorry folks, family meal is a time when we just take care of each other-  and ourselves.

 
 
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