I’ve never really thought of myself as a scientist, but I’m learning more and more that I often play one in the kitchen. Much of why we do the things we do with our food comes down to basic science. If I don’t want my balsamic vinaigrette to break, for example, then I must be conscious of the ratios between the vinegar, the oil, and the acid (lemon juice in our recipe). If those are not correct and the oil is not added slowly so the mixture can emulsify, then the dressing is not going to hold together.
Hardly a week goes by that I don’t learn something along similar lines that helps explain something I was taught to do, or even something I do intuitively without knowing much more than my method is what makes the recipe work. Right now, for example, on my menu I have a New York Strip steak (about 10-11 oz.) with white cheddar mashed potatoes and our seasonal vegetable and a pork tenderloin (6-7 oz.) with a poblano pan sauce, served with a cornbread-apple-sausage-mozzarella pudding and seasonal vegetable. Both pieces of meat are cooked on the grill.
And the pork takes twice as long as the steak – every time.
I said that to one of the other chefs with whom I was working at a catering event and who has been cooking for thirty years. “You know why that is, don’t you?” he asked.
“The steak is cut off the whole strip, so the grain is exposed. The tenderloin is cut in half, so the grain remains intact. The heat can pull the moisture out of the steak, so it cooks quickly; the grain of the meat insulates the pork, so it takes longer.”
It makes sense. A full strip is about twelve pounds when it comes to me. I trim off a good bit of the fat and then cut the individual steaks, slicing across the strip and exposing the grain. The pork comes in two pound packages, two tenderloins in each one. They have much less fat on them, but they still need a little trimming, and then I make one diagonal cut to get two servings out of each tenderloin. The grain is only exposed on the end I cut.
I loved learning something new, but I’m still not a scientist. I am, however, a poet, so I moved on to metaphor and have been thinking about how we cook when our grains are exposed or when we manage to stay insulated.
I thought, at first, about the experiences of life that cut across the grain and leave us exposed: grief, fear, change, tragedy. I decided, however, things weren’t that clear cut. For some, the death of a loved one does open them up to the world, leaving them feeling lonely and vulnerable, but open nonetheless. Others choose to deal with the grief by pulling inside – insulating themselves – and not open at all. You can’t force the latter folks to open up anymore than you can successfully cook a pork tenderloin by cutting it into small pieces so it will grill faster. All you will end up with are little porcine hockey pucks. The pork, which is drier than beef, needs the insulation to cook well.
The metaphor that has spoken most to me did so by surprise because it had less to do with cutting across the grain than it did looking at the variety of things we have cooking at once in our kitchen. Part of it may be that, though the metaphor of cutting against the grain appeals to me over insulating myself, I’d pick a well-prepared piece of pork tenderloin over a steak most any night. But every piece of pork I cook during dinner service happens in the context of what else was on the ticket.
When I get an order, the server might write something along these lines:
macaroni and cheese roll
pork (medium rare)
The line in between the mac rolls (I make a mac and cheese mixture, wrap it up like an egg roll and fry it) and the steak separates the appetizers from the entrees. My task, on both sides of the line, is to have all of the items ready to go out at the same time. For example, knowing how long the pork takes, I would put it on the grill before I started any of the appetizers. I can wait until the first dishes leave the kitchen before I start the steak. I’m at my best when I give everything the time it needs to cook on its own terms.
Life butchers us all, my friends; no way around it. Yet, however we have been cut, we must work to see ourselves as part of the larger meal, if you will. The point is to prepare ourselves – and one another – so we come through it together.
Tomorrow is World Communion Sunday, a tangible reminder that we, as Christians, share a meal as one of the central metaphors of our faith: take and eat. Jesus passed the bread and said, “This is my body; as often as you eat this bread do so in remembrance of me.” We, as the Body of Christ, are called to feed one another, both literally and spiritually, and to prepare one another to feed the world. Some of us are ready, some have been burned, some still need some time. All of us are a part of the meal.