Here is my idea of heaven: open space lit by a sun so splendid that it makes things shiny and bright and perhaps gives me the feeling that I am Midas and everything around me is turning to gold. There will be food so good that I am forced to consume it in any manner possible, no matter how cavewomanish I may appear. There will be good company and laughter. Most likely a body of water and some kind of animal to enhance the outdoorsy feeling. One or sixteen of my personal heroes will be there, and they will be so approachable and adorable that I will chat with them with ease and grace and an unusual lack of stammering.
Guess what? I made it there! And all I had to do was wash dishes!
Months ago I learned that Outstanding in the Field would host dinner at a former student’s ranch. At the time, I didn’t really know what OITF was, or what the event would be, other than dinner on the ranch, but I did know this: Skagit River Ranch is hands down the best meat I have ever consumed in my whole life (the only meat I’ve eaten for the past 3 years); that parties on their ranch are gastronomic gluttony and that…wait for it…wait for it…
One of my favorite foodie bloggers/authors on the planet was going to be there, and her adorable husband was the guest chef.
When I found all this out, I emailed my student: “Nicole, if you need a volunteer, count me in!” My summer salary did not include the $180 per person per sitting.
Last Monday, Nicole emailed me: “Looks like a need a dishwasher for tomorrow night.”
Now, if you’ve heard my summer woes, they go like this: I am not motivated to do anything. I am addicted to Facebook. I am drinking way too much coffee. Exercising too little. Can’t put my already-folded clothes away for weeks on end. Am happy to let unwashed dishes linger in the sink to grow fungus or mold or some other spore. But! BUT! Give me some of the world’s best food and a celebrity sighting and I will wash anything you put in front of me. With toxic chemicals. Sans gloves. For four hours. With a smile. (Here I can sense N devising all kinds of plans to motivate me at home. Don’t even try it, honey.)
I arrived at the ranch just as guests snacked on appetizers between the cow pasture and the Skagit River. I was led to my dishwashing station where I would wash dishes with two of my former—wonderfully fun and asskicking!—students. Sera and I listened to the directions with perhaps half an ear attuned: hot water in these two tubs, soap in this one, clean in this one, this one can be cold, this one needs peroxide. I tried to pay attention to the minutia of dishwashery, but the food prep station just ahead of me kept my brain and 1.75 of my eyeballs rapt.
Heaps of fennel grilled on the bbq and the Delancey boys had just loaded the pork loins in to the homemade smoker.
Tall cans of Hilliard’s saison cracked open as farmer George called the cows in from pasture for the night.
An eagle soared across the river, searching for its dinner.
And just then I caught Molly all by herself in the freshly mowed field. I galloped her way, but slowed to the most casual walk I could muster the last few steps. “Molly?” Like we’re old friends. Like she knows me. “I read your blog and loved your last book and just wanted to say congratulations on the latest.” Like I spoke to my idols all the time. Like we weren’t standing in a field, aflame with sunlight, about to consume some of the world’s finest food together out of stainless steel bowls with our hands. And so I casually (I’d like to think) chatted with Molly Wizenberg for a handful of minutes before someone who really knew her whisked her off in another conversation. She is as cute as—draped in a long stripped apron, red hair pulled up in an easy bun—and as nice as she seems.
I made it back to my dishwashing station just in time for the ceramic platters (“the heath” as everyone called it) stacked up alongside our black bins. It wasn’t long before the meat came too.
Oh! This meat! First was the brisket, which arrived in fist-sized chunks and fell off itself like a Victorian gown from a lithe body at the end of a ball. There was just enough fat to make it rich but not enough to make it heavy. The glaze—a tomato reduction—lent a bit of sweetness. I would wash 2 or 3 heaths, rinse my hands and “scrape” the next heath with my fingers, dropping the meat into my mouth before washing another set. The fennel was this side of charred and the fava beans, still encased in their pods, so languid that I ate the whole thing, shelling wrappers be damned. Was I supposed to do that, Brandon?
Round two: more heath to wash and salad served. Servers, cooks, dishwashers, cookbook mavens alike: we all dug into the bowls, fingering feta and romaine and a bright orange dressing into our mouths.
Round three: pork loin roast, just saved from the lapping flames of the smoker caught on fire. Out on the long guest table, they hadn’t seen the action as Brandon astutely thought to move the propane tanks lest they catch from behind the smoker. Nor had they seen the buckets of water tossed over the top of the makeshift cooker, only to soak the fire fighter on the other side of the structure.
The pork’s peppery outside did not tell that story either. What it did though was make me a believer in the very best meat money can buy. I would eat pig all day if raised by George and cooked by Brandon. And who knew that Oxbow Farm’s broccoli tasted like candy?
And just when we had washed and dried the heath for the third time and scrubbed all 130 guest plates—then—then came dessert.
Those of you who have “shared” dessert with me know my requirements: chocolate, little-to-no-sharing, and very little talking. This particular dessert did not meet any of those requirements. Somehow, it exceeded them.
After the guests were served I could see staff frenzy at the prep tent. Without remorse, I abandoned my washing station the way a mama rabbit abandons its young. I strode over to the bowls of dessert and causally picked up a spoon next to my new friend, Molly, and dove into the lemon curd laced with raspberry puree topped with clouds of homemade meringue.
And right then I died and went to heaven. Perhaps it was the glasses of red I’d had or the fact that my hands were pruned from nearly four hours in the water. Maybe it was the light as it faded down the valley and glassed over the river. But I think, really, it was the food. Raised by someone who cares—really gives a shit about the land and his animals and advocating for both them and for us—and prepared by someone who appreciates the local, the convivial, the elegance of a simple farm meal.
I think this is why I love food so much. Because as a dishwasher, I can experience, via salt and fat and sweet and umami, the same out-of-body sensations as the people who paid $180 to sit at the gorgeously draped table. Food is what connected me to Nicole and to Molly. Food ensures that N and I sit down together and share something in common at least once a day. Food—done well—takes care and courage and trust in chemistry. Some of my earliest memories are of food: cutting broccoli “trees” for mom’s salad during weeknight dinners; cookies turned into a lake while baking with my grandpa; my 12 year-old birthday party at Let’s Get Cooking.
In what other medium can the city folk and farmer, dishwasher and renowned chef all transcend, bridging the gap from the advent of life in a seed or newborn to its fulfilling and sustaining place on our plates? It is in food only, I surmise, that we all make our way to heaven.
And unlike microwaving a Swanson’s frozen dinner, this endeavor requires dishes to be washed and is best done among friends.