Don't get me wrong: winning a writing award this week from the James Beard Foundation for my humble Reader cover story on the cultural history of mince pie was an honor and a thrill, as would have been simply attending the "Oscars of food" on somebody else's dime. But in a fair and balanced universe, the award probably would have gone to someone who was at least aware of the awards prior to being nominated (ideally my Reader colleague Mike Sula, who was a finalist as well). Candidly, I was not, though I had heard of James Beard.
It's not that I'm uninterested in food. Au contraire, I'm an energetic trencherman, a defensible home cook, and a balls-out omnivore. I'll try any food that's put in front of me as long as it doesn't contain caraway seeds. But the simple fact is that haute cuisine and I travel in very different circles. Sure, I've had the odd expense-account meal in middlebrow joints where the grub aspired to the condition of architecture, but I knew enough to be aware that the cunning vertical structures on my plate were years behind the times and hundreds of dollars below the true summits of fashionable dining. The closest I've gotten to sous vide is boil-in-bag peas (not worth repeating), and I've never laid eyes on foie gras, Kobe beef, or culinary foam (the dernier cri of fine dining from late 2006 until five minutes ago).
But if I ain't no Gordon Bleu, I've still enjoyed a privileged experience or two in the realm of good eats, and I've had on-the-job schooling in the culinary arts that I'm guessing few other Beard winners can claim.
In the spring of 1984 I worked as a "bait man" on a lobster boat out of Rustico, Prince Edward Island. At mid-morning, the two guys I worked for and I would pause in our labors, fire up a Coleman gas stove and steam a giant pot of tiny lobsters freshly pulled from the traps. Baby lobsters taste waaaaay better than adults, but you could lose your fishing license for not tossing them back. That didn't stop us from partaking. I never did adopt the local practice of dipping the hot meat into a hand-held jar of mayonnaise, but my younger, skinnier self definitely made the most of those informal brunches. They came to a tragic end the morning the Coleman exploded and was thrown flaming over the side, never to be replaced.
The fishing gig also taught me an interesting lesson in the relativity of taste: The guys I worked for were in their late 20s, but the older fishermen we worked with wouldn't eat "bugs" at gunpoint. They'd started fishing when most of the lobster catch went to fertilize nearby potato fields, and one old guy explained to me how in his childhood any kid caught with lobster sandwiches in his lunch pail was subject to instant social death as a charity case. He found it hilarious that city slickers were willing pay premium prices to eat such a degraded, bottom-feeding scavenger.
As for my professional cooking resumé, when Kitchen Confidential came out, my reaction to Anthony Bourdain's self-mythologizing tales of kitchen machismo was "Yeah, big deal. How many marauding bears were ever shot fleeing your kitchen?"
I should explain: The Canadian economy was for shit when I attended college in Montreal in the late 1980s. For want of summer jobs in the metropoles, I and thousands of other cash-strapped students were forced to accept an annual three-month exile to the tree-planting gulag of central northern British Columbia. There, massive clear-cuts reputedly visible from the moon had to be replanted with pine seedlings to avert global toilet-paper shortages in the year 2023.
Recruiters for the industry lured hippie kids by pitching the experience as a chance to commune with nature, but a clear-cut has all the sylvan charm of a strip mine, and the Deadhead types could generally be counted on to throw in the tie-dyed towel once the predatory insects had reached their full Biblical momentum, which happened by early June.
My brother Mike and I first went out to "the bush" as planters, but like 80 percent of newbies, we discovered we lacked the requisite combination of athleticism and zen mentality to get rich doing the strenuous and robotic piecework that is tree planting. The dismal food issuing from the primitive camp kitchen that first year pointed us to our proper niche in the industry, and the following year we parlayed Mike's experience as a line cook at wilderness resorts into jobs as a cooking team. We soon established ourselves as a valued (if not award-winning) team capable of working within our budget and keeping the grunts happy.
A food writer would likely categorize our standard menus as "comfort food": big, caloric household fare like lasagna, roast turkey with all the trimmings, fried chicken, chili, corned beef and cabbage, plus a vegetarian option for that easy-to-please minority. At our most adventurous, we undertook a gargantuan feed of sauerbraten, but that experiment coincided with a unforeseen need to break camp and relocate to another clear cut further north. Marinating in huge plastic buckets, our giant cuts of beef bounced around in the back of a pick-up truck for three blazing hot summer days before we saw them again. After a cautious sniff, we roasted and served it. It was the best sauerbraten I've ever tasted, and so tender you could cut it with your thumb. I've never quite managed to duplicate the recipe.
One of the more interesting aspects of cooking off the grid—more interesting even than having one's groceries delivered by helicopter—is contending with bears, who, per Yogi Bear cartoons, do not respect human concepts of ownership over food. Mike and I did our best to avoid confrontations, e.g., we'd scare off unwanted visitors by beating on pots with wooden spoons. But sterner methods were required whenever a bear started tearing into campers' tents at night, or worse, interfering with the food supply. At one point the provincial wildlife service provided us with a bear trap—essentially a length of conduit mounted on a trailer—in the hope of capturing and relocating the female black bear who was nightly breaching the chain and padlock on our chest freezer. We baited the trap with moufette sechée en gras du porc (dried-up roadkill skunk in bacon grease) but the bear rejected this treat in favor of more frozen chicken parts and breakfast sausages. Sadly, it wound up taking a bullet in lieu of a transfer.
Bear problems were endemic, but I didn't ruminate much about them until we worked a contract in the Khutzeymateen Valley, which has grizzlies the way Illinois has carp. The planters were cautioned constantly not to keep toothpaste in their tents because the bears might smell it and come looking for it, but meanwhile it was our job to fry 25 or 30 fragrant pounds of bacon and sausage every morning. The .22 caliber rifle that took down that poor black bear wasn't much comfort as grizzlies are known to grunt in disbelief at gunshots with far more stopping power. We came away from that job grateful never to have seen one of God's most magnificent creatures in its natural state.