[ this end up ]

Table Therapy

In Food, Non-fiction, Writing on February 6, 2011 at 1 am

Extraordinarily full and fully contented, we sat before two empty plates, two empty wine glasses, one small bowl lined with congealed butter, and one large bowl containing the shell remains of our Dungeness crab dinner.

Satisfaction is generally inherent in eating and the quality of the meal is often reciprocal to the level of satisfaction: the better the dish, the deeper the satisfaction. But this meal went beyond mere lip-licking fulfillment. The joy it provided was not confined to the belly; our smiles were not simply lingered tastes on the gums and teeth, coaxing the cheeks upward. Though aided by the convergence of good weather, good tastes and good company, the crab—rather, the process of cooking and eating it piece by piece—stirred in us a large happiness.

Now I’ve likely created the impression that this dinner was exceptionally divine. The words ‘process’ and ‘Dungeness crab’ may evoke a cold mist upon the straights of San Juan, us hoisting a heavy, crab-filled trap from the sea. Let me dispel from you these illusions of culinary grandeur or hard, fruitful labor.

The meal was a simple one. Two live Dungeness crabs cooked in a pot of boiling, acidulated water; clarified butter for dipping; halved lemons for juicing; two glasses of an affordable Oregon pinot gris.

Yet as we slowly broke through our crabs, smallest legs first, claws next and finally the body itself, a joy built. We smiled wide. Two hours later we sat before a bowl filled with empty shells, praising the remains with long fits of joyful laughter.

How could two crabs do this?

Knowing that the crustaceans were from near sea, plucked from a trap that day, certainly exerted influence on our perceptions of the dish.

But the true origin of our happiness lay in the tactile intimacy of preparation and consumption.

That intimacy and detail provide a deeper understanding of an act and from this understanding flows pleasure is unquestionable. Nor is this a new idea. John Steinbeck once described the discord between knowledge gained through scientific process and knowledge gained through action in a way that I think is appropriately analogous to the dinner table, he wrote:

The Mexican sierra has…spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being—an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff, colorless fish from formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth…There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed—probably the least important reality concerning the fish or yourself.

I believe that preparing and eating our Dungeness crab that sunny afternoon was more than the sum of the crab plus us and the suddenly-appearing restaurant version of the same dish is but a specimen in a laboratory—stiff and colorless.

If our goal in eating is merely to record taste and to be filled, this can be effortlessly accomplished and the reality of those tastes and that fulfillment cannot be assailed. But, if we occasionally detour from our dining routine, devoting several hours to the cause, enlisting all our senses and the company of friends and family, we may find in that true pleasure.

  1. Hi, As a fellow lover of crab, and other meals that are satisfying on many levels, I enjoyed reading your post. In fact, I’ve enjoyed looking around your other blog posts.

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