A Wedge Salad Kind of Life

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

A few weeks ago, I was in a bit of a state. It was a cloudy day, I had run out the door relatively early in the morning to make an appointment- the kind that requires a tie, vest, and pressed slacks. It required me to remind myself to pick a briefcase that matched my attire. My shoes were shined, and I’d even remembered to floss.

The appointment was… underwhelming, I should say. If you were to put a gun to my head right now, I couldn’t tell you want was said at any point in the meeting. All I remember is that I walked out at the end, looked up at the street signs, and decided I needed lunch and a beer.

Fortunately, I was near a restaurant that Emily and I had heard great things about, and throughly enjoyed dessert at. It was close enough, the menu and price were right- and I was certainly ready to walk in to something that felt certain.

“Down on His Luck”, Frederick McCubbin, 1889

As I grabbed a seat at the bar, the bartender- a slightly-nervous looking middle-aged man- pushed a menu in front of me. For some reason, nervous bartenders give me the willies, unless they’re obviously new and in training. Bartenders are fast-paced alchemists handling mind-altering substances, and are prone to having people dump the sordid details of the day all over them. A bartender that looks nervous makes me feel like they’re about to spill something- alcoholic, secret, or both. Either way, I don’t really want it on me.

As I go over the menu, I know the place has excellent cocktails- but my favorite is pretty smoky, and it’s a warm cloudy day out. I offer the bartender a couple quick questions- lobs over the plate to calm him down a bit.

“What do you think, man? What should I be drinking today?”
“Hmm… this weather, I’d say the pilsner right now. It’s pretty refreshing.”

Ok, he pointed me to a beer. Nothing wrong with that- it’s beer weather, and even a cold cocktail can feel oppressive on the system.

Right on… what’s the house pickles?”
“Oh, those change pretty regular. I think… it’s some half-sours, some mushrooms… I think garlic?”

He just said a bunch of my favorite words that could be led with “pickled.”

Right on, man. Let’s do that and the wedge salad.”
“You got it.”

Off he goes.

I loosen my collar a little bit, nurse the beer (which IS quite good, if a little overly malty-tasting) and read. Lately I’d been readingDown and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell– one of those legendarily “required” reads for cooks and chefs since its publishing. While the entire book is about Orwell’s time living in poverty in 1930s Paris and London- characters he met, struggles he faced, the human spirit burning amidst bludgeoning- roughly one-third of it describes a job he took as a plongeur, or dishwasher/prep cook. The grime, the attitudes, the long hours, the personalities bordering on sainthood or criminality. The inhuman conditions and treatment- the camaraderie among the abused. Cooks today still hold these couple chapters up as a true and faithful missive of our world- a romantic ode to noble toil. Waiters treat the porters like scum. Chefs treat the cooks like swine, the cooks in turn abuse the dishwashers- and almost all is forgiven at quitting time.
It’s from here that we get the kitchen idea ofsysteme d,” or systeme debrouillard.” Among the plongeurs in the Hotel, according to Orwell, the finest thing you can be known as is a “debrouillard”- a resourceful man, a man of means. A man that will find a way to get the job done- by hook or by crook, hell or high water. The kind of man who, when asked how, is likely to say “You can know the answer to that question… or you can have a good evening and enjoy dinner. Up to you.” The original MacGuyver of the culinary world.
Motivational Poster depicting Hunter S. Thompson smoking. The text reads

Advice from the Good Doctor

 The salad I was really looking forward to- supposedly loaded up with bleu cheese, dressing, crisp red onion, croûton, and- oh twist my arm- smoked sliced pork cheek in place of bacon. This restaurant is apparently well-known for their meat-craft.

The salad lands- another three inches on my beer and three pages in my book later- and it comes as advertised. Unlike the woeful pickles, the salad is precisely as stated in the menu.
It is elegant arranged on the plate. A wedge of iceberg drizzled in dressing, then a small pile of onions. A little mound of crumbled bleu, some grape tomatoes, and- piled up like kindling at the base of the plate- strips of pork cheek smoked and crisped to firm bacon.

It is good… and it is wrong. A wedge salad should not require assembly. It should not come from IKEA, or arrive in parts.
It should be arranged maybe- but not organized.

——-

A few days later, I am at another bar- this one run by friends of mine. The chef-owner, Mitch, lets his new cook tackle the kitchen on his own for a little bit while he gets a drink. As we discuss the day and “Down and Out” (for this was the man who suggested I get a copy,) I tell him about the salad and pickles at this fine restaurant in downtown. Mitch narrows his eyes slightly and shakes his head.

“What? No… No, wedge salad shouldn’t be arranged. It’s supposed to be a pile. It was CREATED like that- a mess of stuff, one on top of the other, in a last-minute stab at something to serve. Same thing with a Cobb or Chef salad. It’s beauty COMES from that. A simple, perfect mess.”

It’s been 20 minutes or so, and an acrid smoke puffs from the kitchen. “Aw hell…” Mitch vanishes, and I look into the bottom of my drink. The scent of gin pulls a smile across my face.

It’s beauty comes from that. A simple, perfect mess.”

Often in ascribing, or attempting to impose, order on things we find lovely- we render them hideous.

Not everything needs to be perfect to you.
Not everything needs to be orderly.
Not everything needs to be new, tight, or twisted.

Sometimes, good salads, good beer, and good food can be just… good.

Sometimes, life needs to be a wedge salad- a “simple, perfect mess”

Stay Classy,