My neighbor Nora came over last week to prepare some ready-made food for the lazy days of summer and maybe pick up a few cooking tips along the way. Nora is a funny, smart, kind and engaging friend, whose primary flaw seems to be that she possesses not one knife skill that might prove helpful in the kitchen. I cannot attest to her street fighting capabilities.
I say “flaw” because, when preparing large quantities of vegetables and meats, knife skills are key to things like speed of preparation, evenness of pieces, the effect of specific texture, flavor and balance in a dish, not to mention the absence of blood tingeing the flesh of the pale shoots and tubers lying on the cutting board.
My dogs, however, have a wholly different take on the situation. To them Nora is, finally, someone who knows how to cook around a dog. She does not rush thoughtlessly through the process of preparing foods. She studies and examines each ingredient and object, w ashing and inspecting it tantalizingly as the remaining droplets of water drip seductively down into the sink. She’s new here in the house, and so she leaves the fridge open longer than it usually stays open as she looks for what she needs, like a 50-cent peep show window stuck open for an extra minute. She leaves things on the edge of the counter, just peeking over and whispering, “wait ’til they look away!” as their stalks and leaves and butcher paper wrappings beckon. And most importantly, she drops things.
Don’t get me wrong, I drop things too. My usual level of rushed, distracted multi-tasking and crowded kitchen work surface (used for homework, message center, food prep and family loading dock) makes for frequent mayhem and gravitational inevitabilities, both edible and otherwise. This has caused my two dogs to learn very different things.
Betty, my wiser, calmer, older dog, has learned to lie down on the less busy side of the island and survey the situation before making any decisions. It is only after she’s checked that the fallen object is some kind of food and not a school form, now three months late and covered in coffee rings, that she’ll even consider leaving her position. Then she needs to be sure that the relevant human will allow canine clean up of the morsel, and most importantly, that it’s worth getting up for. A piece of citrus? Forget it. Melon? Are you kidding? Why bother? Cuke? Well, maybe if I can stretch my neck far enough I’ll go for it. Meat, cheese, apples, crackers? You bet, I’m there! And so the sequence is clear: see or hear object fall, look, assess, get up if and only if it’s worth it and Addie hasn’t gotten there first. No need to panic, there will always be more dropped things. Betty is a very sage and beatific creature, and she knows above all that more good things will always come her way.
Addie sees things differently. Addie’s personality is best described as a combination of Tweek, the over-caffeinated, jumpy, wide-eyed kid on South Park, and George of the Jungle, a well-intentioned, over-exuberant, crashing, hurling, awkwardly socializing, lovable butthead. You can tell when Addie’s in the kitchen because you suddenly notice you’re reaching for the cutting board, look down and see cinnamon dots and big brown eyes staring up at you, somehow positioned between you and the counter without having been noticed. There is a reason, it turns out, for dogs’ heads to be wedge shaped.
Addie’s take on an object dropping from the counter is to assume it’s edible and likely to escape if she doesn’t get to it within one second. This has been confirmed by the cabinet bottoms, which have cut-outs into which perfectly good food has been known to roll. (It has also been confirmed that if the food does roll into them, it is impossible to chew all the way through the cabinet bottom without the humans in the room getting completely bent out of shape, though they will then reliably fish out the desired, now fur-encrusted object and toss it disgustedly toward a dog that happens to be waiting there, splinters barely showing between her teeth.)
Now, I have no issue with Nora’s newness to the ways of things bladed, and I enjoy our time together in the kitchen. I’m in no hurry, we’re under no restaurant deadline of 70 covers walking in the door in moments, and it’s fun to ponder and discuss ingredients in ways I haven’t really done since my days as a professional chef many years ago. Clearly fans of the new cooking ritual are my dogs, who lie quietly on the kitchen floor in unabashed hope and anticipation, spellbound by Nora’s every move.
“Yes!” they telepathically communicate to anyone on the room that might hear, “yes, pick up the bacon! Turkey, it’s really time to trim the turkey! I believe there are some carrots you’ve forgotten, rolled behind that olive oil on the counter. Shouldn’t you cut them up too? Have you thought about meatballs? I hear they’re … made out of meat. And that they roll…”
And so I’ve discovered that the benefits of knife skills are really just a matter of opinion. Let Tom Colicchio test the Top Chef contestants on their ability to quickly assemble their mis en places – that august judging panel lacks the understanding that dogs would bring.True gourmands lie on tile and wood, happily anticipating each morsel that might come their way, less interested in the provenance of the ingredients so much as the ability of said ingredient to fall.
Nora will be coming back tomorrow for some more cooking, talking and exploring of food. Skill is very different than artistry. If I could let them know, my dogs would undoubtedly sleep by the front door, waiting to welcome another virtuoso weekend performance piece of culinary promise and delights.