Each January I spend ten days in Key West, cooking for my cousin Rob’s sailing crew, who race the J 111, Spaceman Spiff. Just to be clear, I’m not cooking on the boat. These things are the sheerest, strongest, lightest plastic for maximum speed and they don’t want some overweight guy down below stirring beans in a cast-iron pot while they’re blasting down wind. I cook in a spacious kitchen in a lovely house on Caroline Street. I write in the morning and I cook in the afternoon and happily and unaccountably I haven’t been hung over once. Go figure. Seriously. It’s a first here.
But it does allow me to reflect on the methods and importance of cooking for groups. You can see previous posts on how to cook for groups below so I don’t have to retread. But I did have a moment after the steaks, watching the table (watching because when they talk sailing I don’t understand a whole lot).
It came after Monday night’s dinner, after Spaceman got a 1st and a 6th (sigh) their first day out, that the importance of family meal became resoundingly clear.
People ate strip steak and twice-baked potatoes and salad and green beans that I cooked and shocked and Jim and Doug (aka Dim) finished on the grill—my ace grill masters. We all laughed and talked, and bottles and bottles of wine were passed.
And then everyone stopped eating and drinking (more or less). Nobody got up. They talked about the race. They had their formal “debrief,” which is dry and business-like, and then they kept talking, they moved into nuances of the race and of sailing generally. And it was beautiful even though I didn’t understand a word of it. And I know, I know, this would not have happened had it not been preceded by a full and easy and satisfying meal. You try doing this in a conference room. Doesn’t happen. No one moves into nuance. Everyone is eventually itching to bolt a conference room. Not here. The good meal brought them together, and nourished them, and they stayed to the point of discussing nuances, which is where magic hides.
Nick brought me almost to tears last night. Last night was lobster night. I ship Maine lobsters down and we have leftover steak for a surf and turf meal. But 18 lobsters are a lot of fucking work. Even cooking them using an immersion circulator (125˚F for an hour or so, 36 halves finished by Dim over a crackling fire), they’re still a bitch. Boiling the claws separately, saving all the legs for stock, breaking them down, halving each tail. This in addition to the rest of the meal. So we all ate and sat as usual and it was a fabulous meal. But I was beat. So when I was done, I went out on the back deck to have a smoke and drink a thumping glass of Maker’s Mark, and just exhale in the balmy Key West night.
Midway through the best cigarette of the evening, Nick Turney, the team’s tactician, came out and said, “Hey, I’m starting the debrief.” I said, go ahead, I’ll come in when I’m finished with this. (I don’t sail, don’t need to be there, don’t understand a word of what they’re saying about tomorrow’s strategy and getting of the starting line and reach-arounds—not that kind, anyway—and hiking and reefing, so, really, go ahead, Nick, I’ll be in there in a second. Nick said, “No, I’ll wait.” And he left.
And he did wait. Because I’d put the meal together and he wanted to thank me before he moved into the debrief. Seriously, near enough to bring me to tears. So, thanks, Nick. I’ll cook for you anytime, and for this whole sailing family. Even though I don’t understand all that you do or even need to understand. The food, and all of us sharing it, are enough.
**The winner of the 12 Recipes giveaway
Joella Comp of Springfield, Missouri
“I’m grateful for beans. It wasn’t technique for us then. It was survival. Plain and simple and filling, with a pan of hot cornbread in a cast-iron skillet. Many years have passed since then, and I still love a big pot of beans. My beans have grown up with me, to include onions and garlic, tomatoes and peppers, along with veggies that I never dreamed of as a kid. The dish may have evolved, but that feeling of security bubbles to the top when I’m cooking beans.”
Congrats & happy cooking!
If you liked this post, then you will enjoy these links:
- My past posts on The Key Sunrise, Stress-Free Key West Menu, Key West Bound, and Meat Broth & Stocks.
- Learn more about traveling to Key West.
- Mark Bittman’s article on A Gratifying Adventure in Group Cooking.
- Follow the fun of the Spaceman Spiff crew on Facebook.
© 2015 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2015 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.