I’VE SPENT FULL months' worth of my life, possibly more than a year, washing and trimming and chopping vegetables, but because the work is so boring I almost always spend that time thinking about anything other than the washing and trimming and chopping. As a result, it took me all this time before I understood precisely what is so annoying about the job, and even then, it was really a result of a conversation afterward, rather than my private thinking about the problem.
We'd just finished eating broccoli—beef and broccoli, specifically—which is a vegetable I particularly like to eat and even more particularly hate to prepare. That is, I eat broccoli less often than I would like to eat it, because I choose, consciously and unconsciously, to avoid the work of preparing it. I don't buy it as often as easier vegetables, and when I do buy it, I tend to leave it in the crisper drawer until I have no choice.
The problem (I would have said, without thinking closely about it) is that the broccoli is much better when it's peeled, and peeling it is especially dull and time-consuming. But this particular night, the broccoli was easy to peel. It was so easy, it made me regret not having broccoli more often. I was trying to express why this broccoli had peeled so easily, when my wife—who will sometimes break my near-monopoly on the household vegetable work to peel the broccoli herself, when I've been avoiding it in the crisper for too long—hit on the truth about it: it's not really about the peeling. It's about deciding when to stop peeling.
With each broken-off floret, you start peeling at the bottom, where the stem is a single unit, on which the peel is dark green and thick and obviously undesirable to eat. But as the peel comes away and ascends, it becomes paler and thinner, and the broccoli starts branching into littler parts, and you have to figure out where to stop. If you pull it all the way to the top, you'll start wrecking the floret and crumbling off little bits of the buds; if you trim it off early, you might leave some less-than-tender peel. Each time, you need to decide when it's good enough.
And you have to make this small, inane, barely conscious choice over and over and over, while the rest of your brain is desperately trying to pay attention to anything else in the world. It's the same way the legs rebel in a museum from the endless stopping and starting, fed up with heaving the mass of the body back and forth between the same two goddamn inertial states while the eyes and the mind are being entertained by inexhaustible variety. It's just a little bit of effort, but that's what makes it so demanding.
This is even clearer with the dou miao, the pea shoots that I've been cooking since I figured out the Chinese grocery delivery company carries them. Dou miao are as good to eat as vegetables get, and they could not be easier to cook: into a hot pan with oil and garlic and out again in moments. But first they need to be washed, and in each shoot's individual curling tangle of leaves and hollow stems, there are two or more slightly dried-out cut ends to be found and trimmed back. Even so, I've learned not to put the dou miao off in the crisper for later, because after a very brief period of neglect, they'll start developing soft, wilted tips and edges, which have to be hunted down and diagnosed and nipped off, on top of the regular trimming. There's no appeal to procrastinating if you end up with more work later in absolute terms.
This particular batch of broccoli was easy to peel because, by some happy chance, the peel happened to break off at precisely the point where it was clear it didn't need to go any further. All these years, the problem hasn't really been the mindlessness of the job. It's been the tiny, annoying amount of attention the job secretly requires.
Another Week, Another HMM WEEKLY
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Some Things That Were Found in America This Week
An octagonal boat with a tiki hut built on it (in Key West, with a person aboard whom the Coast Guard described as showing "signs of intoxication).
Nitrate (in Belle Plaine, Kansas, at elevated levels in the drinking water).
Two Canadians (near Fergus Falls, Minnesota, allegedly with “67 firearms and various pistol magazines” in their pickup truck).
A “homemade explosive device” (in a parking lot in Lagrange, Georgia).
A live World War II–era grenade (in Horry County, South Carolina, after having been mistakenly sold at a North Carolina antiques mall).
A cat named Patches (in Santa Barbara, California, where it had been missing and presumed dead since its owner and 22 other people were killed in a mudslide in 2018).
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SANDWICH RECIPES DEP’T.
WE PRESENT A selection of recipes for anachronistic but entirely executable sandwiches, found in Recipes of the Woman’s Club of San Mateo, copyright 1909, by the Woman’s Club of San Mateo, compiled by May Robinson Thomas, Dietitian, now in the public domain for the delectation of all.
Meats should be cooked until very tender for sandwiches; when sliced, the meat should be cut across the grain and as thin as possible; a filling of chopped corned-beef or ham is improved by the addition of mustard; use Worcestershire or horseradish sauce with roast beef or tongue; chopped capers, tomato sauce, catsup, or mint sauce combine well with lamb; season chicken or veal with celery salt, and fish with lemon juice.
Chopped meat or fish may be mixed with salad dressings or any well-prepared dressing; chopped celery, cress, cucumbers, tomatoes, or olives may be used with meat and dressing; lettuce leaves are usually served whole, the edges barely showing outside the sandwiches; fruits may be used for filling and moistened with fresh fruit juice; the dried fruits should be chopped and stewed.
Scented sandwiches are prepared by wrapping the butter to be used in a napkin and keeping it over night on beds of either violets, fragrant rose petals, clover blossoms, or nasturtiums in a closely covered jar.
Fresh fruit sandwiches are nice made with thin water wafers.
3 Breakfast cheeses
Cream the cheese with melted butter; add a little juice from the pimento; cut all the crusts from a loaf of bread and cut in lengthwise slices about one-third of an inch thick; butter and spread with cheese; then put three lengthwise strips of pimentos, and then two on the next slice and so on until the loaf of bread is used; let stand and cut, just before serving, like a loaf cake.
—Mrs. Julia Donnelly
1 can chopped pimentos
Sweet or sour pickles chopped fine
4 or 5 hard-cooked eggs
Mix the chopped pimentos, hard-cooked eggs, pickles together with mayonnaise, and spread on thin slices of bread.
1 box best sardines (boned)
1 teaspoon vinegar
1 small onion
Chop together the sardines and onion; stir into this the vinegar and spread on thin slices of buttered bread; cut in any shape desired.
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