Summer is, for me, defined by a conflict of heat: the first, unrelenting outside, and then the other, absent in my own cooking. Though I may curse the heat in August, I long for it again in September, when I'm reminded of how much time vegetables take to roast and how itchy sweaters can feel against the slow fade of our summer skin.
It is in summertime then when I learn most about vegetables. It's the season that encourages us to enjoy foods in their raw, vulnerable states. My palate becomes more acute; I pay attention to the subtleties between chocolate mint and peppermint. Tatsoi tastes of horseradish, and mustard greens, more pungent than ever, stand proud against other lettuces. I'm learning the intricacies of their behaviors, too: how tender, green things sleep best at night (loosely-packed and tucked away with something moist overtop, or better still, in their pots); how the mild, watery flesh of cucumber and zucchini – the plant kingdom's most savory fruits –respond better to marination than dressing. And how, like pasta, the shape you decide to transform fresh produce into can dictate the dish entirely. By the time winter comes around, I've imprinted their best selves in my memory long enough to sustain me until Spring.
Like lettuce, herbs, and tomatoes, summer squash deserves a bit of recognition in the buff. Not because they are particularly flavorful, in fact. Almost the opposite. Because they are so mild can we call their other attributes virtuous: silky flesh shaves neatly into ribbons, and a firm, resolute texture absorbs vinaigrettes without wilting. Below is a play on carpaccio, a dish traditionally reserved for meat and so simple it requires great ingredients to shine, like mindfully toasted hazelnuts, your favorite vinegar, and the best squash while Summer can offer it.
You could say I've become intimately familiar with raw fruits and vegetables at work; we've even become blood brothers (a dull mandolin will do that). I'm responsible for a station the restaurant industry refers to as garde manger, French for "keep to eat," but more universally understood as "the cold side." Out of this station comes the majority of our chilled starters and salads, plus plated desserts and shucked oysters. It is at once simple and complex; the absence of heat means ingredients are not transforming when your attention becomes divided, but the sheer number we're responsible for can feel overwhelming.
Historically, garde manger identified the storage area that housed foods preserved from that season's harvest. In the 12th century, nearly 90% of the world's population were rural peasants; serfs who worked the land for nobility by raising crops and animals. The end of the growing season was a crucial time of year: plants had to be harvested and animals had to be butchered; and all had to be processed in such a way as to preserve their integrity throughout the cold season. Meat was likely dried, smoked, or cured; and vegetables were preserved in acid, sugar, or oil, or cold-stored whole in root cellars.
To collect and keep, as well as tax and trade these foods, was a privilege and symbol of power granted only to nobility and the covenants of the Catholic church. Household employees known as officiers de la bouche ("officers of the mouth") would manage these storerooms. However, during the French Revolution in the late 1700's, noblemen fled persecution, leaving their staff behind. These officiers de la bouche found their way into restaurants across Europe, becoming "pantry chefs" instead. Garde manger was then incorporated into the brigade system of hierarchy still used today to organize the chaos of the professional kitchen.
Somewhere down the line (quite literally), the historical power and status associated with garde manger was lost. Partially to blame is the obsolescence of rigorous food preservation in post-industrial foodservice. Garde manger is now known as the entry-level salad station. These pantry chefs live on, but with a slightly different skill set: once bestowed with the responsibility of archiving the seasons, they have, in our culture of abundance, become defined by the near-competitive ability to slice tomatoes, pick herbs gently, and dress salads with a tender touch. If we keep to eat only in times of scarcity, how does this bear relevance in times of abundance?
I believe that a crucial part of keeping to eat is learning to savor: to recognize foods at their peak and to appreciate them unadulterated. It is only then that we can grant ourselves the authority to become their keepers, responsible not just for preserving them now, but, perhaps, ensuring they'll thrive, both raw and cooked, in the future.