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Will work for food

By Marina Wolf

I WAS CRAVING fresh seafood the other day, and feeling posh, too, so I did the logical thing and took my girlfriend to a restaurant that serves plain boiled crab. The crab came with the standard nutcracker thingy and a seafood fork, neither of which actually work against the fiberglass shell and tiny little pockets of crustaceous resistance. Of course we got sticky crab juice all over our faces within 30 seconds, and of course we had to wait until the end of the meal for those little lemon-scented warm towels to do a proper clean-up.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, while I was wrenching and picking my way through a leg, it hit me: crab is possibly the most inefficient food on the face of the planet. The paltry return in kilocalories in no way justifies the energy spent on getting at the goods in the first place. In other words, it takes a lot of work for one mouthful of crab.

Such moments of awareness--cold showers on the lusty work of crab eating--are the curse of the modern appetite. They come because we are becoming more and more used to not doing any work at all. The food comes to us preprocessed, after all the effort in cleaning, extracting, chopping, seasoning, and/or cooking has been applied in far-away factories. The more processed the food, the easier the eatin', a truism that leads us right up to astronaut squeeze-tube entrées and cans of Slim Fast.

Hey, I didn't say the food is tastier. It's just easier to get in your mouth.

Some of the best food in the world is a real pain in the ass to eat. Artichokes. Fresh pineapple. The bit of meat left in the corner of the pork chop bone. Food worth having often involves getting fibers in one's teeth, as in mangoes or fresh corn on the cob, and sometimes it's just downright dirty work. Like pomegranates.

For years I carefully, cheerfully peeled them, accepting any stray spurt of blood-red juice as my toll for the sensual pleasure that would follow. And even though I've learned the trick about peeling them while submerging them in a bowl of water, the tough peel still manages to work its way under my fingernails every time. This, I think while digging under my nails with a painful grimace, is the price for pleasure.

Not working for our food creates a valueless menu. Without some level of brute physical engagement with the process, there is no striving, no contrast of pain or temporary deprivation or nasty toxic bits to make the final mouthful so delicious. Is this too moral an overlay for the simple facts of digestion? Perhaps. But there is no denying the elation I experience in finding and mining an overlooked section of crab leg.

Contrast that with the easy foods (they call them convenience foods for a reason). There is no triumph in a corndog. Yes, it's good, and there is a certain dexterity involved if you put too much mustard on before walking a crowded fairway. But it's on a stick: How can you miss your mouth? Or take preprocessed cheese slices, which, in addition to being oversalted and strangely textured, take all the science and suspense out of cutting a piece of real cheese off an unwieldy block. And let's not even talk about Krab meat, which bears enough resemblance to its namesake to use for display in cheap deli-case salads, but not enough to put on my plate

Hell, yes, I'll work for my food. If it's easy, we pay for it in other ways.

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From the January 4-10, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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