Hands Off

rolling dough at Victory 44
Photo by Eliesa Johnson

I understand the power of words—I better, right? They’re how I get you all hungry and moving quickly toward a perfect bite of burger. Not just any burger, but one where the juiciness melds into the molten cheese to form a solid hunk of beefiness adhering to the squish of bun that can barely contain the fat dollop of special sauce that is about to drip on your hand. See what I did there?

But can words hold too much power? Power over fact and truth, in which your perception of what is good and right is altered forever? I ordered a burger the other day from a little spot, and I asked for it to be medium-rare. When it came to the table it was cooked like a hockey puck, well done. I would have normally sent it back, but we were in a hurry, so I suffered through half of it and left the rest on the plate. To her credit, the server asked if everything was OK with it, and I replied that it was overcooked and not great. To which she replied, “Well, it’s a hand-formed grass-fed burger, so it’s going to taste a little different.” So the hand-forming is how it got burned and dry? That’s the result of the technique you champion on your menu?

Then the next week I was happily snacking on some smoked white fish when I found a little bit of feathery bone. That’s to be expected. But then I hit more and more with each bite, until it became unbearable to eat. This one I thought I should mention to the server as he cleared, as a warning to others. His response, “Well, we do this by hand in the kitchen, so you have to expect a few bones. Other ones, processed ones, are done by machine and so you may not find any, but we do this by hand ourselves.”

So, let me get this straight: You do it by hand, which makes it infinitely better in your mind than having it “processed” by a machine, even though the machine technically does it better? When did the act of hand-touching, hand-pulling, hand-smacking things become a higher value than the actual desired outcome? If your hand technique renders something inedible, shouldn’t you rethink that instead of hiding behind some earnestness that you are defeating the mass production and mechanization of the world?

The phrase has become more powerful than its promise. It used to be that when something was hand-pulled, it meant extra care and extra focus had been given to the dish, that there was a human touching your food who had the desire and ability to deliver nuance, something unavailable from a machine. Has it really become nothing more than a self-righteous bandage to hide and excuse imperfection? In the end, if the technique is sloppy but still revered over the guest experience, it renders it meaningless. Thank you for hand-cutting these fries, but if all I have in my basket are two-centimeter nubs, I’d rather you keep your hands idle.