I worked in a welding shop as a summer job between sophomore and junior years at college. For the princely sum of $5.50 an hour, I cut, bent, ground, drilled, and otherwise manipulated various forms of mild steel into the shapes the welders needed to make the trailers, truck racks, and various other things that were the bulk of their business. On my lunch breaks I taught myself to stick and MIG weld. It was an interesting learning environment; Bob, one of the welders, who drank a six-pack and smoked a joint in his Camaro every day at lunch, would wander back in, look at my work, and say something like “I fuckin hate mawdin aht” and beat my work apart with a hammer. Obnoxious? Yes. Funny as shit? That too. But also a hell of an incentive to learn; within a month I could really weld and he couldn’t knock my stuff apart any more. Right before I quit (to go be a carpenter’s helper for a whopping $8 an hour) I stick-welded a big rectangular pan of 16 gauge sheet steel without making a single hole. The grudging praise of the guys in the shop meant a great deal to me. I bought myself a welder later that summer, and made a lot of sculptures over the ensuing years. I still have it in the garage.
Why does this matter? Well, the shop foreman, Charlie, who was about 90 at the time, had this brilliant piece of advice if ever I had an issue with a piece of uncooperative steel. He’d look at the thing and say “Why don’t you hit that with a hammer?” and walk away.
As I get older, more and more I learn the value of subtlety, finesse, and nuance as the highest expressions of skill: the little details, the extra steps that other people might not notice but that still matter. One of my very best paintings is a piece that I worked and reworked for months, repainting the modulations of color over and over again. After seven coats of paint, I was pretty happy with it, but the next day I knew it wasn’t quite right. I also knew that nobody would notice, but I wouldn’t let it out the door until I repainted it an eighth time. It sang. And it sold before the show even opened, for more than I’d ever gotten for a piece before.
This meal was not like that.
I lost track of time today, and neglected to get these lovely loin chops from our half lamb out of the chest freezer early to defrost. So come prep time, they were full-on, sound-like-claves-when-you-hit-them-together frozen. I wrote recently about how cooking a half-thawed steak, especially a thinner one, allows for getting a respectable crust on the outside without cooking the middle past the deep pink beyond which ruination lies. Tonight, in the spirit of Charlie the foreman, I took these rock-hard chops and hit them with the proverbial hammer. I got some peanut oil shimmering in the iron pan and seared them spitting in protest on both sides and all the way around until they were seriously brown and crusty. Then I killed the flame, covered the pan, and pushed it aside while I made soup and fried rice. They sat for maybe 15 minutes.
Now these were not fat-ass restaurant chops; they were about an inch. When we cut into them, they looked as if they had been cooked sous-vide at about 130˚ for a couple of hours and then seared hard: gorgeous dark rosy pink all the way through, with a badass maillard on the edges. Just absolutely perfectly cooked lamb, from freezer to table in less than half an hour. So there you go. Especially if your stove is BTU-challenged, give it a shot. Take the time you need to get that glorious caveman crust on your meat without making the insides inedibly grey. I’ve gotten pretty good at cooking meat just the way I want it, and I have a good stove. But honestly this meat tonight was as good as any I’ve cooked. (The quality of the lamb helps. Don’t buy factory meat).
To this day, whenever I see a badly-welded sculpture, it’s all I can do to not reach for a
hammah hammer. Craft matters. Bad technique will preclude anyone with real knowledge of the subject from appreciating anything else about your art, or food, or anything else. (I saw a big piece in a blue-chip gallery in Chelsea a few years ago that was positively festooned with thin, trailing filaments of hot glue, and I sorely wanted to kick it to pieces on the spot). This method right here might be heresy to some pros, but it works. Plus, it’s the best lazy save since unsoaked beans in the pressure cooker. Sometimes a hammer is the right tool for the job.
I’ve got lots more funny stories from my many blue-collar jobs over the years. Next time, if you’re really good, I’ll tell you about the three hours I spent with Bob after lunch with an oxyacetylene torch inside a not-cleaned-out manure spreader shaped just like a solar oven on a sunny, humid 97˚July day.