|"The Town Too Good For Burger King"
Foreword by Molly O'Neill
People warned me about Provincetown. "Once you get that sand in your shoes," they said ominously, "you'll never be able to leave."
Of course, they had no sand in their shoes and did not understand that having the sand didn't mean that you become weighted down and unable to depart. Rather, the metaphorical sand is a constant tickle. A steady, and if you are lucky, growing awareness of life beyond the routine.
For me, the "sand" was a sense of taste. After a lifetime of mindless eating, my basic world was blown apart in Provincetown by a forkful of flounder that had been soaked in milk, dredged in flour and sautéed in butter. Really tasting is not unlike really kissing. Each changes everything. I reacted like Helen Keller at the well.
Howard Mitcham, one of the town's more notorious cooks, observed my awakening and reaction like a first love who didn't want things to get messy.
"Don't turn into some precious, effete little shit," he scribbled in a note to me.
At the time, his attitude seemed like the culinary equivalent of a "Dear Joan" letter. On balance, his advice was some of the best I've ever received.
Had I felt superior to concoctions like the ketchup-based squid stew at Cookie's Tap, my own senses would have evolved in a narrow, parochial range. As it is, I've tasted around a lot in the past 20 years. Provincetown, as embodied by my first conscious taste, remains the filter though which flavor and character register in my mouth, in my mind, in my soul.
I don't know why I was irrevocably stamped "Provincetown." Paris would have been much more chic. Most of my colleagues appraise taste as it corresponds to a fine paté. My appreciation of paté passes through a filter of linguiça.
I've considered all the typical reasons. The town has always accommodated opposites. The Yankee, the Portuguese, the artist, the small business owner, the privileged, the just-scraping-by, the cosmopolitan, the parochial, the gay, the straight, the contemplative, the raucous, the local, the tourist. Somehow all of this gets reconciled over dinner.
And dinner has a heightened importance. This fragile jut of earth breeds a sort of feeding frenzy. It's not about volume as much as it is about appreciation: Taste now, tomorrow we could die.
Living on the edge heightens the senses.
A shared vulnerability also breeds an urgency to make common cause. What I love most about Provincetown is the sense of stanch superiority held in common. Everybody is different, but we are all better than everybody else.
The artist, Susan Baker, describes the town as "Too good for Burger King." It doesn't matter that Commercial Street has, these days, a higher density of junk food than the prototypical mid-American shopping mall. What matters is that it is OUR pizza by the slice, OUR salt water taffy, OUR greasy hamburgers, hot dogs, fried squid. So, of course, it is the best.
Often the food IS better in Provincetown. This may be due to the intimate knowledge of real freshness, an acceptance of diversity, an awareness of danger and the lingering mindset of a local fishing-based economy now almost gone. It may be the ribald spirit of the place that refuses to bow to mass culture.
I suspect it is a mixture of all these attributes and contradictions. When you taste, what you really taste is a synthesis of opposites. You know sweetness by tasting salt: consider the mussels snagged (illegally now) from the West End breakwater. You instinctively appreciate lemon or vinegar or tomato as characters that mitigate and emphasize the sweet, salty flavor of impeccable fresh fish.
Sitting on the benches in front of Town Hall on an impossibly blue, bright morning, you eat a flipper from the Portuguese Bakery and you know deep in your bones, the devastating, humiliating and hilarious effect of the apparently light and airy. You order more.
Few meals are cooked in Provincetown that are not, in the end, a passion play about opposing flavors. A duel between things as they appear to be and things as they are. A dance between life and death. If such universal truths seem far too lofty to be part of a humble meal, watch a lobster being steamed, feel the tenacity of a littleneck clam. Study a just-filleted flounder in sizzling butter and allow yourself to see the quiver and shudder of the flesh. Notice that you still enjoy dinner.
Of course the senses are heightened in Provincetown. Just beneath the honky tonk abides a culture charged both with a constant choice between life and death and the urge to stitch a lot of weird, mis-matched patches into a coherent whole. In the end, it is better to be a sybarite than a scaredy cat.
As brash and aggressive as the local cooking can be, Provincetown cuisine is a mild understatement of history and the current ethos of the place. It is a reconciliation of opposites, an affirmation of life, a chance to be alive and totally present to all of this bite, by bite.
Thank God for this book. I've been wanting it for nearly 20 years. In a way you never leave Provincetown because Provincetown is not so much as place as it is a state of mind. Local recipes are self-help. When you taste Provincetown, you experience the possibility of life beyond normally accepted boundaries. At least for dinner.