January 22, 2021KR Reviews

The Poetry of the Line Cook: On Fred Shaw’s Scraping Away

Fort Lee, NJ: CavanKerry, 2020. 88 pages. $16.00.

As COVID-19 continues to ravage our cultural institutions, I keep mourning the restaurant, that unique space of communality in which, at least for the first bite, taste overwhelms political sourness. According to some estimates, close to fifty percent of all US restaurants will not survive. This statistic is concerning, not in the least because working in restaurants has given me the financial room to write but also because no environment quite matches a restaurant in its amalgamation of artistry, theatrics, and a certain grease-stained individualism that manifests most clearly as the “line cook.” I love many things about restaurants, but what I love most is the family I’ve found working in them, a community Anthony Bourdain acknowledged when he wrote, “In America, the professional kitchen is the last refuge of the misfit. It’s a place for people with bad pasts to find new family.” And it is precisely this sense of family Fred Shaw explores in his gastronomically gritty and generous debut collection, Scraping Away.

Divided into three sections that span the speaker’s tumultuous childhood to his adult years working in restaurants in New Orleans and Pittsburgh, Scraping Away does more than evoke the unconventional ethos of restaurant life; rather, in its interrogation of the strange class dynamics that exist between restaurant workers and the guests they serve, it explores the often-unacknowledged blue-collar work that remains behind the scenes—work that is grueling and thankless, physically demanding and mentally taxing. If Philip Levine has the smokestacks of Detroit, Fred Shaw has the smoke rising from both the sauté during dinner service and from the back-to-back cigarettes the dishwashers puff behind the dumpster after close. And like that of Levine, Shaw’s world is grounded in class difference and a toughness that only the most attuned observers could transform into poetry.

In the titular “Scraping Away,” a plate of scallops becomes a metaphor for the disjunction between the working-class kitchen and the white-collar dining room:

Once, when we were new, a plate of seafood
crashed to the kitchen tiles and became the first scallops
some of us had ever tried, scraping away
the broken to save the unscathed. . . .

Though devastating, there is also something beautiful about people finally “enjoying” the fruits of their labor—even if it means eating scallops off a kitchen floor. Yet this enjoyment comes at a cost; verbs such as “crashed” and “scraping” embody the chaos inherent to the modern restaurant kitchen with its hot-tempered chefs, constant rattling of plates, and prodigious output of dishes that rivals some of the most efficient factories. But these verbs also signify a breaking away of the human from the shackles of dehumanization. Through the consumption of the expensive mollusks, workers resist capitalism’s own consumptive impulses. By eating the scallops, the workers are able to scrape away the broken, defeated bits of themselves and reemerge, at least temporarily, whole.

Here one of the book’s fundamental questions comes into view: what does it mean to “need” something greater than economic prosperity, to desire a sense of community in a world that is more isolated than ever?

In “José at the Yum-Yum Café,” communal desire manifests as the line cook José’s longing not for American promises of opportunity, which he already understands are “broken,” but simply for “diasporas of Latin American dreams . . . to salsa on his rare time off.” Shaw is at his most observant, cataloguing the difficult life of immigrant kitchen staff while refusing to simply reduce them to workers sweating “over blue-flamed burners.”

If Part One of the collection details the speaker’s adult life working in restaurants in Pittsburgh and Chicago, Part Two evokes the blue-collar, working-class world of writers such as James Wright and B. H. Fairchild to describe a childhood fraught with economic uncertainty, alcoholism, sexual repression, and violence. In “Napalm Summer,” for instance, the speaker resorts to making homemade napalm as a way to deal with the adolescent urges of sex and violence that dominate the modern American conception of “masculinity”:

At dusk, I set fire to an open field,
try to turn desire into ash,
but melt the soles of my checkered Vans
trying to slow the lusty burn

down to a safe smolder where flames
flicker and tongue the dry grass,
like a want
needing to engulf me whole.

Yet even in lines describing an event occurring years before the speaker will step into a restaurant kitchen, the eroticism of cooking manifests as the sensuality of “playing with fire.” Just as the speaker wants to control the flames so that they “tongue the dry grass,” so too does the line cook engage in a meticulous dance with the stovetop burner, ensuring the flames do not char the food but rather keep it simmering above a restrained burn. The white space between the stanzas embodies a “turning down”—both of a stovetop’s burner and of adolescent passion.

Above all else, the second section is driven by the speaker’s need for family. In “The Place Setting,” the speaker recounts a time when, drunk, he threw his father “against this cherrywood table / which has now been in my kitchen / for ten years.” This act of longing for family, that was always on the brink of dissolution, is made even more devastating by the poem’s use of couplets, an instance of subject matter deftly ironizing form. The speaker’s need for acceptance drives these poems, forcing him, as many have, into the weird world of the restaurant kitchen, an environment in which the isolated individual can find community among the dispossessed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the collection concludes with a return to the restaurant, for here the speaker finds the family he never had. In the collection’s final poem “The Communicants,” the speaker and the rest of the staff wait on “that lone couple lingering / over a last swallow of Pinot” to leave so that the restaurant can close. As someone who has waited over an hour after close for an oblivious table to close out their check, this poem deeply resonated with me. In this moment, the disconnect between blue-collar workers and upper-class epicureans is on full display. It is a disconnect in which inequality is both symptom and casual factor; the “lone couple” refuses to see the restaurant workers as anything other than servants—individual, disparate, and “nonessential.”

Whom or what is “essential” has never been more important. Fred Shaw, however, knows the answer quite clearly. In his gritty, hard-nosed look at his life and the lives of restaurant workers, Shaw posits a way towards cultural harmony. It is through food, that great cultural unifier. It is through the act of looking on a dish with wonder, taking that first bite, and reveling in what is truly essential: this dish and, more importantly, the cooks who prepared it and the dishwashers who will scrape what remains of it away. Fred Shaw’s Scraping Away is also essential. His collection, more than ever, needs to be read to make us rethink the restaurant—that chaotic, beautiful institution that is so fundamental to our lives.