Work in food service affords many of the same affirmations as working the land. There is tangible satisfaction in long days on two feet, calloused hands, and a body sore from repetition. It is work that has a pulsing, breathing life of its own, a rhythm we—farmers, bakers, servers—hear as giddy-up. So we keep the greens watered and the chickens fed, the pie sweet and the coffee hot and abundant. At the end of the night, we clean up shop: put the tools away, close the greenhouse doors, secure the till. And then we are up before the sun, at it again.
It is easy for me to romanticize farm work. I attribute this to a handful of sunny afternoons in my college organic garden, those first perfect spring days as a perfectly doe-eyed freshmen. There, charismatic upperclassmen taught me to graze on pea shoots, to slaughter chickens, and to eat a little dirt with my carrots. It was playful, really. We were glowing and sweaty youth, lucky enough to be trying stuff out, learning how to feed our bellies and spirits.
My life up to that point had sort of happened for me, in a carpool lane toward a bachelor’s degree. There I was, certain to get a liberal arts education, and not a clue what to make of myself. I must have been seduced by the inherent intentionality of pulling food out of the ground. Ah-ha, I can make tomatoes happen. It felt new and unusual, and I felt cool doing it; that is how you grow a farmer.
So, when school let out, I flocked with my peers to one of those rural and beautiful places, in Carhartts and Xtratufs, to immerse in agriculture. The experience was everything it ought to have been. I spent three growing seasons learning to do-it-myself, to cultivate and celebrate food and abundance. It was both in the field and around the table that my concept of abundance came into resolution. The abundance we shared was born from thrift and creativity, and an adoration for one another. We made simple, slow food happen, then, three times a day, suntanned and smelly, we gathered around it.
Food has been my education in community and generosity. It continues in a setting wildly distinct from the farm, on a bustling corner in San Francisco’s Mission District. Here, my lens on what it means to do good work in food has broadened. In an urban landscape, food often takes place in commercial venues. Mission Pie is one of those—a bakery and café that specializes in, well, pie. Yet what makes Mission Pie special is the intention. At the heart of my work behind the counter is this question: How can a food experience feel intimate when the premise is not do-it-yourself, but, rather, have-it-done-for-you? If we do our job well, customers can interact with our food in a way that brings them to one of those ah-ha moments. This is how food happens.
I fell in love with work when I fell in love with good food. Not pretentious food, but wholesome food, from honest ingredients. And not cerebral work, but grittier work, for the nimble and dexterous. In the service industry we wear white aprons and scrub beneath our fingernails. Still, the work need not feel sterile, but rich and connected. It can be humans connecting with humans, gathering around food, participating in a community of thrifty and creative growers, bakers, servers, and eaters. Abundance is the fruit of good work in food, and it takes many shapes. On the corner of 25th and Mission St, it is circular, nine inches in diameter, and, I am learning, dimensional.
Dana Fan Bialek