What follows below the asterisks is a tiny excerpt from the novella I’ve just completed. The novella is called I See My Light Come Shining. I thought I’d open a new section here for true stories from my kitchen days and since I’d written this not too long ago I’m putting it here as the first story. The excerpt is to show how it plays off in fiction.
The actual story goes like this. I did sear off the skin of the five fingertips of my right hand my first day in the kitchens as a cook. Henry Lee had asked me to get him a sizzling platter since we served all rare steaks on sizzlers. It was about 11:30 AM. We’d just opened for lunch and only had a few customers and a few orders working. I didn’t know what was happening, that’s how lost I was. There was so much to learn, so much to keep track of. I never thought that the second side of the charcoal grill was turned on and I never imagined that the top plate of the stack of sizzling plates would be hot. It all happened so fast and my head was already spinning. I reached for the plate and the sizzle was my own skin. Mary came running when Henry Lee called out and Robert did just amble over, grab my wrist and put my hand right back over the open fire. He held it there and apparently knew how long to keep it there, and besides telling me to watch what I was touching, he told me then and repeatedly to check out my mind. Mary said something to Robert which I didn’t hear but for which Robert’s response was something about the boy, me, not being afraid of the fire and that was why he was doing it that way.
For many years, I had just about no feeling in those fingertips. Over the course of time, some feeling came back, but to this day I can hold unusually hot things in that hand. Being able to handle hot things was an asset through my kitchen career.
That first day in the kitchen in State Steakhouse East, way back so long ago, Henry Lee asked Murph to reach for a sizzling platter. The line in State West was an open hearth where the customers could see the cooks work, but in the east it was inside the kitchen, a Garland, then an open double charcoal grill, then another Garland and two French fryers. Henry Lee ran the broiler at lunch. Murph didn’t know both sides of the charcoal grill were turned on and when he reached for the sizzler, he seared the skin right off the five fingertips of his right hand.
“Oh, shit,” Henry Lee said.
“What?” Mary said. She came around from the preparation part of the kitchen on the other side of the line and saw Henry Lee holding out Murph’s hand. Murph was almost in shock.
Oh, shit,” Mary said.
Robert was there that day since Murph was his boy and this was his first day in the kitchen. Nonchalant as always, he wandered up from changing into a uniform, his apron draped over his shoulder, his shoes flopping on his feet because his heels were out.
“Robert,” Mary called.
Bee had come over from the salad station located passed the fryers and perpendicular to the line like the top of a sideways capital T. She was looking at it all. “Ain’t feeling no pussy with that hand for awhile,” Bee said.
Like nothing, Robert moseyed up. He surveyed the scene and ever-so-gently took Murph’s arm by the wrist and extended it back over the charcoal grill. Murph tried to pull away but Robert clamped down on the wrist and held him there. In a moment’s time, not uttering a word, he had cauterized the burns and seized control of the situation.
“Next time be mindful of what you touch,” he said.
Copyright 2014© Peter Weiss All rights reserved.
Round about 1972 Judy Brady wrote an essay “I Want A Wife.” At that time I was graduated from OSU and working in kitchens which was not my first choice. In fact, that kind of work was not on my list of choices for work at all and hadn’t even been in my mind as what I would want to be doing or end up doing or do for awhile. Please, don’t take offense at the use of “that kind of work.” It is simply an accurate depiction of my mind set at the time and not a reference to anything about the type of work it is. I had thought maybe a teacher or social worker, something to enhance my career as a writer. All together it’s a long story and one I’ve told in some of the Kitchen Stories, so I’m not going to retell it here, but I will say that I was down and out and borrowing rent money from my brother every month, so when I got the job (as a busboy) I was happy for it just to start making money. I didn’t last long as a busboy because on the second night I spilled some soup on a customer who then refused to accept my apology. After hurling a few expletives–after all I was young and prideful and didn’t think through the consequences–I was whisked away into the kitchen and put to work as a pot washer. Admittedly and honestly, I thought it was humorous at the time. Nevertheless, it was wholly accidental and I did sincerely apologize. It wasn’t humorous anymore when I was up to my elbows inside a cooking pot, scrubbing it with a brush bigger than my hand, and sometimes a brush made of wires and sometimes just industrial sized steel pads. I was happy when a couple of days later I was promoted to working on the dishwasher. That only resulted in burnt hands since the water temperature was near scalding.
I’m not the type of person cut out to be a server in a restaurant. It isn’t about anything other than eye-hand coordination and overall agility and adeptness. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, I only get good at these types of activities by continued repetitions, and if you see the post “A Long Time Ago,” that recording engineer friend and I used play Foosball when we were kids and he always beat me 11-0 or 21-0 until I got frustrated enough to not play anymore. That friend picked up drum sticks and a drum pad and automatically played the drums, no one teaching him. I picked up a pen and paper.
I should also mention that for awhile in kitchens was twenty years for me although for the last years I was working only three or four nights in Manhattan bistros while teaching college during the day and at the very end I was teaching high school full time during the day. I might also say that in three nights in the kitchen I made more money than I made full time teaching for NYCDOE.
Teaching college was when I first became familiar with Judy Brady’s essay and I taught it for many reasons from a literary standpoint, but not, incidentally, as a feminist issue. It was of course hailed as a feminist piece, and just as an aside, about the time I was laid off from a ten-year stint at Queens College, feminists had pretty much come to power in the English Department and they got rid of anyone they could who did not fit in with their agenda.
She wants a wife , today’s musing, centers around a thought about a firstborn child who was a girl whose father wanted a boy and raised her kind of like a boy. She grew up kind of confused. Her values (old school) stated that the man provided for the woman and the family and the woman took care of the home and the kids and the man, but she was like her father and liked to control things and make the decisions. More to the point, she liked being a woman when it was convenient, and wanted all the things men used to provide in a traditional sense for traditional women, but she liked being in a man’s role when it was convenient too.
Like so many thoughts, this one crossed my mind as something to write about and I thought maybe make a story about. But I don’t think I will ever make a story about it and I would say I surely wouldn’t but nothing much is sure.
This morning I was out walking Rachel. She is a magnificent animal who has come from being a dirty, undernourished rescue to a clean, healthy, strong, muscular dog, a truly wonderful pet. Watching her, I marvel at her agility and her balance. She is a pointer mix, mostly pointer, who is quite smart and getting well trained. She comes on command, which is extremely important since where we live there are many places to run her off leash. She has her own mind and will run where she wants. What is most fascinating is watching her go up the really steep hills at a gallop and come down the same way. Out in the field, she will go far away and then run at me full speed, head forward, ears tucked, like a torpedo. Now, she’s a lean machine; you can see every muscle on her as they are supposed to be. She would make a great running back if only she could carry the ball. Watching her stop and make cuts at will is amazing. Rachel is two years old and honestly we wanted to get an older German Shepherd so the commitment would only be for about a half dozen years. Well, so it goes; she was kind of thrust upon us and here she is, a wonder, a great source of pleasure and fun.
Where we live many of the trails are maintained by the army engineers and there are lots of them. At some of the trails it is understood the dogs go off lead. At others, you can do it because they are not much used.
These are just a few shots from two different places in different seasons.
Rachel running in the woods is in her element and comfortable with being who she is. Of course she doesn’t think any of this. She just is and does and is very happy when she is doing what she is meant for by her breeding. She even points, which is a hoot. How much of my life, I think, I have spent out of my element, asked to do things I am not suited for or interested in. However, here, writing this and no matter what I am writing, I’m in my element.
Retired at the young age of 65, I am ever aware that every day is a gift. You just never know if you get another one or even get to finish out the one you’ve gotten. Trite as it may seem, don’t take life for granted. Each day I wake up and am happy for being awake, not that things always go my way because they don’t and not that I am always happy. But as long as I am standing up and breathing and healthy, I’m just great.
I have everything I want in this world, lots of stuff I don’t, and much more than I need. It’s a blessing. Lately, I think simple and plain is best, or less is more, as it’s said. If only I had known this when I was younger! We’ve gone to a house a third smaller than the one before it, and even smaller might have been better.
I got good at doing some of the things I wasn’t suited for or never wanted to be. Mostly, I got good at them by repetition. One time, in one of the kitchens I worked in, a big name chef asked me how many boxes of mushrooms it was going to cost him for me to learn to make mushrooms tourne. I told him he should plan on a lot of cream of mushroom soup for the menus. I never planned on being a cook but spent twenty years in kitchens. Ain’t it funny how the night moves.
I don’t have an ending for this. In fact, there is no ending. That one story leads to many more but they are for other times. I’m rather tender and sentimental lately–that’s just a passing observation. The mushrooms tourne, mine were craftsman-like, correct and competent. One of my friends who died rather early was a Garde Manger and when he made them they were beautiful. Same for his tomato roses.