On Mother’s Day that year, we did 1500 covers. It was a store record. Henry Lee and I had cut meat all day the day before, from early morning when we’d gotten in straight up to the lunch service and from right after lunch up to the dinner service. Henry Lee worked late into the night by himself since I was upstairs doing the dinners.
Even the Saturday night before Mother’s Day was busy. We ran a full broiler from about seven on up to just passed ten. Mary had made sure to prep enough food not only for the night but also to give herself a good start on the holiday. That she was a mother and it was her day didn’t matter any. Anyone who has ever worked restaurants knows weekends and holidays belong to the bosses and over the years I’ve known cooks, even good cooks, to get fired for purposefully missing a holiday or for not showing up on a Saturday night.
That Saturday night, Grandma spent all her time breading chicken. I’ve never written much about Grandma. She worked the night shift, after Mary was done for the day, although they saw each other every day when Grandma came in and Mary was going home. Mary would show her what she had left her, what Grandma had to do and anything special or unusual that needed taking care of. I’ve always said that I was the only white kitchen worker but Grandma was white too, and so was Jimmy, a high school senior who worked the line with me for the dinners.
Grandma reminded me of my own grandmother, Fannie. Fannie was fat, very fat, and she sidled more than walked. But she was always happy, always laughing a loud, boisterous laugh from the gut that you could hear a block away. Like my own grandmother, Grandma was short and wide and always laughing. I never knew anyone who had more pride in fried chicken than Grandma. That’s mostly what she did every night, fry chicken. The first night that I worked there she made me taste hers, and damn if it wasn’t really good. If smiles could light the world, Fannie’s and Grandma’s alone would’ve done it.
Mother’s Day morning was hopping. We started at seven instead of six since we were doing only one service all day long. Mary, Bee and I stripped to our underwear outside the linen closet and Bee threw us uniforms. We were long passed being shy since we’d done this a couple of hundred times already and this day there was no time for fooling around. On a regular day Bee might cop a feel and chuckle, or she might take my hand in hers and give me a feel of her. Mary always had a comment or two for that kind of stuff, but she never said much when I felt her up even inside her drawers. A family that plays together, stays together.
Alfrieda, Henry Lee’s wife, got there with the truck by seven-thirty. She brought two dishwashers with her to load the meat, and this was just the first of three trips she would make. Henry Lee, who changed by himself in the bathroom because of his artificial leg, cut meat all day long, working as he always did for both stores.
By nine everyone was in. Bee and Esserine did the salads and desserts, Mary and Grandma did the prep work. Mr. Jim, Jimmy and I were on the line although Robert came by later in the day when our managers reported to the owner that we were running full and there was no let-up in sight. We had limited the menu by not serving lunch items. Our Mother’s Day menu offered all kinds of steaks and prime rib as well as fried fish (deep-fried on the line) and fried chicken.
Mary replenished the line all day long. Grandma fried chicken all day long. Mr. Jim cut prime rib all day long, and he helped me plate things too, more than a few times. Jimmy fried shrimp and pickerel and made French fries, and he helped Mary and Grandma run food pans to the line when he could. A couple of times we had to wait for clean plates because the dishwashers couldn’t stack them fast enough in the plate warmers.
But when all was said and done, we made it through. Personally, I went through three kitchen shirts and four aprons. I’d call for a new shirt when it was so sweat-soaked I couldn’t stand it anymore and I’d call for a new apron when the blood had so saturated the one I was wearing you could ice skate on it.
Robert got there about four, I think, but no one could actually tell time since we were nonstop hour after hour. Bebe, the barmaid, sent sodas in regularly; Henry Lee was drinking downstairs, but I wouldn’t even touch a beer until the rush was over.
Lillian and Tommy alternated calling orders. We only used an expediter on Fridays and Saturdays when it got really busy. Lillian, like Mr. Jim, was retired and worked part-time. She had a horrible habit of only wanting to pick up orders. Any good broiler cook can tell you that they need to control the flow and there are times when you simply have nothing to pick up so that the expediter has to order then. Lillian and I would fight sometimes about ordering and picking up. Really, we were fighting for control. At crazy-busy time, there’s no time for fighting, so when I didn’t want to hear her picking up orders that I knew were due but weren’t ready, I’d ask her a “how-about” this or that or even turn my back to her, pause a moment, and then ask her what she had to order. Tommy was easy to coordinate with because he kept a pretty good sense of the whole picture.
While Robert stood in for me, I went downstairs and put a completely fresh uniform on. The only thing I couldn’t change was my underwear which was so wet it was as if I’d been swimming in it. I didn’t stay downstairs long, just long enough to change, take a long sip of Henry Lee’s beer and take a whiz. Then it was back to work.
Robert didn’t stay on the line for long. He’d given me a break, his main goal, and then maybe forty-five minutes after I was back on the line we had our first lull in the influx of orders. Then they started to come in more slowly so Lillian could be handed them personally and call them as she got them instead of the waitresses clocking them in and spearing them on a spindle. By about six we were pretty much done.
In the end, we did fifteen-hundred dinners, twelve hundred of them steaks. I had four, and I emphasize FOUR, burned steaks, steaks that were literally near charcoal. I had lined them on the front ledge of the charcoal grill, but Robert set them up on the top rim when he knew the owner was in the house. The owner came through the kitchen and checked everything out. When he saw the burned steaks he walked over to them and picked one up, examined it front and back. He gave me a look but Robert quickly reported that that was all that was lost of twelve hundred and he knew it was twelve hundred because Henry Lee had the inventory. The look changed to a smile, to a “great job” comment which he extended to everyone.
Robert had come over in the truck. After the owner left, he did too, but he took some meat back with him so they’d have a decent start on the west side the next day. Mr. Jim left and then Grandma, then Bee and Mary. Mary gave me a big wet kiss on the lips before she left. The night crew finished out as if it were any ordinary workday. Finally Jimmy and I scrubbed the line, changed the fryer grease and went home leaving the kitchen empty and dark.