February 07, 2008
In college I worked one summer as a line cook in a 120-seat restaurant of a small hotel in Florida.
Although I had no formal training as a cook, I was able to bypass the usual progression from dishwasher to busboy to line cook, going straight into cooking because my friend Tony Spagnolo worked on the line.
“It’ll be fun, you and me working together all summer,” he said. Sure, I thought. What’s the worst that could happen? Food poisoning? Injuring myself or someone else with sharp implements? So I went to work.
It was grueling, hellish, fast-paced, chaotic, and for the most part, unrewarding. Of course I made some amateur mistakes, but I also did some good things and I learned a few things along the way. I also got to date a number of hot waitresses, but that’s another story.
The first mistake I made, and probably the most noticeable, was referred to by the other cooks for days afterward as the White Pepper Incident.
Before the dinner rush one night, I was mixing up a huge vat of mashed potatoes. The finishing touch, Tony said, was white pepper. Two teaspoons only – not a pinch more. He stressed this. But it didn’t seem like enough, so after he left my side I added more because I couldn’t see the pepper in the potatoes.
If I’d thought about it I would have realized that you can’t see white pepper in a vat of mashed potatoes because they’re white too. But I dumped more in anyway. And a little more; mashed potatoes are boring anyway, why not perk ’em up! It was a big vat, must’ve been a ton of potatoes in there. More pepper.
That night the waitresses remarked how thirsty their customers were. They’d never seen anything like it. The ice machine could barely keep up with the demand.
Standing there behind the line I just shrugged. “Strange,” I said. Tony caught my eye, smirking. “You put more in, didn’t you,” he said. I nodded.
The highlight of the job, besides dating a particularly hot blonde waitress named Debbie, was my accidental preparation of the most sumptuous order of broiled scallops ever prepared by a rookie line cook in the history of summer-job rookie line cooks.
I was working solo near the end of a slow night, when a late arrival ordered the elusive dish. I’d yet to be trained on proper scallop preparation, so I had to wing it.
Although I wasn’t fond of scallops, it was Florida and I’d seen people eating scallops hundreds of times, the little off-white marshmallow-shaped things swimming in tiny silver platters of garlic butter. Easy, right?
But how long to cook them? Were they like shrimp? In and out when they turned pink? How could you tell when a scallop was done? I had no idea.
I scooped two handfuls of the frozen things from the reach-in, then dumped them into a metal broiling platter. I melted a stick of butter in the microwave, chopped some fresh garlic, parsley, cilantro, and put the whole mess onto the platter and into the broiler.
I stood there tapping my metal tongs on the countertop, eying the engulfed and sizzling silver boat. At least it smelled good. I slid the platter out, shook the happy scallops around, stuck them back into the fire for another minute, then brought them out again.
I plucked one out and dissected it, not knowing what exactly to look for. Flakiness? Non-flakiness? I figured as long as I stayed away from the white pepper I’d be okay.
I transferred them to a serving platter, slapped some side items around the plate and finished it off with a rubbery piece of endive for garnish. BING! Order up. Debbie grabbed the plate, winked at me, and returned to the dining room.
I imagined the scene: These are the worst scallops I’ve ever eaten! They’re both under- AND over-cooked at the same time! And who puts cilantro on scallops! You’re a disgrace!
I imagined the manager standing behind me as I cleaned out my cook’s locker, a lone bugler somewhere in the kitchen playing taps as I sullenly handed over my apron and jacket.
Twenty minutes later Debbie bounced back into the kitchen, flashing an irresistible smile.
“Congratulations,” she said. “The customer said those were the best scallops he’s eaten in his whole life. And so many of them!”
“Eh, it was nothin’,” I said.
That summer I learned three things:
1) A career in the restaurant business wasn’t for me.
2) Trust your friends, not only regarding spices.
3) Trust yourself, and not only on matters of seafood.
At the time I didn’t realize it, but I see them now as metaphors for life. The white pepper, the scallops, they weren’t just humorous incidents during a summer job. They represented something larger, something outside myself.
It is exactly that larger trust that I’m still working on. Sometimes I need a little help.
Recently, I’ve been struggling with the Meredith Emerson case. She was the Georgia hiker who was kidnapped, held captive for three days, and then brutally murdered. I had a really tough time dealing with it; her final days were too horrific to imagine.
Being a writer, imagination is my stock in trade. I tried to piece together the events, searching for meaning where there was none. Looking for hope where there was nothing but despair. Although I realized this type of violence, especially against women, happens every day, every hour, somewhere in the world, I couldn’t deal with it. I passed through the stages of grief and I didn’t even know the woman.
It was all too close.
I’m familiar with the area where she was last seen (we drive over Blood Mountain — a name we used to joke about — on the way to Grandma’s house), I have daughters, I have friends in law enforcement who searched for her, and even Meredith herself looks like a former co-worker of mine, a good friend.
When someone said it was all part of God’s plan, I just about lost my mind. A plan? Plan for what? So we — the living — could feel good about how well everyone pitched in to help find Meredith as we stood vigilantly with our candles?
I thought, How could God let this happen? Stupid question. Human beings can be savage and cruel, but God must have seen it coming, right?. I went through all the theological and philosophical gymnastics of free will and fate, good and evil, sin and grace, and of course it didn’t help. Too cerebral. I needed something more.
So I turned to music. Because after all, music hath charms, right?
I downloaded an album by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Loudon Wainwright III.
Maybe the cynic with the biting wit will have some words of wisdom in song. Then I saw a link to the NPR show “This I Believe“, a program originally begun by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s, revived in 2005. In the series, regular people (as well as artists and celebrities) read essays about what they believe in.
Loudon’s essay was about the mystery of the creative process. He’s not sure where it comes from or from whom (God? He’s undecided), but he doesn’t question it too much for fear of drying up the well.
The current podcast for the series was by Sister Helen Prejean.
She’s most famous for writing Dead Man Walking, later made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Her essay, “Living My Prayer“, was free to download. So I put it on my iPod and forgot about it.
In traffic the next day on the way to work, I listened to what she had to say. I had no idea what to expect.
She said she watches what she does to see what she really believes. Basically, she vigilantly tries to walk the walk.
She lives to serve and “changed from being a nun who only prayed for the suffering world, to a nun with my sleeves rolled up, living my prayer.”
And then there was this:
“For 20 years now I’ve been visiting people on death row and I’ve accompanied six human beings to their deaths. As each has been killed, I have told them to look at me. I want them to see a loving face when they die. I want my face to carry the love that tells them that they and every one of us are worth more than our most terrible acts.”
That’s tough to swallow. But it was just what I needed. It helped. Somewhat.
Had someone or something led me to her essay? Was it my own curiosity? Coincidence? Was it God saying, ‘Here, try this. I know life’s not easy. It’s a struggle, more so for some than others, but here. I know it was horrible, the way she died; I don’t like it any more than you do. Trust me, it will all work out. Maybe this will help.’
And then maybe there’d be an awkward silence, God again in the voice of George Burns…
…or Morgan Freeman…
or better yet, Anjelica Huston…
…muttering, ‘maybe if you’d pick up that Book now and then I wouldn’t have to resort to NPR podcasts, whatever those are . . .’
Yes, I envision God as a Luddite. Just like Vonnegut.
But don’t talk to me about plans. Simply sing me a song and I’ll go from there.