Waiting for an Exit

Waitress is next on the list of my first seven jobs. I was a pretty poor waitress, but sometimes it was fun. Yes, fun. One day during setup at a resort, we played stripper music on the jukebox and threw silverware around the dinning room, as if we were casting off clothes. Flying forks, knives and spoons. All over. Then we picked them up, debated whether or not they should be washed, and set all the tables. You decide.

As a waitress, I worked at various resorts, restaurants and greasy spoons.  If a bar was attached, I drank too, usually as much as possible. One slow afternoon, a bartender of my acquaintance used a little book entitled “Booze” and made every drink listed.  The Zombie was our favorite, but that may be just because it was last. Or, because it had two kinds of rum, liqueurs, fruit juice and pieces of fruit, plus a little umbrella. That afternoon, we swore eternal allegiance to all drinks with little umbrellas.

zombiecocktail

In my experience, people wait table for tips. The more your patrons drink, the better the tip. Breakfast, for instance, is not a lucrative meal. Dinner is. But sometimes there are unavoidable problems. Like the kitchen catching fire.  That episode led to free drinks for patrons and food that came so late it wasn’t even fun. And the best tip I ever received was waiting on a banquet of plumbers.  Plumbers have had my respect ever since.

Once, I worked at a diner-type establishment where the cook/owner often walked out. I was not apprised of this, however, until it happened.  diner-style-sourdough-burgers-4I was left with burgers on the grill, fries in the fryer and no clue how to make a chocolate egg cream. The patrons sitting at the counter helped me by calling out things such as, “flip the burger, honey,” and “the fries are ready when the light is green.” An egg cream is made with seltzer, milk and chocolate syrup. No umbrella needed. True to form, I only worked there once.chefs-1662719_640

At other venues, I was often afraid of chefs, dishwashers and assorted others who hung out in hot, steamy kitchens. Returning a displeased patron’s meal was the worst.  One chef, who spoke only Greek, threw rolls at wait staff he disliked. At least rolls were soft. I also encountered growling chefs, one armed with a giant knife, and of course, the drinkers, who as a rule were not happy drunks.  I was  glad for the stainless steel pickup table that was in front of the ovens, burners, fryers and grill. And ice machines give me the creeps (see below).

The job I really hated was cocktail waitress. I disliked it so much that I unconsciously caused my own firing.  Customers, usually single men, propositioned you, and if you got through that, serving drinks was really boring. As I recall, the men who did not offer their services were just plain obnoxious, and so were their wives. Girlfriends tended to be kind. I offer no social analysis; it was the Seventies.

As a cocktail waitress, I violated Rule One which is: ALWAYS USE THE SCOOP IN THE ICE MACHINE. ice-scoopice-in-machineIf you insert a glass directly into the ice piled up in the machine, rather than using the scoop, you risk breaking the glass, and if it breaks, there is no way to find the pieces and the whole thing has to be drained, and then everyone is without ice and you get fired on the spot. It was about my third night.

We nearly always tip liberally in my family.  Everyone has heard these stories and knows the drill. It’s the right thing to do.tip1

 

 

My Salad Days

…My salad days, / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood…

A salad girl makes salads. She prepares vegetables, makes dressings and works opposite the appetizer woman in a busy restaurant in Thendara, N.Y. called The Knotty Pine (now for sale).

The appetizer woman, who shows the salad girl the ropes,  has a wicked cough, which is apparently not catching. Her name is Norma, and she lives in a mobile home out back with two kids. Unaccountably, she disappears whenever health inspectors arrive.
There are two cooks from Big Moose, who are brothers, and two dishwashers. And, about six waiters and waitresses and a bartender.
Each plate that leaves the kitchen, no matter what’s on it, is checked by the restaurant owner before it goes into the dinning room.  Bette, the owner, lives in the apartment above the restaurant, and leaves once a week to go to the bank and get her hair done. She tells you this proudly.

In among the Iceberg
  Found among the Iceberg

Things begin calmly. I go into the walk-in cooler and fetch lettuce to wash. There is a small green snake crawling in the bottom of the crate. I exit and say, “There’s a snake in the lettuce.” They tell me it’s my job to catch it.  I almost quit, but then they let me in on the joke. I am cautious evermore in the lettuce crates.

Real Rouquefort
Real Roquefort

Next, I grate the cabbage for the Perfection salad. (photo above) It’s served with real Roquefort dressing. Bette gets the cheese directly from France, and she has an import license. I am filled in on the difference between blue cheese and Roquefort almost daily. In addition to the lettuce wedge and the Perfection salad, we also serve a green salad, and a Waldorf salad. But mainly customers come for the dressings, which are creamy and delicious. Everyone wants a big slather of those dressings. Nobody says, “on the side.”Of course, after waiting over an hour in line to get in, the appetizers and the salad are the first things customers eat. But the dressings are good, hunks of cheese, mayonnaise and cream, plus seasonings. I make them in huge five gallon jugs, which go —you guessed it— in the walk-in.

The Walk-in
The Walk-in Freezer

One fateful day I drop a full dressing container on my foot. It hurts, but not as much as the furor caused by the waste of French cheese. Norma saves my skin that day, and I never have to tote full containers again. As a salad girl, I have a lot to learn.

Norma also teaches me some life lessons. She is a survivor, but barely. Her kids are young, her husband is in jail, and it sounds like he is no good. She works because she has to. The trailer she lives in is Bette’s and the family eats leftover restaurant food. Everyone in town shakes their heads sadly when her name is mentioned. “Poor Norma,” they say. She is rail thin, tiny and sick. She has a terrible cough that sometimes rattles her until she goes outside to calm it.
She says it’s asthma, but I think maybe it’s TB or worse. Whatever, the health inspector is not to know.

Shrimp cocktail container
Shrimp cocktail container

Every plate Norma prepares is perfect; she takes pride in her work. Shrimp cocktail in a stainless steel contraption with ice is her specialty. And on busy nights her fingers fly, while mine just slug through.

Vendors, sometimes local fishermen, come and go. There are many vendors because Bette is picky. Fish is often fresh caught, meat is specially selected and chicken comes from a family-run farm downstate. The veg man, Freddie, carries a gun in his truck. I am not sure why.

Tado, the dishwasher relieves his tension by “riding” big dirty pots and pans around the kitchen. He is a frustrated jockey. And a heroin addict, so they say. He disappears every Fridays and goes to Utica.

The bartender is pretty much drunk by evening’s end. Everyone else is exhausted as well. The “evening rush” sometimes lasts until midnight. And it starts all over again the next day.

Perfection Salad had to be made ahead with gellatin. Our had way more dressing on top.
Perfection Salad has to be made ahead with gelatin. Ours had way more dressing on top.

My job as a salad girl teaches me, first and foremost, to avoid restauranteering as a career.

It also adds to my beliefs about family, or community or whatever you call it. A kitchen, a bar and a dinning room can create a family, however flawed and rough.

And, life really can knock you down and kill you. That from Norma, who died two years later as I was graduating from college.

Last, being a salad girl always reminds me of just how lucky I am.knottypine

 

Stone Barns

Stone Barns from garden
Stone Barns from garden

No trip to Westchester County N.Y. is complete without a trip to Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.  And if two people you love work there, all the better.  Our beloved son is with the facilities crew and our daughter-in-law is a landscape apprentice.

Julie, landscape apprentice at Stone Barns and daughter-in-law
Julie, landscape apprentice at Stone Barns and daughter-in-law

Stone Barns is in Pocantico Hills, a hamlet surrounded by land owned by the Rockefellers, who originally owned 3400 acres in Westchester County.   Up a winding road, past State Park/Rockefeller property on both sides, you come up open fields and then–stone barns, built to look like barns in Normandy, France. They are made of local grey stone, solid and earthy, but the soaring silos and huge curved windows give the whole place a fairytale look, kind of like Cinderella’s castle at Disney. (Sorry, that castle was imprinted on me in childhood.) The barns were built as a dairy in the 1930s by John D. Rockefeller Jr.  (At Kykuit, the family homestead, see my previous post, http://wp.me/p3cJ8X-lG, he was called “Mr. Junior.”)

Jordan, driving the Kabota
Jordan, driving the Kabota

 

Today,  Stone Barns is a four-season working farm (there’s a 1/2 acre minimally heated greenhouse that operates year-round), with a famous farm-to-table restaurant, a cafe, a gift store, organic market, and education center.

Long story short, It’s about growing stuff without chemicals and then eating it without violence to animals, plants, people or the environment.

In July when we visited, the 6.5 acre outdoor garden was in full fruit and flower, and the wild wine berries were being picked. Chickens were laying eggs, pigs were happy in the mud, and sheep were chowing down on nice new grass. In order to keep the grass green, pastures are rotated, meaning the sheep are moved and so are their fences.

Sheep in the shade
Sheep in the shade

Ditto for the chickens. The turkeys, including a heritage breed called Bourbon Red, also roam around outside once they are large enough to fend off predators.  You can buy one for the Holidays at the Stone Barns farm market–around $6 a pound for a broad-breasted white and $10 for the heritage birds.

Turkeys don't pose well
Turkeys don’t pose well

The restaurant associated with Stone Barns is called Blue Hill, and Dan Barber is the chef.  He just wrote a book, The Third Plate, Field Notes on the Future of Food, and he has quite a following.  (Remember, this is a place that is about 25 miles north of New York City, where he also has a restaurant.) One woman on our tour confided that eating a meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns changed the way she regarded food.  Her direct quote, “It changed my life.” If that is the result of eating there, the price really isn’t too steep–but on our tour we enjoyed some nice tea and coffee and  lovely scones in the cafe. See some reviews of Blue Hill at http://www.opentable.com/blue-hill-at-stone-barns

The Hayloft, set up for event
The Hayloft, set up for event

Martha Stewart is a strong supporter of Stone Barns and their mission, and she explains the mission much better than I can. Take a look at her recent blog.  In it, she describes a recent evening event in the Stone Barns Hayloft for backers, including David Rockefeller, last remaining son of John D. (he’s 99) http://www.themarthablog.com/2014/09/an-evening-at-stone-barns.html .

And please enjoy the photographs I’ve included in my slide show, many of them taken by my beloved husband, John Swank, who especially likes flowers and insects.  I like chickens.  At Stone Barns they seemed much more content that the hellish hens I remember from childhood.  Must be the chicken- mobiles. The poem at the end by Wendel Berry, a hero of mine, is also worth a read. Just click in the middle to stop it.

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