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

 

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A Maid in the Woods

Back to that Twitter hashtag about first jobs…The summer after my sojourn on the lake in upstate New York,  I sought a job in Old Forge, the gateway to the Adirondack Mountains. As a family, we always went “to the woods” in the summer. This summer, after my freshman year in college, I lived with my gram, in a funny green shotgun house behind the laundry she and my grandfather used to own.

Old Forge is a resort town, full of summer vacationers and fun-seekers. Many visited The Enchanted Forrest, a resort that featured circus shows, reenacters, rides and animals. A statue of Paul Bunyon lorded over everything in the park. To my fascination, Gram rented a cabin behind her house to a man with a long white beard. In the winter, he lived in LA and played Santa Claus. In the summer, he was a gold rush prospector. The Flying Walledas also summered at the Enchanted Forest. But that’s another story.

 

enchanted-forest-old-forge-ny-1956
The Enchanted Forest had a storytale/Paul Bunyon theme. It opened in 1956, around the same time as Disneyland

The daytime job I secured was as a maid to a family from Virginia. They owned a “camp” at the very exclusive Adirondack League Club. signFounded in 1890, the Club owns 53,000 acres, with “rustic” camps on private lakes. To this day, the public is not allowed on club land, which is for the use of members who hunt and fish and relax. It is a gated community. I live in one now, but it’s not the same.

Things I learned as a maid in the woods:

  1. A near-perfect house would be like the one I worked in. It was on Little Moose Lake. All the rooms were joined by a long, winding, covered boardwalk. The bedrooms, kitchen and dinning room, living room, guest houses and a huge game room-all were all separate. Bathrooms were attached. Every time you went to another room, you had to go outside.  It was perfect because you always got to see the lake and the loons and the tall evergreen trees.
    leAGUE CLUB
    A typical camp at the Adirondack League Club

    porch

2.Some people are rich enough to afford a house like this AND a cattle farm.
3. A cook is a really good idea if you can afford it.

Their chef was Swiss, but you get the idea
Their chef was Swiss, but you get the idea

5. A separate laundry room with a window rocks.
6. Rich people might ask you to buy your own uniform.
7. You can say no to some job-related requests.
9. Adirondack lakes are mist-covered early in the morning.misty lake

 

7. Loons are fantastic birds. They call each other incessantly and it sounds creepily romantic.loon

10.Adirondack style is a real thing. Handmade furniture and deer antler chandeliers are beautiful. Stuffed heads, not so much.

chandelier
I didn’t know what Adirondack style was then, but now I do

11. Last, Enchanted Forests are sometimes turned in to huge Water Safaris. There are no gold rush prospectors, but Paul Bunyon remains.Paul

Coming up, my Old Forge night-time job, salad girl….stay tuned as I move up in the culinary world.