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

 

Let’s Hear It for New York

Has to be one of my favorite songs of all time
Has to be one of my favorite songs of all time

An Empire State of Mind is required listening when you cross the border into New York.  If you have never heard Jay Z and Alicia Keys sing it, stop everything you are doing and listen/watch:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0UjsXo9l6I8)  Of course, on this trip we were not headed for The City, not this time anyway.  But still, if you are on 81, a main north-south route, you notice the road is smoother. Second, the rest stop is newer. It’s New York.   Since we were heading Upstate, we enjoyed the big green rolling hills and laughed about times in the past we traveled  THIS VERY ROAD with snow falling like hell in all directions.

Route 81 in the snow
Route 81 in the snow

“Put the hazards on  and hope for the best,” my mother always said, and then she would light a cigarette and keep on driving.  Route 81 is notorious for snow, but in July 2014, it’s gorgeous.

Jim-Jim
That would be a Jim Boeheim moment

We were headed for Syracuse, smack dab in the middle of the state.  Its University is our alma mater and home of numerous friends and relatives on my side of the family. Everyone wears orange except on St. Patrick’s Day.

Wear the Orange
Wear the Orange

 LAKES RULE IN UPSTATE NEW YORK

Lakes  and hills play an important part in the life  and lore of Upstate New York.  There’s Onondaga Lake, for instance.  It is sacred to the Iroquois Confederacy of Native tribes, but was appropriated by white settlers as the main dumping ground for many things, including sewage, chemicals and other industrial stuff as the area grew.  When I was a child, it stank so bad that even truckers put their windows up when they drove by. Swimming in the lake was banned 75 years ago (1940), and still is. It has been called America’s Most Polluted Lake. (http://www.npr.org/2012/07/31/157413747/americas-most-polluted-lake-finally-comes-clean)

Waste ran from these factories into Onondaga Lake
Waste ran from these factories into Onondaga Lake

Almost a hundred years later, Onondaga Lake is being rehabilitated. Big diggers are still removing gunk from the bottom, and there is a walking  and biking trail around the whole lake.  Amazing. And it smells–like a lake. It also has fish and eagles. And other birds too. And a big shopping mall called The Destiny Center. Seriously, that’s the name of it.

Now a necessary digression.  As a child, every New Yorker learns about the Iroquois Confederacy.  I loved this stuff as a kid, and Native Americans still play a part in the culture and history of the area. In some areas of the state, land ownership is still disputed. The tribes involved in the Nation–Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca formed a union for peace and against invasion.

Flag of the Iroquois Confederancy
Flag of the Iroquois Confederacy

The last hold-out was an Onondaga chief named Tadodaho who was finally persuaded to join on the shores of Onondaga Lake, sometime between 1450 and 1600, before major contact with Europeans.  The present day Tadadaho, who is the 50th chief and spiritual leader of the Onondaga Nation lives on the reservation, just south of Syracuse.  From what I’ve read, he is none too pleased with progress on the Onondaga’s sacred lake. I can see his point, but I did enjoy seeing birds there I never expected to see in my lifetime.

Sid Hill, Tadodaho of the Onondaga Nation
Sid Hill, Tadodaho of the Onondaga Nation

More New York lakes coming soon….Skaneateles, Ontario and Green.  And Montezuma. And Lauren’s beautiful garden. Re-reading this, I don’t know how a blog can go from a Jay-Z song  to the country’s most polluted lake, but it just did. The Onondaga Nation’s website is http://www.onondaganation.org/, but you can look up Jay-Z’s yourself.