…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.