Well Wishes

I woke up this morning without noticing the change. I knew it happened, but it didn’t click.

I arrived in my confident lateness. I went about my routine as if nothing had happened. A cup of coffee, a bit of straightening up.  Barely noticing empty spaces on shelves, or the absence of the small red box where her possessions were kept.

When I opened the journal where, as formality dictates, we forecast our days.

There, in the margin, neatly written was a final message to me.

The weight settled as I read it.

“Good luck, I am happy for you.”

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Pancakes

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She wants pancakes this morning.

Of all the concoctions breakfast has to offer, I find pancakes the most objectionable. Arguments about the health benefits of the meal go out the window when the word “cake” becomes entangled in the discussion. It is the cakes part of their name that draws interest. They would hardly come into consideration if they were called panbreads, which is what they really are.

The sickly sweet smell of them. The toasting flour as the batter hits the pan. The caramelization of sugars. I can see myself clearly on the bus, when I was barely older than her. Covered in vomit from a morning meal of pancakes and orange juice. Waiting morosely to arrive at school, so that my father could come bring me home. I still remember the sugary and acidic taste in my throat, and the look of horror on the face of my friend Brian who had made the poor choice to sit next to me that morning. His parents would have to bring him a change of clothes. I would be shunned for weeks afterwards, such is the way childhood goes.

Edges bubble as the first side is nearly done. Water evaporating, escaping the batter. The staggering recollection of countless hours spent sweating over that damned cast iron griddle, crafting these foul things for the masses of the ungrateful neurotics that came to eat brunch every Sunday over that three year period. Each man, or woman, bringing their own ideals of pancakeness. Just slightly off that mark, even once, too dark or not brown enough, too few blueberries or too much whipped cream, they would be sure to send their waiter back with the appropriate reprimand. From then on I would receive weekly reminders, as their tickets came back with little notes on them, listing my past transgressions against pancakes.

My wrist twitches in practiced motion and the wretched thing flips easily. I stare absently for a moment at the golden disc, listening to the wet batter on the other side sizzle against Teflon. I think to my friends who are celiac, or have some other dietary intolerance towards wheat, and others only refuse it because of some fitness or health craze as well. What do they all do about pancakes? Are their lives blessedly devoid of these, things? No doubt there is some convenient solution involving sorghum, or sweet potatoes. Somehow sweet potatoes always have something to do with it. My friend who is doing Atkins or some such mentioned something about psyllium husks. I somehow doubt I would find pancakes more appealing if the word husk became involved.

Lifting up the edge of the cake with the edge of the spatula, to take a small peek at the underside. Knowing it will never brown up so nicely as the top. The pan tilts to let it slide on to the plate hiding the first and slightly misshapen attempt this morning. The landscape of each one dotted with semi melted chunks of chocolate. A pat of butter placed on top, allowed to melt completely before serving them. She likes butter on her pancakes, provide that she can’t see butter on them. She beams at me as I place down the plate. I watch as she swirls syrup on them, until I tell her that she has enough.

I walk back into the kitchen knowing she’ll add just a little bit more.

I don’t like pancakes very much. Instead I’ll just overthink myself some scrambled eggs.

Parting

He let the blade glide across the honing wand without looking. It was mostly for ceremony any way, so everyone in the room would know he was about to get to work, it was a way to put off the task. He knew that the knife would already either be sharp enough or it wouldn’t. It was a large knife, compared to his other tools. He hadn’t done this often but, enough to know that size would matter here.

He pressed the metal in on the bottom of the neck and slid it back slowly. The flesh split open easily as the blade sank in and came to rest on the bone. He always felt it would be faster to push on here, but it wasn’t the way. He withdrew his knife and set it on the steel table. Using both hands he rolled it over and ran his hand down the side of the glistening skin. Picking his knife back up he lined it up so the two cuts would me and began again. This time when he reached that same bone he put his other hand on the back of the blade for leverage and pushed hard once. There was a brief grinding noise as the knife wedged between the vertebrae, separating them. There was a crunch as it drove home severing the spine and passing through the other side.

He had once seen someone else, more skilled than he perform the rest without removing the head first. That wasn’t the way for him. The rest would be easier with it gone. Easier for him anyway. He moved his free hand along the inside of the body cavity. The viscera and organs had been removed by someone else, someone far removed from him. He had done the task handful of times as a child, under his father’s instructions. He supposed he could still manage it if he had too, but was grateful that the distasteful task didn’t fall on his shoulders these days. He pulled open the flap of skin and placed the point of his blade inside. He still remembered the wisdom imparted to him when he was first learning the task, “Find the backbone and stay there.”

He found the backbone.

As his knife slid along the top of the spine, farther into the flesh, he grabbed the lower half of the body in readiness. The tip of the knife began to protrude from the other side and he shifted his grip on the implement so that he could put his weight behind the next action. He inhaled and pushed forward, sawing the blade back and forth. Crick, tack, clack, click, the lesser bones were sheared off as the blade traveled along the spine. He lurched forward, and wrenched his wrist. as the knife came free at the top where the head should have been. He changed positions and cut down the lower half of the backbone. The side was off and he slid it down and out of the way, and rolled what was left of the carcass over.

Crick, tack, clack, click, the process repeated itself. Soon he held the gore covered spine in his hand, a momentary trophy for his efforts. He lay the knife down and shook the cramp out of his wrist, as he absentmindedly dropped the prize into the waiting bin. He wriggled his fingers unconsciously and then reached for the needle nose pliers. They were new, only having been used for about a week, and were still stiff and awkward to use. He rub his hand lightly along the newly exposed interior flesh, searching for tiny, sharp little bumps, as he found them he dug in with the pliers to grasp the remnants of bone, and extract them, one by one. It was tedious and he had to do this for each of the two halves of what now remained of the subject. He always meant to count them as he pulled each bone free, but somehow it never seemed to matter enough while he was at his duty.

He ran his blade along the sides of each of halves, trimming off  undesirable product. Then, starting at the base, angling the knife down slightly, he cut the thick outer skin away from the softer pink flesh of interior. The skin came free easily in one piece, with barely any meat left dangling from it. He held it up and admired it’s scaled surface for a moment before dropping it into the waste to join the head and spine.

Laying the side flat he straightened the now cleaned flesh and began to carefully slice it into fillets, taking time to weigh each to check his precision. Once done he wrapped the portions in plastic for the service tonight. Twelve in all, not bad, and four still from the night before. He cleared the steel table off and washed it down. As he was drying it off he wondered how many that came tonight would acknowledge or, even know that their meal was once part of a whole thing.

He doubted most of them would care.

A Cynical Cook’s View of Valentine’s Day

Ah, valentines day. A truly special and unique event for many. A day for the celebration of the affections we feel that special someone. No one knows what a bunch of hooey that is like the men and women of the service industry. I have, in some way or other, been a member of this select group for close to half of my life, and let me tell you nothing says cynicism like a forty-year old line cook.

Just like Christmas, Valentines Day is a big deal because it is a day of consumer spending. The retail industry has a pretty good strangle hold on your wallet for both events but, about thirty-five percent of you suckers are going to try to buy your way into someone else’s pants with nice dinner on February 14th.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure you’re in this for that whole romantic love thing, that’d sure go a long way explaining the Trojan you got tucked away in your wallet there Sonny Jim. You shouldn’t feel bad about it, just be honest with yourself, after all most people, about 85% of men and women, are expecting to get some on the big day; I mean you might want wait til dinner’s over to approach the subject, but chances are if she’s agreed to go out with you half the work is done for you already.

All in all I guess my Valentines Day isn’t going to be much different then yours.

I got this really hot date.

With twenty burners at probably close to 28,000 BTU’s each, this little hottie will be ready to put out put out. I swear that’ll be the second to the last time I make a sexual reference towards a stove, or any other kitchen implement.

She may not look like much to you but put her in something pink and we're good to go.

She may not look like much to you but, put her in something pink and we’re good to go.

The advantage of my companion for the evening is that she’s easy to turn on and won’t break up with me if I don’t get her a gift. A fun fact is, 53% of women say that they’ll end a relationship if they don’t get anything for Valentines day. Something tells me that they don’t mean one of those boxes of the little hearts made of some chalk like substance, so you did the right thing by taking her out.

It might as well say "Poor Planning" or "Lonely Night"

It might as well say “Poor Planning” or “Lonely Night”

I’m looking forward to a fantastic dinner for two…

And then two more, and then two more, and then… I can keep this up all night. Come Valentine’s Day I’m going to have to because we’re hoping to turn a table in about forty-five minutes or so, and we have a lot of tables to get to. So it’d be nice if y’all could make a decision, limit the special, orders and not run your wait staff around all night.

Alright people lets move it out of the damned window, I got a couple dozen of these romantic dinners backed up and waiting to be plated.

Alright people lets move it out of the damned window, I got a couple dozen of these romantic dinners backed up and waiting to be plated.

As a word of advice, let her order first and pay attention. If she asks for light garlic for her Caesar salad you best not ask for extra onions with your meal if you want the night to end on a high note. Also if she orders the filet mignon or the sea bass, don’t go ordering a margarita pizza or the crab cakes appetizer for yourself to bring the amount check down. The damage has already been done and it only makes you look cheap.

I’ll be spending time with my significant other(s)

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These guys are special. They’re so special I want to buy them helmets.

I’ve been spending this holiday the same way, and largely with the same people for a good number of years now. Seriously, that level of commitment is a hard thing to find in a relationship. Maybe you’re looking at this day as the beginning of a great and lasting relationship. Facts are facts however, and a lifetime of personal observations, taught me that chances are the person you’re stepping out on the town this year, you will not be speaking with next year. In fact , there is evidence that relationships may be over twice as likely to end in the weeks surrounding Valentine’s Day, so you’re lucky you made it this far.

The sad part is I spend more time with the other cooks than I do with my actual family, you know the woman with whom I fell in love with and am raising a child with. I am fortunate that my wife is also a veteran of the restaurant industry. This means that by and large she has been so jaded by all these hallmark holidays that she really doesn’t expect too much in the way of romance just because the calendar has ticked over again. In fact I once arranged, with great difficulty, to have an actual Valentine’s Day off early in our relationship. Well to be honest I still had to work the lunch shift and then stay and prep the dessert special for the dinner shift, but that’s not the point.

The point is, her reaction was to simply ask me why I bothered, and we then proceed to spend the day doing absolutely nothing important.

That’s when I knew it was love.

Image Credit: Candy Hearts: Let's Kiss by Brent Moore CC BY-NC 2.0
              All other images taken by the author

I made reference of some statistics so here are the sources for what insignificant, lazy, half-assed, amount, of what might pass for factual research I did for this article:
          Valentine's Day, by the numbers, by Belle Reynoso, CNN.com, 2013
          Valentines Day Statistics, Statistics Brain.com, 2013
          Stats Show Valentine's Day is Bad for Your Relationship, by Amelia                                     Wasserman, Technorati.com, 2011
This article was written in response to a Weekly Challenge.

New Year, Same Me.

The past year was slightly different for me, few changes and some milestones. For some reason, perhaps it was an attempt to come out of my shell a bit, I started a Twitter account last January. I do at times find great amusement in it, however I have yet to discover any real or practical use fo it; I’ll chalk that one up to just trying something new. In may I celebrated my first year since I was fourteen in which I did not smoke at all. The end of September marked my first full year off the booze, though the way I have felt for the past several weeks indicates I am not quite free from it entirely. October was a month full of changes as I began bicycling on a regular basis, a thing that I need to get back to as the holidays wind down and my daughter gets back to school and my schedule returns to normal; it was also the month in which I began my blog, which would be another thing that I feel my focus on slipping just a bit. I, once again, engaged in my unique habit of growing one year older on the day before Halloween, a tradition that I plan on continuing for many years to come; I am happy to report that my scheduled midlife crisis is in full swing and is going about as well as can be expected given my budget. Not an entirely bad year I’d say.

I think the only thing bad I have to say is that I have not read a single book in the past 365 days. I have read articles, blogs, and essays but I could not bring myself to read any work longer than a couple of thousand words. This has been a thing with me since I became sober. I got so in the habit of pouring over a book while I poured beer down my throat that it has become practically impossible for me to separate the two activities; sometimes it seems like my addictions last stand. This is something that I am determined to overcome, as it makes reading to my daughter more than just a little bit frustrating. I also was supposed to read a friends first novel earlier this year and I very quietly got derailed from that, I owe her an apology.

By the end of 2013 I was in a bit of a funk.  A waning amount of sunlight, dreary weather, hectic scheduling in my personal life, frustrations with my job and lack of exercise have all conspired to fill me with a strong desire to remain in bed as much as possible and eat nothing but breakfast meats and sugar. The holiday season has always gotten me down and this is only my second time through it sober in many more years than I can even recall, so I guess we can count me going through a pint of ice cream and a ton of cherry soda each day for the past week or so instead of a ton of beer and a pint of bourbon as a positive.

To assuage my recent depression a bit I started the year off right. First I took everything out of my spice cabinet and threw out most of the crap I found there. All the stale dried herbs, the duplicates of spices I wound up buying because I thought we were out, the half empty tin of Old Bay, the Montreal Steak Seasoning that I have no idea how it got there, those spice rubs and season salts and herb mixtures that have been gifted to the family over the years and never opened, the mysterious shaker of meat tenderizer because in the end it’s really just salt, and someone please explain to me what the hell Mrs. Dash is doing anywhere near my kitchen. I love throwing things out, it just makes me feel good like I just shed about a few metric tons of bullshit all at once. When I was done I neatly put the survivors of my purge back in the cabinet and proceeded to cook way too much food.

Living with my mother-in-law means learning to cook with at least one extra plate on the table and on New Year’s day my nieces were at the house while their mother worked her nursing job, a convenient excuse to make a rather large meal of rosemary and Dijon rubbed roast pork, black-eyed peas, collard greens and roasted potatoes. It was nice, the meal came out well, if a little later than I planned and preparing it reminded me what I like about cooking and I liked starting the year off with the family around the dinner table. It might even be nice to make this a new tradition.

How Did This Become My Problem?

The prep crew at the restaurant, who happen to be twin brothers, have to go out-of-town for a family emergency. This leaves it up to me, the reliable one, to get up at dawn and cover their shifts for the next several days. I have no problems doing this because, despite the numerous remarks I have made speculating about their intelligence, their abilities, their parentage, and even their species,  they are decent guys who have always been there when needed and have little complaints about performing their menial, yet very necessary tasks.

It occurred to me a little over a week ago that I agreed to do this after only briefly speaking to one of the owners about it and that it might be a good idea to speak with the GM about scheduling for while they were going to be gone, just to be sure I knew what I was looking at having to do. It was apparently the first that he had heard of this and was pretty pissed. I told him that maybe he should speak with his father, the owner, and he blew it off giving the excuse that they never saw one another.

So I take it upon myself to spend the next several days running around and getting the proper information from the owner and the prep guys, so that, on the day that the GM writes the schedule for the week, I manage to get him written details about what days I need to be there during the morning and offer to work a few doubles and short shifts for dinner service if that would help out. He just scowls and ignores me, and I just go and start setting up for the night’s service.

A few moments later his assistant comes marching back to the kitchen with the schedule in hand and demands to know what the guys are doing that they need all this time off. He seems suddenly embarrassed when I deflate his righteous anger and tell him quite calmly, “They are going out-of-state for their dad’s memorial service.”

Quite frankly who gives a shit why they want the time off, these guys spend most of their time at the beck and call of the restaurant and haven’t asked for any significant time off in eight freaking years! I know how long it’s been because the last time they went out-of-town it was for their brother’s wedding and I covered their shifts then as well. That doesn’t matter because why the hell can’t they take off for a few days without it being some major life event for their family.

And how did it become my problem that you not only keep your schedule so tight that you have come to rely on these guys so much that it becomes a hassle when you can’t work it out for them to take care of their personal business, or that the various levels of management opt not to communicate enough that they can’t figure this crap out on their own?

I’m A Big Boy Now

Today is one of those days that my employers have decided to engage in the semi-annual event of letting me run a dinner shift. This happens at irregular intervals, usually when they are either bored, or stuck in a bad position schedule wise. I can’t decide whether I should find this  irritating, insulting, or mildly amusing. After ten years of taking part of the same grind, you would think that they would have a little more confidence in me.

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My view of the world most days for the past, way too many years

Let us just take a moment to review my qualifications:

At the age of eighteen I enrolled in vocational training for the culinary arts 1. For the larger part of my life I have been employed in the food service industry, starting once again in my teenage years as a busser2, moving up and through the ranks of floor staff. There were few attempts to break away from the restaurant life but mostly they were short-lived and ultimately just wound up with me getting frustrated and taking some menial job in food service to lay low for a while. At some point in my early twenties I began an illustrious series of jobs as a short order cook working a flat top grill and a bank of deep fryers, banging out cheese steaks and chicken wings for people so drunk they couldn’t even pronounce “chicken wings” if you put a gun to their head. I eventually graduated to the majors by spending a couple of years as a line cook at an Asian fusion joint; a line that I wound up being in charge of after two years of applying little more than common sense and a smidgen3 of organization to what I do. After getting bored with having topped out so quickly I finagled a job at a higher volume place, where it took little time for me to work my way up the line and today I am still employed as a linesman there.

The bulk of what I do everyday is operate a grill, and do the finishing work on the plates as they come off the line. I have been doing this job for the majority of my shifts the better part of a decade now. There are two people directly ahead of me on the schedule who do the bulk of saute work and are generally considered to be “in charge”4. They are very capable at their jobs and there are only a few areas in which I have a bit more expertise5. In the meantime I have been wasting away forgetting more about managing a kitchen than I have managed to learn during my current term of service.

Never the less today we conduct again the great experiment to see if we once again get the same results; well cooked food, reasonable ticket times, an organized staff, and satisfied customers, that we always do in these cases.

Wish me luck.


  1. Mostly due to the fact that it was the only way I was going to graduate high school, largely due to a lack of interest, otherwise. 
  2. Technically my first job tittle was “Nacho Boy” but that just doesn’t look good on a resume. 
  3. A smidgen is an extremely precise measurement used only by the most skilled culinarians.6 
  4.  I too am technically am in the ranks of supervisor but have at this point opted out of most of the day-to-day decisions because I have found that the other two are capable of contradicting each other’s directives without my assistance. 
  5. Such as showing up to work on time, and not freaking out on people. 
  6. Back off man, I’m a professional.