War Stories

Pandemic fatigue is real. I have had no motivation in terms of writing, because nothing has really sparked my imagination…. well, technically, a million things do, but they tend to come out in short Facebook bursts. You know, those things you have to say that aren’t short enough for a Tweet? Today was different. I got together with my housemate, Maria, and she’s always good for a blog entry because she’s a cook at a local hospital who has also worked in restaurants…. therefore, we always end up talking about war stories. We all have them.

However, we weren’t just sitting there talking. I told her that I got both of us a present. I bought myself a new chef’s knife because my old one was getting dull, and buying a new knife was cheaper than getting it sharpened. Her present was that there’s now a real chef’s knife in our block, and there hasn’t been for all the years I’ve lived here. That is because I’ve always been deathly afraid that someone was going to put it in the dishwasher, so I hid it among the candy and snacks in my food junk drawer.

So now I have two new war stories, one from two years ago and one from today. When I bought my old knife, it did not come with a sheath. I wrapped it in rags every day before I put it away, except one day I forgot, and now there is a sizable cut in the back of the drawer. Today, when I told Maria that my chef’s knife had dulled to nothing, she comes downstairs with a full set of stones. I have never face-palmed harder. Why did I not think to ask A COOK if they had a real knife sharpener?

Side note: you can buy an electric knife sharpener, but caveat emptor. I have heard so many horror stories of them chewing up expensive knives that I’ve never used one.

But before we get to the war stories, (mine, of course, because hers aren’t my stories to tell), I have to tell you something I learned this week, and it ties back to a conversation Dan and I had. She said, “you have such a great blog- why don’t you put recipes on it?” I said, “that would be great, but I don’t have any. I understand the principles of cooking, so I just look in the pantry and throw things together.” A good example of this is “Lanagan’s Pub Chili.” At Biddy McGraw’s, the pub where I used to work in Portland, we used to make a soup of the day. I made a variation on a Texas Red, using beans to make the ground beef stretch. It was so popular that they decided to add it to the menu permanently….. probably because I have an Irish last name. I don’t think I would have been so lucky had my last name been “Smith.”

My boss asked me to write down the recipe so that all the cooks could make it the same way, and I swear to God, it took me at least a month to do it. That’s because when I was making it, I never made it exactly the same way twice. I changed up the beer, I changed up the ratios of the spices, and most importantly, I tasted as I went, because I can tell when a dish “needs something” and what that something might be.

Trying to encapsulate that into a half cup of cumin, etc. was murder on my brain. It doesn’t work that way. But, it had to be done because I wasn’t always going to be there when we ran out.

It wasn’t until Sunday that I put words to that story that need to be said: cooking is all about trust and confidence. Trust comes in just knowing when a piece of meat or a pancake needs to be turned. Confidence comes in when you’ve made a mistake, but you’re sure you know how to fix it. I make pancakes every weekend, so that’s how the idea popped into my head.

I know how to respect first contact, only flip once, and have it turn out perfectly. I never have to make a “tester pancake” because I’ve used my stove enough to know what temperature I need every time. I trust it. For instance, I know that the pans we have are all uneven and there’s only one hot spot in each of them, so I have to make the pancakes one at a time. I know I need lower heat for thick pancakes, higher for thin, because the thick ones take longer to rise and “bake through.” I know that I need a little more soy milk than the Bisquick package says, because if I do them that way, the pancakes will be miniature biscuits. I trust that I know what I’m doing, and I’m confident about it….. but not arrogant. I’ve crashed and burned in the kitchen before, but at home it’s not a big deal. I can either fix it or start over. In a professional setting, you can fix it or start over, and people will talk shit about “that one time” every day until it gets old and someone else does something dumb, but they also won’t forget to tell new people what you did after you’ve left.

My biggest war story comes from the same pub, the aforementioned Biddy McGraw’s…. or at least, it’s the one that hurt the worst. I’ve been taken to the ER twice, once as a waiter and once as a cook.

When I was a waiter, I was working at Chili’s, who used to serve their sodas and beers in these extraordinarily heavy glass mugs. One of the other waiters somehow broke the bottom off of one of them, and instead of removing it, just stuck it back down in the rack. The manager made an announcement about the broken mug, but none of the people who were out at their tables heard it. I come around the corner and the broken mug is the first thing I touch. It sliced the inside of my pinkie so badly that I needed stitches immediately.

When I was a cook, I took meat slicer to a whole new level when I didn’t see my thumb slip into it.

The reason the one from Biddy’s is so much worse is that both of the times I had to go to the ER, I was cut by something extraordinarily sharp. Clean cuts bleed, but they don’t generally cause pain.

I think I’ve mentioned before that my ex is a cook as well, or at least she used to be. We haven’t spoken in years, but back then we were coworkers during the weekend brunch shift. You’d think having a couple working in the kitchen would be bad juju, but I’ve never had a better coworker in my life. This is because couples can communicate with one look, and in restaurants, every nanosecond matters….. another reason why this was such a bad injury.

Every weekend, I would make bearnaise from scratch and put it in a double boiler on the front burner. On the back burner was a shallow pan for poaching eggs. I noticed that there was a metal spoon with a plastic handle in the egg pan and thought, “that shouldn’t be there.” What I didn’t know was that the plastic wasn’t heat resistant. Pain radiated from my hand up to my shoulder as the plastic fused to my skin. I literally had to rip off the spoon, and my exposed burn was legendary in size. We then threw away the spoon because there was too much Leslie on it.

Being the cook that I am, I went into dry storage and found the first aid kit. I put some silver sulfadiazine on the burn, covered it up with gloves, and went back to work. It hurt so bad I thought I was going to throw up. I think the cream was the only reason I didn’t have permanent scars. I’ve never been through childbirth, so I can safely say that it is the worst pain I’ve ever been in, bar none.

Now, my ex is Cordon Bleu certified. She could have run that kitchen blind whether I was there or not, but it did make her life easier if I stayed. So I did. Luckily, I was able to keep cooking, because if there had been lots of dishes to wash I might have walked out. This is because no matter how tight your gloves are, water seeps in, washing off the only thing keeping me upright.

And honestly, all the dumbass attacks just run together. Just an endless series of “I didn’t see that.” Literally. I have a different field of vision than most people, and it alternates because my eyes don’t track together. In many, many kitchens, that was taken as bullshit and people thought my IQ was too low to be a cook.

What’s actually true, and my last chef said this to me, is that I have the heart of a chef. What I’ve added to that is “but not the body.”

Knowing that has been one of the biggest pieces of grief in my life, but…………

I trust me.

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