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.

Wilted

I started my morning by making coffee and a “kitchen sink” wilted salad with over medium eggs on top (I am a vegan who cheats. A lot. #noguiltever). By “kitchen sink,” I mean I just threw in whatever fruits and veggies were available.

I started out with sesame seed oil, onions, garlic, mushrooms, diced Granny Smith apples, and ginger. To finish, I added a mixture of shaved brussel sprouts and spring mix (red romaine, baby spinach, radicchio, green romaine, arugula, red mustard, red chard, frisee), then put some rice wine vinegar in the bottom of the pan and let it reduce, helping the to greens soften and mix.

When the veggies were ready, I pushed them to the sides of the pan, making a perfect circle for two eggs, spraying the pan with sesame seed oil again so nothing would stick. I was going to do sunny side up, but I didn’t have a lid for the pan, and I grew tired of waiting for the yolks to cook, because it takes so much longer without steam.

The dish turned out perfectly, and I am my harshest critic. I was hungry in a now sort of way, otherwise I would have served everything over wild rice and lentils as well.

I have a rice cooker made by Instant Zest, and it is the best kitchen purchase I have ever made, because it was cheap and has settings for white rice, brown rice, steel cut oatmeal, quinoa, and veggie steam (which I have also used successfully for soft/hard boiled eggs).

It’s actually been a few days….. almost a week….. since I’ve cooked, because I had to gather the courage to do it again.  I was cubing raw sweet potato, and I cut myself in such a spectacular way that I don’t think I’ve ever had a worse kitchen injury. It happened so fast that I’m not even sure where I made the mistake. I don’t know if the cutting board slipped, the knife went sideways, it wasn’t sharp enough for raw potato, etc. It could also have been something I wouldn’t have caught, like my monocular vision making me think I was cutting a straight line, but I was actually cutting diagonally. This is a problem that is as equally likely as an accident I would have seen coming. All that being said, no matter what the cause, the effect was the same- absolute searing pain and bleeding so severe that I should have gone to Urgent Care/the ER to see if I needed stitches, but I didn’t.

My kitchen training was just too ingrained…. fix the problem and get back to cooking. It took forever to get it to clot, even using a styptic pencil for vasoconstriction. Once it did, I put on some Band-Aids and finished what I was doing. Two days later, I was taking off the Band-Aids to change the dressing, and it ripped open again, which led to another half hour of trying to fix profuse bleeding. Though I’d bought a first aid kit and very advanced bandages, I’d forgotten to get the one thing that would have really helped, and is a staple in a professional knife roll– Super Glue. If I’d gotten some, once the bleeding stopped, I probably could have avoided ripping it open again. You can chalk that one up to #dumbassattack, and it won’t be happening again.

Believe it or don’t, this is the first time I’ve cut myself in many years. When I was working professionally, at home I ran on sandwiches and hot dogs. The last thing I wanted to do when I got home was cook for myself…. so, the only time I used knives was at work, where everything is built for safety, even for short people like me. The counter is lower, the cutting boards are heavier and held in place by wet rags, at least one person in the kitchen has honing and sharpening tools, etc. I had plenty of injuries when it came to burning myself, but that was it.

It was funny the emotions that came up for me as soon as the knife went from sweet potato to the side of my finger and nail. I thought of all the professional chefs and cooks I’d worked with, including my ex-wife, Dana, and shame washed over me. I felt like I’d let them down. It was my own moment of feeling wilted.

For a home cook, it’s just an accident. For a professional cook, it’s “you were being a dumbass and whatever you did got you hurt. What the hell is wrong with you?” And believe me, with some chefs, that is the nice version of what they would have said. And if the chef wasn’t in the kitchen, your coworkers would do their job for them. For instance, Dana used to work in a high-end grocery store for the meat, sausage, and fish department. One of her coworkers sliced into his finger while filleting a fish, and the entire department called him Filet-O-Finger for YEARS ON END.

Speaking of which, the only time I ever got a nickname was due to no fault of my own. During junior college, I was on the waitstaff at my local Chili’s. It was a busy shift, and they hadn’t switched over to plastic mugs yet. So, this waiter broke one of the heavy glass mugs and like an idiot, just stuck it back in the rack. The manager made an announcement that the glass was broken, but I was delivering food and not there to hear it.

The way the mug was stuck down into the rack, you couldn’t see the broken part, so I came around the corner and it’s (of course) the first thing I pick up. Little shards immediately went into my pinkie at the knuckle, and it was definitely bad enough for stitches. The manager rushed me to the ER, and I didn’t go another day in that kitchen without being called “Worker’s Comp” by somebody. The reason that memory is still seared into my brain is that it’s been 20 years and the scar is still visible.

I have no reason to doubt that this cut will be the same. 20 years from now, I will still remember the day I was dicing raw sweet potatoes, because the cut is deep enough the scar will never fade.

So, today was about ignoring the fear I felt about cutting myself again so I could move past it for real. “Act as if,” you know? In fact, as everything was cooking, I kept cutting. I didn’t need but about a half of diced apple, so I cut the rest into very large dice, and did the same with another whole apple. It was enough to fill two Zip-Loc bags. With the first, I shook in a small box of sugar free cherry Jell-O powder, an idea my mom got from a magazine and is delicious with any flavor. A moment of grief washed over me, because I couldn’t remember the proportions and she wasn’t there to call and ask. She used to put Jell-O apples in my lunch box as a kid almost every day, so I knew she would know off the top of her head…… and Google is just no substitute.

It was yet another moment of feeling wilted, but due to the hopelessness of the situation, I just had to move on.

I figured I would learn on my own when I tasted them if I’d gotten it right or not, and moved on to the second bag, to which I added some rice wine vinegar to keep the apples fresh for cooking savory dishes or adding to a salad (Hmmmm…. there’s goat cheese in the fridge……).

The last thing I was thinking today is that my knife is so sharp that there’s no way it’s time to sharpen again, but it probably needs honing. I’ll call around and ask how much it would be, because I’ve never learned how to sharpen and hone a knife properly….. and no matter how much I spend on an electric honer/sharpener, it will not meet my expectations. I have seen the most expensive ones chew up a knife and spit it out, even if it worked perfectly before.

If it is more expensive than another chef’s knife from Chicago Cutlery, I’ll just get a new one and leave this one in the community block…. but I’m really hoping that it’s not, because this knife, since I hide it from my housemates, has become mine. I never got first blood on Rachel (so named since she was as sharp as a Maddow takedown), or the three knives before her. I haven’t named this one……..

It’s probably going to be “Worker’s Comp.”

Argo F*ck Yourself

I’m not trying to be mean to anyone with that title. It’s a Spotify playlist I created with the Argo soundtrack. There are so many tracks that are amazing for writing; I highly recommend checking it out. My favorite is The Mission. I just hit “Write” in the WordPress editor and put the music on shuffle. It is background Middle Eastern music that is completely wordless, perfect for concentration. I use other playlists such as Deep Focus as well, but I’m so familiar with this album that I choose it the most frequently. This is because as a music person, I can’t write as well with something I haven’t heard before. My energy transfers to figuring out walking bass lines, lyrics, etc. Sometimes, like Matt Mullenweg, I will put one track on repeat so that music is playing, but it is just background noise and not a distraction (I learned he does this from a Tim Ferris podcast episode). My favorite for listening over and over again is Mausam & Escape from Slumdog Millionaire. It also makes excellent running music….. or it would, if I ran. I’ve been meaning to start for, oh, ten years or so?


Quick break for fact about Matt- we both went to HSPVA, but not at the same time. He is a bit younger than I am.


The last time I began running seriously was six weeks before I went skiing on Spring Break (senior year of high school) at Winter Park. There was a public pool 1.5 miles from my house at that time. I would run there and back every day. I thought I was getting in shape for downhill, but what actually happened is that I gave myself shin splints and nearly screamed in pain the first time I locked in my ski boots. Within two days, though, I was skiing blue runs, despite it being my first time on the slopes. To date, it is the only sport in which I don’t feel like a complete klutz. Just don’t ask me to do cross country. I like it when the mountain does all the work. Yes, cross country is a great workout. No, I do not care.

When I lived in Oregon, I also skied Mt. Hood, which has snow all year round. The Olympic ski team practices there because of it…. and although I do consider myself a good skier, nothing makes me more doubtful of my abilities than watching seven-year-olds do moguls and jumps.

Apparently, there are several ski resorts close to me, but since I don’t drive, it is prohibitively expensive to get there. Plus, this time of year, you’re pretty much skiing on ice, and that is extremely dangerous, because you can gather a large amount of speed extremely quickly, and then not enough powder to let your skis dig in to be able to slow down or stop…. unless you run into something. Even with enough powder to stop, I still had to take one for the team and “yard sale” all over the mountain (the term for when you fall and your poles, skis, goggles, etc. go every which way but near you). This is because there was a kid skiing horizontally across my path and I didn’t want to hit him. I wasn’t hurt, because I was taught how to fall, but there’s always that moment of fear before you know you need to do it. Please God, don’t let me run into a tree, etc. I believe my dad had the same experience with a snowboarder.

I’ve never wanted to learn how to snowboard, because I’m such a good skier that I don’t want to start at the beginning, and once Lindsay was teaching me how to skateboard and I broke my foot. I didn’t know it was broken, so I worked an entire shift at a restaurant (as if they would care if I broke my foot or not… just put some Windex™ on it….), and when I finished, my foot was the size of a small balloon and I went straight to the ER.

So, you can see how my aversion to snowboarding is real and it’s deep.

Speaking of restaurants and injuries, the only time I was rushed to the ER was when a dumbass put a broken mug back onto the rack and made an announcement to the team that he put it there while I was out delivering food. I came around the corner, and of course, it was the first thing I grabbed. It sliced my pinky to shreds, and they nicknamed me “Worker’s Comp” for the rest of the time I worked there. It never died down, even though it was clearly someone else’s mistake. Because there were other people out on the floor when the broken glass was announced, it could have been anyone. But I was the “lucky” one.

Oh, I take that back. I also had to go to Urgent care because I accidentally sliced off a piece of my thumb while cutting ham. All of my other injuries were treated with Superglue or burn cream and I just carried on, which is what generally happens when cooks get hurt. Work through the pain, no excuses. No one is sympathetic to injury, because the kitchen is down a man and one’s coworkers will take a lot longer to forget that….. even if fixing your injury only takes five or ten minutes.

The two worst injuries I ever worked through involved burns. The first was accidentally leaving a spoon with a plastic handle in an egg poaching pan, and it got so hot that the plastic fused to my hand. The second was wearing surgeon-type gloves while flipping burgers over an open flame, and instead of protecting customers from germs, it also fused to my hand from extreme heat….. and those are only my two worst examples. The lesser, yet incredibly painful ones I remember are accidentally touching the corner of a convection oven with my forearm, leaving a pink triangle in its wake, and burning the crippling fuck out of my wrist with a hot tortilla press.

The only good thing that came out of the convection oven burn was that Dana burned herself in the exact same place, so we both had pink triangles burned into our flesh. When it healed, it was awesome and appropriate for a lesbian couple. It has faded out over time, but mine was there for a good two years afterward.

The least painful but still memorable burn was taking out my index finger with a blowtorch making crème brulée…. and it wasn’t one of those little home jobs they sell at Sur la Table. It was big and industrial, so I’ll never forget.

Additionally, it wasn’t the worst cut I’ve ever had, but one that will stick with me forever. When I was 16, I was cutting a lime at home and sliced into my thumb. The reason I can recall the memory at will is that the nerves were completely severed and I don’t have feeling in that patch of skin anymore. Look at me, I’m a badass who learned how to cut limes so they look profes….. oh, FUCK!

Tip well. You never know when you’re helping pay our medical bills…. or the ski vacations we desperately need after giving everything we have to the people we serve, day in and day out….. some of whom are eternally grateful, and others who don’t care that we are human and treat us like garbage.

Because we’re only waiters and cooks…. what, like it’s hard?

I love the way the Argo soundtrack makes my memories spill onto the page. It’s as uplifting as Cleared Iranian Airspace.