Ok, folks, more old stuff follows. Some, ok two, of you have probably already read these; I'll try to get something new up soon. I'll be in New York for a couple of weeks in Nov., so I should have plenty of material after that.
So, I'm in this French restaurant...no, it's not the beginning of a bad story, or a worse joke...ok, I guess that's up to you to decide. This is actually a couple of stories. My kids, girlfriend and I were at Le Bistro one night several months ago when owner Richard Girot ( pronounce it Ree-CHARD) stopped by our table to talk. After a couple of minutes he took his leave and moved on. As he did I heard a man say, in one of the strongest west Texas accents I have ever heard, "Excuse me, sir. Where are you from?" Richard replied, "I am from France." "I know that," the man continued. "What part?" "The southwest." The man paused, I thought to myself, 'Dear God, no. He can't' He did. "So, you were born here, but you moved there?"
Part deux. Tonight, same restaurant, same kids, same owner. A woman (with the same accent, pattern developing?) asked Richard to suggest a wine pairing. He suggested a French Sauvignon blanc. She replied, insisted, that the French do not produce Sauvignon blanc. I give up.
Today was a little bit of a break for me. After getting my ass seriously kicked on the line the last couple days, I got to spend most of the day in the back doing prep. Started off by making a tub of peanut butter cookie dough (one of my favorite things to do), then iced cakes (my least favorite thing to do...I'd rather be elbow deep in the grease trap), and baked more cakes, diced linguica, fried 80 pounds of ground beef (shouldn't have worn sandals today), made icing, gave my knife some much-needed love on the sharpening stones, drooled over Bon Appetit, yelled at the prep cooks some (they're 15 and 17, you try working with 'em without yelling), started a beer & wine order and a food order, sampled some beer, made a list for the store, listened to John's Roswell UFO theory, then went up front for the dinner rush and did apps. A very nice break. Tomorrow it's back to the line though...and God help me, I can't wait
So, the old cook tells the young cook, "Stir this shit for forty-five minutes. Whatever you do, don't stop stirring." "Why not?" asks the young cook. "Ok, stop stirring." The young cook stops stirring for a minute, not even that long. Soon the center of the thick cornmeal mush on the stove in front of him begins to rise, like an IED taking out a chunk of desert roadway. The young cook watches it grow, sensing that this is not going to end well. And it doesn't. The bubble bursts, spraying hot, thick, herbed putty on the young cook's arms and face. "Fuck!" he says, stumbling back as he wipes the scalding polenta from his already reddening body parts. "Don't stop stirring," the old cook repeats. "They don't call this shit Italian napalm for nothin."
Sometimes, in even great restaurants, we get tired of our own offerings. After all the years here I have reached that point, so I've been cooking some different stuff lately for family meal. Saturday I cooked up a big pot of pasta and let everyone do their own thing with it. I just cracked a raw egg over mine, added some parmesan and a hell of a lot of black pepper...delicious. Raw egg? Oh my God, the danger! Let me just say that if I'm weak enough to be taken out by an egg it's time to check out anyway. Last night, after reading the latest issue of Gourmet for a day or so, I decided to make a good Southern dinner for us. I started with a pound of excellent bacon from the meat counter at Thriftway, there really is no better smell on earth than bacon frying, I can only think of one thing I'd rather wake up to than bacon and strong coffee, and if I can have those after the other thing...well, that might just be the start of a damned perfect day. Then a couple of chickens, which I cut into eighths, then marinated in buttermilk, Tabasco and onions for about four hours. Made some mashed potatoes and collard greens, heavily dosed with bacon fat and crumbles, then fried the chicken in more bacon fat. Some biscuits and a big glass of sweet tea and I swear I was as happy as I've been in a long time. There really is something miraculous about 'soul' food. I use the quotation marks because soul food to me is more than just that described above. It is the food of our youth, where ever that youth took place, be it the deep south, a small village in Mexico, or the streets of Brooklyn. It is the food that takes us back to a more simple time, the time of childhood, when every problem could be solved by mom's cooking and a hug. In Ratatouille there is a scene where the cruel food critic, steeled to eviscerate our hero and his food, tastes the humble ratatouille, and is instantly transported back to his mother's own offering of the same peasant dish to take away the pain of his crashed bicycle. That scene brought tears to my eyes because that's the power of food. That's what we, as cooks, have the power to do when we're working at our best, I've seen it happen more than once. My favorite example is a guy that walked in after smelling the pizza from outside. He ordered a slice (cheese, of course) and left, minutes later he was back, tears in his eyes, to get another. He was from New York and hadn't had good pizza in years, our simple pie brought on that flood of emotion in a grown man. That's soul food.
Ok, so I'm already getting pissed and Hell Week hasn't even started. WTF? I've got two guys who are supposed to be prep cooks burning every other fucking thing they cook, except jambalaya, which they're more than happy to send out cold. Guess I yelled too much about their burning shit. Caught a dishwasher throwing silverware in the trash and another sticking his finger in cakes and my waiters are already getting pissy and running tables off. So far I've managed to not lose it, but it's coming, and it will not be pretty; there will be blood, spit and ass everywhere. Only my dear Gentleman Jack has a chance of preventing a stir-stick swinging tantrum at this point.
The Worst Angels Of Our Nature: Rage And Racism On The Campaign Trail
Like everyone else, I am worried about the economy and the financial panic I sense around me. But I am absolutely terrified--I tremble for my country--by the rage that has been expressed at Republican campaign rallies during the past two weeks. It is a rage that partakes of the worst forces in American history--xenophobia, racism, anti-intellectualism, religious fanaticism, envy, and utter contempt for truth and reason. Lest anyone suggest that this is a bipartisan phenomenon, I should point out that no one at Obama rallies is calling out for anyone to kill the other candidate. Worst of all is the behavior of Sarah Palin, a candidate for the second highest office in the land who stood on a platform, heard the cries of "treason" and "kill him" after her anti-Obama rant, and said absolutely nothing. She went on with her vile speech as if nothing had happened. John McCain has belatedly realized that his campaign has unleashed forces that it cannot control; perhaps he came to that realization when he was booed at his own rallies for contradicting supporters who called Obama an "Arab" and a "traitor." Pundits on the left and right (and Barack Obama himself) always preface their acknowledgments of McCain's effort to calm the waters with an obligatory "to his credit." Talk about unearned credit. McCain picked the rabble-rousing Palin as his running mate, and he picked her because she appealed to the far-right Republican base. Her speeches, with their accusation that Obama was "pallin' around with terrorists," followed by attempts to link Sixties' radicals with the 9//11 bombers, leading logically to audience's conclusion that Obama himself may be a terrorist, were certainly cleared by the Rovian McCain campaign strategists. That McCain is now recognizing that he may be inheriting the wind says nothing creditable about him. The least we can expect from respectable candidates is that they decry calls for murder and accusations of treason. You don't deserve a gold star for doing that. I am afraid, as others are afraid and reluctant to say so, that some unhinged Joe or Jane Six-Pack will pick up a gun and act on the passions aroused at these rallies. How can anyone who came of age in the sixties--whose youth was punctuated by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy, not be afraid? The ignorant and bellicose governor of Alaska badly needs a history lesson. Most of us demon liberals weren't pallin' around with terrorists during the sixties; what we were doing, too many times in our young lives, was mourning the loss of leaders who did try to speak to the better angels of the American nature. The trouble begins with the notion that there is some special wisdom in the virtuous, uneducated Joe Six-Packs of this nation. I met my very own Joe-Six Pack (that's what he called himself) a few weeks ago, and if he exemplifies the purported wisdom of ordinary Americans, we are in trouble that cannot be measured by any decline in the stock market. I wound up at the same table with Joe, the owner of a Polish delicatessen, in a packed bar as we waited in the Milwaukee airport for a delayed flight to New York. After volunteering the information that he was flying to New York for his niece's wedding in Brooklyn, Joe said he wasn't looking forward to the event because his niece was marrying a native New Yorker and they were "moving into some kind of hippie loft under some bridge." Then Joe started talking about the economy. He didn't blame Wall Street nearly as much as he blamed ordinary Americans who, pursuing the dream of becoming homeowners, had obtained subprime mortgages with no down payment. "These people knew they couldn't afford to pay back those loans," he said, "and they didn't give a damn because they hadn't had to put down any of their own money. So they're losing nothing when they get kicked out. No money down, and they've been getting free rent for as long as they've lived in the house." How, I asked, did Joe figure that people had been getting "free rent," since most of them had been making mortgage payments--at increasing interest rates--for years. Wasn't it possible that many of the homeowners facing foreclosure had simply not understood what it would mean for their monthly payments if the rate on the mortgages went up by, say, 5 percent? Wasn't it possible that they thought they could make their payments when they signed the mortgages but subsequently lost their jobs? Or that someone in the family got sick and piled up medical bills that lend to bankruptcy? "Don't you believe it," said Joe, whose face literally turned purple with rage. "So maybe they made payments for a while, but they were a lot lower than rent payments would be. That's always the excuse with these people, that they've been unlucky, that they're poor little victims." "These people." I wanted to ask who "they" were and what separated them from "us," but I didn't have to. He exploded again. "You have a whole group of people who don't really want to earn what they have. These bad home loans, they're like special treatment for blacks who want to get into the best universities. You want it, you don't have to work for it, the government will give it to you." As soon as I boarded the plane, I took notes detailing everything about this conversation. I hope that this Joe Six-Pack was just one Joe Six-Pack, and that there are many other blue-collar Americans who do not share such views, reeking of class and racial resentment and absent any awareness of the ways in which unexpected blows of fate can derail the honest efforts and hopes of hard-working people. We will, I suppose find out on Nov. 4. The fate of our nation rests on the hope that a majority of Americans are not as uneducated and angry as my Joe Six-Pack. I do know that a real leader ought to challenge such ignorance, wherever it exists, instead of praising is as an example of down-home American values. Any politician who provides fuel for the worst sort of American fire, or remains silent in the face of bigotry and threats of violence, is a disgrace to this country.
At what point does my responsibility end? With my kids I know that the answer must be never. They are products of me, and having been a single dad for a considerable portion of their lives I know that the decisions that they make for years to come will be based on decisions, good and bad, I made while they lived with me. Regarding my employees, the water gets murky. At what point do I step away and say, "Not my problem?" Of course, the argument can be made that I'm not responsible for any grown person's behavior, in or out of work, they are thinking people capable of making decisions independent of my will. How do you control that? That is a tempting way out, but I can't take it. Whether it's my upbringing, my training, or the experience of having served under a handful of great leaders, I feel a very real sense of responsibility for my crew, both for their well being and for their mistakes. If one of my guys is wrong, I'm wrong. If they aren't happy, neither am I. It doesn't matter if I like them or not, it matters that I either hired them or inherited them and did both knowing what I was doing and that I was becoming responsible for human beings in the process. Too dramatic? This isn't the military after all, no one's life is dependant upon my doing a good job as a boss. But several livelihoods are, along with the tens of thousands we pay in taxes, both through the business itself and its payroll. And actually, if we don't do a good job regarding hygiene and food storage and preparation we very well would be putting lives at risk. So, when is it OK to walk away from an employee? Even in the military they only kick members out for the most serious offenses. Trying to get kicked out of the army is damned tough, I saw people try and the army punished them but kept them with a "you're a fuck up, but you're my fuck up" attitude. Even the samurai felt the same, the master was responsible for the acts of his men with the understanding that if the soldier embarrassed his boss too badly the shit would roll down hill, and so would the heads. So, should I keep a guy that is nearly always late, but does an otherwise good job, and who I truly like and want the best for, and then no-shows without explanation until the next night? What about the guy who calls in all the time with different excuses until I catch him in a lie? That one's a lot easier, but I still feel a very real responsibility for how the courses of their lives will be affected by the decision each has forced me to make. This is really a letter to myself, to solidify my thoughts and strengthen my resolve. The decisions have already been made, and the heads collected.
In an effort to not be sued this month (actually, I've been litigation free for almost four months), I'm changing the name of the restaurant in question. We'll call it U-Bahn. U-Bahn serves sandwiches and salads and a fat guy once got famously thin by eating their food, and I was hoping to replicate that success since hyper-extending my muffin top last week. I've now figured out why that guy lost so much weigh, there's no flippin' food on an U-Bahn sandwich. On a six-inch sandwich, named after one of our fine New Mexico towns, there are three slices of turkey, two tiny triangles of cheese and two thin slices of bacon (hold 'em up, you can see through 'em!), for a grand total of maybe five ounces. The rest is lettuce, a couple of slices of tomato, green chile and guacamole. In U-Bahn's defense, they are generous with the last two toppings. In my defense, my sandwich artisan left all of the green chile on one end of the sandwich; I believe it was the left end. Three little strips of bell pepper and maybe four of onion and then some mustard and my sandwich was ready to go. This and a bag of chips for just under seven dollars and we wonder why more people don't try to eat healthy on the go; I know I was wishing I'd gone next door to McDonalds as I was eating what tasted like a lettuce, guacamole and mustard sandwich, at least it did until I got the left end.
The sun beats down with no regard for my skin as I watch the soldiers in their heavy wool uniforms face each other across the field. The Rebs have marched in line to within sight of the Union artillery, but still no shots have been fired. A young Confederate officer orders his men down into a prone position as they wait. They don’t wait long as a squad of blue-clad skirmishers moves toward the gray line’s right flank. Soon sporadic firing begins, but somehow no one falls. To the Confederate rear cannons fire and almost immediately the Union gunners answer back and gun smoke hangs in the still air as Yankee cavalry moves to engage the Rebel line. The firing becomes more general and Confederate cavalry moves to thwart the northerners, but they and their infantry begin to fall back as a large group of Union infantry crests the rise to their front, moving toward them through the tick and chigger filled grass to a muffled cadence. The Confederates stop and reform their line, firing a volley at the approaching enemy. The Union troops respond with rolling volley fire. Their first rank drops to a crouch and fires as one. As they reload, the second rank fires over their heads, then crouches to reload as well. The third rank then fires and by that time the first is ready to go again. A very good way to get a whole bunch of lead down range in a very short amount of time using single shot rifles which only an expert could reload in less than 10 seconds. A second rolling volley shatters the Rebel line and they fall back to the trees at their rear where another line of infantry has been waiting. This line now fires it’s own volley but the men in blue continue their advance as the cavalry skirmishes in the brush. Soon the fighting has moved past my vantage point as the Confederates abandon their artillery, a red kepied gunner slumped across a gun’s carriage. A Union soldier taunts the Confederates, now across the creek from him, by waving their own battle flag at them. The firing is less concentrated now, an occasional shot or cluster of shots to my right as I watch a surgeon in a red-smeared apron move among the bodies on the ground, looking for signs of life. He carries a bottle of whiskey and a saw. A group of women carrying water bags follows him and tends the wounded. Soon the fighting has passed over the little wooden bridge, through the area where the Indian Tacos and snow cones are being peddled and has nearly reached the parking lot. I follow behind and stop to watch as an older, overweight man in a blue uniform gasps and claws at the ground. ‘Overacting,’ I think for a minute, enjoying his performance, before realizing that he’s suffering from heat stroke. A few minutes later, while waiting for my snow cone, I’ll think it odd that the Union soldier standing in front of me is talking on a cell phone.
"This is America. We're a nation that's faced down war and depression; great challenges and great threats, and at each and every moment, we've risen to meet these challenges because we've never forgotten that fundamental truth, that here in this country, our destiny is not written for us. It's written by us." -Barack Obama