Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Wether is Wonderful

A couple of weeks ago my daughter was getting her hair done when Laura, the lady who cuts her hair, mentioned that she had just bought a lamb, slaughtered, butchered and processed for $80. I asked Emily to get the farmer’s number from Laura for me, but Laura did one better and just called the guy and sent him to me.
So, Friday afternoon I’m in the back prepping when Jared comes back and tells me that some guy wants to talk to me. “Who is it?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” is the answer. “He’s got a card with your name on it.”
Now I’m thinking 1. Great, I’m about to get served a summons, 2. Well, it could just be an amateurish hit man, and 3. I’ve really got to get the staff to ask a couple of questions before turning me over to people.
The guy turned out to be Marcos, a big sixty-something Mexican who’s worked on ranches all his life, mostly as a shearer, traveling all over the West shearing sheep. Marcos is one of those guys who smiles constantly while he’s talking to you, not in a used car salesman or politician kind of way, but a genuine smile that gets only bigger when he’s talking about his animals.
We talk about what he’s got available, no lambs right now, and won’t have any for a few months, but he says he’s got a three year old wether (castrated male sheep) that he’ll let me have for a hundred bucks.
I balk for a minute, mutton can be pretty unpleasant, that’s why people eat the lambs, when they’re young the meat is much more tender and hasn’t yet acquired the gaminess that a lot of people don’t like. But Marcos assures me that the meat will be fine.
“Okay, let’s do it.”
“When do you want it, I can kill it tonight, have it to you in the morning.”
Wow, I just ordered an animal killed. I don’t feel good about this, but we have become so detached from our food, forgetting or never realizing that something, be it plant or animal, has to sacrifice so that we may live, the circle of life so obscured by popular entertainment, and mega-mart shopping where our hunt for sustenance takes us nowhere near the source of the food, no way to know how it was harvested, or by whom.
But here this man is matter-of-factly telling me that he will kill my sheep that he had just described with true affection.
So, I feel badly, for the animal and the farmer, but I know Marcos doesn’t feel bad about it. It’s his job, he’s done it all his life and he wouldn’t want anyone else do it because he does like the animal and he knows he can slaughter it more quickly and cleanly than anyone, and in his mind the animal is meant to be eaten, my backing out would only postpone the inevitable.
“That will be fine.” We agree on a delivery time before the restaurant opens since the last time we carried a large dead animal through the dining room some folks got a little upset.
“How do you want it?”
“Just dressed.” I want to do the butchering myself, so I just want it skinned and cleaned.
“Head on, or off.”
“On, please.” This gets a smile and a nod, maybe this gringo does know what to do with my animal.
The fact is, I’m really not sure what I’m going to do with his animal and I spend the night tossing staring up at the ceiling, thinking that I have to make sure every bit of this animal gets used, it’s dead right now because I said to kill it, there can be no waste.
The next morning Marcos arrives and I walk out front to his truck and there is the wether, skinned and gutted, legs locked in rigor, the face with no skin a bizarre mask.
“You say you want fresh, so I wait and kill him this morning.”
Wow, that’s fresh alright.
“Ok, you take him. I cannot help, I shattered my pelvis last year.”
‘Awesome, good thing I left the fuckin’ head on,’ I’m thinking, as the crazy-eyed, bloody, no-lipped thing flops back and smacks the side of my leg when I lift the carcass. Luckily there are not a lot of people out and about yet, but we do get some appalled stares. "Don't make eye contact, Margaret." I imagine the accountant in the two wheel drive SUV telling his wife as they pass.
Also lucky that the one and only person walking by is a cook from a place a couple of doors down who is more than happy to help me get the heavy and awkward carcass inside and on a table in the back kitchen where I’ll break it down. He grins and nods. "Cool," is all he says.
Then Marcos and I have a couple of strong americanos and he tells me more about where he came from in Mexico and of his animals. He talks most about his fighting cocks, saying that he doesn’t fight them much anymore, but he enjoys breeding and raising them, and then about his ex-wife, and how she cheated on him, and how he went to kill her, but that with him in jail and her dead there’d be no one to raise his little girl, and he’s still smiling, but it’s a hurt smile, and for the thousandth time I am reminded of how arrogant and judgmental I was as a younger man and how I would have looked down on him for his, to my mind, outdated views and customs, but now I can see him as just another man, doing his best to get by, and we can drink coffee and laugh at each other’s stories, all because of this animal on my prep table.
Later, as I’m breaking down the carcass into manageable cuts I’m thinking the same things as I had been the night before, but I’m starting to know what I’m going to do with each part, and at the end of it there is very little waste, mostly gristle and silver skin. Everything else is wrapped and put up, and one foreleg sizzles away in a roasting pan having been rubbed down with a little bit of olive oil and salt and pepper and topped with two sprigs of fresh rosemary. On the stove top the spine simmers away in a big stock pot, the collagen and marrow being slowly turned into what will turn out to be an amazingly tasteful stock.
I roasted some potatoes with the fat from the leg and made a sauce from those same drippings by whisking in just some butter for what was an absolutely delicious dinner, and today I made sausage with some of the trim and scraps and it was the best sausage I’ve made yet.
Marcos was right, the meat is wonderful, rich and flavorful. He knows his animals.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Staff Meal

Danny and Sonja convinced me to make chicken fried steak for the crew today. Pretty tasty.

Monday, August 24, 2009

More Cook's Tale

When we first moved to Oklahoma from California my mom’s mother warned her that we’d only last six months and come “crawling back.” About a year later we were still there though and had moved a couple of miles to a larger farm owned by preacher who said we’d be able to buy the place after a year of leasing, and my dad’s folks had moved into a little house about a mile from us.

The new place sat on 40 acres adjacent to the cemetery that now holds my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and assorted aunts, uncles and cousins and which sits directly across the road from the land my grandparents farmed as a young couple in the ‘40s. My parents will be buried there, and I imagine I will be as well.

There, we still had our milk cows, a couple of new pigs, plenty of chickens, a couple of ponies, one Shetland and one Welsh, and a pair of ducks named George and Martha who would walk side-by-side down the long driveway every evening. My dad was still trying to make it by doing farm labor and my mom had taken a job through the state as a caretaker for an old couple up the road.

It wasn’t as wild as the first place on the “mountain” but it was still pretty cool; we sunk a borrowed wash tub trying to cross the pond to the tiny island in the middle, built huge forts out of bales of hay, and Uncle Mike helped me with my shifting by clocking me on the knee with a fifth of cheap booze every time I popped the clutch or didn’t shift smoothly while driving his drunk ass around on the back roads. I collected terrapins for a while, naming all of them after tanks, and keeping them in the bathtub while I was at school. When I got home I’d let Patton, Sherman, Panzer and Juggernaut roam around the house until one day one of them crawled across my mom’s bare foot while she was cooking (she wasn’t pregnant), all crawly things were then summarily banned from the house and I moved my platoon out to an empty rabbit hutch.

One day, Kelli and I went out to collect eggs from the hen house. Kelli was doing the actual collecting, I don’t remember if I was holding the eggs, or just goofing off, but I do know that she stuck her hand into one of the shadowy wooden boxes where the hens nested and let out a scream that would have made a B horror flick starlet envious and was out the door. I never saw the snake that she had grabbed instead of an egg, didn’t even know it was a snake, I just knew that I’d better do my best to at least keep up with her

Before long, Dad accepted that he was never going to make a living hauling other peoples hay or digging their potatoes for a share of the crop and went back to what he had been doing all his life, driving truck. Like me, his first driving had taken place in the fields, but he had started even younger, standing in the seat to see over the dash as the truck moved down the rows in low gear as my grandpa threw sacks of potatoes onto the bed.

Dad and I by one of the trucks owned by my grandpa and great uncle, 1967.

His new outfit was a small trucking company in Checotah, a small town about 30 miles away. With them he hauled a little bit of everything and I was able to go with him during the summers. I loved those rides, sitting so much higher than everyone else, even at 10 years old, the absolute power of riding something so big and heavy, the chatter on the CB, my being “Little Scout” to my dad’s “Trailblazer”, falling asleep in the sleeper to the drone and rocking of the truck as Dad drove on. To this day I still love the smell of diesel smoke, and have an embarrassing love for the hokey old trucker songs that I used to listen to on the truck’s 8 track player as I sat in the cab playing trucker for hours while the truck sat in the driveway.

One of my favorite trucks was the ’52 Peterbilt that he drove when he first started driving again. I rode with him once to Muleshoe, Texas with a load of grain, returning with a load of tomatoes. In one of the storage compartments of the sleeper we found a tattered copy of the novelization of Star Wars, which I read for the rest of the trip.

The '52 Pete

I learned that preachers lie, just like everyone else, when, as our lease neared its end, his son showed a sudden interest in the farm and we had to move again.

We made a trip to Muskogee and looked at mobile homes and ended up buying one, which dad moved with the Pete to our new home in a trailer park in Checotah. In two years we had gone right back to where we had been in California, Dad driving truck and Mom driving school bus, but the plan was to get back out to the Lenna area, this time on our own land.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Random pics from Saturday night.

Jared watching for hippies.

Sonja, FNG Clayton, AKA: Carlisle, AKA: Clinton, AKA: Carlton, AKA: Cheyenne, AKA: Voltron, and Emily

New Kid Josh, AKA: Epstein

Em in the weeds.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I’ve always had a thing for mustard, and still do; yellow, brown, Dijon, mustard with seeds or horseradish, sweet, spicy, mustard flavored pretzels, honey mustard salad dressing…I love them all. Ketchup (and it has to be spelled K-E-T-C-H-U-P, what the hell is catsup?) only belongs on french fries, keep it the hell away from my corndog, thank you.

Some of my earliest memories are of a Chinese restaurant we used to go to on Sundays after church. We walked through a door and then up a long flight of poorly lit stairs that really scared me, and then through another door into a strange and wonderful world of reds and yellows, lacquer and fake gold, with incomprehensible yelling and fabulous smells coming from behind a swinging door.

I only remember ever eating egg fu yung there, and right now I’m craving the stuff…I wonder what time Yee’s closes…and my grandpa used to trick me into eating the scorching Chinese mustard. Every time. He thought it was hilarious.

When I was a little older I would sometimes stay with my great-grandma, I don’t remember what she looked like, other than she was tiny, but I remember that she lived in a little old trailer in one of those trailer parks where all the trailers are lined up perfectly along little streets with speed bumps and everyone has a little picket fence around their little yards.

I used to think the speed bumps were cool and would play on the edge of the street, pushing my toy cars up and over them and at some point great-grandma would make me a sandwich, plain yellow mustard on plain white bread. No meat, no cheese, just mustard and bread. I loved them.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Cafe Quote

That's an awesome calzone, and I'm not even high.

- Danny
“Lane died on a Friday night due to complications of lifestyle – which is to say, he was shot by an acquaintance in a squabble over twenty dollars’ worth of shitty brown horse. He wasn’t found until Saturday morning; no one thought to call the restaurant to let us know that he wouldn’t be coming in to work that day. He was just considered AWOL – a no-call/no-show that left the line a man short going into the early-bird rush.”

This is how Jason Sheehan starts his autobiography Cooking Dirty which I’ve been reading instead of doing productive things, like digging through the pile of crap on my desk that’s been growing and slowly moving into milk crates and onto the floor like some kind of paper slime mold for the last month and a half.

Sheehan writes from the perspective of the line cooks in the kinds of restaurants we all eat at everyday; in other words, this is not the story of the culinary school grad, or the old- school European chef who, as the second son, had no chance for university, and was sent off at the age of 13 to apprentice in whatever kitchen his parents could find for him, and then went on to achieve four Michelin stars on his fortieth birthday.

I am both loving and hating this book; loving it because it is extremely funny, even at it’s darkest, and accurate in the portrayal of working in restaurants like…well, like mine. Hating it because I have harbored this fantasy of writing a book like this at some point and now I’m thinking does the world really need another of these books, especially since this one and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential were written by guys who are better writers, better cooks and have far better stories than what I’ve got so far.

I mean, what the hell, those guys can write about their being young cooks with heroin and crystal meth addictions and all I’ve got is a mild bout of alcoholism and a twice-a-year pot habit.

Ah well, best to forget about that book deal, jetting around the country to book signings and to sit on panels beside my heroes as we’re pelted with questions from foodies about how much of an impact terroir really has on escargot, and finally getting a house that wasn’t towed to it’s current location before being screwed together, and start in on this desk, ‘cause it ain’t gonna clean itself.

Sure would be cool though...yeah.

Friday, August 14, 2009

First Aid for Cooks

1. Cut half way around finger while making the very last cut on the basil.

2. Immediately jerk finger away and watch...notice that cut is fairly deep...wait for the blood...there it is.

3. Pack cut with coffee grounds (pepper works equally well but burns).

4. Put on rubber glove and keep working. Change glove if finger of glove fills with blood before bleeding stops.

5. Once bleeding has stopped, remove glove and rinse wound.

6. Apply monkey blood.

7. Super glue wound shut, put on a fresh glove and get back to work.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

California stuff that slipped my mind

Wow, I totally forgot some food memories from the California days. One was a trip to Sacramento one day with my mom; we stopped at a little taco place and I had the best tacos there. I can still remember being amazed by the flavor and how the reddish grease spilled out of the end of the tacos, into my hand and then down my arm. My mom doesn’t even remember this and has no idea what the name of the place might have been.

Before that though was pizza. Along the Sacramento River somewhere there was a little restaurant named Tully’s and we used to get pizza there. Most often Dad would pick it up on his way home from work, but sometimes we’d go there to eat. I don’t really remember much about the place itself, other than it was small and there was lots of wood and it had the theme from The Sting on the jukebox. I don’t even remember much about the pizza, except that my mom and dad used to order theirs with peppers so that my sister and I wouldn’t want any…until we figured out that peppers were pretty good.

Even earlier still was abalone, a giant sea snail so over-cultivated that they became the first marine invertebrate to receive protection as an endangered species.
Who the hell decided to eat these ugly things is beyond me, but damn are they delicious. During the early ‘70s, when I was small, we used to drive up the coast and you could get deep fried abalone in little cardboard containers through nearly any drive through, and my mom, my aunts, my grandmothers, all had abalone shells, with their pretty iridescent interiors, in their bathrooms to hold scented soaps, jewelry, you name it.
Speaking of a Cafe Rio, there's not one...but we've been joking about it for years.
The story would center around us getting ready for the World Pizza Championships, or something, when one of us (Jerry, I think) is made to drop out by his father, who wants him to follow in his footsteps as a professional dancer.
Hah, footsteps...dancer. Nice.
Of course everything works out, except for John dying...but I digest...and the whole movie would be one long montage with a Journey soundtrack (except for Jerry's Flashdance scene). Popcorn?

Low Impact, My Ass

Last Tuesday I looked in the mirror and realized that the guy in there was no longer getting fat, he was fat.
I didn't do anything about it right away, but by early afternoon I had had it. I felt like shit, my left eye had been twitching for about a month, I was trying to do paperwork that I was way behind on but kept getting interrupted...finally, I'd had it. I got up and walked out of the restaurant, but instead of walking out the front door and a couple of doors down to The Quarters, our friendly neighborhood dive bar, for a shot and a beer (my usual method of dealing), I walked out the back door and headed a block up the hill to the gym, and bought a membership.
I know that the fastest way for me to lose weight is to run. Four years ago, right after Z left, I had so much nervous energy that I started running just to have something to do, I went from not being able to finish a mile to running five almost every morning within a month, that combined with a total lack of appetite and no alcohol dropped thirty pounds in thirty days.
People were amazed, "Oh, my God, you look great!" they would say, followed by the inevitable, "How'd you do it?"
"Divorce," I'd answer. That shut 'em right up.
I stuck with it for quite a while, even started lifting weights, but stopped working out after a couple of injuries that make running out of the question for now. Now, I'm back to where I started, with not a divorce in the foreseeable future.
So, I started last Wednesday on an elliptical machine, "Low impact," I was told. Bullshit.
My knee's been killing me since Saturday, so today I switched to a bike. Now, my knee still hurts and my ass is feeling pretty impacted as well...but the eye twitch is gone.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Cook's Tale, Continued

On my dad’s side things were not as formal, we all sat around the same table. The family was more scattered then, we only had one cousin, and I don’t remember the big gatherings like we had on the other side. What I do remember is that the adults were more fun, one of my earliest memories is of my Uncle Terry (Dad’s younger brother) scaring the living hell out of me with a werewolf mask (later my grandma would help Terry and his girlfriend elope to Hawaii), and when I stayed over there was a good chance of having biscuits and chocolate gravy.

Even if we didn’t have biscuits and gravy, breakfast could be pretty entertaining. For a long time, Grandma and Grandpa W had a parakeet named Petey. Petey was let loose every morning to stretch his wings and would perch on the edge of Grandpa’s plate and help himself to breakfast. His favorite? Fried eggs.

The first ten years of my life was spent in California, around Sacramento. My dad and his dad both worked as truck drivers during this time, hauling produce from the fields to the canneries. We moved four times in the ten years I lived in CA, one of the places was a little farm outside of Galt, very close to my mom’s family. We had a bunch of chickens, a couple of goats, name Timmy and Chiquita, and a pretty good sized garden.

My sister, Kelli, and I used to run by the barn door where the chickens hung out because the little banty roosters were mean as shit. Once, I remember Kelli was running ahead of me when one of the roosters came sprinting out of the barn and spurred her in the back of the leg. I don’t remember what happened to him, but I do remember when it was time to butcher chickens; my cousin (of hog fighting fame) and I sat and watched while each chicken had it’s head removed by means of an axe by my dad and Uncle Terry, amazed as each chicken then ran around without a head as it bled out. Soon, my mom and grandma would be busy plucking the birds after a quick dunk in boiling water to loosen the feathers.

I remember all of us sitting around shucking peas and using a cool old machine to remove dried corn from the cob.

I don’t know what the point of the goats was, other than goats rock. We never ate them, didn’t milk them, and they ate my mom’s rose bushes. I do remember a bag full of green “Cheerios” that dad said were going to make Timmy’s balls fall off.

A couple of months before my tenth birthday, we moved to Lenna, Oklahoma with my dad's folks. Our three vehicle convoy, including a ’48 Dodge truck over flowing with household goods, looked like the Grapes of Wrath in reverse. Grandpa kept me entertained across the boring stretches of Arizona and New Mexico by pointing at random rock formations and saying, “You remember that movie where John Wayne got shot off that there rock?” I’d just nod, wide-eyed.

Lenna wasn’t much of a town then and is even less of one now, but when my grandparents had been young, and my dad a kid, the place was hopping, with four cotton gins, a couple of stores and a even a movie theater. Bonnie and Clyde were said to have bought gas in town one day and it was such news-worthy event that people were still talking about it thirty-five yeas later.

Mom and Dad had been reading way too much Mother Earth News and Organic Gardner back then and had decided to get off of the grid, even though there wasn’t really a grid yet. Grandma and Grandpa went along because Oklahoma was home. They had been in California for a long time and were ready to get back to where they started from.

That first place in Oklahoma was absolutely fantastic for a ten year old, surrounded by woods and at the base of the low hills that we called mountains.
We had chickens, rabbits, pigs, and a couple of milk cows named Lavern and Shirley who provided my first taste of raw milk. Though I’d like to claim that I had some great culinary awakening at the taste of fresh from the cow milk, it kind of freaked me out with all the cream floating around in it. Milk, I thought, was not supposed to have texture.

We ate squirrel, which Mom told us was chicken, and rabbit (also alleged to be chicken) and my mom got to be a pretty proficient snake killer with a .22 rifle (we didn’t eat those, but I hear they taste like chicken).

The pigs kept breaking out of their pen until my dad and grandpa gave up trying to keep them contained and let them roam free. They would spend the day in a small spring in the woods not far from the house and wander in at night to be fed and wallow around in the fine, cool dirt underneath the tire swings. While the pigs were loose, we didn’t have much of a snake problem anymore.

That fall I started learning to drive. My grandpa had gone to work on a ranch and my dad needed someone to help him in the hay fields. My job was to keep the old Dodge creeping along the rows as Dad pitched the hay onto the truck’s bed.
We also dug potatoes and kept them on the ground, in the shade of the woods, inside a circle of sheep wire fencing to keep animals out. Grandpa told me that the potatoes were wild and the fence was to keep them in.
In the evenings the trees would be full of lightening bugs, which we caught and kept in jars next to our beds.

The house had no central heating, there was a propane heater in the bathroom, one in the living room, and that was it. On winter mornings, my mom would crank up the burners on the stove and the oven, leaving the oven door open, and the oven and the two heaters before waking up my sister and I. We’d then run from our freezing bedroom to the bathroom and get dressed and then huddle next to the stove in the living room until the school bus showed up. We were the first kids picked up every morning and the last ones dropped off.

The place was lopsided, too. I could sit in the living room and my Hotwheels would slowly roll across the floor on the their own.

Our well pump gave out and we ended up having to haul water up from the well in a long bucket designed to fit in the 8” pipe; the water was cool and delicious. Mom did laundry in the bathtub with a washboard until Dad was able to get her a washing machine, an old outdoors model with an attached ringer to squeeze the water out of the clothes before hanging them on the line.

At night, coyotes would yelp just beyond the security light out back near the chicken coop, as our dogs cowered on the front porch.

Though we lived there for only a year, and I know that it was extremely hard on my parents, it was one of the best times of my life. For that year, we did manage to provide for ourselves, for the most part. We ate fresh eggs, butter from our cream, game from the woods, and one day the pigs disappeared to be replaced by two big freezers full of meat about a week later.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Cafe Quote

Zac: That guy's like the coolest foreign guy in the world, 'cause he's cool and foreign.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Cafe Rio Video

Here's a little video I shot about seven years one pictured still works at Cafe Rio.
Cafe Rio movie trailer

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Part 2, The Cook's Tale

This is going way longer than I thought, so...

Chapter One

Even before the black and white pedal car I remember being covered in mud as I sat in the yard using the water from the dog’s bowl to make mud pies…which I then tried to eat. I was probably three.

Food was always an important part of family life when I was small. I remember the large family dinners at my maternal grandparents’ house, the adults in the dining room, us cousins crammed around a little table in the kitchen. I don’t remember the food so much, except the ice cream. During the summer, while the women were in the kitchen and setting the tables, the men and us kids would be tasked with making a batch of vanilla ice cream. My dad and uncles would take turns cranking the handle, and we would take turns freezing our asses by sitting on top of the old machine so it wouldn’t move around too much. That was the best ice cream in the world; soft, sweet, rich with eggs, and so cold in would make your eyes hurt.

Grandma Dozier’s Ice Cream Recipe

Separate 6 eggs, putting whites in separate glass bowl. Whip until stiff.
In large bowl beat yolks until creamy yellow.
Add 2 1/3 cup sugar
1 can evaporated milk
Dash of salt
2 TBS vanilla extract.
Blend in 5 cups milk
Fold in egg whites.
Freeze according to freezer instructions
Makes 4 qts.

That’s right folks, the eggs are not cooked prior to mixing, so if you’re squeamish about raw eggs, or have a weakened immune system, I would make a custard, tempering the eggs. Grandma D would have just credited any sickness or deaths from the eggs to the “Lord’s Will.”

Ok, so let's make a custard...Separate the eggs as instructed, but place the whites in a small bowl, cover and refrigerate. Keep the yolks handy, you’ll need them in a minute.
In your favorite sauce pan, bring the combined milk, evap. milk, sugar, and salt to just below a boil over low heat while constantly stirring. Remove from heat.
Beat the yolks as instructed above. Pour about two cups of the milk mixture into the eggs very slowly, while whisking. Pouring too fast will cause the hot mix to cook the eggs, giving you omelet ice cream.
Add the egg-milk mix to the remaining milk mix in the sauce pan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil for about one minute and remove from heat.
Add vanilla. Pour custard into a bowl, cover and refrigerate ‘til well chilled, at least four hours.
When ready to mix, whip whites ‘til stiff, fold into custard and then freeze as instructed.

After dinner was eaten and the mess cleaned up, everyone would move into the living room and watch TV for a while, I remember Hee-Haw being a favorite, though I still can’t believe Grandma D let a show with such scantily clad women be watched in her house. One time, I remember a jam session with guitars and even a jug and washboard.
Grandma and Grandpa D lived on what was left of the dairy farm that Grandpa had ran in the forties and fifties, they had sold off most of the land, but the house, which my grandpa had built himself after their first house burnt down, the garage (where they had lived while Grandpa built their new house) and the barn remained.
The whole place was a wonderland for us kids. We would run around the house, through the grape vine covered arbor to the swings under the giant of a weeping willow in the back yard. The garage was full of old tools to guess the uses for, and I always wondered what it must have been like to have lived in there. Grandpa had a huge garden every year and on the side of it was an old, faded red International Harvester tractor that we would play on for hours.

Just down the road were fence lines grown over with blackberries, which we would pick, getting tangled in the thorny vines and staining our lips and fingers purple. Sometimes we just tossed them into the ice cream and sometimes Grandma would make them into jelly.

The place I remember best though was the barn. Old, wooden, and regulation red it was a great spot to play and get into trouble. One weekend, a giant hog appeared in the barn. My cousin and I, in all of our six-year-old wisdom, decided that it would be fun to play bullfight with the hog and took our shirts off and, waving them like capes, took turns dancing in front of the hog like the matadors on TV did.

Yep, bullfights were shown on TV then…probably on Wide World of Sports.

I remember the hog getting pissed and finally taking a pass at us before we got caught and in trouble. No concern about little kids getting trampled by 700 pound hogs, though, just a stern, “Stop pestering the hog.”

Now, I realize that the hog was in the barn to be fattened up for slaughter and that by pestering him we were causing adrenaline to be introduced into his muscles, which makes the meat taste funky.

Some time later, we arrived at my grandparents’ and the hog was hanging by his hind legs from the steel cross post high above the garden gate, his blood filling a large washtub underneath his snout. That’s how I learned where bacon comes from.

Cafe Quote

Danny (pulling his eye wide open): What the hell's in my eye?

Zac: A dick.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Part 1, The Cop's Tale

Maria asked if liked owning a café more than being a cop.
Then, T asked what led me from cop to restauranteur.

Hopefully this answers both. When I run into my old cop friends they almost always ask if I miss it, and I always tell them no. But I do, sometimes. I wanted to be a cop from the time I was a little kid. When I was small one of my favorite shows was Adam-12, and my dad painted my pedal car black and white. In fifth grade I read a Hardy Boys book a day. In high school it was Joseph Wambaugh books and Hill Street Blues. I once got stopped for speeding on the way home from work so I wouldn’t miss Hill Street. I don’t know if that’s why the trooper let me go, but he did.

During high school I worked in a pizza place, Ken’s Pizza, a small Midwest chain. I really enjoyed the work, and thought briefly about going to culinary school (actually, I was surprised when I found out that there was such a thing), but I really couldn’t see the future in it. There was no Food Network in 1984, the only cooking shows were on PBS, Julia Child and Justin Wilson. I guess I knew that there were better restaurants out there, better food, but I had never been exposed to any of that. I had never seen a chef, I thought the gov'ment cheese my grandma brought over was the best there was, and thought that spaghetti was supposed to be cooked to the mush stage.

And even at 16 I was thinking of the retirement. I remember thinking that becoming a cop was just the more responsible of the two careers. I don’t know why, but I can remember standing next to the soda fountain at Ken’s and having just that thought and the decision was made.

On my 17th birthday I joined the Army Reserve, in part because it would help my chances later to get on a good police department; in part because I wanted to do something none of my friends were doing.

At 18 I started college at a small agricultural school in Oklahoma that had one of the best police science programs in the country. And I loved it, I loved the book work, doing case briefs, reading court decisions; the self defense class, learning how to fall, how to get out of a choke hold; and especially the “street survival” class, learning how to search a building, how to make a high risk traffic stop, how to disarm an attacker.

At nineteen I became a reserve sheriff’s deputy. I was too young to really do anything, but the sheriff let me go through the reserve academy that spring and summer. I was also too young to buy my own ammo for the firing range, and when I got to the firing range I couldn’t hit shit. I tried to qualify for two days and was about to be failed when an old deputy who just happened to have stopped by the range watched me fire. He stepped up, moved my hand about a quarter of an inch up the back of the big revolver and I hit everything after that.

After two years of college (I hadn’t finished my degree, but it was definitely time to move on) I went into the Regular Army and volunteered for Germany. Partly a desire to continue to build my resume, partly a desire to travel, partly a desire to be closer to Stacy, the girl I had fallen head-over-heals for in college, as she was studying in England at the time.

I never saw Stacy again.

Three years later I came back from Germany with a wife and baby, in good shape and with some good training. I drew a hundred mile circle around my hometown and started making phone calls. A month later I had a job offer.

I loved it right away. I worked in Okmulgee, OK, a town of about 13,000. Fallen on hard times after the refinery had closed, Okmulgee was also home to some of the families who had moved to Compton, CA two generations before, families that had spawned the men who had formed the Crips and Bloods street gangs. If one was on the run from the police in California, he’d either be in Okmulgee or Muskogee, OK, or Wichita, KS. We got lots of pursuits, foot and vehicle, and, while lying in bed at night, I could hear the gunshots in the Projects.

It was a very, very good place to learn to be a cop and I might have been happy there forever. But I’ve never been good at politics. Promoted twice in six years, I kept finding myself put in positions that I didn’t like until finally I was ordered to investigate my best friend for a crime that shouldn’t even of still been on the books (adultery) just because he had been on the losing side of an internal power struggle against the new chief of police. I started looking for a job then and within a couple of months had found one with the police department in this small mountain town in New Mexico.

Some time in there I started thinking about buying a restaurant. I bought a couple of books, had been doing a lot of the cooking at home for a while, and liked it, and had even looked into taking culinary classes at the Vo-Tech in town.

But I opted for the salary, the insurance, the security of what I knew, and took the job in New Mexico. Besides, my wife had always wanted to live there.

It didn’t take long to realize that I didn’t fit in. I was too rough, too eager to chase if something ran, and ever more ready to voice my opinion, which was often unpopular, and the internal politics were much worse than they had been in OK.

It was also a very different department, a lot of older cops who had been in place for years, and lots of stories around town about drug use and selling during the ‘80s and early ‘90s, something that had never even been rumored of the PD in Okmulgee. We might have kicked asses a little harder than necessary sometimes, our jail had looked like something out of the Tower of London, and our chief was notorious for cronyism, but no one there had been the go-to guy in town for your coke fix.

In less than a year my wife, who had wanted to live in New Mexico so badly, left the kids and I.

After four years, in spite of a promotion, a couple of nice assignments and a new marriage to a pretty dispatcher, I was ready to get out. In 2000 I attended a conference in Albuquerque and had sat in on a class for supervisors on how to recognize different personality types within law enforcement. I found out that I was a member of a group represented in law enforcement by only about 10 per cent of cops. The speaker said the best place for us was in planning and that most of us would not make it to retirement. He was right about at least one of us.

Less than a year later I quit to become a waiter at Café Rio. It was one of my favorite places to eat, the staff was nice to us cops, in spite of their obviously being stoners, and I knew one of the waiters, a soft-spoken ex-con with a handle bar mustache. Charlie had been working at another place that I had frequented while on graveyard shift, and we used to spend an hour or so most nights bullshitting, so I had a pretty good idea of how much could be made waiting tables.

After a really heavy dose of political maneuvering within the PD I was finally ready to get out. It helped that John, the owner of the café then, was dating my wife’s sister.

I liked the job, though I ached most nights after work, and the money was pretty good. It wasn’t unusual that summer to take home in a weekend what it had taken me two weeks to make as a cop, but I really wasn’t a very good waiter. I tended to be short with people and a bit of a smart ass (still do, but I’m getting better, by the time I’m 70 I should be a little ray of sunshine). One time a table left me a penis-shaped candy as my tip...uh, gratuity.

And then 9/11 happened and I was overcome with this sense of needing to do something, of needing serve something besides Texans their seventh refill of Dr. Pepper. Also, I felt more of a square peg than I had at the PD. Though everyone was cool I never really fit in, and felt like, though no one ever said it, that some of the crew thought I might be a narc. They loosened up a little as they saw that no one was getting popped for smoking pot out back, and finally one of the cooks offered smoke me out one day, and I said, “What the hell,” and took my first hit of marijuana…at 34.

By that time, my wife was working at the sheriff’s office and liked it, so I applied there and was hired a couple of months later. I was a little worried, sheriff’s offices are always said to be notoriously political, especially around election time, but I took the job and liked it for the most part. I liked it because we had 5,000 square miles, about the size of Connecticut, of sparsely populated ground, consisting of mountains, pine forests, prairie, and desert, to patrol, and sometimes there were only two of us on duty to do it. At the PD if I needed backup it would be there in a couple of minutes…at the SO, it could be 30 minutes before another deputy or a Stater arrived…and for some deranged reason that appealed to me.

One riot, one ranger.

Even the politics weren’t bad, as long as you had your paperwork squared away, and your mailbox was cleaned out every couple of days, the brass didn’t really care what you did. My favorite thing was to thin out the warrants. I’d go in at the first of shift, collect as much background as I could and then go hunting. It was a blast.

What I didn’t like was the civil paperwork, serving court papers. Police don’t have to do this kind of stuff, it’s been the sheriff’s job since the Saxons were running England, and it sucks. I hated serving people paperwork that informed them that they were being foreclosed on, standing by for peace keeping during repos, and I really hated evictions. Rolling up and telling a family that’s struggling, for whatever reason, that they have 10 minutes to grab what they can and get out of their home so the bank rep can change the locks and put seals on the all the doors and windows really, really sucks. Thankfully, I only had to do one of those.

Toward the end of those three years I really started to hate my job. I really can’t even say why, but I spent the first day of my days off just drained and with no will to do anything and the second day miserable because I didn’t want to go back to work...and, though I was too dumb to see it then, my marriage was struggling.

That’s when I started thinking seriously about getting a restaurant.