The Midwest, Barbecue, And Zeb’s All Purpose Mambo Sauce

Midwesterners like pork and we like beef, even chicken but we do not like change.

Well, that’s not exactly true. We understand that change is inevitable, we just don’t like it sneaking up behind us and yelling BOO. We prefer change we don’t see, change that slips on like a comfortable pair of socks that go unnoticed throughout the day, not a constant reminder like a fancy necktie.

Growing up in suburban 1970’s Indianapolis “barbecue” meant baking a chicken and basting it in a bottled sauce.  If there was smoke it was liquid, if there was fire it was a heated oven. This was the logical extension of my mother’s Midwest, the pot-roast, chicken-and-dumplings-tuna casserole Midcentury Midwest. Spice was reserved for vacations south of the Mason Dixon line. But even as we were tucking into ketchup-mild barbecued chicken, tiny outposts of smoke, fire and mostly pig, had long-since migrated north.

Stubbs, you see, is tall. His cowboy hat makes him taller. His hands make him appear well, like a folkloric hero, his hands are big enough to palm a turkey, thick and calloused and more heat resistant than a fireman’s glove.

One was Zeb’s barbecue, a shack I spied from the back window of the station wagon as I was ferried to Saturday morning art lessons. The place billowed smoke. I was sure that one Saturday we’d see a line of fire trucks, the red glare of emergency lights, firemen unfurling their hose to do battle with a five alarm, sirens blaring.

But week after week, the cloud of smoke billowed across the avenue without a fire truck in sight. The smoke smelled like Sunday morning bacon — and slow cooked pork. Continue reading →

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The Music Lesson

All afternoon and from inside his parent’s house, as Bill and I sit outside in the comfort of  lawn chairs talking, trumpeters one after another run through their scales, do re mi fa sol la ti do, over and over again.  The notes drop from the open windows like fall leaves from the trees.  It could get annoying, it doesn’t, and after a bit the repetition becomes soothing. 

I reach out and flip open the lid on the large orange ice chest.  Into the ice laden water goes my hand and it quickly goes numb.  I fish out a cold beer, pass it to Bill then promptly repeat the fishing expedition for myself.  It is easy to look forward to the time Bill and I spend with each other,  we have known each other a long time, and besides at the very least it is always nothing short of unforgettable.

Like today, my friend and I often sit in lawn chairs out in the grass just a few feet from the back porch of his parents’ house.  Sunglasses shield our eyes from the bright sun until it finally tucks itself behind the steep hill that rises upward at the back of their yard.  Even then the sun won’t actually set for another hour.  So the landscape becomes a black wall of matchstick trees lit by the yellow glow of evening right up until the sky burns out and the back porch light kicks on.  Mostly, Bill and I sit and talk a lot about nothing but we do it well.  Even so we manage to garner a few epiphanies over the years, some shared, some not, this one wasn’t.

As a high schooler I hated running scales while practicing the trumpet.  I thought they were pointless, boring, and stupid.  I should be practicing the music, memorizing it note for note, if I want to play it well.   But sitting here, two or three beers into my thoughts, remembering what an awful trumpet player I really was, all of the sudden, all these years later,  I understood, I got it.

Bill’s dad was a world class trumpet teacher at the university.  He is retired but he still gives lessons to advanced students.  His biggest lesson, the one he repeats over and over again, the one I heard him tell his last student for today,  “if your mind leaves the sound of the horn, obstacles will appear.”

I have heard Bill Sr. say it so many times before but today it hit me differently, it’s exactly what we don’t do when we teach people how to cook.  We give people a recipe, much like a piece of sheet music, and expect the cook to be able to play.  While we know there are those that have the skill set there are many, many more who don’t.  We try to pretend it doesn’t matter, it’s just a recipe after all but it does because the cook never builds the skill set to play at a level satisfactory to their own liking.  Hence obstacles appear which prevent real enjoyment.   I’ll wager it happens in cooking all the time.

And in this is where the conundrum lies.

I count myself lucky in that I honed my kitchens skills for years in a commercial environment.  I can never fully express how much the experience has added to the happiness I feel when I am in the kitchen.   Simple things like cutting onions for onion soup might take me minutes while others are in tears for hours, or maybe because I sautéed boneless skinless chicken breast by the thousands I know when they are just the right color of brown and that anymore coloring will make them chewy and dry and how with the push of my fingertip I can tell when they are no longer pink in the middle but still juicy and edible without fear of food born illness.

I don’t think of anything I do as special but I know sometimes friends look on with amazement and wonder while I look back at them through my own naivety as if everyone knows how to do these things.

So the question for me becomes how do I translate my joy to others, how do I create a  desire in others to build the skill set needed so they can create the kind of food they like to eat, create it with efficient, quality results and excitement.

It is frustrating for me in moments such as this, not because it makes me mad but rather because I love being in the kitchen and  I want people to share in this same joy while being in theirs.

When I started cooking I copied, to the T, recipes of every famous chef and cookbook author whose food I liked.  I cooked from cookbooks day-in and day-out.  Even when I am cooking full time at a restaurant when I come home I turn around and cook at every opportunity.   At first it is hard to build the confidence to cook even with step by step directions at my side but as I progress my fear of cooking without any guidance diminishes.  I am convinced my abilities improve because I learn solid cooking technique until I know how to sauté, braise, roast, grill, and poach.  My knife skills improve and I work on plating.  I want nothing more than to learn to cook.

My style at first is a conglomeration of  all those I mimic until one day my style of cooking just “is”.  It is easy for people to tell whose food they are eating and before long I find myself edging up to the stove and cooking from experience.  I don’t even remember the day it happened because it just did.  

I wasn’t born a chef.  I started out life as a photojournalist and I never thought I would be anything but but when I decide I want to learn to cook I dive in head first, I expect to come out with a filthy apron, I am passionate about it, and I know I won’t stop until I am good at it.

 

The Virtues of Routine and Braised Cabbage

I like repetition. It guides me from one task to another. Like how in the morning I’ll make my wife’s coffee exactly the same way and take it to her while she is getting ready for work before making my own. Then I’ll pack the kids’ school lunches, followed by preparing breakfast, and every Tuesday, I go to the grocery store immediately after the kids get on the school bus.

I follow a routine when I go to the grocery, too. The automatic doors swoosh open like the welcoming arms of an old friend as I enter, and I wonder who the first person I’ll see will be. A stranger? A familiar face? What will they look like and will they be smiling? Which fruits and vegetables are right up front this week and who made the covers of the gossip rags at the checkout line? All pressing questions, I know.

But the other day I broke routine, for an observation. As usual, the endcap to the vegetable aisle was full of cabbage — red cabbage, green cabbage, some Napa and even Savoy. What occurred to me was that this endcap is always full, always a mountain in fact, of cabbage. It wasn’t just replenished either — they don’t restock until 9:30. I am nosy too, and often leer into peoples’ carts just to see what they are eating and, I can assure you, I don’t often see cabbage tucked into carts, other than those few days cabbage gets its due during the corned beef holidays. So why is this end cap continually dedicated to an Everest of cabbage? Are cabbage eaters late night shoppers? Is it for looks much in the same way as a mannequin in a window at Saks? Who, besides me, buys cabbage?

Yes, I eat cabbage and I am proud of it. So much so that I could write a poem, Mon Petite Chou, and it would be an ode to the poorest of poor man’s food. That is what it is though isn’t it: poor man’s food? Maybe this is why it is shunned, that to buy it means you are nearly destitute, for why else would you eat it? I used to feel this way, and never really encountered cabbage other than as a creamy coleslaw side to an all-you-can-eat catfish dinner — and even then I usually stayed closer to the hush puppies and fries.

That is, until Paula Wolfert’s book The Cooking of Southwest France introduced me to the possibilities. And there are many when it comes to cabbage — braised, steamed, creamed, and stir-fried. Cabbage, now, has become a part of my routine.

Tips for Choosing, Storing, and Preparing Cabbage

Pick a hefty cabbage.
I grow a lot of cabbage and I am always amazed at how solid cabbages can be, like a bowling ball. So when I do buy them at the store I look for very solid cabbages that feel heavy.

Look for purple leaves
Typically, the grocer cuts off the outer leaves and trims the stems. As the cabbage ages, they trim them up so to keep them looking pretty. You know you have a fresh cabbage when the leafy outer purple green leaves are still there.

Keep it cool
Cabbages can last a long time in the fridge. Make sure the outside leaves are free of moisture and wrap the cabbage in plastic wrap, then store the cabbage in the crisper. I like cabbage because it stores well, so I use up all the perishable veggies early in the week saving the sturdy ones, cabbage, for the end of the week.

©Tom Hirschfeld 2016 all rights reserved

©Tom Hirschfeld 2016 all rights reserved

Simple Braised Cabbage

Serves 6

3 ounces pancetta, small dice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup yellow onion, small dice
1/3 cup celery, small dice
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1/2 cup carrots, peeled, small dice
6 to 8 cups Savoy cabbage, julienned
2 bay leaves
Scrape or two fresh nutmeg
1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley, minced
1 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced

  1. Place a 3 1/2-quart Dutch oven with a lid over medium heat. Add the pancetta and render its fat. You want a gentle render here. You aren’t trying to crisp the pancetta, just render.
  2. Add the butter and, once it has melted, add the onion, celery, garlic, and carrots. Sweat the vegetables until they are tender, don’t let them brown. Add the cabbage, bay leaves, and season with salt and pepper. Turn the cabbage to coat the leaves in the fat. Add a quarter cup of water and put the lid on the pot. Reduce the heat to low. Cook the cabbage until tender, about 25 to 30 minutes. Add a scrape or two of nutmeg, the parsley, and thyme. Stir to combine, then serve.

The Art of Honest Fried Chicken (A Lifestyle Choice)

Frying chicken, at its best, is a state of mind formed much in the same way as the quiet back beats of a porch-sitting session with a dear friend. It has a rhythm. It is good company on a sunny summer afternoon. It is pointless to rush. Futile, even. Besides, the comfort of a good friend comes from the effortlessness of meaningful conversation and is further heightened by the knowledge you have nothing you would rather do. Continue reading →

Seasoning with Pork: Polenta with Peas and Pork Sausage

Polenta with Peas and Pork Sausage

If my extended family’s eating habits are an indication as to what the preferred meat was on my grandparents and great grandparents farm then it is obvious to me I come from a long line of pork eaters. It’s not as if this matters or that I need some sort of familial approval for my love of the beast because I don’t.  I claim it as my heritage after all but I’ll just say it anyway for clarity, I…love…pork.

I love pork for its possibilities, its versatility, and most importantly, it’s flavor. From snout to hocks or bacon to ham there are more uses for the pig then any other animal I know and one of my favorite uses is as a seasoning.  My definition and what I mean by seasoning is not simply tossing a couple of strips of bacon in with the green beans and  calling it a day.  No, the pork isn’t there for a cameo but instead has an important supporting role, one in which it could be nominated for an award.

Don’t get me wrong I enjoy a good pork dinner, something like Edna Lewis’s Boiled Pork (think Pot eu Feu) really floats my boat but as I try to reduce the amount of animal protein I consume I often look to the example of Italian ragus or Asian dishes where animal protein, quite literally, plays second fiddle to the grains or noodles on the platter. The pork is there to enhance and flavor the dish. Sure this is done for economy, just like adding bread or oats to meatloaf, and who doesn’t like save a few bucks or at the very least feed more mouths for the same price. Not only that but if you buy less quantity then you can afford better quality, at least this has always been my way of thinking.

When it comes to pork quality matters. If you buy pork that is enhanced with sodium triphosphate, a common practice at big box stores, it won’t caramelize very well and honestly the pork tastes bland. It is done to help the meat retain moisture but they add it because the producers have made pork to lean. If you buy pork with a little higher fat content you don’t need the moisture retainer. Not only that but when pork is raised in a more sustainable fashion it just taste better. It taste better because of what the animals eat.  It is about the animals diet after all. I am all about how my food taste and if sustainability happens to be a byproduct then, wonderful. I mean when I bite into good pork it immediately transports me to my grandparents farm, sitting outside under a shade tree eating a farm dinner on a beautiful summer’s eve and it reminds me exactly how pork is supposed to taste.

Over the years I have had different fascinations with different types of cured pork. I mean the list of possibilities is big, you have bacon, ham, Tasso, Serrano, prosciutto, pancetta, guanciale all on top of any number of sausages. All used as seasonings and all just a few of the options that can confront you. The wonderful thing is there are many books that will teach you how to cure many of these products at home (Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie comes to mind) and many of the processes are surprisingly simple. In fact no special equipment is required other then a good sharp knife(which I don’t consider special equipment).

Polenta with Peas and Sausage (serves 6)

one recipe of Carlo Middione’s Polenta Facile

10 ounces pork tenderloin, sirloin or loin

4 to 5 ounces pancetta

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

a scrape or two of whole nutmeg

a handful of  parsley leaves

3 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary

1 bay leaf

kosher salt

fresh ground pepper

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 cup carrots, small dice

1/2 cup onion, small dice

1/2 cup white wine

2 cups pork stock or chicken stock

1 1/2 cups fresh peas or frozen

chopped chives and parsley

1. Lay your pork out onto a large cutting board. Cut the pork and pancetta into thin strips then into cubes. Spread the pork out so it is flat instead of in one big pile. It’s ok if it isn’t in one single layer you just don’t want a big pile. Place the palm of you hand, as shown in the picture, across the blade of the knife making sure to keep your fingers up and you hand flat. This will keep you from cutting your hand if the knife slips. So fingers up! What you are doing is creating a hinge of sorts because you want to keep the tip of the knife on the board and in doing so it lets you apply more cutting force. Run the knife through the pork several times and until you have minced it to a coarse mince.

2. Add the garlic cloves, parsley, a teaspoon of salt, a few grinds of pepper and the nutmeg. Mince the seasonings into the pork until you have a fine mince. Add the red wine vinegar and knead it into the sausage. Ball up the sausage, put it in a bowl and let it get funky in the fridge for an hour or two.

3. Start the polenta. I let my polenta cook for almost three hours. I was using an heirloom corn I grew last year called Henry Moore. It took a long time to cook but it was creamy beyond my wildest expectations. So take your time with the polenta, cook any bitterness out of it and let it do its thing.

4. When the polenta is close to being finished start the sauce by placing a large 12 inch saute pan over medium high heat. When it is hot add a glug or two of oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Brown the sausage. Once the sausage is brown remove it to a plate. Be careful not to burn the fond on the bottom of the pan. Add the onions and carrots and cook them gently until they just begin to wilt.

5. Add the tomato paste, dried thyme, rosemary, garlic and bay leaf. Stir until fragrant then add the white wine. Let the wine burn off the alcohol and then add the stock. Season and taste. Bring it to a boil and reduce it by half. Taste again and adjust the seasoning.

6. Add the sausage and peas. Heat until the peas are warmed through. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Add a tablespoon of chopped chives and parsley. Stir.

7. Spread the polenta on a platter, top with the peas and sausage, and serve.

Dear Mr. Pepin,

I made a recipe of yours last night. It wasn’t the first time I have made this recipe, in fact, I have made it several times but it has been far to long since it has graced our table, rest assured, this will not happen again. Just in case I haven’t been clear it was beyond delicious as always.

I remember the night I watched you make the gratin on TV. It must have been about three in the morning or somewhere around there. I was still working in the restaurant business and it had been a long night on the line. Now I was home, my wife fast asleep in bed, and I out in the living room and on the couch with a beer in my hand winding down. I was flipping through a food magazine and doing the same with the channels on TV.

Jacques Pepin's Shrimp Gratin

Jacques Pepin’s Shrimp Gratin

At the time I had not seen but a couple shows in any of your many series because our local PBS station didn’t carry them or they were on at times when I wasn’t around. But here you were in the wee hours of the morning in front of the camera, your heavy French accent, broad smile, all as unmistakeable as the sparkle in your eyes. You caught my attention right away.

I watched as you peeled shrimp and even went so far as to show me how to pinch the tails between my thumb and forefinger, then wiggle, and finally you gently pulled and I watched as all the tail meat slipped out of its casing without any waste. Then you sliced a handful of the freshest white mushrooms with such speed and accuracy it could have been a magic trick. You wasted no time doing the same with a couple of green onions. Continue reading →

The Genius of Genius

Sprouts in oyster sauce

 

Reviewing a website isn’t something I would normally do.  In this case it isn’t the website but a feature on the site itself.  You all know I call Food52 home(that is a full disclosure).  I would give the site itself a triple A rating but my aim here is to call attention to a feature within the site, Genius Recipes.

If I were new to the kitchen, or an inexperienced cook, even a seasoned pro this is where I would go to get a bag full of genius recipes.  It is where senior editor Kristen Miglore will make you  feel and look good so  your dinner guest will thank you and your children will brag about you.

I can assure you once you start cooking with these recipes you will find yourself going back time and time again because they work, are dependable and because the recipes are ridiculously delicious.

The real bonus here is they are minimally invasive.  What that means is there are only a few steps and ingredients involved in getting the dish to the table.  What’s the take-away?  In short, it means there is no excuse not to make these recipes throughout the week.  And even if you can’t the Wednesday publishing of the posts allows you to collect the ingredients and prep the recipe for the weekend.

The author behind the feature, Kristen Miglore, does all the hard work for you.  Whats not to love about that?  Fortunately for her readers she brings us a five star recipe each week and then sets it up for success.  She tests the recipes and navigates you effortlessly through the steps as if you were following the blue dot on Google maps to a dive restaurant.   People,  she gives you the keys to the Mercedes, I mean how awesome is that.

So you have a great writer giving you the low down on why this recipe is so good with her fast paced prose, sprinkled with a pinch of humor and it’s always concise.   If asked she will be humble and give all the credit to the community members who pass along recipes but in the end it is Miglore who spots the winners and it is not always easy to recognize great recipes.  She has mad skills is all I can say.

I will vouch for any of these recipes and I can say many have fallen into the weeknight rotation of family favorites.  The Al Forno Penne with Tomato Cream and 5 Cheeses is one of my and the girls favorites.  Nobu’s Fried Asparagus with Miso Dressing became a regular this summer substituting in yard long beans, walnuts and shallots.  In fact, I can’t wait to plant yard longs in the garden again just to make this one recipe.  The Domino Potatoes scored big when the juices from the resting lamb chops co-mingled into the buttery potatoes to create one of the easiest best potato sides ever.  Most recently I have been making Momofuku’s Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Fish Sauce Vinaigrette and alternating in an oyster sauce.  I have also deep fried the sprouts and wow, if you care to take the extra step, do.

Next up will be Nigella Lawson’s Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake.  I am making two of them, one for home and one for the school bake sale and while I am sifting the flour I will be thanking Kristen for sifting through all these recipes and pointing me in the direction of the truly genius ones.

Need more genius? Click here.

                                                                                                                                                                                                         Deep Fried Brussels Sprouts with Oyster Sauce

1 pound Brussels Sprouts, trimmed and halved

vegetable oil for frying

2 1/2  tablesoons oyster sauce

1 1/2 tablespoons tamari soy sauce

1 tablespoon water

1 1/2 teaspoons fresh ginger,  very finely minced

1 1/2 teaspoons garlic, very finely minced

1 tablespoon green onions, minced

1 tsp honey

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       1. Combine the oyster sauce, soy, water, ginger, garlic, green onions and honey in a large mixing bowl.  Whisk to combine it all.  Set aside.

2 Add enough oil to a heavy bottomed 4 quart pot ( I used an enameled Dutch oven) to come no more then a third up the sides of the pot.  Turn the heat to medium high.  

3. Test the oil by dropping in a sprout leaf.  There should be a pause, then, it should rapidly sizzle.  

4. Add half of the Brussels sprouts carefully, they will bubble and pop, then add the rest of the sprouts.  Fry until brown.  Remove them from the oil to drain on a paper towel lined plate.  Toss the sprouts with the oyster sauce and serve immediately.

 

Farmhouse Whole Wheat

There are so many different kinds of bread. You could make sourdough where you feed a starter flour to grow it and keep it alive, you can retard loaves in the refrigerator overnight, there are paté fermentes, bigas and all kinds of other preferments and sure it is great to have knowledge of all these breads but at the same time it is nice to have a tried and true everyday bread. A bread with some shelf life, a bread that little kids like and one that is good with which to make a variety of sandwiches.

For me this is that loaf. It debunked the idea that my two girls would only eat white bread. They love it. It fits into my notion that I won’t make bread that isn’t at least 75 percent whole wheat. It makes two loaves that will be around just long enough that you won’t need to throw it out because it is old.

Be sure to buy a fine grind whole wheat flour and make sure to buy it at a store with high turnover of its whole wheat. Countless times I have brought a bag home only to open it and it is rancid. Whole wheat flour should smell like a wheat field not rancid oil or some other off smell.

I like to braid this loaf for two reasons. One it looks pretty and two, when I make this loaf on a Sunday it is nice to bake it about two hour before dinner, remove it from the oven to cool a little, then serve it warm and let people tear off a hunk. It will tear at the braids like dinner rolls would. Continue reading →

The Omlette

The sun is just peeking over the horizon. The ninth-hole green looks beautiful in this light. Seems odd that a golf course can look so beautiful, but it does.

It’s five in the morning when I pull up to the back doors of the clubhouse. The double doors aren’t very welcoming, and a smoking station acting as the de facto doorman doesn’t make it any more so. The entire area is hidden from view by a privacy fence and some pine trees. Even if it isn’t intentional, this space reminds you: You are the help.

I open the car door to be greeted by the stench of dead food. A few days’ worth of food scraps–the shit the club members left on their plates mixed with the kitchen trimmings that are no good to anyone but the rats–is rotting in the dumpster until a truck comes to pick it up. The golf-course irrigation system kicks on. I search my keychain for the back-door key I rarely use. I rack my brain trying not to confuse the pin number of my debit card with the alarm code.

Inside, the kitchen is cold. My hours spent here usually center around dinner service, when the kitchen has had all day to become miserably hot. The cold is unfamiliar. I walk to the heat lamps and turn them on, then turn on the flat top.

The thick steel of the flat top takes forever to heat. The hash browns need all the cooking time I can give them to become golden brown and delicious before service. From the walk-in refrigerator, I get out a tray of shell eggs and start cracking them into a bain marie. These will be omelet eggs and scrambles. Lots of kitchens buy their eggs already cracked, but we don’t. I’m not sure why, since the nasty, fart-smelling liquid eggs we use for scrambled eggs on the buffets are cooked right in the plastic bags they come in. I whisk the eggs then strain them through a china cap to get rid of any albumen lumps. I put a six-ounce ladle into the mix. One ladle equals one omelet and no thinking.

Sunday breakfast duty sucks. None of the staff likes it, and hate probably isn’t a strong enough word, either. This is a lunch and dinner club, not a waffle and egg diner. Breakfast is only served once a week, so there’s no rhythm in the kitchen and no one is familiar with the menu. I come in early to do the prep. I don’t have to, and I wouldn’t be here at this hour if it didn’t make it easier for me. I have been making the French toast egg wash, waffle batter, traying up bacon, and countless other crap on the menu for months. I have been expediting food, filling in for whoever’s missing from the line, and we always get the job done, but barely.

My employees are kids who don’t give a shit. They don’t imagine their life will be that of a line cook, dish dog, or salad bitch. The ballcaps they wear are always slightly tilted, and as they grow to care less about their work, their hat becomes a give-a-fuck meter. The more the bill moves from the front to back, the less they give a fuck. The backwards rotation only gets faster as more customers cram into the dining room. If you’re lucky, their hat won’t be completely backwards until the very end of their shift.

I start in on the sausage gravy. We save all our bacon grease. A full scoop goes into the pot and, like a good magic trick, it looks like it sinks through the bottom of the pan and disappears as it transforms before my very eyes from a white solid to a glistening liquid. I add an equal amount of flour, which sizzles a little at the outer edges of the pile until I stir. Thick ribbons begin to follow the spoon as it goes round and round. I cook the roux until it smells like someone cooked popcorn in the microwave. I finish the whole thing off with two gallons of milk, a half sheet tray of cooked sausage, and a whole lot of black pepper. I keep whisking. It comes back to a boil and thickens.

The alarm on my watch goes off–my half-hour warning before service. As if I don’t believe my watch, I look up at the clock on the wall. Shit, it’s pushing seven and no one’s here yet. Usually someone’s made it in by now, if only because they’re out of coffee at home and came in to get a cup.

I hate having to call people at home to get their ass in to work. It’s never surprising to have people just not show up, to hear that a line cook is in jail, or to have a dishwasher scoot out the front door when the cops come knocking at the back. It’s the middle American restaurant business, after all. We’re not talking fine dining, just a run-of-the-mill feedlot.

A server comes in. I feel a perfect storm brewing and decide it’s a really good idea to prep the shit out of every station. The thing is, it’s the middle of summer, so there’s a damn good chance the breakfast service will be extremely quiet, and all this prep will go to waste. People go boating, have cookouts, or do yard work, plus it’s the beginning of the month so the members don’t have to use their minimum for food at the restaurant yet.

The only good thing about a Sunday morning is you ease into the rush. Not too many people are clamoring at the door to get in. They take their time, go to church, read the Sunday newspaper, then mosey on in for breakfast. So as the morning grinds on, it gets busier.

Finally a salad kid shows. He barely knows enough to make salads, but at least he can keep an eye on the bacon in the oven. A body is a body. Now a dishwasher comes in. This kid has worked at restaurants before. He’ll do.

I had a good prep and the people are streaming into the dining room at a nice pace. I’ve found my rhythm. Two omelets, French toast, and an order of pancakes is nothing. It all comes together with sides, all without thinking. I know the routine and I’m feeling good, even smiling, like I’m invincible behind the line. Every bit of this order comes up at the right time and all the plates are under the heat lamps waiting for a perfect omelet, great looking pancakes, and crispy-edged French toast, all at the same time I’m firing two other orders. Two tops, four tops, and more two tops. Keep it coming at this pace and I’ll be fine.

In my mind, though, I feel it coming, like two busloads of senior citizens showing up at a busy McDonalds during lunch hour. At the first lull, I restock everything that’s even remotely low at the stations, but this is like having five sandbags for a hundred-year flood.

Suddenly, it gets busy. I’m in the weeds but I’m turning waffles and flipping over-easies with a sense of urgency and working my way out of it.

And now the tsunami rolls in. I’m beyond busy. My ass is getting handed to me on the very plates I just sent out with that server.

For some reason, everyone wants omelets, then a few scrambles, then even more omelets. Which is great. I can stand at the stove and turn out omelets all day. I have the dish kid making toast, English muffins, and working hash browns like a champ, but we’re still getting buried.

When I’m short hands on deck, a ten top easily becomes the iceberg that sinks the Titanic. And as soon as I think it, a dumb-ass server says it out loud: “A walk-in ten top just came in.”

If I had the time to jump over the line and strangle the bastard, I would, but the row of tickets hanging in front of me is the chain that holds the dog back.

I keep flipping eggs. The ten-top order comes in. Ten omelets. I grin.