Kitchen Facts & Fictional Living: Feeding Starving Minds at a Buffet of Questionably Prepared Food for Thought
On becoming a cook
I never wanted to be a cook. Actually, I never thought about being a cook. It was not that it was not reputable enough, nor that it lacked moneymaking potential. I really did not have an inkling of what went on behind the door that the blue-haired lady disappeared behind. It just was not on my top-ten list of “things to do.” Rock drummer, yes. Computer geek, yes. Roadie for Styx, yes. It was long after I started along the professional path that my parents so dutifully paved for me that I misguidedly walked into a kitchen for the first time. I owe my ability to lie my way into my first real cooking job to my family’s “frequent flyer plan” of countless restaurants.
My Jewish family contributed to the local economy by patronizing delis, cafés, dinner clubs and pine-paneled red-gravy houses from one edge of the county to the next. We ate at bars with sweaty, old people propped up on stools over plates of buttered pierogi. My clan ate at family-owned Kosher delis that corned their own beef in big kettles and kept barrels of half-sour pickles in the lobby for the world to see. We ate at Italian places that all had the same menu, only varying by the family name on the door. On special occasions, we ate at places that required a tie and lots of “shhhhh-shhhing.” We ate out because my dad had money and my mom’s cooking bordered on illegal. The Constitution’s “cruel and unusual punishment” comes to mind.
My mom’s cooking is not known for attracting a crowd, other than in the line outside of the first floor bathroom. Would it not be for readily available coupons and great ethnic restaurants spewed throughout Pittsburgh’s diverse neighborhoods, I may very well have starved. At the very least, I would not have been 220-pounds in the eighth grade. I am not complaining about eating out. It opened the door for my career. Had I, however, not been a butterball back then, I would have, quite feasibly, spent less time looking at my dad’s stash of Playboy and more time ogling the real thing. But that is gravy under the bridge.
So, how did it start? How did the prep-school darling crawl into the kitchen?
I sat in the aged auditorium at my definitive private school wondering why anybody would consider not going to college or somewhere down the line, perish the thought, switching schools. It was just a forgone conclusion; expensive private school, one college, marriage, two kids, affair, divorce (or three), remarriage, retirement. So, this was just the precursor to step two. Once a year, the outgoing seniors were herded into the pew-lined, dank cave for a pre-collegiate pep talk. So, now it was my turn for the selection process. The talk was almost as comfortable as the talk my mother tried to have with me about my boy parts; an adult hashing out details that have already been processed with the important stuff being stored for later use and the rest being thrown out.
What if I did not want college? What if I wanted to, gasp, “work” when I finished school? The rush of inquiry was a result of Mr. Sowhon fielding questions from the handful of pain-in-the ass students that made a reputation for themselves over the past 3-plus years.
“But, what if I don’t want to go to college?” one kid asked.
“Well, that is something we can discuss alone, after this meeting.” Mr. Sowhon stammered. I am sure he was thinking “You little sh*t, you aren’t going to wreck my streak of sending every senior on to college, spoiled ass.” As a matter of fact, most of the seniors in the cavernous auditorium wanted to scribble down their choices for college and get over to the dining hall. Besides, college in my private school was much akin to a prearranged marriage; we all knew who was doing what and the relationship would appear to work, regardless of the feelings of the parties involved. My course was set and that was that.
I went to Syracuse University in upstate New York because my loud father said I was going to Syracuse University in upstate New York. Mind you, Syracuse is a great place full of intelligent instructors, strikingly beautiful girls and plenty of snow. The instructors had their act together, keeping the academic rigor in check. The girls had nothing to do with me. And the snow was plentiful, albeit what seemed to be year-round. The School of Management was not meant for me. True, the new Dean shared my same last name. But that is where my reach into the program ended. What was I going to do with a degree is Management? Manage, I suppose. Go into business? I suppose that, too, was an option. My Jewish heritage makes entering business a birthright, so it follows that my dad’s proclivity for me to enter the field was understandable, if not predictable.
When I left Syracuse after the first semester, I opted to move from my parents’ home to an apartment of my own after a brief stint in the family residence. Living under the roof of my parents put a cramp on my social life. And my mother was making me crazy. I left for a two-bedroom, run-down typical college-kid apartment in a hip neighborhood. The neighborhood where the dogs are as coiffed as the yuppies walking them. The neighborhood where the parties ran well past breakfast. The neighborhood where the restaurants were as numerous as actual residents. My second-floor dump had a great vantage point of the neighbor’s sun deck, too. The neighbors were a group of graduate students from Carnegie Mellon. But, that is for another day.
I needed a job and a roommate. The ad in the paper was taking care of the latter. I needed to take care of the former. I applied at Village Records.
“We’ll call you.” Oy. I know what that means.
I applied at another music store. Same story. I applied at a toy store. Same. And that was all in the first day trolling the chic neighborhood. I was hungry and poor. So, it was fate that I headed up the block in search of cheaper food than what was readily available across the street.
“Grill Cook Wanted: Experience preferred” hung the sign in Scrappy’s Café front window along Chestnut Street.
I ducked in for a chicken sandwich and a Coke. On the way out, I asked the little vixen waitress if they were still in need of cooks. The application was the back of a guest check ripped from her order pad.
“Gimme your name, phone number. Oh, and put down when you can start.” Made the application complete.
“Oh, do you know how to work on the grill,” before I made my exit.
I lied. But, now I am going to get paid to cook.