Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Work and Food

Work and Food

I have endured some pretty dreadful jobs – mostly summer gigs, but a few longer term. Not all of them were food related, but most somehow found their way in that direction. For example, I once proudly wore the blue in New York City, the polyester blue of a museum guard that is, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Standing for 12 hour shifts before objects of unspeakable beauty wasn’t exactly torture, and it fostered in me an immense capacity for patience. Now, long airline flights, holidays with insufferable relatives – these can made be tolerable if one resorts to a simple trick I learned at the Met. Abandon all hope of ever leaving. Just assume the rest of your life will be spent right there and never even entertain the thought of budging. Time then flies, even becomes pleasant, and you’re surprised when the ordeal suddenly ends.

This was a food related job only insofar as my breaks were spent daydreaming - projecting myself into still life paintings, wallowing among the carved fruits and shell fish like a little fly, dipping my toes in the Venetian goblets of unctuous red nectar. You can see a beautiful example of such a painting (from the Met) on the jacket of my first book. A little bird peers down, perplexed by a cooked colleague on a plate; it’s luscious and morbid at the same time. Art historians will tell you this is a classic momento mori scene, but I can help but think how delicious the roehmer full of wine looks, or the crusty bread, not to mention the fat green olives. All of my favorite foods. Maybe that’s why I chose this painting.

As for being a museum guard, believe it or not, I never resented doing it, despite my freshly minted PhD. My co-workers were delightful people, the museum visitors usually very nice. But I must admit to an ecstatic rush of pleasure that I had never felt before when returning to the museum years later I found my first book sitting on the shelf in the museum store.

I will pass over some other non-food jobs: personnel secretary at a factory that makes firing mechanisms for nuclear bombs, dispatcher at an air-conditioning repair company, shelver at a medical library – I can highly recommend this to anyone who wants to build biceps, the New England Journal of Medicine is killer. I was director of the theater program at a summer camp for children for many years. To this day if I hear even a few notes of “The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow,” I fall into an apoplectic fit. Among the more lucrative jobs was very spare time while studying in Oxford. It’s called busking or playing music in public for coins. A chum and I covered Dylan tunes and renditions of Verdi arias accompanied by my sawed off banjo. I still have the first pound note I ever earned that way. I also spent an entire year as a production editor and ruined a good number of books. One was an edition of French medieval lyrics that was supposed to have the original and translations on facing pages, but somehow they ended up back to back. Oops. Sorry.

Now for two food jobs: Neither was slinging fast food burgers, alas. Nor even waiting tables. I’m sure had I ever tried either I would have loved it. The first was a stint of a few weeks picking strawberries at a local orchard. I earned about 12 dollars a day, 8 AM to 1 PM, barely enough to cover drinking expenses per diem. My original motives were purely philosophical – to commune with nature a la Jean-Jacques Rousseau – some good honest back-breaking labor. And that it was.

Strawberries, as the name suggests, are planted in rows lined with straw. Really. And the berries are so fat and delicate that they must be picked by hand, which means you have to get down on your knees in the damp straw and push a tray in front of you as you make your way down the row, filling up the cartons. Here’s the problem – we were allowed, no encouraged, to eat as many strawberries as we liked. This was not an act of generosity, it was calculated cruelty. (Same tactic ice cream store owners take with employees.) If we had been forbidden to munch, surreptitious pilfering would have put them out of business. But with an open invitation, the new picker gorges the first day. Maybe even the second. I must have eaten five pounds the first day I started and spent the afternoon reeling in agony. It isn’t hunger that drives the neophyte to glut. In fact, we were brought snacks – ice cold cider and crunchy misshapen donut rejects, among the most delicious things that have ever passed my lips. It was being openly taunted to eat whatever you want among several acres of glistening red fruit.

After a day or two, pickers might make a ritual gesture of tasting a berry or two, perhaps an offering to the Gods, but never more than that. The berries were ultimately saved. Almost to spite this sadistic strategy to spare the berries, my friend Joy and I took to hurling them at each other. Even just recalling the dull thub of a strawberry hitting someone in the back of the head makes me giggle. Incredibly satisfying, and left a lovely bloody stain on her long blond hair. When not chucking fruit, we passed the time singing spirituals or Old Man River, which in retrospect really was in terribly bad taste.

But the strangest part of the job was left to those who could bear the afternoon heat, earn a few extra dollars by tending to the peach trees. This was early in the summer, so the peaches were little hard green nubbins at this point. Part of the job was thinning the fruit, pulling off some to let the others grow bigger. Fine, except that the fuzz was somehow volatile. It found its way onto every sweaty inch of skin and into every orifice. And the more you scratched the more you spread the fuzz on your fingers. But even worse was the tactic to protect the newly planted saplings from wayward deer. We were given tiny mesh bags into which we placed a hand full of human hair freshly swept from a local barber shop floor. The hair also contained as a bonus deer deterrent: cigarette butts, lollypop sticks, and odd unidentifiable morsels of human detritus. This apparently deer cannot abide.

The other food job beats the former. Again, this was a summer job, driving a beat up old Italian Ices truck in one of the seedier sections of the Jersey Shore. And not even by the beach, which would have made sense, but through adjacent neighborhoods, where there were only little children with dirty hands and sticky money. That might have been tolerable, but these were traditional Italian Ices, that came in huge tubs, so every single order had to be scooped by hand. And normally they consisted of a few flavors stacked in a little, very thin, white paper dixie cup. Florescent yellow, red, purple, blue. Of course the ices melted a bit, stained your hands a lurid hue, as they do children’s lips. And then you had to get back to the steering wheel and drive down the road, with this vapid jingle lasting no more than a few seconds played over and over and over again. “Doop-da doop-da, doodle-dy, doodle-dy” After an hour or so, the sugar in the ices began to penetrate the skin. It began with a mild rush, but eventually became nausea. Of the sort you get if you say, eat a pound of dark chocolate at one sitting. But this was a chemical sort of auto-intoxication. Your body came to crave it and need it. And it wanted the juice mainlined into the bloodstream – eating the stuff would never do. Now if they found a way to dry and powder the ices – sugar, flavoring, food dye, you might be able to smoke it. I’m sure the results would be spectacular.

In case you are in any doubt, driving a truck, listening to the same stupid jingle all day, while scooping and counting money is a lethal combination. After a few weeks I found myself speeding through my route. Or hitting the gas when I could hear children shouting. Eventually I would wait until they got a few feet away and then gun the engine. It was so much fun. And at the end of the day when I returned, the owner, a burned out hippie, suspected me of stealing when I came back with so little money. I said “Look at the vats, count the cups….no one was buying today.” He then imagined somehow I was replacing the cups and refilling the vats, maybe with an inferior product, so I could skim the profits. This was obviously pointless; I gave up after about 2 and a half weeks. But I have to say I craved chemical laden sugar for a long time after. And every once in a blue moon I have a flash-back. Everything goes blue, and I swear I can hear “Doop-da doop-da, doodle-dy, doodle-dy.”

Now food is my whole job, I teach food history, write about it, read cookbooks and food zines, make pots to hold food, and day dream about it. Call it monomania, but I wouldn't have it any other way.


Deanna said...

What a hoot. Way more fun than grading finals.
I'll be back...

the chocolate doctor מרת שאקאלאד said...

Smashing! And welcome, Ken, to the land of the blog-bug-bitten.

essay best said...

I love your ranting. Posts like these actually gives people hope that they should do what the love and not wory about anything else. Loved you writing!

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