Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Kitchen Therapy - How I Became a Cook, With A Dose of Cold Blooded Murder

Yesterday Husband and I cooked all day long. We got up in the morning to a spotless kitchen. Every glass, pot, lid and dish was clean, dried and put away. Within three hours the kitchen was obliterated. You have never seen such a mess, but by sunset, our refrigerator was packed, our freezer stocked with soups and pre-portioned meals. You could smell the garlic, stock and white wine reductions from outside. I'm surprised the neighbors weren't beating down our doors for a taste. I'm now convinced that there's a special section in Heaven that smells like the ancho chili wet rub my husband made for his carne asada.

By evening we had made a pot of vegetable beef soup, a pot of vegetarian black bean soup, lime cilantro rice, ancho grilled chicken and steak and a pasta dish which involved Italian sausage, broccoli, hot red peppers, a frightening amount of garlic and ricotta cheese. We were both a mess. It will be days before I stop smelling like garlic, I'm sure, but we were calm and contented. Earlier that day we hadn't been. I had woken up on the wrong side of the bed and had been crabby and mean. Husband and I had gotten into a fight over a doughnut. Don't ask. It's a good thing. I've mentioned this before, that when we fight it's always over something trivial like Costco or doughnuts or never over big, real, important things like money, infidelity, drugs or gambling. I see this as a very, very positive sign that life is good for us. But nevertheless, I was crabby and pissed because I wanted that damned last doughnut. It was meant for me! I stewed over that doughnut until we dragged out the stock pots and I started chopping.

Cooking is my therapy. Cooking calms me down. Writing is definitely not my therapy. A lot of people ask me if it is and the answer is most definitely not. The introspection and constant analysis of my own life, plus the trance like melancholia required for me to write poetry make me need therapy. Often, I don't find writing calming at all. Like right now. As I write this, I am not particularly calm. Sometimes writing works me into a frenzy even. But not cooking. Cooking is peaceful. All that chopping and stirring, the whole rhythm of cooking eases my stress. If I'm nervous all I have to do is start making a salad, or a soup, or a cake. Anything really.

I didn't always realize how therapeutic cooking could be. As you may know, my first career, long before I ever imagined myself as a teacher, was as a cook in a very fancy hotel in Atlanta. They hired me, based on a fluke recommendation from my friend's mom's friend who worked at the same hotel in another department and I had zero experience in the kitchen. I loved cooking though, or rather the idea of it. When I was little I spent every single warm day outside stirring up dirt soups and clay canapes topped with stones. I always loved reading cook books. It's just that my idea of cooking amounted to getting fancy by adding broccoli florets to my ramen noodles.

I was eighteen when I got the job at the hotel. Up until then, things hadn't been going so well for me. The years of 1991/92 hadn't treated me kindly at all. I had attempted college in the Fall of '91 and it didn't go well. I returned to Florida, dejected and disappointed. My parents weren't thrilled with me either and we fought constantly that winter until it culminated in my getting thrown out of their house. With nowhere to go, I fled to my Aunt Kiki who had four children by then (two of whom were babies) and a drug addicted second husband who wouldn't get out of bed and get a job. Things were bad. The seven of us were crammed in a tiny townhouse and I slept on the couch. One day I'll probably write a memoir about all this and go into more detail, but for now I'm making a long story short to make the point that when I was eighteen my life sucked and some of it was my fault and some of it wasn't and cooking saved me.

I could not stay at Aunt Kiki's house for long, so when some of my friends told me they were packing up and moving to Atlanta, I jumped on board. Mind you, I had never even visited Atlanta before making this decision, but it was a place to go. I needed a place to go and one appeared before me, so I took it as a sign. I figured I was meant to be in Atlanta, and looking back on it all so many years later, I was right. Moving to Atlanta on a whim at eighteen years old may sound like an impulsive decision, like something that would not turn out well in the end, but really, it was the first good decision I had made in ages. Maybe ever.

In Atlanta, with only a suitcase of clothes and a couple of notebooks to write in, I lived in an apartment with three other people. One of them was my frustrated boyfriend. One was a self-hating Jewish bi-polar who wouldn't take his Lithium (or bathe) who aspired to be a Muslim extremist. Or a communist. Sometimes both. Our fourth roommate was a gorgeous Mexican bi-sexual with Lupus. I loved her. She was my saving grace that summer, but she left in August for her freshman year at Tulane. We lost touch after that and as she shares a name with at least 1/4 of the Latinas in the Southeast, locating her has been impossible thus far. Somewhere along the way, we managed to acquire a litter of kittens as well.

For those who live in Atlanta who would like to take the Wide Lawns Star Tour and see my former homes, our apartment was located prominently on the Northeast corner of 14th Street and Piedmont Ave overlooking the entrance to Piedmont Park. The building is old, beautiful and L shaped with a dry fountain in the yard. Back then rent was cheap ass. I remember that my portion was only eighty dollars per month. I bet that rent in that building now is in the thousands. Also, gas was eighty-five cents a gallon in Georgia at the time. Can you even imagine?

So we arrive in Atlanta and I don't have that whopping eighty dollars for rent so I have to find a job. Back in Florida I had worked for the past seven months or so as a telephone survey operator, but I wanted something more glamorous. I wanted to be a waitress. Why I don't know. It was a lifelong dream. As a toddler I'd go around with a pencil and a notepad scribbling down people's "orders." It seemed like fun. I thought it was going to be great when I got a job as a coffee shop waitress in Buckhead. By the end of my first shift of serving cake and cappucino I realized that, in fact, it was not.

I am not meant to be a server in a restaurant. I have no patience for people asking me to get them things. In a past life I think I was a princess because every time someone asks me to wait on them I become very appalled and indignant like "HOW DARE YOU?" This attitude doesn't translate well for waitresses and I knew this, yet still everytime someone asked me for a triple shot, skim latte ristretto with whipped cream on the side and two packets of Equal my first reaction was always, without fail, to want to tell them to go fuck themselves. I can't help it. Most of the time I was able to restrain myself. Sometimes not. Customer service is not my strong point.

My attitude was only one trait of many that made me ill suited for life as a server. I'm also clumsy. I regularly spilled drinks all across tables. I cost the coffee shop a lot in customer's dry cleaning bills. I also got orders wrong. I always mixed up the Chocolate Orgasm cake with the Dark Chocolate Sin cake and then when customers would point this out to me, of course I'd get irritated and want to cuss them out for not just eating it anyway. I mean, Jesus Christ, how many different ways can chocolate cake taste anyway?

So many people complained about me that the owners(quickly) decided that my surliness was of a rare type best suited for what restaurants call "Back of the House" work. This means that I was such a raging asshole that I had to be shut away in the kitchen away from contact with other human beings. I was like a quarantined rabid raccoon. It was best. In a coffee shop there wasn't a lot of back of the house stuff to do. I sliced cakes and pastries and put them on plates and then topped them with ice cream and whipped cream, the occasional shake of confectioners sugar and a sprig of mint. I sliced fruit and washed berries. I'd make the occasional cup of fancy coffee if our lovely, tranny barista had run down to the corner to argue with her lover on the pay phone, as this was in the pre-cell phone era.

But still, I was an eighteen year old with a chip on her shoulder. Something was bound to happen. I was bound to get fired and naturally, I did.

To be Continued...


Serious Replies Only said...

OMG! I was a waitress (a terrible waitress) once and I used to think the same things! God, what do you want now? Sheesh, more iced tea AGAIN?

Unindicted Co-Conspirator said...

I share your love for cooking as zen, but I have to cook and clean alone, so I don't make such a big mess. I also think everything tastes better with garlic.

I loved reading your annotated resume of career mistakes. I was never a waitress, but I wouldn't mind if my brother married one, as long as she was better suited to the job than you apparently were.


The Fifth Sparrow said...

Loved this post. It's a shame you don't enjoy writing more because, day-um, you're good!
I was also a waitress in a coffee shop. At the end of my first shift I had cried twice, had a heartfelt note (written on a napkin) from a lovely couple imploring me to get another job and $26 in pity tips.

Wide Lawns said...

Fifth Sparrow No!! I LOVE writing. Writing is my whole life, my career and everything. Writing is incredibly important. I am a writing teacher and I want to write books and books and be a famous writer. I just meant that I do it as art. When I write, I create art. It's not a therapeutic thing for me exactly in the way that cooking is.

MtnMama said...

"my first reaction was always, without fail, to want to tell them to go fuck themselves."
That's so funny, because - while I feel that way about almost everything else - I was actually (eventually) a pretty good server and enjoyed working in restaurants and bars.
I reacted to being a first level tech support, though, pretty much how you did to waitressing.

as ever, can't wait for the rest...

Calamity Anne said...

I can so relate to the waitress bit...I was 16 and working at a diner...needed to make a chocolate milkshake...it flew off the mixer...job over! I hate waitressing!

a l'ouest said...

Just for what it's worth, I couldn't resist taking a peek at your former Atlanta address in Google map ;) The street view doesn't say anything about the rent, but the fountain in front does seem to be working...

Jean_Phx said...

I love this already - welcome back and I can actually smell the food coming from your kitchen.

Wide Lawns said...

Wow, I'm going to look at my old building too. Back then they had flowers planted in the fountain. Maybe they got it fixed or got a new one?

Wide Lawns said...

Ok, different fountain. Our old one was bigger and three tiered with flowers planted in the bowl of each level. You can see the building really well from the street view if anyone wants to. My apartment was the one on the third floor, in the recessed part of the corner of the L. That was our porch where we hung out all the time and never cleaned. I'm feeling very nostalgic now.

TK said...

Wow, your description of cooking made my mouth water!

My spouse and I had a huge fight Sunday too, it was horrible, but mostly we do well together and he's actually been cooking with me lately too. I've told him if anything happens to me, he'll be more marketable if he can shop and cook. He grilled his first solo batch of chicken last week and it was amazing, better than any I have done in all my years of grilling. Humbled me but good. I really liked the picture you painted of the two of you cooking; I could feel the sympatico and domestic bliss!

I also laughed at gas at 85 cents. When I was getting a degree in art in college, I had a painting class where I did an abstract of cars and had a gas pump price in there of 85 cents a gallon. I thought I was really reaching for the ridiculous, because gas was only about 55 cents at the time. It was like 1978 or 9.

You are so psychic, how could Atlanta NOT have been the right decision? And pity tips! LOL, that could have been a good gambit for awhile.

Looking forward to the rest!

The Fifth Sparrow said...

Thank Goodness you love writing!!! Because I love reading your stuff.
Now, get busy and give us part two! :)

KT said...

Loved reading this entry (as always) and can't wait for the next installment!

And now I kind of want to go cook for the rest of the day :) Or maybe bake a chocolate cake -- your small mention of Chocolate Sinful Orgasm or whatever cake has now got me craving something with lots of ganache!

Eric said...

Everyone should be required to perform at least one year working in a restraunt. I started out at 18 washing dishes and then moved to bus boy and waiter. Where I had the same revelation as you. I just don't do the serving thing well.
I did spend the next 10 or so years as a line cook where I learned to cook and I still do all the time.
I find it relaxing too.
I really look forward to the Fall since that style of big food is really my forte. roasts and sauces.
My absolute favorite is a from scratch Beef Wellington (aside from the Fois Gra) The Espanole sauce that is the base for the Bordouleix is the best.

Joyce Patton said...

God, I love Google maps. That is a beautiful building. I lived in a similar building in Los Angeles when I was 18. I had 2 roommates and we each paid $65/month rent that included utilities. Our apartment was HUGE!

OK, I feel like cooking now. I think I'll go on over to Tasty Kitchen and find something chocolate....

Sadi said...

Reading that brought back so many memories! I was a terrible waitress. I forgot orders, dropped things, got really ticked off at customers, and even spilled a pot of coffee on one.

I think our state may have banned me from ever waitressing again!

LegalMist said...

When I was 12, my grandparents sold my very favorite house in the world in Pensacola Florida and moved to Atlanta to live in a high-rise apartment at Colony Square -- just a block or two up the street from Piedmont Park. If you use the street view in Google maps, you can "walk" up to Colony Square from your old apartment.

It was pretty cool, but it was nothing compared to the house they had in Florida...

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