Tuesday, April 30, 2013

On the Other Side of Food

I grew up in catering.

It started at the tender age of eight when I volunteered to wrap food for my father's food truck. There had for some time been an actual restaurant in the city, but then it was moved to an out-of-the-house operation where the food was going to be generally made by el Diablo Madre and my father.

The food (it was always just the food) was a random mix of hot and cold sandwich-type things that could be served out of the back of a catering truck to men and women who worked in factories, offices, and other types of centers where people didn't generally have an option to go very far for lunch.

To do this, the food was originally, made fresh and wrapped in plastic. I got sucked in by the wrapping motion of the machine and wanted to try it. I was probably done with it after the first half hour, but since I had demonstrated an aptitude, I gained a new chore. And so I grew up in catering, whether I liked it or not.

Thing is, I'm actually good at food serviceremarkably soand I will do almost anything I can do to avoid doing it. I made a promise to myself in my late teens that I was not going to end up in food. That had been the first part of my life and it was over; I wasn't going back.

Then the Irish was talking about the need to feed a party of people, and after discussing the budget for food and several options, I realized it would be a hell of a lot cheaper to just cater it.

"You know, for what it would cost to take them to a decent restaurant, I could just buy and make the food."

"Really?"

I whipped out a pen and came up with a sample menu for breakfast and lunch that included a variety of eating diets, a basic cost, and overall prep time.

"For how much?"

I quoted him the figure again.

"Let's do it, then," he said. With that I had once again entered the world of catering. I got up early for the gig, did the breakfast round, cleaned the apartment, did the lunch round, changed clothes, and made appetizers for the after-dinner drink and mingle. In all, I brought in the entire party for about eighty less than I had budgeted.

The experience was still surreal. Being in the kitchen, being responsible for the food, paying meticulous attention to the prep. Knowing when to time things to make sure it all came out just right and hot, getting things sorted to serve. Working on display. I enlisted the Geisha as an assistant and had her do the sous prep while I worked on cooking, timing, sorting, and the rest in general. It all went beautifully. Everyone enjoyed it. There were many compliments. When it was all over I felt dead inside.

I grew up in catering. It was a thing that happened to meby choice or force, I could not tell you after the ten years of my life spent in a kitchen prepping food. It was a thing I did and it filled my life with both joy and unhappiness. Some of the more interesting stories of my childhood come from catering, as do some of the most miserable and abusive episodes. The entire experience colors how I interact with food, food service, and food prep. The reality is I never want to do it again, but I know that there will be unavoidable times where I do the math in my head and realize it would be cheaper to just do it myself or with the assistance of another person.

Yet, the ghost that is inside it makes it most undesirable. There is a girl in there, buried under platters of hamburgers, cold cuts, and bowls of tuna fish salad, a girl that is crying and lonely and screaming and neglected. She looks up from under all those years of food and wonders what was more important, her service or the her childhood, and looking back she knows the answers. Others will say differently, that she learned, that she gained, but there was so much lost. So much that could have been gained by saying no, so much more that could have been by saying no. This quiet, little haunting thing is always there when there is cooking to be done, a small hushed voice that whispers about not being good enough. It is a ghost that can be ignored, but when the door is opened into that abyss of memory, it is hard to hide from her.

I let her out this weekend, she helped, she made sure it was perfect. I lost something. I gained something.

The food was enjoyed.

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