Tuesday, August 28, 2012

salad man

I'm reading a book now called Lucky Bruce, an autobiography by the writer, Bruce Jay Friedman.   I'm only a third through it, but I came across a section that made me laugh outloud drawing some curious looks from other patrons in the library where I sit.  Had they known what made me laugh and what notions it conjured up I think the looks would have been more scornful than serious.

The author is referring to his first wedding at which he was, as it turned out, appropriately--apprehensive since the marriage ended in divorce.  He writes:  "Before the ceremony, I recall charging down the halls of the hotel in a rented tuxedo, in a last minute search for some wise individual to advise me.  I was finally reduced to asking the salad man if he felt I was making a mistake."

(Since I am sitting in the library of the Culinary Institute of America, I am thinking that my loud laugh might have made patrons in the know think I was knocking the careers of salad men and women).

The line in the book amused me as the image, to me at least, is pretty funny.  But I also found it engaging because it reminded me of two people I knew who were "salad men" and two episodes that have stuck in my head for over forty years about them.

I, like many, worked as I was going through school as a waiter in various situations.   My first such stint was at a summer camp.  Compared to waiting jobs I had subsequently, this was easy work.  The kids stacked the dishes at the end of the meal; there was no real ordering as every kid got the same meal that had been made for the entire dining hall.,

In the back of the dining hall there was a kitchen where the chefs toiled, a baker baked, the dishwashers shvitzed, and the salad man made the salads.  Jimmy was the salad man.  The drill was you picked up the rolls from the baker the salad from Jimmy, and then waited in line to get the main dishes in the steamy kitchen.

Right in beginning of his stint as salad man, there was a day when green salad was on the menu.  Usually that meant that the salad man tossed greens and tomatoes in a huge bowl and we brought the concoction out to the campers.  This time Jimmy had gone to great efforts.  He had made individual salads for the kids that looked terrific. Each one with some cubed tomatoes and sliced cucumbers.  Well, this was a big hit for the campers.  However, the frugal owner/kitchen boss took one look at the salads and said, "we can't do that, here."  What she meant was that typically the whole table gets two tomatoes, not each kid.

Jimmy had this proud look on his kisser when he displayed his efforts.  That face sagged a bit when he was not credited for his industry and, essentially, scolded.  After that, Jimmy essentially drop kicked potato salad, cole slaw--whatever the greens were for the day into a bowl.  He had lost his enthusiasm, in much the same way I have seen and heard of workers lose their enthusiasm for innovation when a supervisor insensitively discourages the effort.

The second story regarding salad men just made me snort--as it typically does-as I thought about it once again.  I was now working in a hotel in the Catskills.  A fellow came to work there and called himself "A salad man".  This guy was no salad man.  He was a denizen of the Bowery who had somehow snookered the owner into thinking he had some culinary training.  He made a few salads that did not amount to much when the steward told him he was done as a salad man.  If he wanted to he could work the dishwasher.  Indignantly, this man who was likely more at home with a bottle of wine than a head of lettuce, remarked very loudly. "I am a salad man. That is my profession."  Well, after this speech, the next thing I knew he was washing dishes and seemed more comfortable and I thought not even aware that moments  before he had declared himself a salad man.

I've wondered today about why these two incidents came into my consciousness when I read the excerpt from the book.  In the first case, I think it is because of how the enthusiasm for excelling can be and often is doused.   It is the expression on the "salad man" in the second memory which, when accompanied by his ridiculous but adamant assertion "I am a salad man" that I see so clearly.  I guess if you say you are a salad man loud enough and long enough you can believe you are a salad man even if you know from nothing about salads.  In the kitchen it is relatively easy to remove a fraud's mask.  And then the dance may be over and you go on to be a dishwasher. In other occupations, even the professions, I think people can go a long way by declaring themselves a teacher, lawyer, a shrink, a doctor..before they have to acknowledge who they really are.

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