Chapter Seventeen: The Taste of Success
Maria began to chop lettuce with a sharp, serrated plastic knife. "Only use this knife for lettuce," she warned Gloria. "Metal knife makes rust on lettuce." There were twelve small bowls for the lunch meal; Maria chopped iceberg lettuce and shreds of fresh spinach, tossed them in a large bowl, and then portioned them out to each of the bowls.
With a grater, she shredded orange mild cheddar cheese over each bowl. Horrified, Gloria thought, Orange cheese? She serves colored cheese? Then the cook chopped stiff Roma tomatoes into little cubes, and a cucumber likewise, and sprinkled a few of the cubes over the top of the cheese. The salads then went onto trays which went into refrigerators.
"You don't touch nothing the first two days," Maria the cook had told her. "You just watch how I do things. You do things like I do things, and we get along just fine."
"All right," Gloria had agreed, "I understand. But if there is anything I can do to help, please tell me."
Maria had grunted, perhaps an agreement, perhaps a complaint, and then had begun preparation for the lunch, which was to be a clear soup, a green salad, baked salmon steak with pasta on the side, and a dessert of brownies drizzled with hot chocolate sauce.
A four course lunch? If I ate like that, I'd be as big as a Volkswagen in weeks. And yet when she saw the serving sizes, she understood. The portions were tiny compared to what she and her family ate at home. The soup was to be served in small bowls that held a scant half cup, the salad might have been the size of a cereal bowl, the fish a pink rectangle about two inches by three.
If Gloria had any thoughts that Maria was some kind of magical wizard in the kitchen, they were quickly dispelled. There was nothing out of the ordinary in her cooking; she had prepared some of the parts of the meal the day before and really, only the salmon and the pasta had to be cooked with proper timing so as to be hot when served. Mostly the efficiency came with having a thorough knowledge of where everything was at in the kitchen, something that neither Gloria nor her mother had been able to work out in their own home. Gloria liked to put things in one place; Philli would absentmindedly put them away some place else. Add into that mix her stupid brothers, who occasionally bumbled into the kitchen to make themselves food, and presto! a large part of any home-cooked meal was assembling the tools.
Gloria was relieved to note that she would not be expected to serve at table; she knew that there was a whole world of propriety in serving, and it was a different planet than the one on which she had grown up. All the cook had to do was make up the plates and put them on a long bar under a heating lamp. Others came and put them on trays and carried them to the dining room.
Nor would the cook and her assistant be expected to wash dishes after dinner. Table service, it appeared, was cleaned in a different part of the building altogether. The serving platters came back to be put away, if there were any; individual plates to be served had been brought, spotless and warm, to the kitchen to receive their offerings.
Preparation proceeded; Maria thinly sliced about six white mushrooms, spooned a white ranch dressing into tiny cups that perched on the side of each salad bowl, cut and seeded lemon wedges. Brownies were sliced to serving size -- maybe four fork-fulls -- and drizzled with thin ribbons of chocolate, white and dark, in a criss-cossed pattern. With a peculiar-looking long-nosed vessel, the clear broth went carefully into the little soup bowls and were garnished with small sprigs of parsley and slices of the mushrooms. Finally, the angel hair pasta was cooked, tossed in some heavenly-smelling smelling sauce, and served in artfully twirled nests.
The serving of pasta astonished Gloria the most -- had she served only a half cup of pasta per person that smelled as wonderful as that, her family would have kicked her out the door. After torturing her for the recipe, of course. Whatever hell this job might hold, Gloria was sure that if she could only learn how to make that sauce, it would be worth it.
And while the Bakers ate salmon and pasta and soup and dessert, the staff's lunch was heated up. Today it was french bread (bought from the local grocery store, not made fresh) and some kind of vegetable soup with pasta in it. (And it was store-bought pasta, as well.) It had little fragrance -- maybe a hint of oregano, but it seemed nothing special.
After the Bakers' lunches were served, a woman with a mop and pail came in, took the kitchen broom and swept, then swabbed down the kitchen floor with a vinegary-smelling cleaning solution. She did not raise her eyes to Maria, and Maria did not speak to her. Observing the woman's dark eyes and black hair, Gloria wondered if the woman spoke English; perhaps she and Maria didn't share a common language.
Gloria was sent to get her lunch before Maria. The cook shooed her out of the kitchen. "Go eat, eat."
The staff dining area was almost like a wide hall, with doors on either end. The tile floor had carpet runners on either side of a long wooden table. A window opened from it to the dishwashing area, with a counter on which was staged the luncheon for the maids and gardeners and dishwashers and floor scrubbers, in this case, slices of french bread, and the tureen of soup. A coffee maker stood there, too, with a little dish of sugar packets and non-sugar packets, stirrers and plastic containers of Half and Half.
Timidly, Gloria went to the lunchroom and watched as a girl in a white uniform picked up a bowl, spooned soup into it, and took it to the table. Then she came back to the window for paper napkin, spoon, and piece of bread. She smiled at Gloria, and nodded, but said nothing.
Gloria served herself some soup, took a piece of bread, the spoon, the napkin, and sat down at an end seat. She sniffed the soup, and came away with only the knowledge that there was onion in it somehow, then dipped her spoon politely into the bowl, and raised it to her lips.
She swallowed, and licked her lips, trying to come to grips with what she had just eaten. It was possibly the worst soup she had ever tasted in her entire life.
In the first place, it was thin; there was no heft to its broth at all. What vegetables were in it Gloria could identify as small shreds of carrot, and some random-seeming peas, dispirited small slices of green beans, diced mushy potato -- which along with the elbow macaroni ought to have given some texture to the broth, but hadn't -- and some celery that had added no flavor to speak of but had been cooked until the little slices were rubbery. There were tiny bits of meat in the slop, but again, there was no distinct flavor. As nearly as Gloria could tell, the soup had not been seasoned with either salt or pepper, only the slightest taste of oregano and some transparent shreds of onion, and not much of that.
Gloria muscled down another spoonful, and another, and looked over at the young woman in the white uniform. The woman nodded at her and said, "It's some soup, isn't it? Maria always takes such good care of us."
Smiling back, Gloria gave a little nod, and looked back down at the bowl. What the hell? How could anyone in their right mind say that this crap is good? She wondered if the woman was testing her, somehow; if she said, "Sorry, this tastes like shit," the woman would most likely repeat her words to Maria, and out the door Gloria would go. She took another bite of the bread, which, although there was no butter offered to go with it, was passably good. Thank god they serve this in small bowls, she thought, and then sent her mind away, swallowing down mouthful after mouthful until she saw the other woman stand.
She watched, learning, as the young woman took her dish and silverware to the far end of the window, and handed them to someone, saying, "Good soup today. Make sure Steve gets a big bowl of it."
What a horrible thing to say to another human being. I wonder if this is why they thought Maria needed an assistant? Gloria finished the soup, sure that if she left any of it in her dish, someone would report it to Maria. As she took the dish to the end of the room, she suddenly thought, No one on the staff but Maria is overweight. Maybe this is why. On the other side of the window, the small counter looked in on the dishwashing operation, with a large commercial dishwashing machine, and two sinks for washing dishes by hand. There was a glassware washer as well, the kind Gloria had seen in bars, which wash and dry glassware in minutes.
An older man in an apron tapped the counter. "Just put your dishes here and we'll take care of them. Welcome to the staff."
"Thank you," Gloria said as he bustled away with the dishes. He didn't turn back to her, though, as he took the dish to the sink to rinse it before loading it into the racks of the dishwasher. She turned away and went back to the kitchen.
Maria was chewing a bite of the french bread. "You back already?" she asked, talking through the food. "Okay, time to get ready for dinner."
The afternoon dinner prep began, with Gloria watching Maria peel and chop potatoes into a large pot and cover them with water, massage olive oil into three smallish roasts of beef on a shallow roasting pan.
"You got questions yet?" Maria asked Gloria.
"Yes," Gloria said, hoping that she was supposed to have questions. But instead of asking, How the hell did you get this job? She asked, "What is the name of this kind of roast?"
"Bottom sirloin, ball roast, something like that. They just like them to be lean and boneless. It doesn't matter, unless they ask for tri-tip. That's different."
"Do you shop for the house's food?"
Maria grimaced, looking annoyed. "No. Maybe I should, but I'm a cook, not a shopper. I keep an eye on what is bought, tell the boy how much and what I expect to see. He brings the menu to me, and we talk about what everything should look like. Like tonight's yams. No shriveled yams, I tell him. No cuts from shovels in the skin."
"I've never bought fresh yams -- my mother always bought them in cans."
"Quicker but not better. I do candy yams next, very easy, family loves them." True to her word, she peeled and chopped a quantity of yams into a baking dish, sprinkled them with brown sugar, some margarine, and cinnamon, and set them aside.
There was nothing challenging about this fare. The creamy pasta sauce of lunch might have been difficult, but nothing else appeared to be.
The cook turned her hands to the dessert. She took two boxes of yellow cake recipe, dumped them into a commercial grade mixer with orange juice, orange extract, vegetable oil, and eggs, and turned the mixer on. While it whipped the mix into an fluffy texture, Maria sprayed olive oil onto two baking pans. She clicked off the mixer, and poured the batter into the pans.
Into the oven the pans went. She serves dessert from a box? Gloria thought, stunned again.
Maria looked at the clock, sighed, and then began to empty things from one refrigerator onto the counter.
Among the things emptied onto the counter were some huge fish heads and tails.
Oh, hell, I'm about to see where the staff soup comes from. Fish chowder tomorrow, no doubt. With the leftover vegetables from today's horror. She tried to look away when the cook chopped the tails into smaller pieces and threw them into another large pot, along with the heads. Eyeballs and all, oh my god.
"We cook this, and freeze it for other meals," Maria said to Gloria, completely unaware of her new assistant's disgust. "Good base for fish soups."
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