Chapter Twenty-eight: Learning the Old Ways
Gloria cut the greens and the tips off red radishes after washing them, while Maria cut a loaf of French bread into small servings, placing them in a big bowl by the staff serving area. The radishes joined them, in a much smaller bowl.
Maria poured two cups of flour into a large glass bowl, sprinkling the flour with salt. "This is the part some people never figure out," she told Gloria. "You add just enough water to make dough. Too much and is sticky mess. Not enough and is hard to roll and makes the noodles tough."
She added water a little at a time, stirring with a fork. "You don't use a pastry blender?" Gloria asked.
Maria waved her hand dismissively. "Pastry blender is for dough with shortening in. Fork is best for this. Here, stir. See how it's stiff? Flour your fingers, pinch. Holds together, not too sticky. She reached into a low, wide can and brought out a small handful of flour, with which she sprinkled the wooden rolling board beside her.
Her movement with the hand, sprinkling the flour, was so unstudied that Gloria was taken aback. How many times had Maria's right hand shaken flour just like that to make the action seem so natural, so easy? Just as she'd put the flour into the meat as it cooked, evenly, no sifter needed, no measurement. The coordination of eye and hand and arm and brain, the skill of a cook with a lot of years of experience. Then the floury hand moved across the rolling board in a gentle caress that left the board coated with a thin layer of flour. Again, the movement was almost careless, certainly not tentative, but there was a gentleness to the movement that made Gloria think that love was involved somehow. She wanted to ask about it, but figured she had better attend closely to cooking methods. If she survived her probationary period, maybe someday she could explore philosophy in the kitchen.
"You never make noodles before?" the cook asked. At Gloria's headshake, she said, "Here, flour up your hands. Feel the dough. Don't let it stick to you, get more flour on you. What you feel?"
"It's warm!" Gloria said in surprise. "It heated up!"
Maria chuckled, nodding. "First time I make flatbread by myself, I thought something was wrong, maybe the flour was bad. I threw out the dough! Ooh, my grandmother shouted at me for being so stupid and wasting food!" She floured her own hands liberally and scooped the dough into a ball, patting it all over with the flour. She kneaded it for about twenty seconds, then set the ball on the rolling board. "Now we let it sit while we sit and have a bowl of the bean soup."
Gloria had never had bean soup in her life. To her, soup meant meat, as did most meals in her life, except for breakfast, which usually meant toast or eggs. To make a meal of simple bean soup -- and aside from the seasonings, the onion, the bacon -- it was just beans, a side dish, not a main meal. She sniffed her bowl, hoping again that Maria would not watch her too closely. But she did intend to watch Maria, who took a chunk of the soft bread, spread some butter on it, and brought a couple radishes to her chair. She tasted the soup, then had another spoonful, but before she swallowed it, she bit into the radish. Then she chewed, with apparent pleasure. The next spoon of soup she accompanied with a bite of bread. The next paired with the radish, the next, the bread.
Her first taste of the soup was all right. She knew she could eat it without getting sick. Timidly taking a radish, she decided to try the unlikely combination. The peppery, zingy flavor of the radish exploded in her mouth, complementing the creamy dull bean and smoky bacon. Complementing? The flavors were practically mating and having babies in her mouth. She swallowed, almost starting her words with "Oh my god" but instead saying, "Oh, that's so good! I never had this before!"
"Never had bean soup?" Maria asked, looking at Gloria as though she were from another planet. "You young people! You are all so interested in TV and Starbucks you never eat real food. Listen, you have to save money for your house. This a meal your brothers can fill up on, eat like kings, don't cost a lot. Make them farty, maybe, but you're not around to worry about it, so don't worry about it. Beans, bacon, some spices; give them a loaf of bread -- all these stores around here sell bread for cheap -- plant your radishes in your flowerbox at home, they grow fast and easy at this time of year. Good food, keep you all going, don't take up all your money."
"You used canned beans ... could I buy dried beans and make something like this?"
"Yes, no," she said, tilting her head back and forth. "Yes, you can, but no, you can't. Dry beans have to soak and rinse, soak and rinse. You work here, you don't have the time. Buy canned beans at Costco or FoodForLess, you get a good deal and the time off, too. Packet of radish seeds cost a dollar and a half, one bunch cost you that much at the store."
They carried the big pot of bean soup, the bread, and the bowl of radishes into the staff lunch room. "There will be some left over, not much, but a little, and you can take some home for your brothers to taste. Then you see if they will eat poor man's food. That's what people think beans are, unless they eat Mexican food at restaurant."
The time had come to turn away from bean soup and focus on this noodle concoction that the Bakers loved.
"Most times, you cook your noodles in with your veggies and meat," Maria lectured. "Here, the Bakers like their noodles to look very white, not colored by meat broths. So we cook the noodles in chicken broth and seasoning, add them to the beef later. They like the beef and noodles, never notice that the noodles taste like chicken. Monday we put the chicken broth in staff soup."
The chicken broth, which was very clear, was boiling by the time Maria had the first part of the dough rolled out, thinly. She carried the cutting board over to the pot and dropped the noodles in one at a time. "Put them in where the broth is bubbling. Then they don't stick. Too high a boil, they disintegrate into mush. Too low, they stick together and make yuck."
She cut pieces off the wad of dough and rolled them out, and again Gloria was amazed at the surety and economy of her movement as she cut the sheet into rectangles with a chopping knife.
After the second sheet of noodles had been dropped into the broth, Maria directed Gloria to get carrots from the refrigerator and peel them, and chop them into tiny diced pieces no more than three eighths of an inch on a side. By the time she was done, the noodles were off the heat and sitting on the back of the stove, covered with a lid.
"Come on, we cook the carrots in a little margarine to give them a nice flavor, then add a little water and braise. Bakers like color in vegetables, don't like them to get brown with the meats, just like with the noodles. We add the carrots last, on top of everything."
Dessert was the next requirement, although Gloria wished for more time to ask about what was going on with the noodles. If you made pasta too far in advance, it turned mushy and began to fall apart. But the noodles had been put back as though they wouldn't. What had happened?
"Dinner is soft, cooked beef and noodles, so we do a crunchy dessert: apple cobbler with nuts."
"Oh, that's great! Will got us a bushel of apples for free, but aside from apple pie, I don't know a lot of apple recipes."
"Look, we're going to use your favorite friend -- pressure cooker. We have to peel and core and chop two dozen apples."
Again in silence and focused work, Gloria peeled and cored and chopped apples with Maria. She was already less tense than she had been yesterday morning; she had the skills she needed to imitate the work of Maria's hands. She also had a newly found faith that Maria herself knew what she was doing. The hideous soup of her first day here was still something of a mystery to her, but she was actually beginning to like her job well enough that she felt herself very fortunate to have found it.
The apples were loaded into the pressure cooker for all of three minutes, a time when they could not be neglected. Maria and Gloria stood in front of the stove, listening to the hissing and clicking of the pressure cooker's valve.
"How long did the noodles have to cook?"
Maria's eyes looked heavy. She seemed tired. "About fifteen minutes on the boil. Then you take them off and let them set for twenty minutes, and they are tender. You put them in soup, you make sure you have the pot on warm while they set.
"For us, they just sit and keep warm in the pot until dinner time, on that warming tray. By the time supper comes, they get so soft and tender, people faint when they eat them. Time to crumble up cookies," she said, leading the way to the dry goods cabinet.
The beef was staged on plates in a crescent, looking rich in gravy. The noodles were fished out one at a time, only the perfectly rectangular ones, blotted on a paper towel, and arranged in gentle folds like relaxed ribbon candy over the pieces of beef. The braised carrot cubes were sprinkled over the top of the noodles, and along the side of the beef, enough of them to ensure a healthy vegetable serving for each diner.
"See how pretty?" Maria asked Gloria as the plates were set for the service.
"Yes, it is. I didn't get a chance to taste the carrots, though. How were they?"
"Like they always are. For horses. Lots of vitamins, pretty color, lots of sugar. I hate them, myself, but that's me. I'd rather take vitamins than eat them, unless they serve them raw with dip. Then I eat them for the dip. There. That's my dirty secret." She looked at Gloria out of the corners of her eyes, as if to see what she thought.
"If I could get either of my brothers, or my mother, or myself, to eat a cooked carrot all on its own, I could probably win the lottery."
"You tell me then, too, how you do it, and we both play."
Gloria swallowed, but she was tired enough to be less than totally discreet. "Why do you think the Bakers like them?"
"Geh," the older woman said. "They read magazines and find stuff to try. They don't think about food to keep alive, they want to make themselfs healthy with special diets, make their table look like they are super-rich and eat magazine food. They are the employers. We just do what they say."
"Got it," said Gloria, and went to pick up the clean pots and pans of the day from the dishwashers.
"Roast chickens tomorrow. Easy day, only one big meal, then we do prep work and inventory. Here, take this for your brothers, couple radishes, too. See you in the morning."
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