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June 17, 2024

Place Settings 06

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Six: Revelations in the Baker Kitchen

Monday: time to have a look at what was left over from Sunday Feast Day and fashion it into lunch for the staff. Almost always chicken, almost always lettuce. That meant almost always soup and salad. The staff lunches were free, so no one complained, not really, and they were decent foods, not cheap garbage ... but still, Chicken Whatever every Monday seemed uninspired.

"Chicken, chicken, chicken," Maria grumbled. "Every damn Monday I make chicken soup and green salad. There's so much chicken left over from yesterday the staff is going to have to eat chicken soup all week. Why did they want so many chickens yesterday if they weren't going to eat them? Come on, Gloria, what would you do with damn Monday chickens?"

"Let's switch it up. Vegetable soup and chicken salad. That way we can use up chicken, and some of the celery in the salad, some more of the celery and carrots from the crudites tray in the soup. Wasn't there a lot of bread, too?"

"You take care of that, then. I can get Bakers' lunch ready on my own."

An unexpected result of Maria's recovery from surgery was that she moved around her Baker house kitchen with renewed energy. What had appeared to Gloria, when she had been first hired, as a lethargic attitude toward work had turned out to be just an older woman feeling sick as a dog and dragging herself to do her assigned tasks. Now Gloria wondered if there was really a need for Maria to have an assistant at all. Well, they'd cross that bridge when it was necessary.

There was always a bin of onions in the cold room; Gloria loaded a tray with two yellow onions and two white, hit the refrigerator shelves and gathered all the celery, tomatoes, and carrots, as well as an open bag of spinach, a bell pepper and three big jalapeno peppers. She took the heap to her work station, dumped it on the counter, and headed back to the pantry. "Mind if I use a couple cans of the pinto beans?" she called to Maria.

"Use them, we get more when we need to," the head cook said without looking up from her cutting board.

Beans, the leftover chickens, day-old bread, and all the broccoli and cauliflower from the crudites tray from the previous day's hors d'ourvres, piled on her work station. Gloria nearly chuckled, thinking about the soup and the chicken salad she was about to make.

Dividing her spoils into two heaps, the Assistant Cook put yellow onion, carrots, and some celery onto one side of the cutting boards, along with the bottle of olive oil, the tomatoes, the cans of beans, peppers, and the vegetables from the crudites platter. On the other side were the chickens, the white onions, more celery. The breads occupied a neutral space between, as though bystanders in the event about to occur.

First things first: carrots, yellow onion, and celery, chopped tiny, into the soup pot with a dollop of olive oil, just enough to coat them. While they cooked and sent up a delicious fragrance, Gloria de-boned the leftover roasted chickens on the other end of the table and began chopping the meat on a separate board. Chicken into a prep bowl.

Crush garlic -- lots of it -- chop peppers, careful to keep out the jalapeno seeds; into the pot with the celery, onions, and carrots they went. Back to the other side. White onions next, diced finely, scraped into the chicken prep bowl. Back again to the soup base, stir; now tomatoes, cut efficiently into cubes. Tomatoes, meet the aromatics.

Dice more celery, this time for the salad chicken and onions. Then back to the soup again.

Cauliflower, cut small. No big chunks of cauliflower in Gloria's soup -- she wanted her diners to be surprised by flavor, not choked by chunks. Broccoli and spinach, cut, then put off in a prep bowl with the cauliflower, by themselves so they wouldn't overcook and become mushy. Next, beans, into a flat-bottomed pan, a couple quick squishes with the potato masher, then into the soup. Now seasonings.

Kosher salt, easy to see how much was being added because of the flakiness of it, then black pepper, thyme -- just a hint -- two tablespoons of oregano, a sprinkle of sage, all for the soup.

Then salt for the chicken, too. Big jar of mayonnaise and a heaping tablespoon of mustard, stirred into the chicken mixture, just enough to make it moist. Then to cut the mayonnaise-y taste ...

"Smells good over here. What? Lemon? For the soup?"

"No, for the chicken salad," Gloria explained, drizzling the juice over the vat of chicken. She stirred, used a spoon to taste, and nodded. "See what you think,"

Maria pulled a new spoon from the holder and tasted. Her eyebrows raised. "Okay, now I know why I always hated chicken salad. I never knew how to make it right."

"I actually learned about it from my younger brother Ben. He's been watching cooking shows a lot since he moved to Turlock. He says it's a good excuse to be holed up in his room, and from there, when he gets stir-crazy from being cooped up, he can go to the kitchen and play with what he's learning." She stirred the soup, added the broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach, and water. "There, once I put in some pasta, all that has to do is simmer until lunch."

Maria tasted the soup as well. "Nice. But wait a second, I have an idea, too." She left the counter and went to the refrigerator beside the sinks. "Here, just a little added flavor, you think?"

"Oh, yeah! I love this stuff!" Another clean spoon in hand, Gloria added beef base, stirring after each addition, until the flavor was just discernible. "More tasting, please, my boss."

"That's good work, Gloria. It's vegetable soup, but good enough for a meal. Bakers smell that, though, they gonna be pissed it's just for staff."

"We could make it for them on a Friday, couldn't we? Just omit the beef base?"

"Meat broth doesn't count for meat, so we could do it just like this," Maria said, brow furrowed in thought.

Gloria turned the heat down on the soup, carried the covered chicken salad to the walk-in. She joined Maria at her station. "Why doesn't it, if you don't mind me asking ... I know the Bakers are Catholic, but I had Catholic friends who ate meat on Fridays. And I know the Bakers just prefer to avoid meat on Fridays, but how does beef or chicken broth not count as meat?"

"Bakers say that not eating meat on Fridays gives them a chance to remember about God a few extra times a week. Maybe when people are as rich as the Bakers, that's a good thing. The Church doesn't require not eating meat on Fridays any more except in Lent." At Gloria's puzzled expression, she went on, "Six weeks before Easter. But the Church knows people used to make all their broth from the week's bones, broth gives good flavor, so the Church, as mother, tells her kids to use good stuff, not waste it, just remember, remember, remember."

"Okay, got it," Gloria said, even though she hadn't. Mother? A mother tells her kids not to waste stuff? Not our mother, she just shows us it's better to be a leech than a wage earner.

"Gloria, what's wrong? You just looked like someone slammed a door in your head," Maria said, touching Gloria's arm.

Gloria shook her head. "Just ... it's nothing. Nothing I can do anything about, anyway. Not about the broth, just a sudden thought about Mom, and ... it's nothing."

Maria turned back to her sweet potatoes. "Hey, go find your Steve and ask him if we have a sure count for supper plates. I don't want to come up short on pork chops."

Rather than wander the halls looking for Steve, however, Gloria opted to go to Thomas' office and ask him. She stopped short when she heard Susana's voice through the open door.

"This isn't fair, you can't do this. I didn't have a choice, it was an emergency."

She couldn't hear what was said in return.

"I'm going to Mrs. Baker about this. She's not against Mexicans like you are."

Gloria turned on her heel and began to walk quietly away. That had not sounded good at all, not anything she should be listening to. She returned to the kitchen, spent a moment looking at the menu for the day, wondering what all had been done, what she should be turning her hands to next.

"You find out?" said Maria, crossing the kitchen. "Good grief, Gloria, what is happening? You white as a sheet, I can see every one of your freckles." She yanked a chair over from the wall. "Sit down, sit down before you fall down."

"I didn't know where Steve is, so I went down to Thomas' office. Susana was in there, arguing with Thomas. She said she was going to Mrs. Baker about something, and that Thomas was against Mexicans. I know I shouldn't be hearing things like that, but I didn't know -- the door was open --"

"Okay, listen. You cut up that cantaloupe over there, into nice bite-sized pieces, put a quarter cup into the tiny bowls. Up in that cupboard, up top, are salt-cellars. We hardly ever use them, that's why they're so out of the way. Get them all down, make sure they're dusted out good, and grind peppercorns into them. Don't worry about how many, we can always use ground pepper up. Salt cellar. Little glass dish big enough to dip your thumb into."

"I can do that, I'm all right, really."

"Something not right with you, Glory girl. Take it easy, then do cantaloupe. I'll go and find out what's happening."

Why the hell am I so shaky about this? Susana has been a pain in the ass from the first time I had to work with her. Sounded like she was getting fired, and isn't that a good thing? Gloria had a sudden painful memory of adding up the bills and looking at the balance of her mother's checkbook, only a few months before. No employment is NOT a good thing, under any circumstances. I didn't want to work with her ever again, but I never wished for her to get fired.

She got up from the chair, took a deep breath, and picked up her knife from her station. She washed it carefully, dried it, and went to begin breaking down the melons. Now focus. Your knife can put you in the Emergency Room. Nothing else is as important as getting this cantaloupe made to order for the Bakers' mouths. That's your job. Not your mother's choices, not Susana's choices. Food. Food prep, food service, good tastes. Everything else is ... else.

Cutting up the fragrant cantaloupe was soothing, and a job quickly done, although she still was unsure about how many diners they would be serving. There was about a quart of fruit left over, and she hoped that she and Maria could split it after dinner service.

Salt-cellars. Dragging the kitchen stepstool over to the cabinet, Gloria stepped up to see tiny glass bowls stacked up against the side and back. She carefully brought them down, four at a time. Adorable! She had never seen anything like them in her life.

Black peppercorns went into the spice grinder, and soon she had enough dusty, crunchy black pepper to fill the little seasoning wells. She put a heaping teaspoon in each one, still relying on the menu plan for the number of diners.

What is it with the pepper and the cantaloupe? Do you put pepper on fruit?

A slice of the cantaloupe, and a quick sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper.

Whoa! Where has this wonder of the world been all my life?

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-01-04
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
02:42:51 PM
One thing I've figured out. I always need to eat BEFORE I read Place Settings, otherwise I grow too ravenous because of the food descriptions to concentrate.
I'm beginning to think that the mother and Susana are going to be the antagonists of this story???
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