Monday, April 30, 2007

Food for Thought

Restaurant diner: I was wondering how you prepare your chickens.
Waitress: Oh, it's nothing too special, sir. We just tell them straight out that they're going to die. ~  Author Unknown (mercifully)

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is one of my favorite columnists. She had a tough act to follow in our local paper, because she was chosen to replace Lewis Grizzard's column after he passed on to join his dog Catfish. She's a nice Southern lady, who is something of a political liberal, which makes her a bit of an unusual Southern lady. She doesn't get political very often, though. Most of the time she deals with the idiosyncrasies of the world around her, mixed with some nostalgia.

The other day, I thought she had lost her mind.

Her column opens, "I always wanted to try my hand at being a waitress. When I was young, it looked like a pretty good job. Romantic even."

I thought to myself, "Rheta, my dear, you cannot possibly imagine how wrong you are."

Ms. Johnson goes on to describe how she finally got her wish by getting to be a waitress at a charity fundraiser. Any illusions she had about the "romance" of waiting tables was quickly dispatched. To wit:
First of all, people ask for things you don't have...If you run out of lemon, they want lemon. If the coffee pot is low, they want coffee. If you manage to balance a dessert tray with 15 tempting choices, they choose something not on the tray...

If you've ever seen the 'I Love Lucy' episode when Lucy and Ethel got jobs at the candy factory, you seen me in action as a waitress.
I understand, Rheta, I truly understand.

I've never been a waitress myself (or a waiter or server or any other term associated with that form of self-abuse), but I was a busboy, and both my parents were in the restaurant business for around twenty years each. In fact, people used to ask my father if I was going to go into the business someday. He would smile proudly and say, "If he does, I'll break both his arms."

This extreme measure proved to be totally unnecessary. After around five years of working part time in the kitchen and in the dining rooms, I had no desire to continue down that path. Heck, to this day, I still don't enjoy eating in restaurants, if it comes down to that.

The agony of the waitress/waiter/server is just the tip of the iceberg in the restaurant business. This is not to say that all is misery in the food biz. My mother used to talk about the fun times she had running her diner. There was that June 17 in 1968 and a day in November, 1979.

Well, maybe it's not that bad, but, lord, it isn't good.

I admire people who are able to run restaurants while keeping their sanity and solvency. It's difficult to maintain either in the food business. It's hectic, back-breaking, and frustrating. Today's successful restaurant is tomorrow's successful restaurant; unfortunately, tomorrow's restaurant took over the space vacated when today's restaurant folded.

There are people who are successful in the business. My mother's diner was still going strong 20 years after she bought it from the nice little old ladies who weren't making a dime on it. My father, who wasn't going to risk his own money in this business (beyond Mom's place) managed restaurants for a variety of companies, some of which are probably still around.

It's just that people have this crazy idea that running a restaurant is easy. They also think that cooking for friends and family translates easily to cooking dozens of different dishes simultaneously for (hopefully) hordes of customers, planning menus for the coming week or so, buying ingredients daily, managing and paying employees, while somehow making a profit.

Hopefully, Ms. Johnson will have learned from her experience that the food business is not all beer and skittles (which sounds pretty awful, now that I think of it) and not attempt to make an ever greater mistake by trying her hand as --gasp-- a cook.

She seems like a smart lady; I don't think anyone will need to threaten to break any extremities.

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