Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Treading an Untrodden Path.

The littlest native has been humming "Come! Come! Ye Saints!" at high speed under her breath while she reads "Bambi's Children" for probably an hour, and I am two inches from going coo-coo, so I think I will write a blog. Not because I have anything in particular to say, but I just want to connect with my blog people again, and stave off insanity, by means of distraction.

Hi, y'all!

I have very little time for writing anymore because I have taken on a new venture. Maybe I will tell you about it. It will give me subject matter, at least. Subject matter is a beautiful thing when you need to write. Especially if your sanity rests upon it.

Last December we sat across from friends of ours at a Christmas banquet and they told us the mayor of our little town had said that they were looking for someone to cook in the cafeteria of a new charter school they were building. He had asked if anyone in our church would be interested in the job.

On the way home we discussed it a little bit. "It could be fun!" I said. "I love to cook! We love children! It would be fun to work together!" The natives threw in a few positive comments. The Chief did not poo-poo it. That was something.The school itself was being constructed a half-mile from the wigwam. It could not be handier.

The more I thought about it the more I wished we would do it.The Chief would help, of course. He would take care of the business aspects. I would cook. And we had all this potential native labor. It would be a tribal effort, and it would be a great fit for us!

So the Chief and I talked about it. He called the mayor and we met with him. He was all for giving us the job if we wanted it, but there would be no kitchen at the school, he said. All the food would have to be prepared off-site and delivered. Whew. We asked him how long we had to consider it, and he said we had till the end of April anyway.

The no-kitchen aspect introduced a factor we had not anticipated. It was daunting, really, but we had some ideas and we explored our options. It took awhile. Also, there were so many other things that needed to be researched and planned. People to hire. Menus to plan. Food prep and transportation. I have never in my entire life done commercial-type cooking. I had never gone to public school. I couldn't even picture what a school cafeteria looked like in operation. There were classes to take and  regulations to investigate. The more we looked into it the longer the list grew.

We came up against the reality that the time was too short, and we were way too inadequate for the task. We could not funnel everything that needed funneling into those few summer months before school started. In April we called the mayor and told him we were sorry, but we just could not do it.

We were sorry, too. But we both felt at peace. Neither the Chief nor I wanted to force ourselves into something and regret it later. The natives were disappointed. The mayor was understanding, and seemed unconcerned about finding someone else to do it. In many regards, it was a relief.  We went back to wigwam life and the summer passed without incident.

The 4rth weekend in July we were preparing for a trip to Pennsylvania for a family reunion. We hadn't gone anywhere in awhile and spirits were high. We were leaving Friday morning, early. So Thursday we were doing up laundry and packing, when the Chief called. "Guess who just called?" he asked.

I couldn't guess.

"The mayor." he said. "He said they are going to have a meeting up at the school at 4PM about this cafeteria job. There's another lady interested, and they are meeting with the US Foods rep. They put in a kitchen after all, but it is fairly small. He said if we wanted a place at the table they would save us one."

"It's the end of July!"

"I know."

"So what should we do?"

"I think we'll at least go and see what they have to say."

"But it's the end of July!!"

"I know."

And so we went.

We toured the kitchen. It consisted of  walls, a ceiling, and a floor. An oven stood over near one corner. We picked our way over and around tools and ladders and building materials. I tried to imagine working there. I tried to imagine it being all in place by the beginning of school.

We went and had our meeting, but much of it was beyond me. I grasped for bits and phrases that might be useful, and filed them frantically. The other lady seemed very interested in the job. She was dressed in high heels. She had run a school cafeteria before. She knew how much she could produce a school lunch for and she had her bid ready to submit.

I knew nothing.

The US Foods rep said they had the menus for various local school districts and we could start by borrowing their menus at the outset if that would be of use. Everyone seemed very kind and anxious to be as helpful as possible. They needed cooks fast.

We left the meeting with our minds spinning. I went home to finish packing, and the next morning we left bright and early for Pennsylvania. We had a wonderful time connecting with the broader tribe.

And then we came home, and we had to decide. We had a part of a week to submit a bid if we were going to do it. "What shall we do?" I asked the Chief.

"I think we'll submit a bid" he said.

We will??

I was startled, frankly. Submitting a bid meant we were... um...submitting a bid!

"But if we submit a bid, we might get the job!"


Up to this point, it had always been a hypothetical. The ball had been in our court, but we could walk around with it under our arm. Or prop one foot on it and survey the landscape. If we submitted a bid we had just lost control of the ball. We might get the job. I was nervous.

"Are you going to stop your job and help me? I can't do this by myself."

He was a bit non-committal on that point. Non-commitment makes my insides knot up. But I try very hard not to be one of "those wives". The ones, you know, who hound their chief when their chief is being non-committal.

Eventually he leveled with me. He did not think it was wise to stop his current job not knowing how much this job would bring in.

He was right, of course. I knew he was right. But I did NOT see how I could do it without him. He is my rock. My decision-maker when my mind shatt...I mean scatters. I just like working with him. I wanted him to be there with all my heart.I had envisioned him being there beside me.

"I'll do everything I can to help you get started." he said. I felt overwhelmed.
He agreed to take off work the first week and help me. I relaxed a bit.

He submitted a bid. It would be about a week until we found out one way or the other. The clock was ticking. School would soon be starting. The kitchen still had no appliances installed.

I thought about the other lady who submitted a bid. She knew what she was doing. She would probably get the job. I didn't know whether I hoped she did or hoped she didn't. But it was a comfort somehow to tell myself that she would probably get it.

I started hunting for employees, just in case. The two oldest natives were working for the Chief. They would come and work for me instead. They were excited. And I was delighted at the prospect of working with them. But I needed another woman. Somebody who knew how to cook. Somebody I didn't have to babysit through every cooking step.

I wracked my brain. When we had considered the job the previous winter I had tentatively lined up someone I thought would be perfect, but her plans had changed. There are not many women worth their salt who are sitting around waiting to be asked if they would like a job. All the women I knew already had their plates full.

So I just tried to think of somebody I thought would be good at it. She was my friend, but she already had a job and I knew she loved her job. I called her anyway.

It was a long shot.

I pleaded with her as unobnoxiously as I knew how. She said, "Let me think about it and I'll let you know.".
I could tell by how she said it that she wasn't going to.

But she called me back later and said she would! I could not believe it!! I started feeling less terrified.

And then, the mayor called and said "Y'all are in the food-making business!"

And at that point, there was no turning back.

So we did as much as we knew to do, which felt really limited. My friend and I went and shadowed a kitchen crew at another charter school for a day. That was the most helpful and educating experience we had the whole time. The manager there was entirely hospitable and sympathetic, and was as helpful as she could possibly be. She printed off recipes that served 100 people, recipes they used. She told me to call her anytime I needed help. I called her several times. She asked various questions about our facilities and whether or not I had ordered food yet. I said "No. There are no freezers or refrigerators."

She seemed worried for me. School was starting very soon. There were no appliances installed yet either. But some of them sat in the kitchen there, waiting. A sink was hooked up. The appliances were going to nearly all be second-hand because the kitchen had not been in the budget at the outset. The kitchen had essentially been added as an after-thought. I hoped they would work. What if they did not work?

A few other friends offered to help us get started and so I hired a couple other ladies to help at the outset. They proved to be invaluable troopers, all.

The weekend before school started the kitchen was cleared out and the appliances were installed.
But they were used. Very used. Years of  greasy crud coated them. The ovens had not been cleaned in years I am sure. Paint was chipped. Long dried grasses stuck to the bottoms of the work tables. I guess they were stored in someone's back forty.

I had tried to figure out what I was going to serve the first week. It was all so new. What would they eat? What could we actually fix in a few hours time? They had told us earlier maybe 350 or 400 people, but that they would give us an actual number closer to the time. I didn't know. It was all a shot in the dark. I finally made up a menu, figured out recipes, broke it down to ingredients. We met with the US Foods rep to place our first order on Friday. School started Tues. At the time of the meeting we still had not been given a meal number. I went up to the front desk and asked if they had a number for us yet. The lady at the front desk said the number of people that had signed up to eat lunch was 70.


That was so far below what we had been told we should plan on, it was stunning. But okay, 70. I could cook for 70. That looked doable. We started down through our endless-looking list. Every single spice and condiment and bowl and ingredient. We were starting from scratch. And for every individual item he gave us all these options...this brand or this brand, or this other brand? Fat free? Whole wheat or white? This was clearly going to take a long, long time. Partway through, one of the powers-that-be came in and said we had better plan for at least 200something, that it is possible not everyone signed up that was planning to eat.


We revised our quantities...

And then later we were interrupted again. "You need to plan for at least 400. In no case do we want a child to show up expecting a meal, and there be no food available." Well, that was understandable. We re-revised.
It was as new for them as it was for us, I guess.
We placed our order.

That night we began to scrub appliances. We scrubbed work tables and sinks and ovens and stoves. On Saturday we went again. We scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed and SCRUBBED. They looked so much better. We surveyed our work Saturday evening with a measure of pleasure.

"I think they would look so nice painted up!" I said. "Maybe a nice cranberry? Something to add some color in here." The Chief was agreeable and off he went for paint. He came back and we started painting. The paint sample looked fine but when we painted it on the table legs it looked like Barney the Dinosaur.... or poke berry juice. Oh my. It was just so bad. We tried to decide if another coat would somehow fix it. The Chief thought it probably would. But it was getting later and later. We HAD to call it a day. The next day was Sunday.

I could not wait for Monday. All I could think of was somebody walking in there and seeing those bright purple appliance legs and thinking "What in the WORLD is going on in this kitchen??"

First thing Monday morning we went to Lowe's for more paint. It was a more subdued tone. More of a reddish brown, actually. The natives started slathering it on. It was so much better! The work tables and shelves started looking uniform and almost classy.

And our food order came. We arranged it on the shelves and in the freezers and refrigerator. It all fit.

We cleaned every thing up, and turned on the ovens to see if they worked. They did. We opened up packages of steamer pans, and baking sheets, mixing bowls and utensils, and tried to decide how to arrange it all. The things we didn't have I hauled from my own kitchen.

And the next morning the whole crew showed up. Way early. We tried to figure out the serving table and in what order to do things. But the serving table was not yet hooked up to electricity and there was no way to keep food cold or hot. Hmm.

We scurried around trying to cover all our bases, and have all the food ready. There was no warming oven as yet so we had to have it all hot just in time to serve, but not too early. And certainly not too late! And how many were we serving after all? 70? or 400??

It was all exhilarating, and rather exciting, in spite of all the unknowns. The electricians showed up partway through the morning and hooked up the serving table. Yay!!

And we got everything around! And the children, the darling little children, began to file through.

My crew took their places at the serving table in the dining room.

And we had enough food. Way too much, actually. We served, I think 175, or something. It's a little fuzzy to me, how many it was exactly.

And so began this journey. Our oldest native has come to work with us now. The Chief did as promised and held my hand the first week. And my trusty friends got us started splendidly.

It was not without its share of bumps, learning the pesky foibles of the food company, and our own pesky foibles.

But it gradually got better! And all along we had a LOT of fun! Every day was a gem in its own right. Some of them polished to a higher degree than others.

I love my work crew. We have good times. The natives love working in the kitchen, in spite of the fact that they rarely ever helped in the kitchen here at the wigwam. They have become expert slicers and dicers. And singers. Lots of singing goes on.

In December we served an average of 240 a day.

But it's a good thing the Chief did not stop his job to start this one or we would be destitute for certain. He always was the wise one.

And if any of y'all would like a couple buckets of purple-dinosaur-colored paint, I know where you could get some for cheap.


  1. I am so happy for you, young lady! Next time, spray the working table legs with silver canned paint. That's what I do. By the way, the New Orleans Saints need a cook. They have a top of the line kitchen,with a food budget of $1,800 per day. So if you are ever interested, I could put in a good word. It's only during football season and about 2 months before. I'm too darn old to take that on, but I do the coaches food for them. You would be in your glory in that kitchen, I think.

    1. I know that would be heap big fun, Mrs. Gail! Especially if we did it together! How many people would it be? I am just asking out of curiosity, NOT because I'm actually considering!

  2. Rhonda, it would be around 60 on the team, which would be a piece of cake for you. You'd have a small staff under you to do the prepping and cleaning, a hefty food budget with no special diets or allegeries, except Drew Brees is lactose intolerant, name your salary cause they don't care about money like us normal people. I know you're thinking about it.

    1. It would be a really fun job! But there is no way I could do it!

  3. I always was curious about how this cooking job suddenly seemed to land in your lap. Now I know! Told by a master storyteller too.

  4. Wow. In fact, double Wow because doing something like that is the very last thing in the world anybody could bribe me to do :) But Wow to a God who makes people who are perfect for the job and lines up the details to write fascinating stories! I confess to getting tears in my eyes when the children began filing through... Blessings to you and yours in this ministry.

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