Friday, August 31, 2007

you're my home

Ginger and I have spent the last two days finishing all the things we've lived with unfinished for the last six years so our house could go on the market today. As we were leaving our realtor at the house, a couple was coming in to try and imagine themselves in the space we have called our own. I found myself humming this song as I drove away.

if I travel all my life
and I never get to stop and settle down
long as I have you by my side
there's a roof above and good walls all around
you're my castle you're my cabin
and my instant pleasure dome
I need you in my house
'cause you're my home

Thursday, August 30, 2007

open window

This poem is a response to two prompts: one from Christine with this accompanying image and the other being the final prompt at Poetry Thursday, which was “open window.” They reminded me of jazz artist Chet Baker, whose story I first learned of through David Wilcox’s song, “Chet Baker’s Unsung Swan Song.”

open window

The smell of the sea wafts in
through our open windows,
curtains billowing like full
sails of a tall ship riding
waves of adventure.

From upstairs, I can see
the small whitecaps landing
on the sand with gentle
introductions; it’s hard not
to feel free on such a day.

They found Chet underneath
his upstairs window early
one Amsterdam morning.
Despite all the melodies,
he thought he needed

a needle to be free.
When I hear his horn
I wonder why he couldn’t
find wings in the music
that carries my heart

out beyond my burdens.
Perhaps it felt different
on the other side of the horn.
Some places breezes can’t blow
no matter how open the window.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

mise en place

One of the things I admire most about Chef is his thriftiness: nothing goes to waste.

Last Saturday our produce supplier left a case each of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries – about $130 worth of fruit -- when all we had ordered were a couple of pints of each to use as garnishes on the dessert plates. When Chef called to tell them of their mistake, they said we could keep the fruit since they couldn’t get back to pick it up. They gave us a credit for it as well. Even though it was free, Chef hardly lost a berry. Our pastry chef used some of them in special desserts and then Chef made a blackberry sauce to use with a duck special this weekend, a raspberry vinaigrette, a blueberry-vanilla vinaigrette, and a strawberry chutney. We made a mistake and ordered an extra case of arugula, so he had me make an arugula pesto to use with a halibut special tonight. In the six weeks I’ve worked there, I’ve not seen him throw away anything that went bad before we could use it.

The amazing thing to me is he is thrifty and creative at the same time. The surplus of greens and berries gave birth to the evening’s salad special: rocket greens (a cooler name for arugula) on a bed of Bibb lettuce with raspberry vinaigrette, Blue Hill gorgonzola cheese, and candied walnuts. The halibut dish was a pan roasted filet served with lobster mashed potatoes (that’s right: mashed potatoes with pieces of lobster meat mixed in), arugula pesto beurre blanc, and a salad of baby arugula and tomatoes from our garden. Both dishes were made with things we were using up and things we always have on hand.

He makes it look easy. It’s not.

Our kitchen is set up, much like many restaurants, where each station has containers to hold both hot and cold items to be used to prepare the dishes. The restaurant term for this is mise en place, a French word that translates “everything in place.” The idea is to do as much of the preparation as can be done ahead of time so the final dishes can be prepared in a timely fashion. At my station, I have a cold bar that holds sixteen “six pans,” each one with a different item or sauce. I also have four refrigerated drawers that hold the fish and the vegetables I need to function. Each drawer holds six or eight things. Chef has a similar set up at his grill station and between us is a steam table with all the sauces we use.

One of the ways he keeps up with things is to have us change out all containers that hold our mise en place every night. No exceptions. The primary issue is one of sanitation, but not too far behind is the idea that we have to check everything every night. We know what’s there, what’s not, and what needs to be done the next day.

This morning before I went to work, Ginger and I spent some time working on getting our house prepared to go on the market this weekend. (Want to buy a house at the beach?) I carried some things out to the garage, which is the antithesis of Chef’s kitchen. Besides the jumble of things we use, there are boxes in the back that have not been opened since we moved them from our last house in Charlestown and put them in the back of the garage. I don’t even think I’m going to open them. I’ll just take them straight to the dump.

In the kitchen I keep a clean and efficient station. I have what I need and only what I need. At home, I’m a pack rat. I have way more than I need. If mise en place means “everything in place,” I need the French term for “everything in every place” – maybe mess en place would work.

Ginger and I are working hard to take as little stuff with us as we can. Rather than telling the movers what we have and let them tell us how much room we’ll need, we’re thinking about choosing a container and then letting it determine how much stuff will go with us. When it’s full, that’s it. I hope we can pull it off. I have shelves and shelves of books, most of which have served me well and deserve to find life with someone else. I have a number of them I consider to be life long companions, but a good deal of them – probably most – need to find new life without me. The library is just the beginning. I need to do the same culling with my clothes, my CDs, all of my belongings. If everything is to be in place, then I need to have less everything.

What I want to take are the things I need to be myself and to be prepared to do what I need to do. Truth is, I’m not sure that’s a very long list at all.


Monday, August 27, 2007

extravagant belonging

Friday night was busy at the restaurant.

I was at the fish station and Chef was on the grill, which are the two main sauté stations. We share eighteen burners, three ovens, and more sauté pans than I can count and, once dinner service gets into full swing, we keep the burners blazing and the pans flying. For the first hour and a half of service, everyone that came in ordered meat. I had only two small tickets. That changed around seven-thirty: I got slammed. All of a sudden I had five salmon, two swordfish, two or three cods, and a couple of pasta dishes that are assigned to my station. Chef had a line of tickets of his own and called for the Sous Chef, who was the floater for the night, to come and help us get the food out. I had thought through the orders and had a plan for getting the food out expeditiously and well timed with the food from the other stations. She stepped on to the line with her own plan and in a matter of minutes I felt superfluous.

Chef and Sous have worked together for seven years along with two of the other line cooks in our kitchen. They have all been very welcoming to me and willing to help me learn the ropes. I get along with everyone in the kitchen. And as the two of them fell into their familiar rhythm, I knew I was an outsider. I also knew they had no idea they were pushing me out of the circle. Sous was stepping up to a station that was hers before I was hired; she had no need to ask what I was working on or how I planned to deal with the tickets. She had her way. She was going to do her thing and she did.

As I drove home reflecting on the evening, I thought, “This is how church feels to some people.” People join a church because they feel welcomed and they are encouraged to get involved. Somewhere along the way they have an experience (or seven) much like my night on the line when one of the Ones Who Know steps in to help and simply takes over, leaving the new person on the sidelines not knowing how to get in the game as something other than a sub or a replacement player. The action by the long term member is not malicious, but it is alienating. It would have felt different to me if Sous had simply asked, “What can I do to help?”

Saturday night, Sous was on both pizza and garde manger. My station was closest to her, so Chef asked me to keep an eye to whether or not she needed help. Again, my station started slow and her tickets were stacking up. Every time I saw three or four salads come up closely followed by a pizza or three, I asked her if she needed help.

“I got it,” she said.

She didn’t have it. She was in the weeds, but I was not the one who could help her. Not long after she waved me off, I looked up to see one of the cooks she has known for years at garde manger making salads. I don’t know if she asked for help or if he just went in there and started throwing lettuce in the bowls, but the situation reminded me again I am not an insider. I am welcome but I don’t belong.

One of the ways we describe ourselves in the UCC is as people of “extravagant welcome.” I love the phrase and the sentiment, and church has to be more than a welcoming place if we don’t want people to end up feeling like I did this weekend. We need to be a community of extravagant belonging.

When Ginger pastored in Winchester, one of the enduring phrases within the youth group was, “There are no lunch tables at church,” meaning we all belong as much as anyone else. Jesus calls us to crash through cliques and disregard labels. We had kids from every layer of high school society in the group and they learned, both at church and at school, how to break the boundaries between the lunch tables and belong to and with one another.

Somewhere along the way I heard or read of someone saying, “If you’re on a church committee or board and you are not actively training your replacement, you’re doing it wrong.” I think at some level it’s hard for us to remember that when we say “our church” the pronoun is descriptive, not possessive.

I don’t know an easy way to do it. I’ve been the one in Sous’ position – both at work and at church -- and barreled over whomever was trying to be a part of things with much less tact than she pushed past me the other night, I’m sure. Here’s what I wished had happened: when she came on to the line she would have said something to the effect of, “It looks like you have an idea of how you want to handle these tickets. How can I help?”

What I wanted was for her to treat me as a member of the team and not the new guy.

In every church of which I have been a part, I’ve seen people stand on the sidelines trying to figure out how to get in the game. I think a lot of folks get tired of being welcomed but fade away because they aren’t given clear indication of how they can belong. The shared histories of those already there is often intimidating. The mostly unintentional code of conduct and procedure that exists in most churches is unintelligible to the uninitiated. The biggest difference between being welcomed and belonging is in the vulnerability it takes to trust one another.

Tonight, she was doing pizza and garde manger again and, at one point, she said, “Milton, can you help me by making two baby spinach salads and one Caesar to go with these pizzas?” I jumped at the chance. She had no idea how good it felt to me for the two of us to be standing there in “our” restaurant.


Sunday, August 26, 2007

not just passing through

Lat night at the restaurant, I was the utility infielder, if you will, doing whatever prep projects I could find and then jumping in to help whoever was getting “in the weeds” as we say. A good deal of my time was spent shucking oysters since Gianni has a hard time doing it. It’s not that I’m a super shucker myself, but I was the one with the time to do it. I found this video clip that shows how it’s done:

Multiply that by about fifty and you get an idea of how my night went. Needless to say, I’m a better shucker than I was when the dinner service began. Practice, in this case, improves both confidence and competency.

But that’s not true of everything.

I’ve spent most of my life moving. I’m fifty years old and I’ve lived in five countries, close to a dozen cities and towns, and have had at least forty different addresses. I am practiced at saying goodbye but, unlike oyster shucking, it has not gotten any easier. In fact, I think it has become more difficult.

This morning, Ginger announced to our church that she is resigning to become the Senior Pastor of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Durham, North Carolina. It’s goodbye again.

One of the things I love about the UCC is the intentionality to which they call their pastors and parishioners when it comes to parting ways. I grew up in Baptist churches where the preacher stood up one Sunday, resigned with a two-week notice, and was gone before anyone had time to feel much of anything. The UCC suggests somewhere in the neighborhood of a sixty day farewell process, ending with a wonderful liturgy where both pastor and parish give and ask forgiveness; offer words of affection, gratitude, and encouragement; and release one another to what is yet to come. Yes, two months is a long time and the goodbyes are hard and yes, it’s worth it. We have stories to tell, things to do, and – of course – meals to share. What lies ahead in Durham is full of good people and amazing possibilities. At coffee hour, some folks asked me questions about the church there and the town as well. It is a cool church and the move is the right one for us.

But today was the beginning of goodbye, which we must do well both to honor those whom we love here and to open our hearts to those whom we will love in the days ahead. Ginger and I married in April 1990 and moved to Boston in August. For the last seventeen years we have had a Massachusetts address and a zip code that begins with 0. We have been able to listen to Joe Castiglione call the Red Sox games on the radio when we couldn’t see Remdawg on TV or get to Fenway in person. We watched them build the Big Dig from start to finish (well – sort of a finish). Ginger has weathered not only the Boston winters, but my three major career changes and my depression. We found our home in the UCC here in churches in Winchester and in Marshfield. Ginger earned her doctorate and has carved out a significant place in the Mass. Conference of the UCC. We know how to drive in Boston traffic, know what a “regular coffee” is, are both loyal and addicted to Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, regularly use “wicked” as a superlative, can push a mean snow shovel, have laid on the grass along the Charles to hear to Pops play on the Fourth of July, and, week in and week out for the last seven years, worshipped and fellowshipped as members of North Community Church.

As much as I love gospel music, one old hymn that has always bothered me is

This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through . . .
because I can’t come to terms with thinking of our lives as nothing more than way stations. All the joy, pain, sorrow, hope, love, and heartbreak are the existential equivalent of a bus station: we’re just waiting for our ride.

No. I’m not here forever, but I’m doing more than passing through.

One conversation I had at coffee hour today was with a woman who is a wonderful artist. She was asking me about my new job (which I get to say goodbye to as well) and I rambled on for a couple of minutes. She then noted she could see my passion for cooking even though she didn’t share it. In the course of her explanation, she said, “I think part of it for me is it’s so temporary. You finish fixing the meal and then it’s gone.”

Yes. Exactly.

My culinary art is lucky if it stays intact two or three minutes from the time I put the final garnish on the plate and notify the server. As we talked some more she said, “I guess what endures is you get to create something that lives on in what happens at the meal.”

Again. Exactly.

The table nearest our open kitchen filled up about eight last night and, when I finished cleaning my station at ten-thirty they were still sitting there. The food was long gone, but their conversation and laughter had been the soundtrack for the final hour of my evening. In the course of human history there have been very few days, if any, that resulted in something permanent. All of our art is housed in temporary exhibitions.

What a gift that we have been created to attach to one another, to love one another, even when we know the goodbyes are inevitable. If we were only passing through, it wouldn’t hurt like this.


Thursday, August 23, 2007


The prompt from Poetry Thursday this week is to write a poem using the last line of a previous one. The line comes from this poem. Here is my offering:


Marking time until daybreak
in Frasier reruns and infomercials,
I doze in-and-out of late night TV:
this is the day you come home.

I don’t sleep well alone.
I don’t awake well, either.

The pups bookend my body
as I stretch out on the couch,
missing you in dog days
without benefit of explanation.

They know only to hate suitcases;
they are not pack animals.

It’s not that you have been gone long,
it’s that you have been gone.
It’s not that I can’t live without you,
it’s that I don’t want to.

It’s daylight and Gracie runs upstairs
convinced she will find you.

“She’ll be home tonight,” I say
as she slinks back and sits at my feet.
Lola lays heavy on your purple pillow.
Pining is exhausting work.

The day feels like a week for us all.
I pour my coffee and leave yours in the pot.

For better or for worse, we said --
for richer and for poorer.
I want to go back and add one simple line:
for bed and for breakfast.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

running the numbers

“To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness.” (Albert Einstein)


When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3,4)


Ginger’s on vacation, so my Sunday morning has meant time for reading my Utne Reader. Go get you one. The current issue is awesome.

Anthony Doerr writes a short article refleting on this deep space image taken by the Hubble Telescope.

Doerr puts words to the picture’s significance:
Here’s a way of looking at it: There are enough stars in the universe that if everybody on Earth were charged with naming his or her share, we’d each get to name a trillion and a half of them.
Another article in the same issue is called “Running the Numbers” and shows the work of artist Chris Jordan as he seeks to humanize the overwhelming statistics of our existence. Every thirty seconds, for example, Americans discard 106,000 aluminum cans. Jordan took an equal number of cans and created a reproduction of George Seurat’s, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”

Here’s a close up of the detail:

In the middle of the issue are two or three features calling aging baby boomers to action. (Hey! That’s me!) We, the generation that thought we were going to change the world a generation ago, now have the experience and resources to do it. They call us to mentoring, to reflection, to community, to action. Perhaps we begin by gazing into the night sky and then pulling our eyes down to see the cans that need to be picked up. The dance between the wide expanse of the universe and our narrow slice of experience is what we were created to do.


Friday, August 17, 2007

living by principles

In the early eighties I was a hospital chaplain in Dallas, Texas. One of the patients I saw was a man from Odessa, Texas who had AIDS. He was the first person with AIDS I ever knew. His mother was the only person who came to visit him, though he had a very full life with lots of friends, she said. He was gay, but not openly; his mother told people he had cancer. When he died, I called one of the largest local funeral homes to come pick up the body for burial. When they got to the hospital and found out how he had died, they refused to take the body. I called one of the hospital administrators who even brought down the head of our Infectious Disease department to explain there was not a safety issue. Nothing doing. After about an hour of dealing with the funeral director, he said to me, “You’re not for these people, are you?”

“What ‘people’ would that be?” I asked. And I glared at him.

He just didn’t want to bury a gay guy. I was livid.

I spent the rest of the afternoon on the phone and finally found a funeral home in Austin – two hundred miles away – that would do the funeral.

“It’s one thing to watch your son die alone,” his mother said. “It’s another to have someone say they won’t bury him.”

Now, twenty-five years later, High Point Church in Arlington, Texas refused to allow the funeral of Cecil Sinclair, a gay man in their church. They had agreed to host the service because the man’s brother was the church janitor, but when they found out the deceased was “openly gay,” they reneged on their offer because it would compromise the church’s principles. This article in the Dallas Morning News quotes the pastor: "Can you hold the event and condone the sin and compromise our principles? We can't."

I realize if I quote Sara Miles much more I’m going to have to give her a co-writing credit on this blog, but here she is again:

I thought how outrageous Jesus was to the church of his time: He didn’t wash before meals; he said the prayers incorrectly; he hung out with women, foreigners, the despised and unclean. Over and over he told people to not be afraid. I liked all that, but mostly I liked he said he was bread and he told his friends to eat him.

As I interpreted it, Jesus invited notorious wrongdoers to his table, airily discarded all the religious rules of the day, and fed whoever showed up by the thousands. In the end, he was murdered for eating with the wrong people. (92)
If there is a principle to uphold in our faith, the principle of outrageous, welcoming love seems like the one. How else can we live like Jesus?

High Point is an easy target: a giant, slick, megachurch in the heart of Megachurchland who is advertising a men’s paintball retreat on their weekly highlight video. The associate pastor hosting the video says a lot of exciting things are happening at High Point. I’m sure they are. But I’ve got to wonder what it has felt like for that janitor to come to work this week and clean up after the people who wouldn’t bury his brother.

Principles provide little comfort or hope. Jesus didn’t die for principles.

I got your principle right here: God loves Cecil Sinclair – and all the rest of us. Period.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

time is love

Many years ago when I was a youth minister, I began our regular Wednesday night gathering by asking the kids to write down the names of the ten people most important to them. Then I said, “’I don’t have time’ is just a euphemism for ‘I don’t care.’ Then I said, “Your sports team is taking more time than you thought; cross one name off the list.” Except for a few minor protests, they did what I asked. I continued to come up with things that took their time and continued to tell them to cross out names. The mood in the room became tense, even desperate. Some were close to tears. I took it all the way out, until we had crossed out all ten names, and then I said, again,

“’I don’t have time’ is a euphemism for ‘I don’t care.’”

We talked for a good while about the veracity of my statement, struggling with the ideas and feelings, and then we shared Communion together. Yes, it was outlandish. Yes, it was somewhat over the top. And yes, it was true.

The evening came to mind for me this week when I heard that our government has spent nearly $500 billion so far on the war in Iraq. Here’s an ongoing count:

I have no idea how to wrap my mind around a half a trillion dollars. If I had a million dollars and was told to leave my house, spend a thousand dollars a day, and not return until the money was gone, I would not be back for almost three years. We spend $200 million a day in Iraq; I would have to be gone six hundred years to spend that much. $500 billion is 5,000 million. As I watch the counter move at such a rapid pace, I wonder if it isn’t fair to say, “’We don’t have money for that’ is the same as ‘we don’t care.’”

According to UN statistics, 40 million people in the world are HIV positive, most of them in the developing world. At the end of May, President Bush pledged, with great fanfare, to provide $30 billion to fight AIDS in Africa over the next five years, which amounts to almost $16.5 million a day -- less than ten percent of what we are spending on the war.

The genocide in Darfur, Sudan began the same month the US invaded Iraq. According to the White House’s own numbers, the US has provided $1.7 billion in aid to the region during that time – and our government is the largest donor. We spend that much every couple of weeks to fight a war.

If time and money are euphemisms for compassion, our government is making a very clear statement.

And, I’m afraid, so am I.

The last time I wrote about Darfur was back in April. I keep links here, but I’ve not taken time to do my part, nor have I sent money to anyone. 2.5 million people have been displaced (a euphemism for running scared into the desert where they live lives worse than animals) by the violence. Over 200,000 have been killed. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the war there and those fleeing their country in fear and desperation are now counted in millions.

I’ve been busy with my own stuff. My car’s in the shop and is going to cost more than I expected. I have to go to work and then I have a lot of things to get done around the house. I haven’t had time. I haven’t had money.

I know this will probably be one of those posts that doesn’t draw many comments. I’m not sure how to respond to it myself. I wonder why we are so silent. Underneath the mindless chatter of the twenty-four hour news channels and their posturing pundits, we, the citizens, have been seemingly anesthetized by stress, fear, and overload to the point we are convinced our time and money can’t make a difference. Beyond the possibilities of mass movements, I realize I can easily go days without any significant conversations about Iraq or Darfur. How can that be? I’m paying attention. I think I’m a world citizen. I just haven’t had time.

Sara Miles talks about Jesus offering “a radically inclusive love that accompanied people in the most ordinary of actions – eating, drinking, walking – and stayed with them, through fear, even past death. That love meant giving yourself away, embracing outsiders as family, emptying yourself to feed and live for others.”

Man, I want to live that way. I want to love like that. I want people from Duxbury to Darfur to know that love. I keep saying that, yet, up until now, I haven’t had time to really live it out.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

passing inspection

About an hour before dinner service last night, one of the servers walked through the kitchen and whispered, “The health inspector’s here.” We had no cause to panic because we keep a clean kitchen, things were where they were supposed to be and at the appropriate temperatures. We knew we had nothing to worry about and we were all still a little nervous.

The inspector was a nice-looking man, about six-two, with a shaved head and an easy going air. He was in the kitchen for about six or seven minutes before he spoke to anyone. He moved from counter to counter, then into the walk-in refrigerator, and then on to the line, opening drawers and containers and flashing his digital thermometer to get his readings. He reached me station toward the end of his visit. Perhaps because we shared the same hair(less) style, he spoke to me.

“How’s everything today?” he asked.
“Pretty good. Almost time for dinner service,” I answered.
“That’s why I’m here now,” he said. “I try to get in and get out before it gets busy. It wouldn’t be fair to show up in the middle of the meal.”

He made a couple of other checks, spoke to the manager about his findings, and was on his way. We passed with flying colors – only some minor infractions, none of which was in the kitchen. For all we knew we were doing right, what everyone wanted to know was what we got wrong. Perhaps that’s partly because the job of an inspector is to point out what’s wrong more than it is to say what’s right. The way the evaluation form is set up, the only marks he made were for things not up to par. I wonder if that view of life is hard for him to turn off when he leaves work.

When I was in high school, I worked as an office boy for a doctor’s clinic. I would go in after school, make the coffee run, file charts, make copies, and do whatever else they thought of for me to do. The clinic was made up of ten or so doctors of various specialties and varying personalities. One day, the urologist and the proctologist got in a rather loud argument in the hallway near where I was standing. The proctologist finally stormed off and the urologist turned to me and said, “That’s what happens to you when you spend your life looking up a proctoscope.”

I walk into someone else’s kitchen and start looking around to see how easy it would be to cook in that room. (Most kitchens aren’t designed for people to actually use them.) Police officers and those who work to keep law and order often end up thinking no one can really be trusted. How we look at life day after day makes us think that’s how life looks, period.

The inspector looked at our kitchen as a place that has to make the grade and I see it as a place to make meals. Neither viewpoint can afford to be exclusive of the other. It does help for him to come in and remind us of how we can improve; it might help him to come in for dinner and see how the place looks from tableside. (I wonder if he ever eats out.)

Easier for me than him, I think.


Monday, August 13, 2007

prep work

Half of my day is spent
getting ready for dinner.
The prep list hangs
from the ticket holder
and I pull my Sharpie
from my sleeve pocket
to mark my progress:
green beans, succotash,
gnocchi, Swiss chard,
cod, swordfish, halibut,
butter sauces.

There is a certain way
to do things.
The aim is consistency
rather than conformity.
Each portion of salmon
should weigh eight ounces.
The chives should be diced
to be the same size.
Does any diner look
at the plate and say,
“This chive is too large,”

or pick up his salmon
and reach across to grab
the fish at the next table
to see if their weights
are commensurate?
But I can tell
when I pick them up
and place them
in hot sauté pans.
They don’t know,
but I do.

After his days off,
Chef comes in early
and checks all
the dressings and sauces
to see if they match
the recipes. He looks
at peppers, mushrooms,
even the chives –
we sweat the small stuff.
It’s how we show
we mean what we cook.


Friday, August 10, 2007

dress to disappear

When I get to work, one of the first things I do is change into my white double-breasted chef’s jacket and don an apron to begin my prep work for the day. (I provide my own chef’s pants and shoes – and there are both made specifically for the professional kitchen.) Chef does not require we put on our uniforms during prep, but I like dressing for the occasion because it helps me step into my role and it keeps me from sweating through the clothes I’m going to wear home at the end of the shift.

Uniforms become standard wear for a reason – at least for the most part – and kitchen clothing is no different. Here is a brief history of chef wear:

Chefs, for the most part, wear their uniforms almost every day of their working lives, replete with toque, checked pants and double-breasted jacket. Though these uniforms are ubiquitous in the foodservice industry worldwide, they are often taken for granted and worn without much thought. However, many may find that the origin and reasons behind traditional chef's attire are as interesting as it looks.

Much of the chef's uniform has developed out of necessity. The jacket, for example, is double-breasted so it can easily be reversed to hide stains that may accumulate throughout the day; the double layer of cotton is also designed to insulate our bodies against the intense heat of the stove or an accidental splattering of hot liquid. Even the knotted cloth buttons were fashioned for a reason-cloth will withstand the frequent washings and abuse buttons often take from contact with pots, pans and other heavy equipment. Though executive chefs often wear black pants, working chefs and cooks usually don pants with black-and-white checks-the dizzying pattern of hound's tooth camouflages minor spills and soilings. Today neckerchiefs are primarily worn for aesthetic purposes, to give our uniforms a more finished look, but originally cotton cloths were draped around ones neck to soak body sweat while working in the inferno-like kitchens of yesteryear.
Hats have fallen out of fashion in many kitchens. I wear a baseball cap backwards (to keep the bill out of the way) because I sweat profusely, but I’m the only one in our kitchen with headgear. When I ran the function kitchen at the Inn, if I were staffing a carving station for a wedding, I work a toque in public to play the part. I have a great kind of floppy one that makes me look a lot like the bear in the picture. At one wedding, an older woman asked me, “Do people ever just want to come up and take your picture and give you a hug?”

Sara Miles adds another layer to the uniform:
I learned what it felt like to become invisible: When I pulled on my slightly starch-stiff whites, the uniform changed me from an individual, with my own tedious history, to a ritual figure, one of millions of restaurant workers, with a time-honored and predictable role. (23)
The paradox of personhood I learn over and over again, dressed alike and standing side by side with my kitchen mates, is I am more true to myself as an “invisible” team member than I am if I were staking claim to the part of each dish I did myself. I am more true to the calling of both my humanity and my vocation when I take my place in the lineage of history, both cultural and culinary, in the same way I become one in the great cloud of witnesses when I take the bread and wine at the Communion table. True humanity is found in integration rather than individualism, in community much more than anyone’s claim to fame. If I’m at my best, I’m dressing to disappear. What’s the phrase I’m looking for? Oh, yes:

Lose your life to find it.


Thursday, August 09, 2007


the lie that is
the conformity
of the supermarket
is unearthed
in my garden;
the tomatoes here
have names:
lemon boy,
early girl,
cherokee purple,
green zebra,
roma, sun sweet –

and shapes,
and colors,
and tastes –
oh, the deliciousness
that bursts
with my bite
as I stand
in the dirt
by the vines;
I can’t even wait
until I’m back
in the kitchen.

their talents
and uses
are as varied
as their tastes:
sauced, sliced,
summer’s gift
from spring’s
planting –
and enough
to share.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

god's restaurant

When I got to work yesterday, Chef said he wanted me to work garde manger, which is the salad and dessert station, since I knew the fish station well. Over the next week or two, I will learn the remaining stations – grill, appetizer, and pizza – so I can move and cook wherever he needs me. Garde manger is an assembling, rather than a cooking, station. The first key is good preparation. There are lots of bins that need to be stocked with dressings, condiments, fruit, vegetables, and lettuces so each salad or dessert can be put together elegantly and expeditiously. Our salads are:

  • Caesar (chopped romaine, Caesar dressing, homemade garlic-Romano-herb croutons, shaved parmesan cheese);
  • Spinach (baby spinach leaves, julienned red pears, crumbled Great Hill bleu cheese, candied walnuts, warm bacon vinaigrette);
  • Mixed Greens (mesclun mix, sliced cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, sherry mustard vinaigrette, and beet curls);
  • Wonton salad (mesclun mix, pine nuts, feta cheese, julienned granny smith apples, and artichoke vinaigrette in a fried wonton bowl).
Our homemade desserts are crème brulee, peach cobbler, flourless chocolate torte, warm chocolate peanut butter bombe, and mango cheesecake. Each of them is garnished with fresh fruit and berries.

The way the kitchen is set up, the salad and pizza stations are enclosed by a bar in the middle of the restaurant, so I got to see people as they came in to the dining room. Some were dressed nicely, others looked as though they had been out running errands or knocking over liquor stores and got hungry all of a sudden. There were couples, some small groups, and one woman who was eating by herself. When it comes right down to it, we’ll serve anyone who walks in to eat. We’re a restaurant; that’s what we do.

One of my favorite songs is Paul Simon’s “America,” which tells the story of two people traveling together. At one point, the lyric talks about a game they are playing:
Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces.
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy.
I said "Be careful his bowtie is really a camera."
As I looked out over the dining room last night, I couldn’t help but play the game myself, imagining the conversation between the older couple that sat on the same side of the table together, or the younger couple who sat next to them, facing each other so that all I could see was the man’s face. The first couple looked much happier. There was a table of four women who were animated in their conversation and the six-top that came in around seven and clinked their glasses through two rounds of drinks before they even opened their menus. All of them, I’m sure, drove past other restaurants to come to our place. All of them, I’m assuming, have stuff in their refrigerators at home.

What brought them to our place to eat on a Tuesday night?

Before I went to work yesterday, I had a chance to read this post by Simon in which he talks about a sermon he preached entitled “A Maitre d’ in the House of God,” which may be one of the best sermon titles ever. He also includes this quote from his new book, God Next Door:
[I]f the only language of place and locality that we use in reference to the church is that of world, nation or society, we’re in danger of missing the most primary implication of the Incarnation …It is the localness of the Incarnation that makes this profound act of God so confronting and so comprehensively saving. So, too, the church. Should the church fail to grasp its most immediate relationship to place, it may well fail to be the presence of God in a much broader context.
This morning, Ginger handed me a package from Barbara in Brooklyn (thank you, Barbara!) that contained a copy of Take This Bread by Sara Miles. She begins her story this way:
One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans – except that up to that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.

Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food – indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized that what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.
Both Simon and Sara are talking about church as a place where people feed and are fed: God’s Restaurant, to use Simon’s metaphor.
The [parable of the Great Banquet] in Luke’s gospel paints a radical and challenging picture of God’s kingdom. It’s a confronting picture for the church. It is certainly not comfortable, predictable, or safe. To be engaged in God’s restaurant is a potentially life changing and life challenging call.

It is God who makes up the guest list. We have no say in who is invited and who isn’t. The seating arrangements and dress requirements have nothing to do with us. Should the master wish to change from sit-down silver service to cafeteria-style buffet, that’s his call. We should be conscious of the ease with which we can become like those who made their excuses, those who had pre-determined what the host could do and could not do, who the host could invite, and what the seating arrangements would be.
Simon’s words reminded me of the way Ginger recounted a conversation in her sermon last Sunday:
Our friends, parents of three of our godchildren, live in an affluent white suburb of Nashville. I've spoken of them before and the measures they take to keep their children connected with a broader world outside of their very comfortable white life.

Yesterday we go to see them for a last minute surprise visit and a narrow window for conversation. During our hour together, we struggled with their church dilemma. They are caught because they want to be in their neighborhood church and appreciate the way their soon-to-be teenage daughter is accepted there, and yet what they hear in worship are subtle, fear-based messages about terrorists, homosexuals, abortion clinics, race, and economics. Questions about living out an intentional faith-filled life are not asked.

In the midst of their struggle, their twelve year old inquired, "Are we expecting too much of a church for it to be multiethnic and inclusive?"

On the dust jacket of Sara Miles’ book it says, “A lesbian left-wing journalist who covered revolutions around the world, Miles was not the kind of woman expected to see suddenly praising Jesus.” That sentence says at least as much about the church as it does about Miles and her friends. The painful reality in my goddaughter’s question is many local churches answer that question in the affirmative. We think it is too much to ask because we can’t be comfortable and challenged at the same time. We don’t trust that love casts out fear, even though God tells us that over and over and over again. In the face of that reality, Simon and Sara give me hope that fear will not triumph over faith when it comes to feeding Jesus to the world, one neighborhood at a time.

It’s God’s restaurant. Dinner is served.


Monday, August 06, 2007

finding a new rhythm

I'm on my way out the door to work and wanted to take a moment to say I haven't written because I'm adjusting to regular work shifts and trying to carve out writing time between work and the rest of life. I'll figure it out soon. For today, I leave you with lyrics to Patty Griffin's wonderful song, "Making Pies," about someone who worked at the Table Talk Pie Company in Worcester, Massachusetts. The video was put together by someone other than Patty.

It's not far
I can walk
Down the block
To TableTalk
Close my eyes
Make the pies all day

Plastic cap
on my hair
I used to mind
Now I don't care
I used to mind
Now I don't care
Cause I'm Gray

Did I show you this picture of my nephew
Taken at his big birthday surprise
At my sister's house last Sunday
This is Monday and we're making pies
I'm making pies
Making pies

Thursday nights
I go and type
Down at the church
With Father Mike
It gets me out
And he ain't hard to like
At all

Jesus stares at me
In my chair
With his big blue eyes
And his honey brown hair
And he's looking at me
Way up there
On the wall

Did I show you this picture of my sweetheart
Taken of us before the war
Of the Greek and his Italian girl
One Sunday at the shore

We tied our ribbons to the fire escape
They were taken by the birds
Who flew home to the country
As the bombs rained on the world

Here I am
Walking the block
To TableTalk
You could cry or die
Or just make pies all day
I'm making pies
Making pies
Making pies
Making pies


Friday, August 03, 2007

simple man

Wednesday night was a good night for me at the restaurant.

Three weeks into the job and the learning curve is beginning to flatten a bit: I’ve learned the fish station well and have begun to pick up on the appetizer and garde manger stations. (Garde manger is the station that assembles the salads and desserts.) When I get to work, I am able to see what prep work I need to do without having to ask too many questions, which leaves me time to ask other questions of Chef, relating to how he organizes the kitchen, manages food costs, and creates the menus. Two things have impressed me most: one is how little waste there is in what we do and the second is the elegant simplicity of his dishes. The point is to let you taste the ingredients, not to cover them up with sauces and spices to show off.

Weeknights, there are four of us on the line: one at the grill (usually Chef), one at the fish station, one doing garde manger and pizza, and one on appetizers. Gianni, of pasta recipe fame, works appetizers. He is only 19 and came to the US from Italy about two years ago. His English is good and his accent is thick and musical. He has an affable spirit and he loves music – mostly classic rock. Occasionally, he asks me for a ride home, which he did on Wednesday. When we got in the car, he said,

“You like the classical music?”

“Sure,” I said. “I don’t know much about it, but I like it.”

“I found this CD used. For a dollar.” (I wish I could type the way he says, “dollar.”) “It’s OK to play it?”

“Sure,” I said again.

“It’s the Messiah (which he pronounced mess-see-ya) -- by Handel. Do you know it?”

“That’s one I know,” I answered.

“It’s beautiful. And I found it for only a dollar,” he said again, since a bargain is a big deal on a line cook’s salary, I’m sure. He put the CD in the player and asked me to punch down to the ninth track. “Hallelujah Chorus,” he said, smiling. “It’s very beautiful.”

Wednesday was one of those New England summer days that make you remember why you live in New England. The air was dry, the breeze was cool, and the temperature barely got about seventy degrees. Driving home that night, we had the windows down and wound our way through Plymouth and Kingston under a starlit sky and an almost full moon. Since it was going on eleven o’clock, the streets were mostly empty and the towns were quiet. All we could hear was the quiet hum of the engine, the tires on the road, and the breeze as it carried the voices past our ears and out into the night:

and he shall reign forever and ever . . .
I couldn’t help but sing along. Between church and school choirs, I know the tenor part pretty well. When Ginger served the church in Winchester, the tradition was to invite members of the congregation to join the choir at the end of the service on Easter Sunday to sing the Hallelujah Chorus together. My schedule kept me from singing with the choir regularly, but I never missed an Easter opportunity. I sang quietly as Gianni and I rode along, not wanting to frighten him or to interfere with his experience with the music. We didn’t talk much; he listened and I sang softly.

When we got to his house, I pushed the eject button and he put his CD back in its jewel box. He thanked me for the ride and I told him I’d see him on Friday. He lives in a small house at the end of a gravel road tucked in a part of Kingston I didn’t even know was there. Every time I’ve dropped him off, the house has been dark and I’ve seen no one. I know nothing of what home feels like to him, other than listening to him talk in Italian to tell someone he had a ride – at least, that’s what I think he’s saying.

Since the Sox game was already over, I was hard pressed to think of what would follow Handel. I turned down the radio and followed the road out of Kingston into Duxbury and on to Marshfield. The engine, the tires, and the breeze continued their accompaniment, even though the choir had stopped singing.

The first time I saw Gianni make his pasta dish, I asked him if he wanted to add some mushrooms and he shook his head.

“You know Leenard Skeenard?” he asked.

I nodded.

“I, too, am a simple man.” He smiled.

Since the moon comes up as much in the south as it does in the east during the summer time, my next to last turn towards home set the yellow orb at the end of the street as if it were my destination. Just before I drove off into space, I made my final left and turned into the driveway. The light off the porch spilled out into the yard and I could see the silhouettes of the daylilies and hydrangeas that encircle our small lawn. The Schnauzers wagged and woofed as I came through the gate.

Life’s a lot like our menu: best left simple, where the flavors come through.