Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Holiday buzz

Remembering the dance of the bakers

December 21, 2011

In the 1980s and 1990s, I spent some raucous and inspired formative years working at Elephants Deli in Portland, Oregon. From Halloween until New Year’s Day, the store braced for holiday throngs.

The best way I can describe the holiday buildup at Elephants is to get you to imagine a faint hum that starts in the floorboards. At first you don’t notice it; you just think you’ve been on your feet too long. Eventually, though, the hum graduates to a buzz, growing stronger and more pervasive with every ring of the phone or opening of a door. The banging of pots and pans competes with a holiday-music loop (David Bowie and Bing Crosby‘s voices winding tight around your brain). Everyone carries at least one clipboard, each one a forest of checklists, crabbed notes, and coffee stains. Boxes get stacked along empty walls, making corridors so narrow that carts can barely pass through them. People yell at each other across the room and then admonish others not to yell. Your skin tingles, like you are a tuning fork that has been knocked against the side of a stainless-steel milk pail.

Because I wasn’t particularly good with customers and lacked even basic culinary skills, I usually pulled basket-making duty. I’ve combed through bushels of decorative hay until it was teased and shaped into an appropriately ample and pretty bed. I have handled a bonsai orchard’s worth of lady apples and coiled red ribbons around a country mile of rattan basket handles. In these baskets (two of which were made for Pavarotti and DeNiro), I tucked jams, cheeses, nuts, chocolates, and colored napkins. I became so physically accustomed to the process of stuffing and embellishing baskets that I dreamed many nights I was catching jars as they slid from a stainless-steel countertop.

Lady apples.

Multiply me by three (or 12!) dozen, and you get a sense of what it’s like to work in food retail during its busiest season. We set our projects up side by side: sandwich-bag stuffers double-checking an order of 100 lunches, one cookie and one turkey sandwich at a time, bakers scoring proofed baguettes before they slip them into long pizza ovens, chefs vying for cooktop and oven space, and managers trying to think about 15 things at once.

Each of us, I think now, buoyed the others. As we nervously checked the clock and set our timers, our increasing speed created a rhythm into which others fell. The buzz was an element that joined us even as we stood locked in the solitude of time-pressed work. Our wrists hurt, and we weren’t sure of the last time we had a drink of water, yet we seemed silently to say to one another, “If you can keep going, I can keep going.”

I believe that frenzy explains why delis and restaurants attract shoppers during the winter holidays. Walking into a space like Elephants is like receiving a tonic dose of radiation; it’s just enough to make you feel alive and connected.

For those taking larger doses of this crazed activity, the effect is more mixed. Hard work, long hours, and low wages wear a person down.

I can’t deny, however, that I laughed many times until I cried in Elephants’ back rooms. One day, a cook named Jay (who introduced me to Ken Loach films and taught me what it was like to rock out in San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom in 1970) paused in his work long enough to show me what it would look like if he milked a cat. I had a side-ache for the rest of the day.

When we all began crashing into each other around the pizza ovens, darting and leaning so as not to lose a sheet of croissants or a dish of lasagna, a baker named William (who eventually entered a Buddhist monastery) would call out “Dance of the Bakers!” Anyone still in a good mood would jog her feet, like a flour-coated puppet on a string.

By no means am I claiming that this camaraderie and intensity are unique to food service, nor do I want to suggest that I would have been happy making holiday gift baskets my whole life. I know that nostalgia is a force almost as strong as the holiday rush.

All I want to do with this blog post is call attention to that energy that you have already felt crackling around you this month, and to give you another way of looking at the gaggle of men and women chatting in their rumpled chef’s whites behind your favorite restaurant’s kitchen doors. They create and conduct energies that endure, even though the food they prepare goes cold within minutes and may not last more than a day.

Our culture emphasizes rest and contemplation at the holidays. It is well worth remembering, though, that some of us can slow down because, from October on, another group speeds up.

There are 2 comments on this item
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1. by drfugawe on Jan 12, 2012 at 8:27 AM PST

Your post reminds me that, for the most part, the general public is unaware of the natural tensions that exist among the work staff of any really busy food service environment. My own experience was as a line cook in the kitchen, and I remember well the adversarial relationship between the wait-staff and the cooks - there were times when the tension and stress was thick enough to slice, and some things were said that if they occurred outside of the restaurant environment, they’d cause serious emotional damage. But not so in the kitchen.

Amazingly, when all parties later gathered in the staff break-room, not a word of the previous tensions was ever mentioned, and only laughter and smiles prevailed - it was always a fascinating emotional shift, and one that I’m sure added much to my maturation as a young adult.

2. by joanmenefee on Feb 7, 2012 at 2:49 AM PST

@drfugawe, We used to call ourselves “Deli Dogs” and “Kitchen Cats.” And fighting like the proverbial cats and dogs was precisely what we did at times. In part, that was because most people who worked the counter were college students and those who worked the line were not. There must be a way of making more of what we learn about class and experience during those early jobs.

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