Having spent most of my life off the beaten path I have found it extremely beneficial to awaken with great caution. There is a point well before consciousness when I become faintly aware of my surroundings and I am in the habit of using this transitional state to prepare myself for wakefulness. The feel of a cheap polyester bedspread signals that I am in a hotel room. Hot stuffy air lets me know that I am in a tent. Wilderness sounds without hot stuffy air serves as a warning that I’ve slept under the sky – a situation that is apparently uncommon for other people.
Finding myself in one of these pre-wakefulness transitional states, I felt quite disoriented. Something was vaguely familiar but I couldn’t quite put my mind on it. My head hurt and I felt lines pressed into my face. My memory was drawn to college and suddenly it dawned on me: I was face down on linoleum. I peeked through the eye closest to the floor and, sure enough, I saw the bottom of a cupboard. My last conscious memories came rushing back to me and I realized I was on the floor of the restaurant kitchen.
Peeling my face off the linoleum I took a quick mental inventory and was glad to surmise this was not a liquor induced situation. I must have passed out on my way to the dishwasher and hit my head. I searched for a clock. It was 1 a.m. I still had some dishes to do and I had to get the prep work done for day 2.
It took me longer than I had expected to finish cleaning up from day 1 and get started on the prep for that day. By the time I was done I no longer had time to go home for a shower so I just washed up as best as I could in the restroom. I was glad I had another change of clothes in my office and I was even happier to be the owner of an espresso machine. I walked up to the front and switched on the ‘OPEN’ sign.
As unfulfilling as my sleep had been, I felt exponentially better than the day before. This day started to fill out like the previous one though. There were lots of people coming in for coffee and by the time Jeffrey arrived there was hardly a plate used. A lot of the faces were very familiar from day 1, especially amongst one group that seemed to have no inhibitions against sitting for hours and drinking ridiculous volumes of coffee.
I hustled to prepare the day’s special – sweet chili pork, a dish I had re-invented from one of my grandmother’s recipes. It is a tomato based sweet & sour dish with plenty of heat from Hungarian paprika and a unique kick from allspice and tamarind. Whenever I serve this dish over rice people clamor for seconds, digging for more sauce and seeming to care less whether or not they get another helping of the thin sliced pork loin. This was Humbug, however, and I was rapidly learning that Humbuggers were repulsed almost as much by spice as they were by the unfamiliar.
Once again the traffic before noon was minimal. Two big men walked in at about 11:30 a.m. and boldly asked for ‘a big lunch’. They opted for coffee as their beverage and Jeffrey handed them their mugs as I plated their food. As near as I could tell, they were quite happy with their meal because they seemed to be shoveling it in as fast as they could without choking themselves. I decided to use the pre-whistle lull to go and ask how they were enjoying their meal.
“How are you fellas doing today?” I asked.
“Good,” they said in unison.
“So, how is your big lunch?” I asked.
“Good,” said fellow one, “but damn spicy.”
“Yeah,” said fellow two, “and it don’t seem much like chink food.”
“Uhm, Chinese food?” I asked.
“Yeah,” replied fellow one, “it’s good and all, but it don’t taste like chink food at all.”
“Well it’s not supposed to be Chinese food,” I said, somewhat puzzled.
“Then what’s with the rice?” asked fellow two.
“Well the sauce goes well with rice, coats it nicely, don’t you think?”
“I ain’t never had rice except with chink food,” explained fellow two.
“And what’s with the greens then?” his compatriot inquired.
“That’s a spinach salad,” I explained.
“That’s spinach?” they exclaimed in unison.
“Yes, fresh spinach salad with orange poppy seed dressing,” I explained.
“I thought spinach was dark and squishy,” one of them remarked.
“Oh, that’s canned spinach. This is fresh spinach,” I further explained.
“So you run out of lettuce then?” one of them asked.
“No. It’s just another leafy vegetable - for some variety.”
After several more references to how only ‘chink’ food should be served on rice, and a couple of inquiries as to where I acquired spinach that hadn’t been in a can, I gave up. I took solace that at least these two men weren’t put off by the spiciness of the dish. I waited for the Flintstone Whistle to blow.
Within minutes of the obnoxious wail of the town siren a line of people poured through the door. As they approached the register I overheard some of them talking about the ‘fancy French stuff’ being served the day before. Jeffrey took up his post and began to take orders.
“Hi there, what can I get for you today?” he asked.
“What’s your SUPE?”
“We don’t have soup, but we have Sweet Chili Pork,” he explained.
“It’s a spicy sweet and sour sort of dish.”
“What did you call it?”
“Sweet Chili Pork.”
“Is it spicy?”
“It’s fairly spicy.”
“So you don’t have any SUPE?”
“It’s like a thick soup. Would you like to try it?”
“Yuck, I HATE spice.”
I couldn’t believe someone just looked at us and blurted ‘yuck’ without even trying the food. Trying to remain calm I cut in to see if I could smooth things over.
“Would you like to try our Santa Fe Chicken Wrap?” I asked.
“That sounds spicy too,” the woman lamented.
“Not at all,” I assured her.
I went on to explain that the Santa Fe Chicken Wrap was stuffed with chicken breast, minced red bell peppers, celery and green onion, shredded leaf lettuce and dressed with our in house red bell pepper aioli.
“What the heck is oily?” she blurted.
“Uhm, aioli is a seasoned mayonnaise with garlic,” I explained.
“And it has hot peppers in it?”
“No, it has red bell pepper, like in the wrap.”
“What’s a red bell pepper?”
“Well, the same as a green pepper, but it’s red and sweeter.”
“Yuck! I hate peppers. I never eat peppers. Can you make it without peppers?”
I couldn’t believe that she just blurted out ‘yuck’ again. The line was growing and I renewed my efforts to remain calm. We finally agreed that she could have a chicken wrap with shredded carrot, green onion and cucumber – all stolen from the spinach salad - dressed with mayonnaise. As it turned out this was to be the consolation special for at least a dozen other customers, but not before they each asked at least twice about the ‘SUPE’.
The few customers who did opt for the sweet chili pork decided to have iced tea instead of coffee to ensure they were safe from the spice. These customers complained about the iced tea tasting like tea. Apparently it had never dawned on these hicks that iced tea could be made by pouring sweetened tea over ice and adding some hand squeezed lemon juice. Some of them had the nerve to accuse me of being too cheap to give them ‘real iced tea’. By the end of the lunch rush I was starting to feel like I had been awake for 30 hours.
I turned to Jeffrey and asked, “Did you grow up here?”
“No, Boss, I grew up in Cuspidor.”
“Right then. Would you like to try the sweet chili pork?”
“I was hoping you’ld ask, it smells incredible.”
I plated Jeffrey a heaping helping of sweet chili pork over a mound of rice beside some spinach salad. It hadn’t occurred to me that he had no time to sample the turkey a la king the day before. He stood at the end of the counter and took his first bite. His eyes got big and I grew concerned that maybe the dish really was too spicy.
“Is it ok?” I asked.
“Are you ok?”
“This is amazing!” he said, as he began to shovel more into his mouth.
“Uhm, is it ok for a preacher to say ‘shit’?”
“When food is this good it is,” he said between mouthfuls.
“So this is good food then?”
I couldn’t believe that I had even begun to question myself for a moment. I had cooked for people from coast to coast and from the Arctic Circle to Texas and never had a complaint. How was it possible that this little pocket of people in this tiny hick town could have tastes that were so incredibly off? How could there be a town full of people who never ate bell peppers and hated any amount of spice? Jeffrey asked for a second serving and I was more than happy to oblige.
I spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about my menu. I had noticed that the food was remarkably bland at the other restaurants in town but I had thought this was going to be to my advantage. It had never occurred to me that their food was bland because that was all these hicks would eat. There was no time to change the menu in the middle of the week so I felt I had no choice but to stay the course.
Their aversion to diversity even extended to their ability to select between dark and medium roast coffee. Although the coffee row regulars seemed quite accustomed to choosing between different roasts of coffee, a lot of newcomers were completely baffled, often asking, “Which of these is ‘NORMAL’ coffee?” It didn’t matter how I tried to explain it. Even when I asked what sort of grounds they purchased from the grocery store, the most common answer was, “NORMAL!” I had never seen this brand on any grocery store shelf in my life. After several weeks I began to typically reply, “Medium roast is ‘NORMAL’ and the other stuff is for homosexuals.” I soon quit this practice, however, when I tired of having to reboot them from the inevitable Humbug Huh that ensued.
I was even having trouble selling my in-house seasoned cream cheeses. I was, and will always be, very proud of my cinnamon spread cream cheese. It is such a simple preparation that I can’t believe that I’ve never seen it served anywhere else. You just soften some cream cheese and then blend in demerara sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. For a little kick you can even add some ground ginger. It is simply incredible on a toasted cinnamon raisin bagel. Every time I recommended it to a Humbugger, however, all they could say was, “Don’t you have any ‘NORMAL’ cream cheese?”
When they gave up on finding ‘NORMAL’ cream cheese they would always ask for a toasted bagel with margarine. Even this was impossible because I refused to carry trailer trash ingredients and there was never an ounce of margarine to be found in my bistro. I couldn’t believe that they even complained about being served butter.
Leaving the restaurant that night, I turned and stared into the darkness across the dining room. The icy wind was cold outside but it seemed warmer than the reception I had been getting inside. The pump in the espresso machine buzzed as though to taunt me as I closed the door.