By day three I was almost feeling like a human being again. I had finally gotten home, taken a shower, and slept in a real bed. This isn’t to say that I was well rested and loving life, however. I hadn’t gotten out of the restaurant until 9 p.m. the night before. The eight blocks down the icy street to my apartment felt like arctic tundra and I wound up chilled right to the bone. The only pleasant part of the experience was forty minutes under a steaming hot shower but it took most of that time to stop shivering. I don’t get cold easily except when tired and by the time I got to bed it had been a twenty two hour day. I only slept for five hours because I had to get back to the restaurant by 5 a.m.
The eight blocks back to the restaurant were pure hell, each and every one of them equivalent to an eternity of suffering. Once again I found myself kneeling before the espresso machine giving thanks. I had done most of the prep work the night before but there were a few things that had to be done just before opening. I psyched myself up to up-sell the customers on food, thinking I had to at least get a few of them to buy a fresh baked muffin. If it came down to it, I planned to give away some free samples. I switched on the ‘OPEN’ sign and took my place behind the register.
Until about 8:30 a.m., only a couple of people popped in for a coffee ‘to go’. Finally the morning coffee-rush started – as usual with Lyle Duerr leading the way. He threw down the exact change and asked for his mug and I quickly interjected, “Would you care for a fresh baked muffin with that?” His response was a snappy Humbug Huh. His head cocked to the right so severely that it was as though an invisible noose had just tugged up on his neck, and a faint “ah-roo” noise squeezed out of the back of his mouth. He stood motionless for several seconds, until I commented on the cold, finally rebooting and moving along his way. One after the other they all gave identical reactions. The only one to give me an audible response was Earla Hueber. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “You know, we really only come here for the coffee,” and then she shot her nose in the air and turned away. I wondered how she had become immune to the Humbug Huh and decided that if ever I got her stuck in one that I was going to scrape that grease paint off her face before I started her back up again.
Earla was the epitome of the female Humbugger. She was nearing sixty but still piled on make-up like a fifteen year old trying to catch the eye of the new boy at school. The oddest thing about her make-up was that she walked to the restaurant in the bitter cold so it got all frosted up and then melted off her face as soon as she walked in the door. It must have taken her at least half an hour each morning to do that amount of face-painting and as soon as she entered the restaurant she made a beeline straight for the restroom and spent half an hour re-applying the fiasco. I had never before witnessed this behavior in any woman over thirty.
Not to be discouraged, I cut up a few of the muffins and plated up samples for each table. I made sure that each table got one fewer samples than the number of people seated – an old and obvious trick to entice at least one sale. At each and every table, just as I set the sample plate down, there was one woman, not two or three but one, who immediately said, “Oh thank you, but I couldn’t - I just had breakfast.” Then every single other person at the table reached out and took their apportioned sample. It was enough to make me scream.
At this point I was absolutely certain that there had to be hidden cameras taping this whole conspiracy for some sort of reality show. How could they know so quickly that the samples were one short? How did they decide so quickly which woman would instantly opt out? On top of all of this, how could each and every other patron reach out simultaneously, retrieve a sample, pop it in their mouth, and then continued talking like it had never happened? For the second time, these people really started to creep me out.
By the time Jeffrey arrived I was glad to escape to the kitchen. The special was a modern take on Chicken Cacciatore that used diced, breaded chicken breast rather than thighs and yet again it was another menu item that packed a healthy amount of spice. I wanted to label the menu as ‘Pollo Allo Cacciatore’ but felt that might be a bit metropolitan for Humbug. Unfortunately I had chosen to pair it with my bell pepper salad – thinly sliced red, yellow and orange bell peppers, marinated in Italian herb vinaigrette, generously piled atop a bed of shredded leaf lettuce. A spicy hotpot and bell peppers were not a good combination in Humbug. I had already learned that most Humbuggers despised bell peppers but felt that the turkey club wrap would be familiar enough for their rural tastes.
Once again we had very few customers before the Flintstone Whistle. When it finally wailed its obnoxious wail throughout the streets, Jeffrey and I looked at each other and began the ninety second count down to the lunch rush. The stream through the door was a bit lighter that day as the first woman arrived at the register.
“What’s your SUPE?” she asked.
“We don’t have soup but we have Chicken Cacciatore,” Jeffrey explained.
“It’s a spicy, tomato based, chicken stew.”
“What did you call it?”
“Chicken catchy what?”
I decided to intercede and said, “Cacciatore. Just imagine that you’re chasing John Diefenbaker – you might say that you are trying to catch a Tory.”
“So you don’t have any SUPE?”
“No,” I explained, “but the Cacciatore is spicy so you might prefer the turkey club wrap.”
“Yuck! I HATE wraps,” she so eloquently explained.
“Well the main special is the Chicken Cacciatore on rice with bell pepper salad,” I said, hoping the mention of bell peppers would steer her towards the wrap.
“Why do you have all these fancy names? Can’t you just make something ‘NORMAL’?”
“Ma’am,” I said, in exasperation, “just be glad I don’t expect you to ask for the pollo allo cacciatore su rizo con l’insalata del pepe.”
“Hah!” she said self righteously, “This is town is German – we don’t parlay no frenchy frenchy around here!”
And with that remarkable revelation of linguistic etiquette being so eloquently disseminated she turned and walked out. Most of the remaining customers opted for the turkey club wrap with only a few braving a bowl of the spicy chicken cacciatore with garlic toast. Those who did select the chicken cacciatore simply called it chicken stew. The only sign of improvement was that fewer than half of them asked about the ‘SUPE’.
One fellow, who ordered the wrap, became particularly tenacious in his inquiry as to the nature of my ‘FRUM’. Let me explain: Humbuggers have an extremely invasive and uninhibited way of prying into a stranger’s personal details. When digging for the whereabouts of a stranger’s origins they seem unable to casually slip in the question, “So, where are you from?” They choose, rather, to demand instant gratification of their curiosity about a stranger by leaping straight into the question with tremendous forcefulness and completely without delay. Furthermore, they utter the ‘from’ in their inquiry with the same forceful meter that they place on the word ‘SUPE’.
So, as I was making this fellow’s wrap, he launched into his interrogation.
“Where are you FRUM?” he inquired, so subtly, leaning way too far over the counter.
“All over,” I said, spreading the mayonnaise.
“Uhm, I moved here from Cuspidor,” I said, layering the turkey.
“What high school did you go to?”
“I actually went to high school in B.C.,” I replied, layering the bacon.
“So your parents are there?”
“No, not actually,” I replied in an irritated tone, layering the tomato.
“Well where were you born?”
I sighed, “Edmonton,” as I layered the lettuce.
“So your parents are there?”
“No, do you want cheese on this,” I answered and asked.
“Well where are you FRUM then?”
“All over,” I said, rolling up his wrap, without cheese.
I handed him his wrap and he walked away scratching his head. I had been through this line of interrogation at least twenty times since moving to Humbug and it was getting more and more difficult to remain patient with it. I tried, to no avail, to develop a means of shortcutting this tactless line of mindless questioning. Every time I tried to give a simple answer, these uncultured hillbillies pushed shamelessly for more and more details until I finally had to admit that I had no ‘FRUM’ as they defined it. Once in a while I remembered the Humbug Huh and managed to shoot a bizarre enough question or profane enough diatribe to hang them up in one. I could then escape with a quick change in topic that left them almost as displaced and confused as just telling them that I had no ‘FRUM’. Either way it was irritating.
I had come to realize that Humbuggers actually felt I was the one being rude by not providing them an anchor with which to tie down my origins. Most of them were born, raised, schooled, employed and bought their first home all within a ten block radius. Their entire lives, down to the most miniscule detail like a fart during the 1984 Christmas Mass, were fully catalogued in the public consciousness and they just couldn’t accept that anyone in the world was free of such scrutiny. For life to be fair, in the Humbug mind, every single person on the planet must be in some way defined by an imperfect community from which they can never ascend.
I was working on another plate when suddenly I heard a very loud, high pitched, “Woot, woot, woot!” I looked out over the dining area and saw a drab little mousy woman doing some sort of Curly Howard impression. She was running around her table yelping like a kicked dog and waving her hands in front of her face. I began to laugh but smothered the urge when I became concerned that she might suffer from a mental illness or perhaps she was in some true form of distress.
Suddenly she bolted towards the counter, still yelping and waving her hands around her face. As she arrived at the counter she grabbed the pitcher of ice water and began pouring it over her face, obviously trying to swallow as much as she could. As she choked and spewed I realized her yelps were actually an attempt to communicate the word, “hot”. Nothing we served was hot enough to be burning her, and the ice water didn’t seem to be helping, so I figured she must be having a reaction to the spice in the food.
I ran to the kitchen and grabbed a container of yoghurt and ran back around the counter to her side. I began to pour the yoghurt into her mouth and grabbed the pitcher so she could spit it back in there. The remedy began to take effect quickly and as she regained her speech she blurted, “Yuck! I hate yoghurt!”
“What’s the matter, ma’am,” I asked.
“You, you, you, you – that’s not funny!” she screamed.
“What’s not funny?”
“You filled my bowl with Tabasco!”
“No, ma’am, I assure you I did not.”
“That was pure Tabasco, and I’m going to sue you!”
“Ma’am, that isn’t straight Tabasco,” I pleaded.
I walked to her table and took a taste straight out of her bowl. Nothing was out of the ordinary and the cacciatore was no more or less spicy than I had remembered. The other customers who were eating it seemed to be doing just fine, although I will admit that several were perspiring a little – perhaps from the spice, perhaps from the fear of seeing this woman’s incredibly exaggerated reaction.
“Ma’am, do you have some sort of allergy to any spice?” I asked.
“I’m going to my lawyer! You are done!” she screamed.
And with that she ran out the door. Once again I turned to Jeffrey as a judge for the dish. Once again he gulped it down gratefully and confirmed it was delicious. He did find it a bit spicy but seemed to quite enjoy it that way. I had been open for less than a week and my menu already faced litigation. The specials for the next day were chili con carne and a satay beef wrap - and I just wasn’t feeling the love. I would at least have to change the satay beef wrap to something without spice.
It blew my mind that I was already considering a menu change. I would have to tone down the chili, but I didn’t know what to do about the wrap. Jeffrey still couldn’t work a full day because of his obligations as a pastor so I was trapped at the store until 4 p.m. I closed, cooled the leftovers as quickly as I could, finished the dishes and ran out into the minus forty winter to the nearest grocery store. I had no idea what I was looking for.
As I walked up and down the aisles of the grocery store trying to figure out what sort of wrap to make I had a culinary epiphany; if Humbuggers were indeed 100% backwards then my food tastes would be a perfect reverse barometer for what would and would not fly in their town. I tried to think of the last selection I would ever make when ordering a wrap in a restaurant. Tuna! Tuna is a great comfort food but I couldn’t imagine anyone leaving the house to pay for a serving of canned tuna.
I grabbed a few cans of tuna and ran back through the cold to the restaurant. By the time I finished the prep for the chili con carne and changing the menus it was 9 p.m. I stared out at the cold, dark, icy street and tried to muster the courage to walk home. I considered driving but that seemed to be a worse prospect. I wanted to keep my car at the restaurant in case I ever needed to make an emergency supply run. The time wasted warming it up just to drive eight blocks, and then doing the same in the morning, would just dig into what little time I had left to sleep.
I decided to sleep in my office and wash up in the restroom again. I was glad I had once again opted to bring a change of clothes to work. As I lay on the sofa in my office I thought about Humbuggers. These people lacked any concept of tact or manners, had absolutely no taste and, even worse, had an aversion to flavour. I could not have picked a worse town in which to open a restaurant.