Have you ever said yes when you really meant to say no, and then found yourself in the middle of some of the most fun you could imagine?
During June and July, I’d done little other than sit and write for hours, for days. It was hard work always rewriting, dredging up more memories, writing and rewriting again. Then, one evening at my friend Celia’s dinner table, which was topped with what Abby Nash often refers to as “the best food and wine to be found in Ithaca tonight,” Abby, our god of wine and dining, asked me if I’d like to be a teaching assistant for his upcoming week long cooking class at Cornell’s Adult University. Avoiding commitment, I said I’d check my calendar. I did not get excited or jump at the opportunity. In fact, I tried to forget about it. But I couldn’t ignore the little voice inside me that whispered, “Are you planning to just sit on your butt for the whole summer?” and “This is the first job you’ve been offered in years, Miss Unemployed” and “Where’s your spirit of adventure?”
So the next week, there I was, alongside Maria, a veteran teaching assistant, with my hair banded and tied up, wearing my Converse sneakers and a long, fresh white lab coat, ready to rock ‘n’ roll in Cornell’s food labs. Twelve eager foodies, mostly Cornell Alums, showed up ready to spend one of the hottest weeks of the summer cooking away the days. They divided into six teams in six adjacent kitchens. Every morning they assembled at 9AM with a goal to have a royal lunch ready, with a white wine and a red, by 1:30 each day. After lunch, they’d prepare and cook some more until 3:30PM, when they’d file out and Abby, Maria and I would begin our scrub-down frenzy. It became apparent from day one that my job, after helping Maria with the morning preparations, was mostly to be fetching, washing and returning all the pots and pans and dishes and utensils. And cutting boards. And the thirty-six wine glasses we used daily. And various pieces to ice cream makers, food processors and blenders. Each day, the complexity and the number of dishes they cooked increased. And each dish was made twice, by two different kitchens. Towards the end of the week I had grooved in a routine, which sped up automatically with the increased workload, and I no longer collapsed in exhaustion or nursed sore feet at the day’s end.
Then, on Thursday, the teams made doubles of Chilled Curried Zucchini Soup, Caesar Salad, Salad with Duck Confit, Duck Confit with Pommes Sarladaise and Cranberry Golden Relish, Shrimp with White Beans, Roasted Tomatoes and Pistou, Leek Gruyere Quiche, Pear Frangipane Tarte, Crepes Suzettes and Fresh Mango Sorbet. Plus the chocolate ganache and pound cake needed for the next day’s Italian desserts, Il Diplomatico and Cassata Siciliana.
Imagine, if you love to cook, how your cooking behaviors would change if you had someone constantly squirreling away the dirty dishes as fast as you could use them. So the sinks fill up and I frantically run back and forth squeezing around the cooks who stir and ponder their custards, as I collect, clean and redistribute the dishes to the six kitchens. Maria measures and distributes food items and I deal mostly with The Dishwasher, dubbed “better than a husband” by one of the class cooks. I feed it large loaded trays and it huffs and clunks, churns and hisses for five minutes, at which point I bend over, already dripping in sweat, into a hot steamy cloud, remove the tray of cleaned dishes and feed it another loaded tray of soiled ones. I sneak tastes of leftover sauces and sorbets before flinging the residue down the drain. I scrape cast iron pans, I squeegee the long stainless steel sink, I heave heavy high-density plastic cutting boards and dripping containers of all sorts. The sinks are stuffed and I tumble through the kitchens carrying as much as I dare, mindful of the disastrous potential of drips. I am singing “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” from the scene in the musical Annie, where the orphans are mopping floors, when the spray nozzle I am squirting, full force into a clotted pot, shoots and splatters clumps of chocolate all over my face and tied-up hair. The white lab coat, now stained with chocolate dregs, hangs heavy and warm on me like someone else’s used wet bath towel. Damp and disheveled, I sit down for lunch with the class, with my two glasses of wine and two plates of mostly magnificent food and suddenly I am content and fortified for the afternoon’s assignment.
And Friday, after the last class, cranky and dragging and dead-tired, Abby, Maria and I clean up and do a complete inventory of sixteen lab kitchens. We clear and carry off the leftovers, the recyclables, the compost and the garbage, until 7PM. I was exhausted but well fed, sad it was over but proud of myself. I was reminded of a day long ago when I had my Silk Oak design and hand silkscreen printing business, when my father came by to see what my business was about. It was at a craft show on a beach near his home on Long Island. I had set up and stocked my booth beautifully with my wares. He arrived to see people crowded three deep around my table, tearing at the folded piles of tee shirts and throwing twenty dollar bills at me as I bagged shirts and returned change. A storm was brewing and my shirts, strung up on poles and racks around the booth, were flapping wildly with the wind when a strong gust nearly threw over the whole booth. My father grabbed the poles and shirts nearest him just before they could set sail, just as the rain started pouring down in buckets, scattering customers and creating chaos. He held onto the poles, which still held dripping runny tee shirts, as I ran to get my car. We were both completely soaked as we crammed the poles and racks and saturated shirts into the car, and he turned to me and shouted above the din of the storm, “This is One Hell of a way to make a living!”
I wonder what he’d say if he saw me madly dashing about in my Converse sneakers, washing away all those dishes and contending with chaos this week. I wonder what he’d think about my own work these days, sitting and writing and rewriting my book, day after day, after day, after day without the promise of a paycheck.
If Abby asks me to be his teaching assistant, I will happily do it again next year. What different thing will you try?