Great Southern Food Essays–“The Pleasures of Eating,” by Wendell Berry (1989)

Every writer runs across an essay occasionally, and says, “Damn, I wish I had written that.” Let’s just say that there are probably thousands of writers who wish they had written “The Pleasures of Eating.” Brilliant and prophetic at the same time, it has to be the best takedown of the current food system dominated by big agriculture.

I’m just going to start with one of the finest sentences I’ve ever read. “Like industrial sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor, and paltry thing.” Industrial sex? What a comparison. Every time I drive past a fast food place like Chickin-fil-whatever, I have the same thought.

Here’s another zinger, about how oblivious people are to the garbage they are eating. “One will find this same obliviousness represented in virgin purity in the advertisements of the food industry, in which the food wears as much makeup as the actors.” I actually had a student who worked as a food “stylist” and photographer, and she sprayed her food with hair spray before she took a picture of it. Enough said.

I will end with the thesis, which is something of an odd way to end, but it is “the proposition that eating is an agricultural act.” I won’t give all of Berry’s recommendations, but a revised version of the entire essay is posted on the interwebs. Alas, it omits the industrial sex reference. Read it, and weep anyway, for the current state of our food system. Then go to your local farmer’s market, and buy some real food.

I saw Mr. Berry once, when he gave a reading at the University of Illinois. He drove up from his farm in Kentucky, and showed up wearing a pair of overalls. That’s what we call keeping it real.

I was a Teenage Fast Food Worker, Part Three–Declaring My Independence

fried-chicken

At least it looks edible.

After a little less than two months working at our local fast food fried chicken joint in Cullman, Alabama, I had had enough. Two things led to a quick and final middle finger to the whole establishment.

The first was being told, nay ordered, to cook forty pounds of rotten chicken. One day right before the split, I grabbed my usual forty pound box of “fresh” chicken out of our walk-in cooler, and prepared to marry-nate it. However, when I opened the box, the entire kitchen was filled with the unmistakeable aroma of rotten chicken. In a cost cutting move, our owner, a Yankee carpetbagger who went by the name of “King” Kohl, had hired a patient from a local drug rehab center (at a reduced wage, naturally), to do such chores as rotate the stock in the cooler. The recovering addict was apparently still in recovery mode from a suicide attempt, when he had drunk an entire bottle of Drano, and had forgotten about that one little detail of his job.

This one was a job for the Manager. I tracked her down in her office, and said, “Manager manager manager, we have forty pounds of rotten chicken out here.”

She said, “Let me show you how to take care of this. We can still cook it, because we can’t afford to waste forty pounds of chicken.”

After every time I tell this story, some moralist will object, and say that I should have walked out right then. Au contraire. No one is dumb enough to actually eat rotten chicken. And I could not wait to see our manager have to deal with the first consumer who found out that they had actually paid for rotten meat. I was already into schadenfreude back then.

The manager first coated each piece of chicken in a thick coat of baking soda, and then rinsed them in borderline scalding hot water. Sure enough, the stink was gone from the exterior of the chicken. The manager was proud of herself, and said, “Cook it!” This was Frankenstein’s chicken.

The fundamental problem with the reanimation of rotten chicken is that chicken does not rot in layers. A chicken is not an onion, and an onion is not a chicken. On our farm, over the years, I had seen literally dozens of dead chickens. Not a single one was ever rotten on just the surface.

I fried the chicken and put it in our drawer warmer. It was a slow afternoon, and it took awhile to get down to the level of the rotten chicken. Then, there it was–nothing left but forty pounds of rotten chicken. Who would be the first victim?

A guy in a Buick pulled up to our door a few minutes later. Fate or chance was staring at him. He walked in the door, and was greeted by our cashier.

Cashier: “Kin I hep yu?” (Can I help you?)

Potential Victim: “I would like a bucket of chicken, please.” He didn’t sound like someone who would fall for a marketing trick, like renaming something greasy and fried as “Crispy.”

Cashier: “Woold you like the crees-pee, or tha oorigeenul res-a-pee?” (Would you like the crispy, or the original recipe?)

Potential Victim thought for a moment, and then said. “I’ll take a bucket of the Crispy this time.” Now he was upgraded to Future Victim.

I hid behind a wall in the kitchen, and did a fist pump. This guy was sure to rake our manager over the coals. I looked at my watch as he walked out the door, and made a mental bet with myself as to when he would be back.

Fifteen minutes later I heard squealing tires in the parking lot. Victim was back, and he did not look happy. He marched in the door with a single drumstick in his hand, which had one bite taken out of it. He stuck it in our cashier’s face and said, “SMELL THIS.”

“PEE-YOU,” she said, and waved a fake finger-nailed hand in front of her face. “Thy-at smells bi-add. I’m gonna git the man-a-jur fur yu.” (Phew, that smells bad. I’m going to get the manager for you.)

She went to the office, practically grabbed the manager, hauled her to the front, and hid behind her. Victim stuck said chicken in the manager’s face, and said, “SMELL THIS.”

“That smells like it’s off,” the manager said. “Would you like another bucket of chicken?” Not the right thing to say.

Victim screamed in her face. “I DON’T WANT ANYMORE OF YOUR STINKING CHICKEN.”

“Would you like a refund?” The manager asked. This was before the days when people sued about things like too hot coffee.

“YES, I WANT MY MONEY BACK,” Victim said.

The manager gave him some cash, and Victim burned rubber leaving the parking lot. The manager walked back into the kitchen, and wanted to talk to me. She said, “Please tell me if you ever find any bad chicken. We can’t let people think we serve bad chicken here. Do you understand?”

I understood perfectly. I said, “Yes, I think I understand.” It was corporate America showing it’s enormous backside. If anything bad happened, it was my fault–especially if it was something I was ordered to do. The rest of the rotten chicken ended up in the dumpster. The one across the street.

As this is a Revenge Farce, I was determined to get more than just even. It only took a couple of days.

I had been working seven days a week for most weeks, but never made it to a full forty hours once. It was always two hours here, six hours there. For my cooperation, I had been guaranteed time off on the Fourth of July. On the third of July, the manager cornered me in the kitchen, and said, ” I have some bad news. Tomorrow is the busiest day of our year. We’re going to need you all day. We start at seven A.M., running the fryers nonstop. You’ll need to stay until the usual 9:30 at night. And you won’t have time for a lunch break.”

Karma really is an unusual thing. With a completely straight face, I looked her in the eye, and said, “I’ll be here bright and early.”

The next morning at eight, I was eating breakfast back at the farm when the phone rang. I answered it, and it was the manager. She said, “Where are you?”

“Here on the phone. I’m running a little late.”

“Get up here as fast as you can,” she said, and hung up. I ate some more biscuit with margarine on it.

Another hour later, as I was getting ready to go to a cookout in Huntsville, the phone rang again. The manager was unhappy this time. She asked, “Why aren’t you here?”

“I must have forgotten to tell you that I quit.”

“You can quit tomorrow. We already have a line of customers. We’re going to be really busy all day. This is the busiest day of the year.”

“I guess you’ll have to cook instead of me. I have a cookout to go to. Bye.” I hung up, and never heard from the wench again. I had declared my independence.

Strangely enough, that third of July, when I was nineteen, was my last day of employment with corporate America. I have had many interviews with technical and scientific firms, subsequently, but zero job offers. I have also freelanced for many publishers, but that’s just freelancing. However, the worst of corporate America has to be the corporations involved in the industrial food business. Greasy isn’t crispy, corn syrup is not sugar, a couple of square feet of space is not free range, up is not down, and most of all, rotten is not fresh. There is a difference between peddlers of addictive foods laced with salt, sugar, and fat, and drug dealers–drug dealers go to jail. Corporate leaders rarely do. Or managers.

I was a Teenage Fast Food Worker, Part Two–The Dead Mouse in the Deep Fryer

Dead Mouse

Just a bit disturbing. Maybe the little fellow is only sleeping.

Readers of the first installment of this sordid series of tales, “The Night I Cooked for the Mob,” may recall that my job at our local fast food fried chicken establishment in Cullman, Alabama, was to man the deep fryer, a stove sized implement that held gallons and gallons of deep frying fat. I say “fat” because that was the only word on the label of the package that contained the possibly hydrogenated substance we used in our deep fryer. Oil and lard were too expensive, apparently, and so we had this shortening like concoction that came in large, paper wrapped blocks. Even then, our manager guarded it as if she had been the supervisor of prisoners at the Bastille. No one touched her fat without her permission.

Because of the hydrogenated nature of the “fat” we used, the contents of my deep fryer would congeal every night, after I turned off the gas to the thing. When I had the day shift, I would come in and turn it on, and it would liquify, and gradually warm up to the 350 degrees that it needed to be. Then it was time to fry some chicken for the unwashed masses.

On this particular June day I was greeted by a visitor to my fryer. A dead visitor. A series of tiny footprints lead to the middle of the fryer, where my late friend the mouse had apparently hit a soft spot in the shortening. The little guy had drowned in fat. In fact, he was as dead as a cliche. He did have what appeared to be a slight smile, so I suppose he died happy, like a mouse in fat should.

Be that as it may, this was definitely a job for our manager, who loved making executive type decisions. I interrupted her daily reading of the Cullman Times with a knock on her office door, and said, “Manager manager manager, there’s a dead mouse in the deep fryer.”

“Expletive,” she said, as she put down her paper. “Not another one. I’ll show you how to take care of this.” This was a teachable moment, apparently.

She took a look into the fryer at our dead mouse, and said, “Go to the pantry, and get that biggest stainless steel spoon we have. You know which one it is?”

“Yes, Manager,” I said. I assumed she wanted me to get the spoon that was larger than all of the others. As it turned out, it was a real beauty.

When I got back to the kitchen, she said, “That’s it. Now scoop out the dead mouse, but get as little of the fat as possible. It’s too expensive to waste.” I scooped out the mouse with very little fat. Then she said, “Take it across the street, and throw it in the dumpster over there. We can’t have people thinking that we have mice in here.”

“Good thinking,” I said, and headed out the back door.

The street behind our restaurant was a busy one for our town, and crossing it was compounded by the problem of having a dead mouse in a spoon. I thought this might one day make a great Olympic sport, crossing busy streets with a mouse filled spoon. I took my time, ran across the street, and backhanded the poor bugger into the dumpster. I was going to win on style points.

On my way back across the street, I suddenly thought that the mouse had to have crapped all in the fat when it died. My suspicion was confirmed when I got back in the kitchen, and saw all the mouse sized black pellets that were in the fryer. It was time for another executive decision.

I knocked on the manager’s door again. I said, “Manager manager manager, I think the mouse did something in the fat when it died.” Now she was reading the paper, and having a smoke.

She didn’t even look up from her paper this time. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “It will cook out when you turn the fryer on. No one will ever notice, or even know about it.”

“Yes, manager,” I said.

I think I gagged a bit when I turned on the fryer. That was the last day I ever ate anything that came out of that kitchen.

I was a Teenage Fast Food Worker, Part One–The Night I Cooked for the Mob

ChickenWhy is there a derringer pointed at where this organic chicken’s head used to be? Why is a whole chicken in a skillet? Why am I asking you? Read on.

Nineteen year olds rarely have a chance to cook for a couple of mobsters, and that was not my intent when I showed up for the night shift at our local fast food fried chicken franchise in my home town of Cullman, Alabama. I just wanted to get my work done, and get the hell out of there as fast as possible, because I had a hot date at ten o’clock that night. Ladies, gentlemen, and all you other guys out there, any young woman who will wait until ten to start a date is worth the time.

Speaking of extortion schemes, the University of Alabama was starting a series of tuition increases that have not stopped since then, and I needed some extra money to cover the bits and pieces. After one year there, I was actually headed into my junior year, having begun college with a year’s worth of credit. At any rate, I was one of the last people to see tuition at $98 per semester.

We had two cooks at two different stations that night, as the restaurant served two different types of fried chicken: one that was pressure fried, which gives the chicken a texture impossible to duplicate in the average home kitchen; and another that was just plain old greasy deep fried chicken, though it was marketed as being “crispy.” I manned the deep fryer, as the pressure frying machine was obviously too complex for an English/Physics double major (I later dropped the Physics part).

By 9:15 I had gone through my usual eighty pounds of chicken, and was ready to leave. We locked up at 9:30, and then we two cooks would mop and de-grease the floor with a combination of scalding hot water and Clorox. At exactly that time, a black Cadillac with Illinois plates pulled into our empty parking lot. Two rather large gentlemen with no foreheads and fancy suits stepped out of it, and headed toward our lobby door. Everyone knew it was the Chicago mob.

How did we know? We were in a small town in north Alabama, but none of us fell off the turnip truck on the way to work that day. A local millionaire, who went by the name of Bully Moon, lived a block behind our restaurant. He was rumored to be an acquaintance of many shady folks, including the Chicago mob. Everyone knew this, except for the police, apparently. Bully was eventually convicted of obstruction and tax evasion, and given six years at Club Fed. He only served three. There, he couldn’t touch Little Man Popwell, who owed $400, 000 of tax penalties in 1955, and also spent some time in Club Fed. Little Man was 5′ 6″ and weighed 300 lbs, and allegedly ran the Birmingham affiliate of the New Orleans Mafia, which is said to be the oldest mob group in the country. He ran an illegal mini-casino out of his home in Shelby County, just south of Birmingham, and was even inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in Vegas.

Our two visitors made their way into the lobby, and found themselves face to face with our cashier, who had long fake fingernails, and a beehive hairdo that even Marge Simpson couldn’t compete with. I am able to translate her Southern and their Chicago-ese because of my five year residence in Illinois, and my many more than that years long residence here.

Cashier: “Kin I hep yu?” (Can I help you?)

Goon 1: “We wan sum chickn.” (We want some chicken.) The goon 2 never said anything. Maybe he was shy.

Cashier: “Woold you like the crees-pee, or tha oorigeenul res-a-pee?” (Would you like the crispy, or the original recipe?)

Goon 1: “Whut’s da diffunce?” (What’s the difference?)

Cashier: “Tha oorigeenul has a see-crette blee-end of erbs and spices, and the crees-pee is marry-nated and deep fri-iid.” (The original has a secret blend of herbs and spices, and the crispy is marinated and deep fried.)

Goon 1: “We’ll take uh buckit uv da kispy.” (We’ll take a bucket of the crispy.)

Damnation! If any of that chicken was bad, I was a dead man. There’s nothing worse than someone who misses a date because they’re dead. Maybe my sweetie would cry at my funeral. Then I remembered that there weren’t any tables in our lobby, and only one plastic chair. We were a take out place. They were going to have to eat at Bully’s.

The date was back on.

Or so I thought, as they took the bucket of chicken two feet down the counter, and tore into it standing up. It was awesome to watch. The only difference between those two, and an Alaskan Grizzly eating a live salmon, is that they didn’t eat the bones. Instead, they chunked them back into the bucket, and grabbed another piece. Within five minutes, there was nothing left but a bucket of bones.

They both wiped the grease off their mouths with their jacket sleeves, and Goon 1 turned to our cashier, and said, “Pudy gud.” (Pretty good.) And then they got back into their Caddy, and in my imagination, drove down a block to give Bully the business. So there it was–the mob thought my fried chicken was pudy gud, and I still had a hot date waiting for me. Life was pudy gud.

This needs an epilogue of sorts. A couple of years after my two months at that fine establishment, the kitchen caught on fire, and both chicken fryers and chicken eaters moved across town to a brand new building. They even had tables and chairs there. My date turned out to be even hotter than expected, and four years later, we were married, and still are. As it turned out, I married the best Phi Beta Kappa fryer of chicken in the South. Maybe one day Melanie Jane will have the chance to fry some chicken for a couple of wise guys from Illinois, the state University of which, strangely enough, happens to be her Alma Mater.