Yesterday marked the first day of the summer session for the summer learning program my wife runs. Rather than teaching in the program, I’ve opted for volunteering in the kitchen. I’ve written about it before, so you wouldn’t think I ‘d have much new to say. I don’t, but that won’t stop me from detailing the day.
Yesterday was our first time back in full lunch mode since the summer of 2019. The following summer, the program ran in a fully remote mode, and last summer, half of the kids ate in their classrooms with boxed lunches, so that they could maintain safe social distancs. The kids who used the dining hall used paper plates and plastic utensils. Nevermind the social, environmental or financial costs of this plan, this meant that I had to go another summer without the industrial dishwasher, the springy rinsing faucet, and the challenge of the ten-plate grab.
Yesterday was opening day for 2022, and it lived up to my anticipation. I bounded into the kitchen, fist-bumped with Carlos, the kitchen supervisor, William, the chef, and Terry, my lunch distributing partner from last summer. I washed my hands according to regulations, dried them thoroughly so the latex gloves wouldn’t catch, and I was ready to go. Carlos gave everyone the rundown on the day’s menu and presented the quick version of the hygiene talk, and pretty soon the kindergarten-to-fourth grade customers arrived. I had two new volunteers on my side. I was able to pass along the wisdom I’d gained from previous summers: When using the toothed tongs for serving the plain pasta, it works best to invert the tongs so the toothed side is facing up. That way the noodles don’t get caught in the teeth. Nothing worse than clogged tongs. They were very grateful. We estimated a 17 percent time save for our customers.
I was stuck serving the peas and the garlic bread. Peas are problematic for several reasons. For one, they are not popular with kids. I had to offer each one, of course, only to be rejected by 85 percent of the customers. Another unfortunate aspect of serving the peas is the articulation challenge. Wearing a mask as I was, I found it challenging to make “peas” sound different from “please” or even “fleas.” Several kids thought I was correcting their manners. “Oh, sorry, garlic bread PLEASE.” Others said, “Please, what?” They had no idea what I was requesting from them. Correcting their misunderstandings may have negated the savings from the tong inversion. Such are the challenges of the serving line.
Fortunately, serving merely serves as the prelude to dishwashing. As the eating time wound down, my heart began to pound. I bid farewell to my new serving partners and strode to the adjacent room. It had been two years, but it felt like much longer. I swapped my serving gloves for a new pair and slowly, reverently approached my old friend, the industrial dishwasher. I patted its stainless steel face and gazed into its pale blue power light. “Hello, old friend. It’s been too long.” Terry had already powered her up, so she hummed her response. For such a sleek and impressive machine, the dishwasher remains humble and stoic., always accepting the dirty plates and utensils without complaint, blasting, sudsing, rinsing, and drying without complaint. As the first crate of cleaned plates emerged, shining and scalding hot on the conveyor belt, I paused to admire her work, waiting the requisite 15 seconds for the plate temperature to drop from molten lava to merely hot. Then it was finally time for the first attempt at the ten-plate grab. Five fingers from each hand descended between the plates on the front and back row, then clamped together, grasped, and hoisted. Unfortunately, I was clearly out of practice. Fortunately, I had resisted the urge to announce my first attempt of the summer, so no one else witnessed my embarrassment as two plates slipped from the grasp of my right hand. The plates fell unharmed back into the conveyor crate. Still, it took two trips to the counter, not one, to empty the crate. I vowed to do better on my next attempt. I never succeeded. Another consequence of the pandemic. The layoff had clearly taken its toll.
Today, on day 2, I shall renew my quest. I will also try to avoid pulling out the utensil soaking tray that I mistakenly thought had a water-tight floor. It did not. Terry was very understanding about the tsunami that I created in his kitchen. “It’s okay. You’re just a little rusty,” he said, reassuring me. It was good to be back in the kitchen, among friends.