Although I followed strict rules about eating throughout my adult life, for over a decade I largely neglected the cooking side of things, which I attribute to my first job at a local clam shack. It was one of those places where customers order at one window, wait for their number to be called, and then pick up an enormous tray of fried seafood at another window. Painted floors, red check tablecloths, clusters of condiments in the center of all the picnic tables. The restaurant was a well-oiled (quite literally) operation with mandatory dress codes (hot pink polo shirts and jorts) and its own linguistic requirements (employees had to chirp “Right!” to acknowledge every direction received from a superior).
Before the restaurant got busy for the day, there were all sorts of prep jobs. Busy work. Refilling ketchup bottles, counting buckets of clam strips in the freezer. For me, the worst one was preparing the quarter-pound piles of ground beef. They had to be scooped, weighed and mashed into a perfect circle between two squares of wax paper, then stacked into a stainless steel bin.
I hated that hamburger. The size of a kitchen garbage bag, wrapped in clear plastic, twisted with a wire tie. It took hours to measure and portion the bulbous and fibrous bloody pulp. The little streaks of white fat and tendon looked like worms, tiny maggots wiggling their way to the summit of the meaty mountain. To be fair, I had similar feelings about all kinds of un- or under-cooked foods. No runny egg yolks or oysters. I would eat sushi, but only the cooked stuff, which doesn’t officially count. The risk of some sort of bacterial stomach bug was akin to developing skin or lung cancer. It would have meant I did something “wrong.” Clean versus dirty. Healthy versus sick. Nothing in the middle. A case of the trots … totally comparable to a potentially fatal disease. Both equally bad.
Also, there was no notion of probabilities; everything was a certainty.
Tanning = melanoma.
Unprotected sex = AIDS.
Hollandaise = salmonella.
Having a microbiologist father did not help my notion that bacteria were everywhere. He was largely oblivious to most things, but he could always spot a cashier lick her finger when making change. While cooking, he’d repeatedly wash the spatula used to make scrambled eggs. Same with tongs while grilling. I learned that danger was omnipresent in the most banal of activities, it was a constant battle to keep pathogens in check, and food was the most dire and immediate setting.
So, when I worked on grill at the restaurant, frying up that awful hamburger, no one was getting trichinosis (or whatever infection is associated with rare beef) on my watch. Every patty was cooked to a dark brown, sterile perfection. My boss put me at that station only once before returning me to the fryalators.
Those things ran at like 600 degrees.
Everything that came out of them was well done.
And just right.