Sunday, October 28, 2012

In the Café of My Mind

In the Café of My Mind

I always thought what fun it would be to run a restaurant. No, I’m not going to do it. I know better. The idea is irrational at this time in my life. But "rational" has never been a great deterrent to my decisions.

Whenever I dine out, I toy with the idea. I assess the menu, the floor plan, the ease of operation, ambiance, lighting, colors, and of course, the food. I can’t help myself.

The closest I have come to running an eatery, was back in the early eighties when I taught school at Hays. For twelve solid weeks my home-ec students and I ran a restaurant. These kids were great. They planned menus, figured how much food to prepare, what products we would need, drove with me to Havre to buy groceries, planned the budget, and priced the menu. They cleaned, chopped, sliced, mixed and cooked. Each week we transformed our home-ec room into a gastronomic center of world cuisine. Following each week’s theme, we decorated with table cloths, candles or flowers. Every Thursday evening we opened our doors to the Hays community. We served an average of one-hundred ten meals a night to parents, grand-parents, aunties and uncles. The community loved it. My students loved it. I nearly collapsed from exhaustion.

As I said, I don’t always make rational decisions. I have few illusions. Yet this week I let myself get hooked into a decision that is, at best, as twisted as my famous pretzels with homemade jalapeno mustard. Here’s what happened.

The Senior Center in Harlem is the heart of our community. In addition to housing about a dozen residents in the Little Rockies Retirement Apartments, it serves the community in a variety of ways. The Sweet Medical Center has a satellite clinic. The County Health nurse, a dentist, and the Northern Montana Hospital Foot Clinic regularly provide additional medical services. The activity room is open for community use. Several groups hold monthly meetings. Men and women from Harlem have regular coffee hours. At any time one might find people at the center walking laps, working jigsaw puzzles, using computers, meeting for weight loss, playing cards, singing, and even experiencing harp therapy.

The Senior Center boasts a well-stocked kitchen with a commodious dining room. Lunch is served six days a week. Wednesday and Saturday are the big days as forty or more community members join the residents for lunch.

About three months ago the cook, Barbara, needed to quit so she could care for her ailing husband. Rose, one of the residents, stepped into Barbara’s shoes to temporarily fill the need.

But week after week the position remained unfilled. Rose continued to cook the meals. Katie, the director at the Center, approached me to see if I would like the job. My eyes glazed over. "No!" I said.

Then one morning, Chuck, a board member of the Center, cornered me one morning after coffee at the City Shop. "We still don’t have a cook. Sondra, do me a favor. Would you just think about it?"

On the basis of my pie, Chuck thinks I’m a good cook. "Why me, Chuck? I’m a plain farm cook," I said.

"Just think about it."

Every other day it seemed I heard from either Katie or Chuck. "So, have you thought about it?" I began ducking around corners to avoid them. I also noticed that various folks around the community were going out of their way to be nice to me—the same folks who eat lunch at the Center.

To my relief, the job was offered to an applicant. She accepted. I celebrated. The following day she took a different job.

Katie accosted me. "Look," I told her. "The only way I would even consider it is to job share."

"That’s perfect. Rose will stay on. You can share the job with her."

"I’ll think about it."

A young woman applied. It seemed like she was a good fit. Once more I was off the hook. Then, on what was to be her first day at work, the gal got a better offer.

"It’s just a few hours a day," said Katie.

"We need you," said Chuck.

Both, "Aw, come on, give it a try."

I felt like a ping-pong ball. Or the butt of a cosmic joke.

I capitulated. Rose and I will cook alternate weeks. I have no illusions. I’ll be serving meals to women who have spent a life time in their kitchens. "Well, she sure didn’t fix that meatloaf the way I make it." I’ll never be good enough.

I’ll make mistakes. The Seniors will set me straight. But this is not the café I had in mind.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

October 11, 2012

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