Saturday, 16 August 2008

Slinging Hash

I am up to my neck in books. I've got books on psycholinguistics, statistics (non-parametric and differential), grammar (standard and transformational), style, semantics, language learning, and God-knows-what-else. Including dictionaries and textbooks and cook books and comic books and silly joke books and crossword puzzle books and coffee table books and those dumb parody books you give people for Christmas when you can't think of anything else to give them. I almost wonder why I'm trying to write books, I've got so many.

I got so tired of packing books that I went outside into my garden and saw that in the past busy, rainy week, a whole slew of weeds has sprung up. Grass has taken root in places it has no business being, creeping buttercup has colonized half of my garden beds, and montbretia is making a triumphant comeback everywhere. This depressed me so much I took a stroll down the block. And met Stanley, our neighbor, a bed-and-breakfast proprietor who runs the equivalent of a small restaurant in his house.

Stanley is one of those neighbors you only get once in a lifetime. He will loan you anything and never need to borrow a thing in return. He is a marvelous cook who has run his own restaurant in the past; at least three times a month, my daughter, who works for Stanley and his equally lovely wife, brings home leftover vol au vents, sweet and sour fish, venison stew, pork-fried rice, barbeque spare ribs, mango and ginger cheesecake, and lemon grass shrimp. Nothing she brings home from Stanley's ever lasts the night in our fridge.

"You're still okay about Saturday morning, right?" Stanley asked me now, and I felt a slow burn spread over my cheeks. I had completely forgotten. In a heady moment after a bang-up meal prepared by Stanley a few months ago, I had agreed to cover for him one Saturday morning in August.

I was up to my knees in books and weeds and moving misery, yet I had to cook breakfast for a bunch of strangers. There are always at least five cars out in front of Stanley's house, so I knew there might be as many as ten people, maybe more. Stanley could cook for fifty people, in the dark with his hands tied behind his back and never break a sweat, but not me. I've cooked for dozens before, but it has been a frantic, hellish business. Short-order cooking, like waiting on tables, is vastly underrated -- especially when you do it right.

"You bet," I said. "I've got it on my calendar." Which was not a lie: I did. The problem is, the calendar is behind a wall of books. It's been hidden for the past week, and I haven't looked at it.

"Good," said Stanley, looking considerably relieved. "We've got fifteen people in on Saturday."

I did it. Six bowls of oatmeal, eight fried eggs, twelve strips of grilled bacon, ten sausages, sixteen roasted tomato halves, thirty-six fried mushrooms, twelve tatty scones, six disgusting grilled black puddings (I almost gagged just touching them), one broiled kipper, four poached eggs (one with broken yolk), and one problematic boiled egg later, but ladies and gentlemen, I am still breathing.

But I've still got a lot of books to pack.


Robin said...

Good job! I'm so glad I gave you one more book to schlep around the world. Oy. Thanks, Mary!

Charles Gramlich said...

I can imagine how hard short order cooking can be, or any professional cooking. I enjoy cooking a meal myself, for just me and Lana. But anything else would be too much for me.

When I have books to deal with all other chores go out the window.

AnneB said...

Good for you, Mary, to take a deep breath and step right up to that stove and start cooking! Plus we all got to hear from you again, which is a real treat for a Saturday morning.

Keep taking notes even when you can't post; I just know all of these short pieces are going to find a home someday as a collection of essays a la A Modest Harmony: Seven Summers in a Scottish Glen, A Year in Provence, Under the Tuscan Sun, etc. Except in your case, you have multiple locales--which shouldn't be a problem; just look at how well Eat, Pray, Love is doing.

I'm betting a common theme will emerge in the next six months and you'll be able to tie them all together and write a killer book proposal.

And yes, to any agents/publishers reading this, I certainly would pay $24.95 for a book like this, and so would lots of other people.

Carrie said...

Good for you. The karma points should serve you well.

You're brave to take that on--I would've been too intimidated.

And I'll definitely buy your book--keep us posted!

Kim Ayres said...

Clearly I've been calling round at the wrong time of the day. Expect an 8am call next time :)

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- I'm counting on having a funny book to read pretty soon, so I'm glad you've already sent it!

Charles -- I'm crazy about books, but I'm sick of the lot I've got on my hands right now. Half of them I don't even want, and some of the ones I really want to keep, we can't take with us.

What was awful about this morning was that I didn't have my own implements and kept forgetting where I'd put things. I never realized just how heavily I depend on a certain bamboo spoon.

Anneb -- Your comment pleased and touched me so much it brought tears to my eyes. I tried to visit your blog to thank you, but I couldn't!

As for a common theme to connect these pieces, I almost despair. The only theme that comes close to tying these together is, for lack of a better expression, 'We are citizens of the world'. None of us know which countries to cheer for when we watch the Olympics, so we tend to cheer for them all.

Carrie -- Thank you so much! As for being intimidated, you should have seen how crazed and flustered I got when Stanley's wife came in needing the two full British, one without black pudding, one with no mushrooms and wanted to know if I'd put the kipper on yet.

Kim -- With black pudding or without? If it's with, you're out of luck, my good man. But I'm great at muffins, Bengali oatmeal, poached eggs and home-baked cardamom bread. Just expect to sit down at a table covered with books.

Merry Monteleone said...

Impressive Mary! I love cooking and all of my recipes are meant to feed an army - it's a joke around here that I can't have a party or holiday without making waaay too much food... but I couldn't make food to order like that. Plus, having never been abroad, I'm not familiar with all of the dishes you mentioned :-)

Jacqui said...

I am seriously impressed. They'd have all had Cheerios with a fancy blueberry garnish if it had been me!

debra said...

Good thing you ran into Stanley when you did! So glad it went well for you. For those of us on this side of the Pond, what is black pudding (sounds either organ-like or bloody)?

A Paperback Writer said...

It strikes me that you would also be a heck of a good neighbor to have.
I know you told me by e-mail, but my last couple of weeks have been quite chaotic. Where and when are you moving? I can't remember.
I'm sorry I never did get the chance to come and see you, but I'm glad you got the spices -- sorry I sent you another book (giggle).
I can sympathize about the books. When I moved home from my year in Scotland, I had to give away most of my clothes, my sheets, and my towels in order to get all my books home.
And just two days ago, it was all I could do to close my big dufflebag around all the books I'd bought while in Scotland.
I could never move from the house I live in now; if I moved all the books, the walls might collapse.

Anne Spollen said...

Ha! When we moved and had to finally face our attic, my husband looked at my boxes and boxes and boxes of books and said, "It's like you have a disorder..."

Mary Witzl said...

Merry -- I usually make too much food too, as I get nervous that I won't make enough and people will leave hungry.

As for not being familiar with the things I mentioned, I promise you they are nothing fancy or difficult. Black pudding is simply boiled blood with some sort of thickening agent. I wish I weren't familiar with it myself; it turns my stomach.

Jacqui -- Believe me, if I'd had my way I'd have gone in there and said, "Okay, the cornflakes are over there and if anyone is fussy, I'll do oatmeal." But no -- Stanley runs a full-service establishment and it would have gotten back to him.

Debra -- You are so right -- I can't even begin to think how bad I would have felt if I hadn't gone over there and been reminded of this! Of all the people I would like to do a good turn for, Stanley is way up on the list.

As for black pudding, please read the explanation I gave Merry above. If I explain it again, there is a real danger that I will lose my lunch.

APW -- We're leaving very soon -- I'll e-mail you all the details.

I'm not sure about our good neighbor status, by the way. We borrowed a ladder from the last people who lived next door to us, then promptly forgot we'd done this. They had to come to us and remind us. Our cat cannot be dissuaded from visiting their large garden and doing there what cats will do, and I know it vexed the woman of the house. But on the other hand, I do bake cookies rather frequently and share them around, so sometimes we hit the above-average mark.

Anne -- There's nothing like moving to show you just how bad your book problem is! In our house, it's not just me, it's my husband. We enable each other, and we've managed to turn our kids into book-hoarders too.

Marcia said...

And a partridge in a . . . :)

Good job! Stanley sounds like a great neighbor. You sound like one, too.

That's what I was afraid black pudding was.

And can I ever relate about the books. And I'm not even moving!

Gorilla Bananas said...

That's some breakfast they were having! Were they off to the Highland Games or something? I wonder what would have happened if you'd offered them cornflakes, toast and coffee?

Alice said...

I could never have done it. Those 15 people would have ended up with 15 bowls of oatmeal w/ toast.


A Paperback Writer said...

Oh, and I truly understand about black pudding. I've eaten it before -- and it's no worse than some of the stuff I had in China -- but I wouldn't choose to taste it again. It was offered every morning at breakfast in Pollock Halls where I stayed this summer -- and I passed it by.
However, I do put the stuff to good use in the sequel to my half-vampire novel, where the protagonist returns to Scotland and becomes very fond of black pudding during his stay. Useful stuff, black pudding is.

debra said...

dear Mary, thank you for the explanation of the dreaded pudding. I am feeling a bit nauseous.....

laura said...

I was watching the short order cook this morning at the place where I go for breakfast. I have no idea how they do it, I have no idea how restaurants keep them as the pay is awful, and I know I could never survive at that job. Good for you! 15 people would have either starved or had heartburn if I'd cooked for them. And I feel your pain with the books. I'm moving at the end of the year and have no idea what to do with 48 years worth of books!

Mary Witzl said...

Marcia -- The non-wasteful, practical part of me wants to think that black pudding is a great thing because it does not waste resources and makes full use of a slaughtered animal. But the raised-vegetarian part of me gets weak in the knees just thinking about it.

I really didn't think we had so many books. But every time I turn around I find a new pile somewhere. I'm starting to dream about them.

GB -- All standard fare at your average three-star bed & breakfast, I assure you! In fact, when we ran our place, we offered even more choices (beans, and a big bowl of fresh fruit salad plus my homemade wholemeal bread, white-and-oatmeal loaf, and a basket of muffins). I got awfully tired of feeding people who didn't need it far too much food, but the tourist board actively promotes this.

Alice -- I actually love cooking, but Saturday stretched that sentiment to the maximum. Stanley is all the more an inspiration, because he really loves it, and he has to do it almost every day.

APW -- What a great idea: a vampire who is trying to keep his killing to a minimum, satisfying his lust for blood on black pudding in Scotland! You're brave to have eaten it. I did once, entirely by accident. I was eating mushrooms rejected by my kids and popped a piece of black pudding into my mouth, thinking it was a well-grilled mushroom. I think I needed about three cups of tea to get rid of the taste.

Debra -- When I first heard about haggis and black pudding, I figured that must have been why some of my ancestors left The Old Country. But then again, they might have been pretty happy to have black pudding, or ANYthing to eat, so who knows? I know I am spoiled.

Laura -- I think it must take a lot of time for short order cooks to learn their craft, and once they do, it's no big deal. But have you ever noticed how crabby they are? Almost all short order cooks I've ever met are tempermental, and now I think I know why.

Carole said...

Impressive list of breakfast foods.

But just a teeny, weeny suggestion--Cheerios and milk. Tell them you helping out their cholesterol count.

marshymallow said...

I will have to stop complaining about how difficult it is to cook for just one person, for it seems infinitely preferable to cooking for fifteen. Wow.

We catalogue our books every time we move and it does get pretty insane. We all sit on the floor among stacks of books (the books are on the furniture, too) and those little sticker dots are stuck on everything except the books we've already catalogued and we're all trying to read "just this part" of our old favourites which we hadn't been able to find since the last move... It always shocks our movers that we have only one TV (fifteen years old) and about a hundred book boxes. They hate us.

Christy said...

Bed & breakfasts here generally serve only one dish for breakfast - usually some awful breakfast casserole that was assembled the night before and baked in the morning. I'm envious.

Susan Sandmore said...

Hooray for survival!! Sooner you than me. I am miserable cooking for even two. Congrats!

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Oh believe me, this is just how I feel. And small wonder that I'm not in the bed & breakfast business anymore. If I'd had my way, I'd have provided boiled eggs, fresh fruit salad, muffins and coffee, all top quality. But would they listen to me? Nooooo.

MM -- I used to find cooking for myself a drag and a headache. Now it's so easy it's like a joke. But cooking for fifteen is really nothing. I've got friends who regularly cook for up to 50 people in one go. And our friend Dina likes nothing better than to cater for huge parties of people who show up on her door at virtually the last minute. Weird, isn't it?

The household you grew up in sounds just like ours, but more organized. We have a t.v., but never bothered to get it connected to. We watch DVDs and videos and sometimes things on the computer, so we feel very connected to the world around us, but every time we talk with real t.v. watchers we feel like idiots.

Christy -- I think what you describe is a lot easier for B & B proprietors, but there are dozens of places in the States that do the full whack just like they do in the U.K. We did eat in a few American places where they had one set thing and you either had that or cornflakes. Personally, I'd love to run that sort of B & B.

Susan -- I feel pretty embarrassed to be receiving kudos for this one tiny feat when Stanley and his wife and many more like them do this regularly, many times a week, and hardly think anything of it. But thank you, anyway!

Tabitha said...

We just moved, so I just faced my own mountain of books. Well, mine and my husband's. Together, we made the movers groan and want to flee...

Good for you for surviving breakfast!! I'd have had trouble cooking in someone else's environment, too. I like to cook, but I need to be in my own kitchen.

Kanani said...

Oh, packing books!
Eight years ago, when we moved here, I got rid of a lot of books. This started a habit of mine. If it's not a book I absolutely adore, I give it to the library.

But my heart is out to you Mary. There's nothing worse than packing to move.

Good for you for keeping your word and fixing breakfast!

Mary Witzl said...

Tabitha -- We know two physical therapists in this town who moved into a three-story house with all their work gear. The moving men had to make about twenty trips up those stairs with all their weights and things. I felt like telling the guy who came to look at our stuff today that it could be worse: we could be physical therapists.

I do a lot better in my own kitchen too. God knows why; Stanley's was much better organized. But in my kitchen, I know where my bamboo spoon is.

Kanani -- I should start a custom like that. I always finish books and put them back on the shelf, imagining I'll read them again. I developed this bad habit in Japan where books in English were rather rare and had to be enjoyed over and over again, or kept to trade for other books in English.

Thanks for the commiseration, though. I'm feeling worn out and discouraged and encouraging words go a long way.