Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hair nets & Jell-O salad

Many moons ago, I worked as a dietary aide at a nursing home.  By many moons I mean right out of high school, circa 1985.  Yes, I'm old enough to be your grandmother.  Let us not mention it again.
I started at the bottom, like everyone else, and for the first few months drew all the weekend shifts, and did an awful lot of bussing tables and sweeping floors, collecting garbage, and taking out the trash. I served questionable deli meats and cheeses to the residents and scooped more cottage cheese than I ever want to see again.  I sweet-talked diabetics into eating ghastly sugar-free ice "milk" for dessert and tried to keep the resident horny old man from grabbing my ass every time I walked by.  It wasn't a hard job, it paid well, and it allowed my 17 y/o self a hell of a lot of freedom. It even paid for my first two years at community college.
After my probation period was up, I was offered a full-time position, which was highly unusual, but they needed someone willing to work 6-2:30 who wouldn't show up staggeringly hungover from the night before and who could be trusted to work the occasional overtime until 7pm without hiding in a closet with a joint and a forty of Miller.  It wasn't that the job drove its employees to getting stoned and wasted; it was the fact that we were all fresh out of high school (and younger) and not exactly supervised by Mormons.  Every weekend, forties were smuggled in and at least one cook showed up with a bag of weed, ready for rolling on the stainless steel tables where we were pouring juice and wrapping bread. I neither drank nor smoked for two reasons: 1) my parents drove me to work and picked me up and I was no fool; and 2) I have always hated the smell of pot, even to this day.  Plus, I grew up drinking the dregs of my dad's beer and he always told me if I wanted one of my own to just ask.
As time went on, I got drafted into doing actual kitchen work involving food.  I learned to make great horking vats of salads: egg, tuna, potato, macaroni, anything that could be stretched with mayonnaise and chopped celery; sliced many pounds of lunchmeats and cheeses, learning to wear my shirt over my face to protect myself from flying pieces of p&p loaf; made about a million sandwiches for Meals on Wheels; sliced and garnished wobbly blocks of nasty gelatin salad (made with cole slaw mix and lemon or lime Jell-O); and roasted and sliced giant mutant turkeys.  I even learned to live with the occasional corpse that needed refrigeration during the warmer months until it could be taken away.  As head aide of the upper two floors, I became a whiz at pureeing everything into a semi-palatable mush for residents who couldn't handle solids.  The 2nd floor included people fresh out of the hospital, just needing time to return to their regular routine; the 3rd housed the residents for whom there was no coming back.  But they got bacon and cheese and pasta and whatever we could run through the food mill or processor; it wasn't aesthetically pleasing but the nutritionist made sure they were given proper food and not living solely on Ensure.
I left the home after several years for a position in a law library downtown.  Better pay and more in line with what I wanted to do with my life.  And I had to admit that I was tired of going home at the end of a long day with bits of food in my hair and reeking of Mulligatawny.  I look back at my years as a dietary aide fondly.  I was never screwed over, my bosses were good to all of us, and I have stories that, while they may not be funny in translation, still make me smile.  While it didn't exactly instill in me a love of cooking (you try mixing a sinkful of tuna salad with your hands) I still think government cheese makes a wonderful grilled sandwich (I use Kraft slices today) and every time I ate a little packet of graham crackers when I was pregnant I remembered how we used to sneak them out of the storeroom for the residents to stash for midnight snacks.

And I must admit that I loved wearing a hair net.