Thursday, March 26, 2009
EAT'N AINT CHEAT'N
I spent my formative years growing up in the kitchen of an Italian deli. My entire family worked there starting in 1975. My great-grandfather, grandfather, grandmother, mother, father, brother, aunt, uncle, and various cousins all did stints cooking, slicing salami, or delivering lunch at some point during the thirty years that the delicatessen remained operational. In its twilight the family establishment was kept going by my mother, grandfather, and grandmother. I would work there in between being on tour and unemployed.
I have fond memories of my grandfather’s reactions to certain songs played in heavy rotation on mainstream radio a few years after the turn of our current century. My grandfather once referred to a Weezer song as sounding African. He also assured me, upon asking his opinion of the song, “Would,” that if he ever met Alice In Chains’ front man, Layne Staley, he WOULD indeed greet him by hitting him in the face with a frozen mackerel. My grandfather and I saw eye to eye on the latter. The former always seemed a bit of a stretch to me.
A close friend and band mate of mine, D. Lee, once worked as a delivery person at my grandfather’s deli during the late 1990’s and received a complimentary yet accidental burn as a result of my grandfather mistaking D. Lee’s hand for a cup where scalding hot chicken soup should have been poured. With bubbles and puss emanating from his freshly wounded hand, D. Lee, still in shock, calmly suggested to my grandfather that he may need to leave to go the hospital, to which my grandfather replied, “Toughen up.” My grandfather’s remedy: to submerge D. Lee’s hand in the stagnant bleach laden water used for washing the day’s accumulated pots and pans, not exactly new age holistic practice.
There are countless tales attesting to my grandfather’s old world and colorful personality. For our purposes though I’ll refrain from delving too deep. Everyone who has ever met my grandfather knew him as a fiercely independent, passionately imaginative, and entrepreneurial-minded combination of Joe Pesci or Robert Dinero and Michael Landon, if Landon were Italian, of course. My grandfather loved his family more than anything on earth yet every other word that came out of his mouth was either “motherfucker” or “cocksucker.” As a result, I was allowed to utter curses as early as the third grade. And I’m not talking about the occasional, “Damn,” or, “Oh hell.” I was allowed to drop motherfuckin’ F bombs. And it ruled! I’ve always been thankful for that part of my childhood. But I digress. As much as I loved my grandfather when he was around, the method he employed for making tuna salad made me cringe.
The way my grandfather made tuna salad at the deli was the way I, in turn, learned to make tuna salad at the deli, which is the reason why I always urge close friends who reach for that tuna salad sandwich at the local Quick Check or 7 Eleven to strongly reconsider their choice for satiating afternoon hunger pangs. Keep in mind that the deli was established in 1975, the dawning of what I like to refer to as, “The No Consequences Era,” subsequently referred to as the NCE, during which most of my friends and I were raised. The NCE began sometime in the mid-seventies, hit its peak around 1987 with the release of Appetite For Destruction, and petered out around 1991 when everyone “got all grunge.”
The NCE is earmarked by a blissfully ignorant lack of foresight for any actions committed in the present as having negative effects in the future. For example, “If only one single tear is coming out of only one Indian’s eye then what the hell is so wrong with disposing of raw garbage in the middle of the street? Let’s litter away, celebrate with a hot plate of disco fries, and smoke a pack of Kool Kings to wash everything down with.” And of course there’s the typical, “These seat belts make it very difficult for me to drink while I’m driving. It’s bad enough that I have to slip these little plastic covers that have the Pepsi logo on them over my Budweiser can to now be able to drink while driving in the first place.” The late seventies were all about drinking while driving. In the nineteen-eighties, the focus shifted from drinking while driving to the calamities associated with drinking and then driving as seen with the formations of MADD and SADD. In other words, if you want to be down with Nancy Reagan then don’t drink before you get behind the wheel, just drink while you’re behind the wheel because the buzz won’t really kick in until you’re at your destination, so you’re good, but you might want to take a cab home and pick up your car in the morning. Thus is the logic of the NCE.
I believe that my grandfather’s method for making tuna salad precedes the NCE but becomes etched in stone as the preferred method throughout the NCE which is why it carries through as the paradigm for tuna salad preparation long after the NCE comes to an end and remains as such until the deli closes in 2005. The point here is that older generations can be set in their old world ways. More importantly, people lived through the late nineteen-seventies and the entirety of the nineteen-eighties without Purell anti-bacterial hand sanitizer.
Accordingly, when making tuna salad at my grandfather’s deli you went RAW DOG. You definitely didn’t wear a hairnet because your hair was too important to mess up just because some “banana” wanted a tuna salad sandwich, which was apparently a sandwich, along with turkey, that shouldn’t be ordered in an Italian deli anyway.
You washed your hands but you didn’t take your rings off. Did Liberace take his rings off whilst performing? Nope. Liberace put more rings on when tickling the ivories in order to provide himself with that extra strength that made his performances so breathtaking. Thus are the rings of the tuna salad artisan. When you pull that excess tuna from underneath the rings of each finger and throw it back into the salad batch you are infusing the flavor of the tuna, mayo, and celery with the power of the ore, all the trials and tribulations that those very gold bands, adorned with rubies and faux cat’s eyes, have withstood over the years.
Are you going to put that cigarette out just because you have to make a new batch of tuna salad? Why would you waste a smoke? As a garnish, ash easily passes for pepper. I’m not saying that pepper and ash are interchangeable. However, some existentialists believe that the universe is a random collection of accidents. So, if an ash from a Marlboro Light 100 accidentally made its way into the tuna salad it would surely be mistaken for pepper and the flavor of the batch would most certainly not suffer as a result.
When you’re at the bottom of an economy-sized vat of Hellman’s mayo how are you going to get to those last scoops when the spoon just won’t reach? You go elbow deep into that bitch because waste is a cardinal sin. So, when you throw that final mayo blast into the mix to get the right proportions, achieved by feel as opposed to actual measuring, you’ll then commence a final mixing of everything by the strength of your bare hands. Then, repeat the finger/ring cleaning ritual to avoid waste and lock maximum flavor into the newly married tuna. As one can ascertain here, making one serving of tuna salad for yourself in the comfort of your own home is an entirely different task than making tuna salad in bulk for sale in a delicatessen.
I recently purchased a couple of chicken cutlets from a local supermarket. This transaction occurred at the deli counter. I was simultaneously delighted and disgusted to witness a woman preparing tuna salad in plain view according to old world NCE regulations. Any tinges of nostalgia I felt for days spent with my grandfather in the kitchen of his deli quickly dissipated as a severe feeling of nausea washed over me.
The deli counter in the supermarket on that fateful day was understaffed. As a result, I was made to wait for the tuna salad artisan to complete her fresh batch before I could order the two cooked chicken cutlets. I intended to put the cutlets in a soup I had planned for dinner. As I’m waiting I come to realize exactly what the woman behind the counter is doing. Mixed emotions well up inside me and I begin to question whether or not I would be able go through with my intended purchase. The tuna salad artisan is indeed raw dog and elbow deep sans sanitary glove inside an economy sized vat of mayo getting ready to administer a final blast to her fishy mélange. As she is performing this task she is loudly making yummy noises, almost as if to taunt any onlookers, “MMM… MMMMM.” Then, shortly following the yummy taunts the tuna salad artisan lets loose two bellowing lumber jack sized sneezes, “BLAHCHOO…WHAGACHOO!.” She then turns around, wipes her nose with her non-mayo’d forearm, and walks over to the sink to clean the mayo off of her bare hand, tattooed forearm, and the tip of her elbow. While doing so she makes a few more quiet yummy noises.
I am utterly stunned at this point as I realize I’m in way too deep to abort my order because the tuna salad artisan has already addressed me saying, “I’ll be right with you hun.” It takes every ounce of strength I have left at this point to refrain from vomiting in my own mouth. “What can I getcha hun?”
“I’ll have two grilled chicken cutlets please,” I muttered reluctantly. The tuna salad artisan hastily weighs the cutlets, wraps them, and marks them with their respective total price. At this point, I am just itching to get the fuck out of there, not knowing yet if I will eventually be able to add these tainted cutlets to the soup I have planned for dinner. Moments before the tuna salad artisan is getting my order wrapped I notice in my peripheral a young pleasantly plump woman wearing blue nurse’s quarterlies waiting patiently holding a garden salad in a plastic to-go container. As I’m handed the cutlets I turn to walk away and hear the tuna salad artisan inquire, “What can I getcha hun?”
The pretty nurse raises the plastic casing containing the virgin garden salad and politely asks, “Can you make this a tuna salad?”
I scream wildly inside my mind, straighten my gait, and quicken my pace toward the door. So, even though cunnilingus is not adultery EAT’N can be CHEAT’N. In this case, the unknowing nurse would be CHEAT’N death if she lived to see another day after voluntarily EAT’N that modified salad of hers. Trying not to think about the blood on my hands for not stepping in after what I had witnessed I went home and added the cutlets to my soup pretending that there were no such things as sneezes while longing for the days of the NCE.