Right now, my weather app claims that it is 29 degrees* here this afternoon in Arlington, Virginia. So far this winter we’ve had some cold spells, some cold rains, but only a couple of snow flurries. Still, it is winter enough to keep me inside today in reverie.
I’m old now and I do spend some time thinking about times long past. Shakespeare gives us the phrase “salad days” (Antony and Cleopatra, Act I, Scene 5). For me, though, the phrase is literal: I am thinking about the salads I’ve made and the salad ingredients I’ve grown.
Early salads Sometime in my early teens, I started making salads for the family dinners. This was an easy task, but I felt proud to do it. If you are from the Midwest of my childhood (or perhaps from another time or place, also), you may know this salad. I tore up iceberg lettuce, cut up tomatoes, and–if we had them–also put in cucumbers and scallions. I made the thousand island salad dressing by mixing Hellman’s mayonnaise and ketchup to which I might add a little pickle relish and/or chopped hard-boiled egg to make the islands. I think we all liked the salad well enough and it paired well with the meatloaf or pork chops or pot roast meals we often ate.
Around this same era, my mom taught me to make her potato salad. She was a careful cook and I can see her now–telling me how one needs to boil the potatoes with their “jackets” on, and then showing me how to cut them and the other vegetables in precise pieces before mixing in the few seasonings and dressing. I have been thinking about this potato salad for a couple of years now. I keep thinking I want to make a batch, even though our lives left the cold chicken and potato salad era decades ago. Tom and I both remember picnics up Mill Creek Canyon near Salt Lake City with our very young children and our friends-maybe cold chicken with potato salad in the summer and roasted hot dogs over a fire and potato salad when September came. The last time I made potato salad regularly was in the early 1990s in Washington, D.C. when I taught adult learners from the Food and Beverage Workers Union, Local 32. Most of the classes were on Saturdays and the students and I decided to have potluck lunches. Some students brought D.C. half-smokes, some brought macaroni and cheese, other brought chips, drinks, and other tasty foods. I brought the potato salad. I added more onion, cumin seed, and liquid from jarred jalapenos to my mom’s recipe and it was a hit. Watch for updates: When spring comes for real, I am going to make a batch of potato salad and go on a picnic with Tom and whomever else wants to come. I just can’t decide whether to bring the cold fried chicken or grill the hot dogs.
Middle salads As I’ve mentioned before, I spent the summer of 1970 working for the Utah Parks Company at Zion Inn in Zion National Park as a pantry worker (AKA “salad girl”). I worked the summers of 1971-1973 at Grand Canyon Lodge at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, also as a pantry worker. These are some of the happiest times of my life so I have years worth of reverie about this era. I learned a great deal from my bosses and coworkers about making salads, cooking, and life in general. In the national parks, I learned to make big trays of desserts and tubs of salads. One of the first lessons in Zion was that what worked in Michigan might not work in the desert southwest. Mary, my pantry boss, instructed me to prepare a large tray of cheese sandwiches. Being the organized person (I thought) I was, I lay out a full tray of bread slices in preparation for adding, in turn, the cheese slices and then the top slice of bread. There, in the desert, that first layer of bread dried out instantly and was unusable. Never would have happened like that in Michigan. Adapt to your circumstances was the lesson. I am still working on that.
In the Grand Canyon Lodge kitchen, I had other lessons to learn. Our dear bosses/mentors/friends-for-life were pantry supervisor Bertha Fitzwater and chef Floyd Winder. Bertha, born in 1897, was hard of hearing. Her hearing seemed selective, though: She could hear what she wanted and needed to hear and then ignore the rest. Early on that summer Bertha told me to “clean as you go” in the kitchen. I have done so ever since then, and it has served me and my kitchen well. More important than cleanliness is kindness and I learned some of that from Bertha. 1971 was so long ago, maybe you can hardly imagine it. We women in the kitchen wore horrible white uniform dresses (they deserve their own whole cranky reverie). Most of the hipp(i)er young men that headed to the North Rim cut their hair before they got there. Not so, Pat Malone. He showed up in the kitchen sporting his long golden locks and scraggly goatee. Utah Parks was a conservative company and many of the workers were traditionally minded Latter-Day Saints. So, as I watched, Pat was getting a quiet and cold shoulder from the workers in the kitchen. Maybe Bertha couldn’t hear, but she could see and feel. She got a bowl of ice cream and went right up to Pat and pushed the bowl near his face and said, smell this, I think it is going bad. Pat put his face down to smell and Bertha shoved the ice cream into his face. Haha, a good laugh all around and the ice was broken. Golden, elf-like Pat (gone these ten years) became a favorite of many. I still see and feel your kindness, Bertha, and I try sometimes to follow your path. Linda, Richard, and Gordon, we are still pantry friends together.
Chef Floyd Winder was a large middle-aged man with a military buzz cut, a Utah twang, a piercing intellect, and a wit as dry as the desert. I met Floyd (and Bertha) in May, 1971, just weeks after I had graduated from college. After all of those high octane professors (and yes, many of them were exemplary and I learned a great deal from their classes), all the papers I wrote, all the hours I had spent throwing around words like etiology, polity, and structural-functionalism, I was full of myself and my fancy education. Well, as I watched and listened to Bertha and Floyd I saw that they knew just as much about their own fields of endeavor as the professors did about theirs. More importantly, Bertha and Floyd seemed to understand human nature, but still decided to look at people with humor and kindness. Floyd knew his workers well, and if they were smart and conscientious, he just left them to their jobs—no micromanaging from him. Here are three short Floyd stories:
North Rim was about 80 miles from the closest town. So, when we ran out of ingredients, we were out until the next truck made its way up to our kitchen at the end of the road. The pantry staff made seafood cocktail appetizers, using crab, shrimp, lettuce, cocktail sauce–the usual ingredients. They were popular menu items, so we often ran out of the canned crab. What to do? Floyd said put canned tuna on the salad instead. To our alarmed looks Floyd simply noted that tuna comes from the sea.
Grand Lodge kitchen served excellent ice cream and sherbet, but we made ho-hum puddings, cobblers, cakes, and frozen pies baked in house. One time a customer was oohing and aahing to the server about her slice of pie. The guest asked for the recipe, so Floyd cut off the recipe panel from the frozen pie box for the woman. In neither of this or the above instance did Floyd smile.
The kitchen ran well under Floyd’s firm, but (somehow) laid-back rule. The menu was on a set schedule and the food was rolled out mostly the same week after week under his supervision. The only time I ever saw Floyd personally cook any food was when Utah Parks Company hosted a party for the staff. It turned out that not only could Floyd cook delicious food, but, by god, he created an ice sculpture for us.
I have other, more serious, stories about Floyd. When I felt lonely that year in Page, Arizona, I would visit Floyd and his kids at his home in Springdale, Utah right outside of Zion. A kind face and a homey meal meant a great deal to me back in those days when I was so green. A few years later, Floyd would visit Tom and me and our little children when he was up in Salt Lake City for cancer treatments at the VA Hospital.
Growing salads As I’ve mentioned before, I took up growing my own salads many years ago–49 years ago to be precise. Every garden space (from window sills to large gardens with grape vines and raspberries and corn) is different. Different, but always satisfying. Sometimes plants grow for me and sometimes they don’t, but I am always learning something new from them. Here is a partial list of the salad stuff I’ve grown: many types of lettuce, thyme, basil (five kinds), rosemary, spinach, Swiss chard, cilantro, sugar snap peas, shallots, onions, tomatoes (probably at least 25 varieties), peppers (probably more than 15 varieties), chives, lemon balm, sage, dill, borage, anise hyssop, artichokes, scallions, mint, radicchio, arugula, kale (at least three types), Italian oregano, cucumbers, broccoli, epazote, field cress, mizuna, parsley, lemon grass, and more that I can’t remember right this minute. However, the memories of my mother and the rest of my family, Bertha, Floyd, and all the others remain green.
*I started this article about two weeks ago, I have avoided working on it. Today, I feel spring in the air (and in my bones) and hear it in the birdsong.