[Note: This post won the Salon.com Kitchen Challenge for the week of March 29, 2010]
Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia
In the summer of 1975, my wife Sue and I were both in graduate school at Washington University in St Louis. I had just finished my first year working on a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology and she was starting an M.A. Ed. program in Counseling. We were poor, really poor, in the pretend way of being poor when you know it won’t actually last forever.
We lived in a third floor walk up, an old, condemned brick building in the neighborhood and of the kind that was inhabited by Tennessee Williams when he was inspired to write The Glass Menagerie – a red brick building with a metal fire escape on the rear, tall ceilings and tall windows, a building that absorbed the blast-furnace-like sun of St. Louis in the summer time and radiated all of that life-sucking heat and humidity back into the building every miserable night.
During our first year of marriage Sue worked as a minimum wage insurance clerk while I went to school. Most nights we ate spaghetti with a sauce I made from a few herbs and spices and a 10-cent can of tomato paste. It was good, but we at a lot of it. Don’t invite me to your house for spaghetti. If we were feeling rich, we would pop open a small can of tuna and really live it up. For a special treat, we would save up our money and go to McDonald’s for a Big Mac like we were the last of the high rollers. Good times.
I liked cooking from an early age. I started reading cookbooks for fun at about 6 years old and was encouraged by my grandmother and mother to develop my cooking interests. My grandmother spent a lot of time running delicatessens, so she knew about the food service business. She taught me about herbs and spices and a number of old school cooking tricks that I don’t share with anyone outside of the family. My mother’s relatives were all good cooks; my grandfather was a baker and my uncle ran several restaurants.
A lot of that knowledge came down to me, so naturally I spent some time in the food service industry myself. In high school I worked as a busboy at an Elk’s Lodge in Indianapolis until a seriously drunken Elk three times my age offered to throw me through a large plate glass window for no particular reason. I graduated college a semester early in 1973 because the draft had ended, so to support myself I worked a stint at a chain restaurant called Lum’s. I prepped and cooked hot ham sandwiches and pastrami and corned beef sandwiches and beer-cooked hot dogs and French fries and onion rings and fried mushrooms and who knows what else, and pulled about a million pitchers of beer.
I hated that job for two reasons: 1) while I was in the back slopping around in the kitchen and pulling pitchers, all of the college kids who were smart enough not to graduate early were out front eating the food and playing drinking games (what was I thinking?); and 2) every night at closing I had to filter the boiling hot fryer oil for use the next day, which left me one careless move away from third-degree burns and perpetually smelling of bad French fries everywhere I went.
Naturally, I vowed to myself that no matter how desperate I might be, I would never work in food service again. Ever.
In the summer of 1975 when Sue quit her punk insurance job to go back to school to compensate for the fact that her undergraduate degree was in sociology and she would never make any money with that useless diploma, we needed some dough and we needed it in a bad way. I hit the streets in search of “summer employment”.
I don’t know how well you remember 1974-1975, but the economy was a shambles. Pundits often claim that the economy today is in the worst position it has been in since 1974, if not worse. I have seen both periods, and from my end of the periscope it is pretty bad either way.
Nevertheless, I hit the pavement with the confidence of youth looking for employment, armed with my somewhat exalted status of “First Year Graduate Student in Biological Anthropology, with a B.A. in Spanish Language and Literature to Boot, All from Reputable Universities”. I felt certain that suitably compensated opportunity could not be difficult to find.
I am sure that I do not have to explain to you the many reasons why my search did not go as planned. Good times.
Finally as the search grew longer and money grew shorter, I came to the realization that I might have to seek employment with that old reliable standby, the dreaded Food Service Industry. That realization, and a rumpled want ad, led me to Jackie’s Place.
Jackie’s Place was a rather upscale sports bar-restaurant in an upscale suburb of St. Louis called Ladue, which was a long, long way from the university ghetto where I lived. It had a nice décor, with sports memorabilia and very large blown-up sports photos on the walls. Most of the mementos and photos were of the establishment’s owner and namesake, Jackie Smith. Jackie Smith was a legend and a hero in St. Louis—he played tight end for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1963 to 1977, was the offensive team co-captain, went to the Pro-Bowl for five straight years, and set several team and NFL records that stood for years. This guy was the real McCoy and one of the most popular figures in the city. All the big time sports guys from the baseball Cardinals and the football Cardinals and the St. Louis Blues hockey team used to come into his place to eat and drink. If you were into pro sports, this was your kind of place.
Sadly, I was largely unaware of most of this at the time as I was not into sports. I did like to go to the occasional baseball game if the weather was good. See paragraph four above.
The want ad called for a cook. I detested the idea of working as a cook again, but a job is a job and money is money. I presented myself on Monday morning at the restaurant. There I met a middle-aged, rather wealthy seeming woman named Rita, who introduced herself as the general manager. She looked at my paperwork, we chatted for about 10 minutes, and then she said, “Can you cook?” “Sure,” I said. She said, “Go in the kitchen and cook lunch. The cook didn’t come in today.”
“Whoa!” you must be saying to yourself about now. “How could he cook lunch? He doesn’t know what’s on the menu. He doesn’t know where anything is located in the kitchen. He doesn’t know anything! This can’t possibly work out.” Well, I was certainly thinking all of that, and more, even if you aren’t.
It was insane. I quickly went through everything in the kitchen looking for food, plates, pans, utensils, whatever I might need. I grabbed a menu and made a quick dash down the list of offerings and fired up the stove as high as it would go. Then the waitresses started bringing in the orders from the lunch rush. It was furious, or at least it seemed so to me. I was slapping out burgers and other sandwiches and fries and rings and chicken and shrimp and just making it all up as I went, as quickly as I could dish it out. It was like being on a reality TV show, except that nobody had ever heard of reality TV in 1975.
Finally the lunch rush was over and everybody got fed and nobody complained, at least to me (I had sharp knives). Rita strolled in casually and said, “Come back tomorrow.” It occurred to me then that I wasn’t getting paid for today. Good times.
When I came back the next morning, Rita said, “ I have another idea. I want you to be the manager of Jackie’s Place. We’ll get another cook. Marty the Bartender is the manager now, but he is an alcoholic who drinks from the bar and steals from the till, so you have three days to get him to teach you everything he knows, then we will fire him.” I protested that I knew nothing about being a bartender or managing a restaurant. She said, “Hmmm,” and left.
For three days Marty taught me everything he knew, which fell primarily into two categories: 1) how to drink all day at the bar without getting caught; and 2) how to skim the till without getting caught. He seemed like a pretty nice guy, but considering what I knew about his fate I didn’t feel inclined to follow any of his advice. I think he knew he was going to get fired, but he did not really seem to care. However, the waitresses cared, for they all loved Marty (probably for the free drinks he made them) and they hated me for stealing Marty’s job. Waitresses who hate you when you are new can really make your life unpleasant.
I spent the rest of the summer working 14 hour days, 6 days a week and hating every minute of it--managing, taking care of the money, ordering food and supplies, listening to the waitresses bitch about nearly everything. I tended bar and listened to the endlessly tedious stories of the drunken salesmen who fritter away their expense account-fueled days in places like that. I discovered that for drunken daytime salesmen, you don’t have to have many bar skills. Put whisky or gin or vodka in a glass with some ice and there you are. Just keep 'em comin'.
We did get a cook, a guy named Donald. On the three days a week he actually showed up to work he was pretty good. On the other days I had to cook and bartend and manage at the same time. I was getting a salary of $650 a month. Rita was nowhere to be seen. Good times.
By now you must be thinking, “Wow, this is a really worthless story about a really worthless job.” But you would be wrong, and here is why.
From time to time Jackie Smith liked to come into the bar and hang out. Not often, but on occasion. He was, not surprisingly, a big man, with light-colored eyes, reddish-blond hair, pinkish-white skin, a zillion freckles, and forearms like country hams. He was born in Mississippi but lived and went to college in northern Louisiana. I think you get the picture. He was softly spoken and had a lovely blond wife and several little kids. His wife taught me to make authentic Louisiana gumbo.
I think Jackie liked me--maybe because I worked hard, maybe because I was not all that taken by his football stardom. In any case, one day I was tending bar and probably looking a little bedraggled, and he said to me, “Come into the kitchen kid, I want to teach you something.” And he proceeded to teach me to make Jackie Smith’s Louisiana Hot Wings. It is a simple recipe really, just a few ingredients. He was adamant that you have to eat them fresh, as hot out of the fryer as you can stand them. I don’t think that Jackie knew how to cook anything else, but this one thing was enough. He whipped up a batch and we ate them on the spot and angels wept.
As he left the kitchen, I said, “So, Jackie, are these Louisiana Hot Wings?” And he said, “Son, screw those son-of-a-guns from Buffalo.”
He was right.
There is a post-script to this story. After 15 years with the St. Louis Cardinals, in 1978, Jackie left and signed with the hated Dallas Cowboys, the archrivals of the Cardinals. The whole city felt betrayed and he was vilified and reviled far and wide. Jackie was used sparingly by Dallas, and did not catch a single pass the entire season. However, Dallas went to the Super Bowl that year, Jackie’s first and only chance to play in the big game. As it turned out, it was a day of infamy for him. The Cowboys were trailing the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-14 in the third quarter when Jackie dropped a pass from Roger Staubach in the end zone, forcing Dallas to go for a field goal. Dallas ended up losing the game by four points, the four points that Jackie lost when he dropped the ball. ESPN ranks the dropped pass #24 on the list of “100 Greatest Super Bowl Moments”. Not so much for Jackie. Good times.
Jackie retired after the 1978 season and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994.
It’s okay Jack, your wings are still the best.
Now, everyone gets to try the best hot wings ever whipped up by a Pro Football Hall of Famer:
Jackie Smith’s Louisiana Hot Wings
[Serves: one person if you are a teen-aged boy, more if you are normal people]
Several pounds of uncooked chicken wings, washed and patted dry, with the wing tips tucked under the upper bone
1 Bottle of Louisiana Hot Sauce
1 pound of salted butter, melted
Celery sticks (optional)
Bleu cheese or ranch dressing (optional)
1. Combine the melted butter and one half (or more to taste) of the bottle of Louisiana Hot Sauce in a largish mixing bowl.
2. Fry the wings, several at a time, in deep fat at 375 degrees until they are golden and crisp, about 4-5 minutes
3. Remove crispy wings from hot oil with tongs or slotted spoon and drain briefly on a spread-out newspaper, preferably a newspaper from Louisiana
4. While still very hot, add wings to butter-hot sauce mixture and stir to coat well
5. Remove wings to plate and eat immediately while you cook up the rest of the wings
6. Serve with celery sticks and bleu cheese or ranch dressing, if for some reason you feel you must
7. Don’t forget the napkins!
Copyright 2010 Stephen Easley