Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Lunch Lady Land

“Where d’ you think wim can get in?” Jeff wondered aloud as we pulled up behind the school district’s central kitchen around 10:30 a.m. today looking for a suitable tap from which to collect a bacteriological sample. Things appeared calm on the outside of the tidy brick structure as we approached. A white delivery truck was backed up to a bay where a double-decker cart was waiting on the outdoor platform, loaded with neat stacks of colorful pre-made salads and hoagies on pristine white buns, orderly and serene in the winter sunlight. And then a sealed bag of chopped lettuce came flying out of the building’s open door.

We heard a squeal and girlish giggling as we hesitantly climbed the steps. A tall blonde standing in the cargo bay of the truck was doubled over laughing, the corners of her white apron gathered in one hand, the bag of salad in the other. Whoever tossed the salad had ducked quickly back inside. Just as I decided it must be an isolated incident, we passed though the double doors and into utter chaos.

The kitchen was mayhem, a wide, white room with a high ceiling filled with a dozen or more bustling, barking women dressed uniformly in navy blue polo shirts, aprons, rubber gloves, and snoods or hairnets. Around the walls were deep stainless steel sinks, each with a massive sprayer and long, segmented chrome hose. Rows of stainless steel preparation tables and mysterious vats of bubbling amber fluid stood back to back in the center of the room, their metal plumbing hoses and valves exposed and labeled with colored metal tags. The walls featured racks of industrial-sized pots and pans, and laminated posters with cartoonized food items promoting good nutrition. An imposing metal slab of a door in the back must have led to a vast walk-in cooler.

The smell left me undecided, something between deli counter and car wash, not unpleasant but incredibly disconcerting. The women appeared to be on fast-forward. They laughed and shouted over the roar of equipment and the hiss of high-pressure water jets that herded globs of Spanish rice and pickle juice along stainless steel troughs to a wide-mouthed garbage disposal. A stout girl with dark curls squashed under a white snood was draining one of the bubbling vats into a greasy five-gallon bucket. Women were stacking crates of cantaloupe and bananas, compiling the components of packaged meals, dividing finger foods into portion-sized paper envelopes, and ladling into tiny, lidded plastic cups bright sauces from opaque plastic jars the size of gasoline canisters. In one corner a woman operated a mixer with an automated arm churning in a bathtub-sized bowl. She dumped flour in whole ten-pound bags at a time and added pale blocks of margarine she could hardly grasp in one hand.

In a walled-off, windowed corner, an office brimming with furniture, hardware, catalogs, papers, and colorful, food-themed knick-knacks contained a formidable woman clamping the receiver of a telephone to her head. As we were about to interrupt her, assuming she was in charge, another woman noticed us- standing in the doorway, overwhelmed- and inquired “as to our business.” Jeff explained the mission and she pointed out an empty sink, next to a woman rinsing baking sheets the size of tabletops. From her we learned that the entire system was on a water softener, but by this time Jeff was determined to get what he came for no matter the circumstances. Once we established an acceptable chlorine residual, he relieved the tap of its aerator, disinfected the spout with a cigarette lighter (inviting disapproving scowls from those of the aproned army near enough to watch, who craned their necks in curiosity but never lost momentum), and filled the BAC-T bottle just to the shoulder without exposing the mouth or the lid to the organic flotsam in the sink.

The women were jovial and boisterous, but intensely focused on their daily ballet- for it was, in a word, graceful. As we made our way through the din to the door, they politely sidestepped for us and each other, ducking and reaching, ceremoniously handing off trays, bags, and parcels as if they were the gilded cages of a magician’s proud doves. The apparent chaos was a neatly choreographed process of assembly and production, and I’m still marveling at the absence of spills and harsh words.

Jeff never remarked on the spectacle, concerned as he was with the task at hand (five more BAC-T locations) and, more importantly, getting to lunch on time. But I’m certain it made an impression on him; he left the building looking totally shell-shocked and shaking his head. I, on the other hand, took with me a rather inspiring and energizing picture of industry and camaraderie that lasted through an entire afternoon of shoveling snow with the boys.

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