by John Ryan
A curious thing about restaurant work is how a conversation can spread out over a whole day. Or days. And how people who aren't even in the room can know of these conversations. And how, occasionally, a single conversation can mark a period of history.
Around eleven o'clock one morning I was liberating a whole pastrami from its plastic cryovac bag, something I did every two or three days, to slice up for the lunch rush. On this particular day the new dishwasher, Clarence, asked what it was. "Pastrami." I said. "Where's it come from?" he asked. I was stumped. And face to face with the fact that until that moment I didn't even know that I didn't know.
My first impulse was to say "Whaddaya mean, it's pastrami. It comes out of a plastic bag. It goes on rye. End of story." But instead I told him it came from a wild animal indigenous to Argentina. He looked a little doubtful and dropped it, but I could tell he was half convinced. I think it was the word indigenous that did it.
Clarence was a quiet, thoughtful kid. So during the next couple weeks he never came right out and said that he thought we were putting him on. Instead, every few days he would find a way to raise the subject. It was sort of like a video game or puzzle he knew he could master...if he found the right way to approach it.
On my own I don't think I could've brought pastrami into the world. I'm not that imaginative and I can't keep a straight face for long. What gave the feisty little critters life was a weird, rare sort of jazz. There was no script or rehearsals. Actually, when Clarence wasn't around nobody mentioned it. But every time he brought it up somebody would take a solo. The edge was that we never knew who would take it or what it'd be.
One afternoon the manager, Michael, your typical penny-loafer, just-a-little-bit-stuffy Yale grad, was in the kitchen going over the evening's reservations. When he overheard Clarence ask another cook "He wasn't serious about pastrami being an animal was he?" Michael took it up as if absolutely everybody knew about pastrami. "You've heard of gaucho haven't you?" he asked, "Well, the gaucho are the men who round up roving herds of pastrami." (Very nice.)A few days later Clarence asked Christine, a waitress, if she knew what gauchos were. Looking up from cutting lemons for iced tea, she explained that the plural was gaucho, not gauchos, (Oh yeah, she's good) just like "pastrami" was the plural, that in Argentinean "pastramo" was the singular. (She's really good.)When, a few days later, he asked why everybody called it pastrami, there was a pause, a sort of collective held breath waiting to see who'd take this one. Just as it was becoming awkward, someone punted "You know, that's a good question, you'll have to ask Christine."
When she worked again, she didn't drop a beat. While she was filling salt shakers she explained how we did that with a lot of words. How we called everything chili even though "chili" is the soup and "chile" is the pepper. (I didn't know that.) Or how "fish" can mean one fish or lots of the same kind of fish, but "fishes" means different kinds of fish. (I didn't know that either.)Another time Larry, the broiler cook, who spent many of his days off at a stable north of the city, put a special breed of horse under the resourceful pastrami gaucho. We all learned how they were smaller, what we'd call ponies only they were full grown. He explained in equestrian terms how these 'strami ponies were better adapted to the wily maneuvers of a pastramo when it cut from the herd. By the time he was done it was obvious that the horses used to round up big, stupid cattle would be useless against a nimble pastramo. That little improvisation settled it. If falling trees can make noise even when nobody's around, then there can be herds of pastrami roaming the plains of Argentina.
One day, it was my first day back after a vacation and I was getting re-oriented to what needed to be done. Whenever anyone would ask about my vacation, I'd go into one part of it, maybe a restaurant I'd been to or a place I thought they'd like. Anyway, when Clarence came in for his shift after school, he asked me how my vacation had been and inspiration hit. It was my turn to take a solo. "You know," I started, warming up the theme "while I was in Washington I went to the natural history museum and there was this great exhibit. I know you think we've all pulling your leg with this pastrami thing, but if you get down there you can see for yourself. In the dinosaur room there's this big mural and in one part you can see herds of prehistoric pastrami...it even says so on the thing...the sign...it's just to the right of the pastrami. They're a little ganglier than modern pastrami, but you can really see the resemblance."
to be continued...
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
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