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Why I Cook

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1160446877/gallery_29805_1195_10146.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">by Joseph Carey

First in a series.

A whorehouse was responsible for my nascent career as a lifelong voracious reader and too-long career as an English major, though I did eventually trick Indiana University out of a degree. My stepfather’s family had once owned a bakery, and they still owned the ancestral property on which it had been housed. They wanted to sell it and had to clean it out, and I was recruited to help. The second story had been a whorehouse: my job.

Victoria’s Secret had nothing on these babes. I was awash in an ethereal sea of garter belts, bras, mesh stockings, panties, nightgowns and shoes -- boxes and boxes, overflowing with them. It was a real learning experience for a teenager. But, lest you think that there was no cultural aspect involved in the evisceration of this enclave of iniquity, the walls of the Madame’s room were lined with books. She was a reader. She had hundreds of volumes: classics and hardbacks. My stepfather told me to heave them. I asked if I could have them and he just shrugged. I took them all.

In Richmond, my stepfather got me a job. It was January and very cold when I began working for Glen and his son, Stanley Bybee, at the Bybee and Son Casket Company. It was situated in the middle of the block -- I mean, really in the middle, surrounded on all sides by houses, one of which belonged to Glen Bybee. It was just a few steps up from the factory door to their kitchen.

Bybee and Son consisted of Bybee and son, me and a part-time welder who came in occasionally. Let’s see, there was Bybee, that’s one, and then there was Son, that’s two and then there was me. Guess who was the turd? I bought a pair of overalls, something I'd never owned. This thing just gets more and more Dickensian, folks.

Richmond, Indiana is something of an afterthought on the species -- except for Earlham College, a nifty place. Jim Jones honed his preaching and Kool-Aid making skills on the street corners of Richmond. I never did drink the Kool-Aid.

So, I made baby caskets during the day and read Strindberg, Ibsen and LeRoi Jones and listened to all nine of Beethoven's symphonies (Toscanini) and Frank Sinatra at night, often falling asleep in my overalls. I was trying to get in the pants of a cheerleader who lived in an apartment in the same complex as did my mother and stepfather. Didn’t have much success, just a little making-out. My credentials were scanty at the time -- a third-string field goal kicker could out status me. Not a hell of a lot of panache in being the turd at a baby casket factory.

The snow was to the top of my boots. Promptly at noon every workday, Glen and Stanley would climb the few steps to the warm kitchen (it was cold in the factory.) I put on my coat, gloves and hat and trooped five blocks in the snow (yes, it was uphill both ways) to the Spudnut Shop where they made doughnuts with potato flour, to eat my lunch, which consumed about 15% of my daily wage. I made $1.00 an hour.

There was a sheet metal ceiling here. I didn’t see much room for advancement, unless Stanley and the welder died. One of my jobs was sawing little pieces of wood on a table saw. I mean little. Tiny blocks that were wedged into the sheet metal rims of the caskets for the lining to be tacked to. I spaced out one day -- cheerleader fantasy, as I recollect -- and ran my left thumb through the saw -- I’ll show you the scar. Blood spurted everywhere and Glen was downright irritated with me: Down time. Lost efficiency. I’d no car so Stanley drove me to the emergency room. Several stitches later and doped up I was on the couch with Frank Sinatra. I took the rest of the day off and Stanley picked me up for work the next morning. My days in the baby casket industry were numbered.

Glen pissed and moaned about my speed over the next few days. I saw the mene mene on dirty concrete block walls.

I’d saved enough money to buy a 1954 Mercury convertible. I quit before he fired me -- just barely, I think. I found the best restaurant in Richmond, Indiana. It was in a motel, the chef was Austrian, the manager German and the sous chef a redneck. I was first cook and dishwasher. Me -- flunky émigré from the baby casket industry, now first cook and dishwasher.

But, it was a real restaurant. I learned some stuff.

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Joseph Carey, aka ChefCarey, is the author of Creole Nouvelle: Contemporary Creole Cookery and Chef on Fire: The Five Techniques for Using Heat Like a Pro. He cooks, teaches and writes in Memphis, Tennessee.

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Sometimes it just takes us a while to get our thoughts together!

In my case, it was because you took me back a ways. I spent a great deal of my youth in Richmond (and attended Earlham, as a matter of fact). My father was born there, and his parents lived on NW 7th Street for better than 60 years. It was there that I first tasted Rice Chex, grapefruit juice, homegrown tomatoes (Grandpa Cecil was a composter before composting was cool), something Grandma called a frog-eye (a slice of bread with a hole in the middle; the bread was fried in butter, an egg fresh from my uncle's henhouse having been broken into the hole); and countless other culinary treasures, including what was then known as Colonel Sanders' Kentucy Fried Chicken.

But you wanted to talk about restaurants, a tough topic in a city whose skyline was dominated for decades by the silo tower of the Purina pet food plant. The place I best remember wasn't anything -- foodwise -- to write home about; it was just the site of countless Sunday-after-meeting dinners (Richmond is chock-full of Quakers). So your story led me to do a little research. I don't know how sad it will make you, Chef Carey, but I shed a tear when I came across a record of the recent demise of Miller Cafeteria, a true Richmond landmark.


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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An interesting story. I wonder about how anyone could make baby caskets all day and still maintain their sanity about the world. I also wonder about what you learned in the new job at the restaurant.

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Well wow you kinda did leave me speechless. No mean feat. And for all the right reasons.

Awaiting future installments with similarly baited breath.


Priscilla

Writer, cook, & c. ● #TacoFriday observant ● Twitter Instagram

 

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Sometimes it just takes us a while to get our thoughts together!

In my case, it was because you took me back a ways. I spent a great deal of my youth in Richmond (and attended Earlham, as a matter of fact). My father was born there, and his parents lived on NW 7th Street for better than 60 years. It was there that I first tasted Rice Chex, grapefruit juice, homegrown tomatoes (Grandpa Cecil was a composter before composting was cool), something Grandma called a frog-eye (a slice of bread with a hole in the middle; the bread was fried in butter, an egg fresh from my uncle's henhouse having been broken into the hole); and countless other culinary treasures, including what was then known as Colonel Sanders' Kentucy Fried Chicken.

But you wanted to talk about restaurants, a tough topic in a city whose skyline was dominated for decades by the silo tower of the Purina pet food plant. The place I best remember wasn't anything -- foodwise -- to write home about; it was just the site of countless Sunday-after-meeting dinners (Richmond is chock-full of Quakers). So your story led me to do a little research. I don't know how sad it will make you, Chef Carey, but I shed a tear when I came across a record of the recent demise of Miller Cafeteria, a true Richmond landmark.

I took a couple of English classes at Earlham after I left the baby casket factory. I liked the place a bunch, and could have gone there, but I wanted out of Richmond bad. Went to IU.

Yes, the Miller Cafeteria was one of the very few "restaurants" in Richmond. Right up the street , on Main Street, was/is The JoyAnn Cake Shop. This was my stepfather and uncle's bakery. I did work there some, but there wasn't enough work and I made "relative" wages. Consequently, Bybee and Son... And, yeah, the Quaker culture was just about the only "culture" in Richmond.

And I knew the bread and egg dish as "toad-in-the-hole."

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Well wow you kinda did leave me speechless.  No mean feat.  And for all the right reasons.

Awaiting future installments with similarly baited breath.

Duke and Priscilla - there's more on the way. If you were in the least entertained by this stuff, better fasten your seatbelts. :biggrin:

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Well wow you kinda did leave me speechless.  No mean feat.  And for all the right reasons.

Awaiting future installments with similarly baited breath.

Duke and Priscilla - there's more on the way. If you were in the least entertained by this stuff, better fasten your seatbelts. :biggrin:

Just one more thing and I'll get out of the way here. My Mercury was *much* niftier than that one! A real pimpmobile. Black, with a red leather interior and a white top. Harrumph.

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I was trying to get in the pants of a cheerleader who lived in an apartment in the same complex and my mother and stepfather.

I hope that was a typo because otherwise this story just became a whole lot more sordid than I imagined :hmmm:.


PS: I am a guy.

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I was trying to get in the pants of a cheerleader who lived in an apartment in the same complex and my mother and stepfather.

I hope that was a typo because otherwise this story just became a whole lot more sordid than I imagined :hmmm:.

It's a typo. While my past may have a certain checkered aspect to it, I did draw *some* lines. Besides, they really weren't my type. I think, as I recall, I was going through my Jewish princess phase at the time. That one lasted a few years. :wink:

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An interesting story.  I wonder about how anyone could make baby caskets all day and still maintain their sanity about the world.  I also wonder about what you learned in the new job at the restaurant.

While there are those who would definitely argue I did not maintain my sanity, I am told some of what I learned is in the offing.

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And I knew the bread and egg dish as "toad-in-the-hole."

My father made them for us on Saturday mornings, and the proper name is "Egg in a Hat."

I've always wondered how the pros came to cooking: well, escaping a baby-casket factory is one of them! The upcoming episodes will track Joseph's life in The Life , and provide a handy political and social history of the United States since the early sixties.


Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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I was trying to get in the pants of a cheerleader who lived in an apartment in the same complex and my mother and stepfather.

I hope that was a typo because otherwise this story just became a whole lot more sordid than I imagined :hmmm:.

I made the edit: It's much less sordid now.


Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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What a unique story! I look forward to the next installment.


Michael aka "Pan

 

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I always love a story that tells of a man whose career (nascent or not) was started in a whorehouse.

Add some good books in the tale, some good cooking, a pimpmobile, and what more could one want? :biggrin: Eh. Add a cat or two and I'll be blissed out. :raz:

:wink:

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I'm gone for one day, and all this good stuff happens. Frrrrrumph. And Hooray.

You touched a lot of memories for me, down to the casket company, which our little town had as well, though none of our family ever worked there. And we're right close to Richmond---close enough to run over for dinner---wish I'd known about Miller's before now. We just went to Hagerstown for a birthday dinner at Weliver's last week---it's the "destination place" now for home-cooking. (Scalloped cabbage and watermelon pickles--MMMMM).

I, too, received my first potload of books in a dubious fashion, though the gift outweighed by tons any transgressions of the giver. I just know they set me on my path of voracious reading, and I'll never fail to bless her for that.

And once, through NO fault of my fastidious, clean-living Mammaw, her no-account sister took me on a Sunday-morning cash collection at her own nefarious establishment. I was four, and didn't know any better than to talk about the pretty ladies and their beautiful, silky nightgowns when I got home. This and other clues tell me that we have a similar background in a lot of ways, though separated by a lotta geography. Looking forward to any and all installments---You gotta love a man with such a checkered past.

rachel

PS---It's a One-Eyed Sandwich.

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I always love a story that tells of a man whose career (nascent or not) was started in a whorehouse.

Add some good books in the tale, some good cooking, a pimpmobile, and what more could one want?  :biggrin: Eh. Add a cat or two and I'll be blissed out.  :raz:

:wink:

When I lived in Berkeley (next installment of my story) I had a black cat named Mycroft.

Now, I have a black cat named Rasputin. (But, I call him Fatso - don't want him to get too full of himself.)

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I'm gone for one day, and all this good stuff happens.  Frrrrrumph.  And Hooray.

You touched a lot of memories for me, down to the casket company, which our little town had as well, though none of our family ever worked there.  And we're right close to Richmond---close enough to run over for dinner---wish I'd known about Miller's before now.  We just went to Hagerstown for a birthday dinner at Weliver's last week---it's the "destination place" now for home-cooking.  (Scalloped cabbage and watermelon pickles--MMMMM).

I, too, received my first potload of books in a dubious fashion, though the gift outweighed by tons any transgressions of the giver.  I just know they set me on my path of voracious reading, and I'll never fail to bless her for that.

And once, through NO fault of my fastidious, clean-living Mammaw, her no-account sister took me on a Sunday-morning cash collection at her own nefarious establishment.    I was four, and didn't know any better than to talk about the pretty ladies and their beautiful, silky nightgowns when I got home.  This and other clues tell me that we have a similar background in a lot of ways, though separated by a lotta geography.  Looking forward to any and all installments---You gotta love a man with such a checkered past.

rachel

PS---It's a One-Eyed Sandwich.

Thanks. Stay tuned. It just gets checkereder.

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"Thanks. Stay tuned. It just gets checkereder."

Great read...............and I LOVE that word !

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wow... great story and we've just barely begun to mention food... heh. can't wait to read the rest of it!

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wow... great story and we've just barely begun to mention food... heh.  can't wait to read the rest of it!

And I didn't even start at the beginning. See, it was like this...one day in New Orleans _ I was six years old - my mother said we were going to the zoo (she knew I loved the zoo.) Hmmm, first time she had ever packed a bag to go to the zoo. 500 miles and one train ride later were in Evansville, Indiana. And, thus, she left my father. So, I've been at the zoo my whole life...never returned home. (Have been to New Orleans many times, though.)

Thanks. :biggrin:

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