Saturday, March 19, 2011

Slinging Hash: Dispatches from the Sunshine State I

When I was a kid I wanted to grow up to be a short-order cook. I still enjoy sitting at the counter of any diner or greasy spoon and watching the cooks juggling the orders. Perhaps I can find work slinging hash during my retirement? I haven’t so far, but I am still young (kind of). It is an idea worth serious consideration.

On our way down to Florida we were eating lunch at one of the ubiquitous Waffle Houses found throughout the southern United States. We sat at the counter and I watched the cook preparing my wife’s “checkerboard” (a large waffle) and my “heart attack on a rack” (toasted Texas biscuits with sausage gravy), a large rasher of bacon “in the alley” (on the side), while our waitress, who called both of us “darlin’,” poured me a large cup of joe “flowing like the Mississippi” (black coffee) . . . . no “blonde with sand” (cream and sugar) for me. And there is something appealing about the attire of a good grill man. It can fluctuate depending on mood, or whatever happens to be clean or thrown over the bedroom chair (or on the floor) that morning. One should be comfortable in their own skin and clothes when they cook for others. I like that.

As the aroma of our meal gathered around us I read how Joe Rogers, Sr. (no relation), learned how to make a perfect omelet from one of the legendary grill men who worked for him at a Toddle House restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee. Rogers would later join forces with a local Georgia businessman named Tom Fokner to found Waffle House near Atlanta in 1955. Although the Waffle House remains a culinary institution throughout the South (including near almost any interstate interchange), it has expanded to 25 states with over 1500 franchises as far west as California and north to Illinois and Delaware. But I digress.

There is something poetic and mesmerizing about watching a good grill man (for some reason they usually seem to be men) slinging hash at a greasy spoon diner. He is his own boss and there is no one standing over his shoulder telling him the best or proper way to whip up eggs for an omelet or scrambled eggs. He alone determines the ingredients and portions that go into the makings of pancake and waffle batter. He regulates the crispiness (or greasiness) of the bacon, sausage, scrapple or other breakfast meats sizzling on the grill. And that is just for breakfast!

Of course, timing is probably the most important skill, and perhaps the most difficult to master. Regardless of whether one is making eggs, cooking pancakes and waffles, or grilling burgers and other dishes, attention must be paid to cooking times so that everything is prepared and served in an orderly fashion. Sometimes there are warming stations to keep plated meals hot until they are served, but more often than not it is up to the cook to prepare the main and side dishes so that they can be served hot to the customer. This also means juggling several different orders so that they arrive at the counter or table together. Occasionally there will be a few moments when there is nothing on the grill and the cook will dispatch cooking scraps and other oddments with the edge of the omnipresent spatula or grill press.

I could sit there all day watching a good short order cook slinging hash. But the road was calling and we had many more miles to go before we reached Gainesville and the end of the day’s journey. But tomorrow is always a new day and there will be other roads and other diners beckoning us to stop and eat. And there will always be the next short-order cook to watch and marvel at his magic as he slings his hash onto my plate.

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