Time to confess: I’ve worked in a professional kitchen. (I promise, I’ll get to the tie-in to these bars!).
Granted it was a mere five weeks, but it felt like a perpetuity.
I was eighteen, a first year student at college. Given that my brother and sister were also in college, and that my family is not landed gentry, I was on scholarship and, hence, granted work-study as part of my financial aid package. My duty? Report to the cafeteria, post-haste.
It sounded like a reasonable gig. I loved to cook, and was used to helping in the kitchen at home. So with a smile and a hairnet, I set to mopping floors, serving lasagna, and stocking and cleaning the salad bar like nobody’s business. I found the institutional smell of the place—an unforgettable combination of industrial cleaner, fetid cooking oil, and warmed-over food—revolting, but I made myself buck up and get the job done. I was a good worker; or so I thought.
Frances had a different opinion. Frances was my manager, and it didn’t take long for me to learn that the college cafeteria was a minor fiefdom under her exclusive rule. M’lady didn’t have much use for any of her workers, and I was no exception.
Frances could have been anywhere from fifty to eighty. She was thin and petite, with a long neck, rounded shoulders, and a pronounced stoop. She had a penchant for unflattering polyester blouses with bows at the neck, accompanied by matching suits in bold colors. She had a pained, sardonic countenance, deeply sunken cheeks, and a puff of frizzy, drab hair bifurcated by one of a collection of brightly colored plastic headbands. All of this gave her an air of ridiculous tragedy, belying the tyrant truth.
As we chopped, sliced, served, and cleaned, before, during and after each meal service, Frances roamed the kitchen, gripping her ubiquitous cup of black coffee (I never saw her eat), sneaking up on her workers with the silent assistance of thick-soled orthopedic shoes.
“Hell are you doin’?!” was her preferred greeting for one and all. Almost as frequent were “hey lazybones,” “you’d better start respecting this,” and the ever-cheering “are you this pitiful at everything?” It was as bad as you can imagine. Possibly worse
I now understand, after reading books such as Kitchen Confidential , Heat, and Roasting in Hell’s Kitchen, that terror and intimidation are de rigeur in professional kitchens. But I was neither ready, nor willing, for such abuse. Beginning college and moving 3000+ miles from home were upsetting enough. So with the blessings of my parents, I gave Frances due notice and subsequently found both solace, and good pay, in babysitting.
Ironically, leaving the professional kitchen led to more time in home kitchens, namely the kitchens where I babysat. It didn’t take more than a hesitant request to one set of parents. After a short time, my babysitting families were delighted to let me use their kitchens, especially if it included making healthy treats for their wee ones. I can still remember the first batch of cookies I made there—granola bars, sweetened with dates. It had been almost three months since I’d cooked or baked anything more than instant cream of wheat in my dorm room, and more than a month since I’d escaped Frances’s regime. The rising scent of toasted oats and vanilla was like a warming embrace.
My five weeks in the cafeteria had trained me in one area: I always scrubbed the kitchen to a sparkle when I was finished. Looking back, I’m sure doing so facilitated my continued babysitting employment and use of the kitchens. Perhaps Frances, and my brief spell as a kitchen professional, deserve greater reference and gratitude after all.
These healthy granola bars are reminiscent of the ones I made years back, with an added twist: I use chickpeas in the base to add protein and extra nutrition! You will not taste them at all. Yum 🙂