Category Archives: Working Girl

And the Food Rolls On: Home & Garden Show, Day 3

Well, the chocolate cremeaux hit the fan today, people, and I was in the thick of it. And things had been going so well.

We started out with normal setup and a SPECTACULAR food delivery before our chefs arrived. To explain, Maggie and I ordered food for our local celebrity chefs based on the recipes they gave us. It involved careful reading and much anxious consideration of what would be needed, what could go wrong. You don’t want to be onstage and find out, for instance, that someone meant sour cream instead of cream, or wanted 2 lbs of powdered sugar instead of  1/2 cup  of powdered sugar. So we are very careful about what we order. But, in addition to our celebrity chefs (local TV, radio and print media personalities) our stage also features restaurant chefs who bring their own ingredients (because they are promoting their own business,) and nationallly known chefs brought in by the Home & Garden Show and Cub Foods. We (McFarland Cahill Communications) ordered Yigit’s ingredients, but the Cub Foods chefs ordered their own ingredients which arrived today. SO MUCH FOOD!!!  I was scared by the size of the cuts of meat and the sheer volume of cream and garlic paste, not to mention the sesame oil and soy sauce. And then, there was the issue of food storage. I had to totally rearrange my refrigerator to accommodate the meat and cream and as much of the lettuces as I could. Then it was time for our first guest chef to arrive. And she didn’t. Poor Elizabeth Ries from KSTP TV had trouble clearing security and finding parking. I would love to be a fly on the wall because everyone seems to be having security issues but I can’t figure out where and with whom. I had to race (consider this a jog or a trot) to Bay E to let Elizabeth in a back door.

Elizabeth is both beautiful and nice, and was making dips for the audience who had assembled to offer their reverence. I partnered up with her onstage. One of the dips was a Taco Dip recipe that one of her viewers had given her and one was a Spinach Artichoke Dip that was a specialty of her own. I realized just before she arrived that her ingredient list called for 1/2 cup of cream, but the directions specified sour cream. No sour cream in the fridge. We made do by adding a little cream to the cream cheese to loosen it up and it pretty much worked. Unfortunately, in the strain of her rushed arrival, neither of us was thinking clearly and we overlooked the need to do the baked dip first so it would be ready when the cold dip was finished. We ran out of time. About halfway through I was admiring her super cute knit dress over leggings and realized with horror that, once again, I had forgotten to offer the guest an apron. Also, I didn’t offer her water until she was done, so she basically talked for an hour with a dry throat. Was she crabby? No. She couldn’t have been sweeter or more gracious. But our next chef, who arrived early, found a crazed and loopy support person (that would be me) and a stage not ready for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, Elizabeth was able to finish her presentation on her own and with the support staff that KSTP sent, and I was able to start the cleanup and prep process for our next demo. I missed the dips but I heard they were amazing, especially the half-baked Spinach Artichoke.

Our next guest was WCCO’s Frank Vascellaro and his beloved mom, Rosalie, also known as Mama V. They didn’t need me onstage as they are a team unto themselves which was great because THEN!!! A guy shows up with a new refrigerator load of lettuces and fruits. “These lettuces will be ruined if you can’t refrigerate them in the next few minutes,” he told me, as I was trying to set up for Frank and Mama V. “Okay,” I replied. “If we need to put the lettuces in, I am going to have to take out the meat.”

“You can’t take out the meat,” he said.

“All right. Well, if I can’t take out the meat, then I will have to take out the cream.”

“You can’t take out the cream,” he said.

“Well, then you see my problem,” I said. I couldn’t make the refrigerator bigger for him, no matter how much he wanted me to. Maggie and Ashley resolved the issue by helping him reach the woman who could open the doors of the convention center kitchen, but he wasn’t satisfied. What got back to us was his complaints that we allowed his perishable produce to rot on the floor for three hours when what happened was that everything was taken to refrigeration exactly at the moment that he raced off to his next important appointment, within an hour of his arrival. I even allowed him into my carefully arranged refrigerator, which he totally repacked, leaving me clueless and grasping for the eight remaining presentations. I believe he expected thanks for handling the situation, so, thanks, buddy. He was also indignant that we didn’t have unlimited enormous frying pans, although I invited him to go with me to the Royal Prestige cookware vendor, who was providing all our pans, and who pledged to give us what he could, within his capacity. Not good enough. He couldn’t believe we didn’t have two panini presses on hand. “We were promised a fully stocked gourmet kitchen!” he complained. “Macy’s gave us all the appliances we asked for, that we were informed we would need,” I told him. “Fine. Go buy two,” he told his associate, whose sigh expressed that he had twelve other things he needed to do before buying small appliances, but fine, okay, whatever.

Meanwhile, there was a ton of weirdness onstage with the microphones. There was feedback and screeching and Aaron, who is normally right there whenever we need him was taking care of issues on the other side of the convention center. Later, when he got back, we found that Frank’s microphone had slipped down the front of his shirt into his pants, causing feedback issues. It must be that Caveman Diet that Frank has had so much success with, causing extra looseness in his clothing. Seriously, he looks great! So, that funness behind us, I hear Mama V say, “Well, I don’t see the regular sugar.” Shit!!!! I realized I hadn’t set out the staples, only the special ingredients, because of the interruptions. Friends, at this point I took off at a sprint between the stage and the audience, booking it to the ingredient area at stage right. As I ran, Frank announced, “Ladies and gentlemen! This is Lynnette, our Kitchen Stage assistant!” Could I have run around the back? Probably. It didn’t occur to me. The full audience applauded and I smiled and waved, disappearing and then emerging with the sugar, followed by the flour, and later the salt, and still later additional bowls. Oh, and the powdered sugar? I had set out 1/2 cup and Mama V needed 2 lbs. I gave her the bag and prayed there would be enough left for the 2:00 chef. Frank was covered with flour and cocoa powder when they finished the presentation of gorgeous Iced Fudge Nut Brownies because I didn’t offer either of them an apron. Yes. I was a total moron, and did Frank and Rosalie tsk and shake their heads? No. They shook my hand and thanked me for all my help so graciously I wanted to cry. Meanwhile, Lee Dean, who writes for the Taste section of the Star Tribune had arrived, with all the supplies, ingredients and utensils needed for her demonstration of Strawberry Tartlets.

Lee Dean was an unknown quantity to me, and unfortunately, I was unable to conceal that from her. I used to read the taste section of the Star Tribune all the time but we haven’t taken the newspaper for years. I long for the days when I could sit and savor even the weekly paper, but it doesn’t happen. I was stressed and distracted from the earlier debacles, but Lee Dean was so smart and friendly, even as I was falling all over myself trying to help her feel as comfortable as I had wanted to make my earlier guests, and only FOUR people showed up to hear her wonderful presentation, although enough people showed up at sample time to eat her entire prepared cache of tartlets. Which were AWESOME. She has had a cookbook published, too, and the one comment I heard on that? “Not enough pictures, hahaha.” Vultures. Hey, all you foodies out there. Buy her cookbook, because from her demonstration, she is AMAZING FOOD SMART. I am totally getting it. We can share what we love about it. Let me know, we can start a facebook fan club or something. She was a trooper.

Lee finished up and I was completing the cleanup when Rena Sarigianopoulos from KARE 11 arrived. She is the package, people. She invited me to mike up and join her onstage, (I believe she is a risk-taker,) and I had so much fun with her. A ton of people gathered to see her, and a little girl strolling by with her parents squealed, “Rena!!!” upon seeing her–I am not kidding, so cute! And she is adorable and approachable and made Buckeyes, and when she was done, she helped me do dishes and we talked about her involvement with a charity for Rheumatoid Arthritis and coincidentally I had, just the day before, sponsored my neighbor Cameron for her walk for that charity (Go Cameron!) And the Buckeyes were peanut butter deliciousness wrapped in a loving chocolate hug.

Then I had an hour break and I was able to go to the bathroom for the first time in three days. Almost. How is it that I don’t notice I need to pee or eat or drink when I am working? Am I broken? I don’t know.

Then, my new best friend, Dave Dahl, meteorologist from KSTP showed up. I fell in love with Dave the day before when I met him and he expressed concern about getting in through the convention center’s back door because of the rumoured security issues. I gave him my cell # so he could call me if he had trouble, and he had problems saving it. He must have said, “I am an idiot,” seven times, which clearly he is not and so now I love him. He is just as charming in person as you’d suspect, and taller than I expected. Anyway, he showed up with no security problems, and asked me to join him onstage, and as you now know, I am a modest but willing sidekick (meaning I didn’t actually leap across the stage yelling “Yay!!”, but acquiesced with composure.) We started making his “Buffalo Chicken (or Shrimp) Flatbread” when my phone went off. Maggie wanted me to go halfway across the convention center to let in our guest scheduled for the next hour, who reportedly was having trouble getting through security. Could I bring a ticket or a pass or something to back entrance C West? Folks, I had no tickets or passes. I shut off my mike, abandoned Dave, grabbed a list of scheduled guests and raced (this was a full-on sprint through the crowds, in my Cub emblazoned apron and 2 1/2 inch heeled clogs) to the security desk at C West. No guest in sight. I left the list and sprinted back to the stage, to the confusion of several exhibitors and visitors. I reappeared back onstage, and evidently was unable to hide my labored breathing or beet-red face, as the audience was much amused. Dave, I and his KSTP support staff finished the demo, with few other difficulties, and again, Dave was super kind and gracious. But Dave! Wear a helmet when you ride your Harley! We love you and want you to live a long and healthy life! And you make me feel like a wimp, wearing a helmet on my bicycle! Also, I loved the fiery sauce and creamy melted blue cheese that enveloped the chicken and celery on the flatbread. And the shrimp option for Lent? Genius.

The 6:00 chefs from The Lowry restaurant showed up before the 5:00 celebrity chefs, Beth Dooley and Bill Coy, who are food and wine writers for Mpls St. Paul magazine, but everyone got there, including Bruce and Dan, the duo who take over when it is time for me to go. Also, at that time, Eileen from Dole showed up and I had three things going on. I was debriefing with one of my bosses, Maureen; I needed to get a plate for the Lowry chefs, who had forgotten one for their demo; and I needed to see about getting shelves installed in our freezer for Eileen/Dole. This involved some more running around so I missed the Beth and Bill demo of Cheese and Chocolate Fondues, but when I returned to the stage, Bill was just finishing offering samples of two wines I can’t remember, a red and a white. I may have walked away from someone in mid-sentence to go get a sample. I don’t remember anything but thinking, “That. Want some.” And even though I hadn’t done anything more than help procure a few ingredients, Beth and Bill treated me as if I had been some huge supportive presence during their presentation. They were (I don’t think it was an act) excited to hear about Mr. Wordtabulous’ and my upcoming trip to wine country and San Francisco. Bill gave me his card so we could correspond about destinations. I want to hang out with them, although I am clearly too immature to do so. They would never run, waving, in front of an audience in a near panic, grinning manically. I am pretty sure.

As I left, Joan, the executive chef from The Lowry, was preparing to begin her demonstration of steak and oysters. Bruce and Dan, having set the stage, leisurely took their spots in the audience, prepared to relax and eat amazing food before the next demonstration by Mollie and Missy, from The Vikings Cheerleaders, which would be followed by another presentation from Beth Dooley, this time with Hilary, a Naked Grape Winemaker. I kind of love Bruce and Dan, but I can’t help wondering if they are possibly getting something over on me with this deal. I did tell them that in return for my taking the whole of Saturday evening I expected them to donate to my Tour de Cure ride, and they agreed, albeit with confusion. I have that effect on people.

Lordy, this is a long post. It was a long day. If you hung in there with me to the end, I love you! Tomorrow is a long one. I won’t get home until 11:00 or so. I know it will be an almost unbearable hardship, but you may have to wait to see how it goes until I have time to report back on Sunday. I am sorry. I, myself, am curious about what tomorrow will bring. How in the world will Chef Todd use his enormous cuts of meat and his perishable lettuces? How will Eileen from Chiquita manage with her frozen and fresh fruits? Will anyone come to yell at me to no avail? These questions and more will be answered…but not today.

You have two days left to come find me at the 2012 Minneapolis Home & Garden kitchen stage! Mention Wordtabulous and I will ditch my celebrity chef and give you a hug!

Related Post: Home & Garden Kitchen Stage, Day Two

Related Post: Working Girl, Fast Forward

Advertisements

Home & Garden Kitchen Stage, Day 2

I dragged my sleepy rear end out of bed this morning and rolled on back to the Minneapolis Convention Center (with one quick stop at Village Market for the angel food cake loaves Cub didn’t carry and the item my brain collapsed on last night: bean dip. I woke up at 2 a.m. thinking ohhh, BEAN DIP. I know exactly where that is. Duh.) Leah McLean, KSTP anchor, was first up to share her Fiesta Chicken. When she wasn’t there at her presentation time, I started to get worried. The audience was full, because the weather was fine and it was Senior Citizen Day. Generally speaking, seniors enjoy the slower pace of the weekday crowds and the first one hundred get gift bags. Also, they LOVE our local news personalities (as do we all.) So when Leah wasn’t there right away, but the chairs were full, I was a little concerned there might be a geriatric riot. What would THAT look like, I wondered. Fortunately, Leah showed up, only a bit flustered over some parking hassles that had delayed her. The audience glowed with delight, and Leah went to work like the pro she is, needing minimal assistance. She shared the news that she is pregnant (congratulations, Leah!) and told stories about work and family while cooking up a pasta dish with chicken, bell pepper and onion in a white sauce. I helped serve until it was all gone, and so I can’t tell you how it tasted, but it smelled deliciously of cumin, garlic and a hint of cayenne.

I began a frantic clean up that wasn’t quite done when the next presenters, Bobby Jensen and Belinda Jensen of KARE 11 showed up. Fortunately I had most of the set up organized and the counter cleared off, so the unwashed dishes remained hidden in the sink (thank heavens there were no cameras trained on that spot, as there are on the cooktop and prep counter.) Belinda, a meteorologist, also does gardening segments with Bobby, and although they have the same last name, they are not related in any way. They bantered like brother and sister to the delight of the crowd, who had questions about them and about gardening. For a cooking demo, there were a lot of questions about parasitic infection. I got to come to the rescue when from backstage I heard Belinda say, “You didn’t just cut yourself, did you?” In seconds I was onstage, band-aids in hand, patching up Bobby’s finger. Their roasted corn and orzo salad with tomatoes, feta and arugula looked wonderful, but once again the crowd beat me to it.

Another clean up, and then Yigit Pura was back, this time with Panna Cotta topped with a grapefruit juice and Campari gelee and grapefruit supremes. The panna cotta was a creamy base flavored with vanilla bean and citrus zest and thickened with gelatin sheets, which I must try because they look like a lot of fun. The next layer was citrus juices and Campari thickened with more gelatin leaves dissolved in a simple syrup, which was added after the base had gelled. We had done these steps the day before, so Yigit’s presentation was about the nature and, in the case of the vanilla bean, the history of the various ingredients, followed by a demo of making grapefruit supremes, which is what it is called when you peel the fruit with a knife and slice the segments out of their membranes, resulting in glistening, gorgeous crescents. Yigit popped a few of these on top, and I finally got to taste one. This was grown-up deliciousness of sweet and tart and creamy and juicy; kids, go eat your pudding cups.

Chef Carl Littlejohn from Redrossa followed, assisted by Ryan. Redrossa is an Italian place in Bloomington, near the Mall of America.  Since I wasn’t needed and had some prep work backstage, I missed most of his presentation, but the air was filled with the staggeringly heady scent of basil, and I made it out front in time to help distribute his samples of bruschetta over fresh mozzarella on toasted ciabatta slices, and drizzed with a balsamic reduction. So yummy, and Carl had enough for me to snag a couple extra for my healthy lunch. I missed out on his chocolate cake layered with a creamy chocolate filling and topped with what looked like ganache. So it looked worthy of its reputation as a favored dish at Redrossa. I will most certainly need to try it when we go there. Carl and Ryan did almost all of their own clean up (thank you, guys!) so I only had to do a few dishes left over from Yigit’s presentation as I enjoyed my bruschetta.

Our next presenter was Chef Colin Murray, whose day job is at the restaurant Seven, but who at night turns his passion for food in a different direction: dog treats. He owns Barkley’s Bistro, where healthy and balanced dog treats are created. He used vegetable stock, steamed green beans, parsnips, sweet potato, golden flax seed and oats (I might be missing a few things here) to make a thick dough which is then baked. He invited the audience to try them and I did. I decided f you brushed it with olive oil and sprinkled it with salt, it would make a decent cracker. Colin’s love for animals and enthusiasm for nutrition was evident in his presentation, and he was another one great for taking over his own clean up. He’ll be presenting again on Sunday, and has a booth at the Show, if any of you out there make it.

My last assignment for the day, before turning the stage over to Bruce and Dan (seriously guys? it takes TWO of you to do the same job I did ALL DAY LONG?) was to assist Natalie Davis, aka Miss Minnesota, with her Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana Protein Smoothie. Natalie is a knockout, unsurprisingly, and she was in full-on regalia with tiara, cocktail dress and sash, and what I like to call Hollywood shoes, but she is also a standout student, slated to graduate from St. Olaf in a few months with a degree in Chemistry. For her presentation, I put on a microphone so I could give her a hand while she prepared the smoothie and we could talk and better explore some of the things she wanted to share with the audience, like the Miss America scholarship program, her platform of autism awareness (she’ll be at the Steps of Hope fund and awareness raising walk at Ridgedale Center on Sunday morning,) and physical fitness.  Towards the end, as we were all snacking on smoothies that smelled and tasted a lot like a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup with a thin slice of banana on top, I got her attention by telling her that I had a serious question I needed to ask. She sounded just a bit apprehensive, but pageant veterans know a lot about facing the difficult interview questions so she was game. “Just where do stand on the issue of banana ripeness?” I asked. A pause, and then she laughed and surprised me by saying, “I have always wanted someone to ask me that question!” It turns out that on what she calls the green to brown spectrum of banana ripeness, she prefers them slightly less than fully golden, but before any brown appears. She asked where I stood and I replied that I enjoy a more ripened banana, say about 60% of the way on the journey from green to brown. She announced we would be perfect roommates because we would never argue about the bananas to which I countered, “Unless you ate them all before they got to 60%, because then there would be trouble.” She was great fun to work with and I think she had a good time, too.

So I was in a pretty good mood at the end of the day. I got a final hug from Yigit. I finally got to walk around the show for a few minutes and enjoy the beautiful gardens and water features. I met Dave Dahl, who will be one of my chefs tomorrow, and I got a smile and a wave from Bobby Jensen, who was still wearing his band-aid. I got a wave from a few familiar faces from the Kitchen Stage audience, too. I picked up my one grocery store item and arrived at home just a few minutes before the Bobby and Belinda footage from the Kitchen Stage was aired on KARE 11 news, and there I was in the background, doing something intently, for .5 seconds. Yep, I am feeling like pretty hot s*%t right now, and will probably continue to do so until I see the pictures Maggie took of me and Miss Minnesota standing together, because the comparison will not be flattering. I’ll just enjoy it while it lasts. So please, come out and join in the fun, and don’t forget to say hi when you do. I’ll be at the show 9am-5pm on Friday, 9am-10pm on Saturday, and 9am-5pm on Sunday.

Related Posts: Working Girl: Fast Forward

 

Working Girl: Fast Forward

Hi, my beloved blog friends! I miss you. I am tired. This is out of order for the Working Girls series, and I apologize, but there is an issue of timeliness. As you may have gathered from an earlier post, I am a working girl again and it has been a very long day. I love my new job!!! It is a beautiful combination of organization, randomness, creativity and problem solving. There are moments of amazing. Last week I addressed packages that went to Anderson Cooper, Rachael Ray, and Ellen DeGeneres. And Ellen DeGeneres called back. Well,  her producer did, wanting more information on the client of the marketing agency I now work for. I may give more details in future posts, if I get the sense you are interested, but there is a real thrill in addressing packages to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, among others. There is also the boring but soothing mundanity of repetitive express address label filling out, and the approximate one minute per package processing time at the Post Office (LOVE those people, BTW.) When you have 30 packages, that results in thirty minutes of life you spend with the very pleasant people at the USPS, which you will never spend with your children or collecting your thoughts. On the other hand: 30 Rockefeller Plaza and Ellen DeGeneres.

My agency also represents the Minneapolis Home & Garden Show, which is one of the biggest events of its kind in the nation. It runs today through Sunday, March 4th. We have over 700 exhibitors and some really kickass displays from what I’ve seen. I, as Admin Extraordinaire, am assigned to stage manage the Kitchen Stage. I spent most of this weather plagued morning setting up the full kitchen set with supplies for our chefs: restauranteurs and local TV, print and radio celebrity chefs. My colleagues Maggie and Ashley (REAL marketing associates with media spots to tend to later in the day,) carted in paper products, small appliances, pans, bakeware and utensils for all the chefs to use, and ingredients for our non-restauranteur, local celebrity volunteers to use.

We have one national Celebrity Chef in the lineup: Yigit Pura, winner of BRAVO’S Top Chef: Just Desserts. He could be my much younger brother; he is ADD, dark-haired and dark-eyed, a little naughty and knows his way around chocolate. He was my first chef of the day and because of the major ice and sleet storm last night, it was a slow start. But Yigit (pronounced Yeet) could not have been more charming. I introduced him (poorly) to the meager crowd. We made truffles together and he made this amazing Chocolate Cremeaux, which we served, drizzled with a floral lemon olive oil and sprinkled with Maldon flake salt, alongside a truffle. Heaven. He also helped me clean up, which was awesome because, chocolate? A huge freaking mess. My next chef was Sam (female) from Sawatdee, a Thai restaurant in Minneapolis. She made Red Chicken Curry and I was inspired. I am so making this. It was sweet and hot, and rich and delicious. It made me happy. She needed nothing from me but a little help serving up samples but I flatter myself that I was a notable audience question asker. After that came Vincent, chef of Vincent a Restaurant, also in Minneapolis. He is French, not terribly outgoing, but knowledgeable and super easy to work with. He made Scallops with Orange Sauce that made me sigh with pleasure. I announced him, got him a bowl and strainer for his demonstration, and helped him plate his wonderful samples. Keep in mind that these chefs are coming every hour, with 45 minutes of demonstration and 15 minutes of transition: one demo getting cleaned up and one getting prepped. There is a lot of furious dishwashing and countertop cleaning as well as new chef stage orientation going on in those fifteen minutes, but people have been fabulous so far. After Vincent, we had Beth Ingles, from Ellsworth Creamery in Wisconsin, accompanied by Des (Dez?) from KS95 radio, showing decadent uses of the Creamery’s butter, cheese and gift products. Beth served a variety of cheese curds (plain, cajun, ranch, etc.) and made Cheesy Rice Lasagna and Bacon Wrapped Cheese Curds. She needed no help from me except a little bit of plating for samples, and there was a lot going on backstage at the time, so I missed the bacon wrapped cheese curds, and if I had been more energetic at that point, I would have worked up some serious disappointment. I had arrived at 9am, after shopping for dishwashing supplies and an hour commute because of the crappy roads. I worked or suppported chefs (except for one bathroom stop and a coffee purchase) the entire time until 6pm, when I left for the grocery store, turning the stage over to my new friends Bruce and Dan.

There were five new recipes I had to shop for, that had come in late. I was elated, though tired, on the drive home. Once I got to the grocery store I was less elated. Three of the recipes needed avocados and three needed limes. Two needed mangoes. Two needed things the mega-store, Cub, didn’t carry. Several things were a little vague. I found nothing that matched the description 10 1/2 oz can bean dip. I got a 14 oz can of refried beans. I questioned the literal need of one recipe for 1 1/2 pounds of blueberries, mixed with other berries. I bought two 8 oz. containers of blueberries, some raspberries and strawberries and called it good. I had difficulty making quick decisions, so it all seemed very slow-motion and cumbersome. I wanted to do well, but there were some problematic calls. Dylan, who works a second job at Cub Foods, was a lifeline in the produce battle. I told him, inappropriately, that I wanted to take him home. I meant more as an adopted son, but I am not sure it played that way. I didn’t leave the store until 8pm. Just as I was checking out, Mr. Wordtabulous called. Where ARE you? I am on my way, my beloved, I told him. Well, not in so many words. But day one of the Minneapolis Home & Garden Show was done, and I was as ready as I was going to be for day two. Bring it, I say.

For those of you salivating at home, recipes will be available next week on the Minneapolis Home & Garden Show website, so be sure to check back. Let me know if you care to hear more. I am sure that more stories will be forthcoming over the next few days, and I will share them if you want! So let me know, and in the meantime, don’t work too hard!

Related Post: Working Girl: The Summer of No Sleep

Related Post: Working Girl: Laura Ingalls Wilder

Working Girl: The Summer of No Sleep

At the end of my freshman year at SDSU, I was busted for being on the guys’ side of Binnewies Hall after curfew. I had to report to the Residence Hall Director later that week for judgment, which I did. The RHD, Joe, asked me what I had to say for myself and I said, “Absolutely nothing. I am totally guilty. I should have paid attention and either gotten out of there earlier, or at least kept my voice down so I didn’t get caught.” I don’t know why I was so unusually comfortable in the situation; my traditional response would have been shame and panic (caught! breaking rules! on the BOY’S side!) but I had a rare interval of clarity right then that let me see that this was what it was: a legalistic situation that called for accountability and not a big deal. Joe looked at me for a second and said, “Have you ever considered becoming a Resident Assistant?” I had not, but I saw that the position offered a free private room, a basic meal plan, and didn’t seem to require too many hours of work. I liked my RA’s and thought it would be fun to shepherd wide-eyed freshmen into the campus world. Kind of like being a tour guide, without the long dress. Starting in my sophomore year, I was relying on a few tiny scholarships, grants, loans and work to pay my way, so the RA gig sounded like a sensible way to go.

I was not a great RA. I liked the residents, but I was not very effective at inspiring enthusiasm for the events we were forced to provide. I, in fact, was the only female RA in Mathews Hall to NOT get an award for providing extra social or educational events for my residents (above and beyond the requisite two.) On the other hand, I would talk to anyone, anytime about anything, and the residents and I had a perfect understanding: if they kept the shenanigans quiet I wouldn’t notice them. Also, the one social event I do remember hosting was a viewing of the video “Raw” by Eddie Murphy, which was hilarious.  I loved the staff meetings; the other RA’s were pretty awesome and I find myself now wondering what they are all up to. Some of my former residents are my friends on facebook, and one, Kelly, is still my BFF and can be found on Hot Off The Wire. Good times, weird year. By the end of April, I felt I had kind of flunked RAing, but had managed to get a position as an Ambassador to incoming freshmen for the next Fall, and had applied for and scored two work-study positions for the summer. I would be working in Records and the Nutrition Lab.

I will not bore you with Records except to say I helped manage requests for transcripts and the most exciting thing was the motorized file system that was built into the wall and ran kind of like the spinning rack at the drycleaner. It was a quiet, sunny office in the very old Admin building, with its high ceilings, tall wood-framed windows and uneven floors. Not a bad workplace to ride out the occasional hangover.

The Nutrition Lab was a different kind of animal. Literally. The labs were on the top floor of what was called the HEN house, for Home Economics and Nursing. There was a food lab that was a massive kitchen, but I worked for an instructor doing research on certain diets, and we had a big biology lab and, up some steps into a kind of attic, was “the rat room.” My boss was feeding a control group of at least twelve rats as much kibble as they wanted, and was feeding the experimental group of the same size a yo-yo diet of minimal food for a set amount of time, followed by as much as they wanted. My daily job was to weigh & document how much they ate and keep them fed and watered. At least weekly I weighed the rats and cleaned their cages. There were also a bunch of lab mice for another experiment and I had to take care of them, too. It was warm and musty smelling up in the rat room, even when the cages were clean. I had a radio to listen to and I recall the big hit of the summer was “Nasty Boys” by Janet Jackson, which always makes me think of wiggly white rats and the smell of urine. I did not love the rats, but I bore them no ill will either, which is one of the reasons why, when the feeding portion of the experiment was done, the next phase made me a bit squeamish. (ICK ALERT! Beware the next paragraph! I warned you!)

When you euthanize rats, it is a lot like using a killing jar on insects, only bigger. You pop the rat in a big jar with some cotton balls soaked in something (ether?) Then my boss finished them off and excised the “fat pad” above the rats’ tails (we humans have them too, that cushy pad at the base of our spine, just above the butt-crack. I can’t see that without thinking of rats, either.) It turns out that this fat pad is a good indicator of overall body fat content. So I weighed the fat pads and documented this and then slipped the dead rats and the fat pads into plastic bags, labeled by ID# and frozen. For later. Because the fat pad was not enough information. Over the next two weeks, with no rats to feed, my job was to thaw a few rats each day in an autoclave. This produced an interesting aroma that brought people to the lab asking, “Mmmm, what’s going on in the kitchen today?” Once we told them, they never asked again. After the rats were thawed, I put each one, with a specific amount of purified water according to the rat’s weight, into an industrial blender, where it was ground up, making some horrifying thunking sounds which I always envisioned was the tail. I poured the thick, warm “rat shake”–hair and all–into a new, freshly labeled bag from which we would later take samples to do a more comprehensive body fat test. Then I cleaned the blender, and started again. It is the kind of memory, with sounds, smells, visuals and even the tactile sense of holding the lid on the warm blender as it shuddered and buzzed, that keeps the experience as fresh as if it happened yesterday. Traumatically so. Nasty Boys, indeed.

On top of, or underlying all this, was the new overnight and weekend job I got that summer, the one I’ll talk about next time. Suffice it to say that between the three jobs (the rat lab job ended as the Ambassador one began,) and the new boyfriend (Mr. Wordtabulous!) I got next to no sleep that summer, which had an interesting effect on my personality and my relationships. Thank you, to everyone who survived that time with me. And thank you, visitor, for reading!

Related Post: Working Girl: Food Service Summer

Related Post: Working Girl: Laura Ingalls Wilder Tour Guide

Working Girl, Howard’s Restaurant and The Peanut Shack

I spent my first year of college finding independence and re-inventing myself, forty miles from home in Brookings, SD. Baby steps. Brookings was a town of about 15,000 people, which grew by 7,000 when classes were in session at SDSU. I could have returned to my awesome tour guide job in De Smet, but that would have entailed moving back to my parent’s house, which was unthinkable. Two friends and I rented a small two-bedroom house near campus for the summer and got jobs. I got my first waitressing job at Howard’s Restaurant, an independent family-style place on 6th Street. The owner, Howard, was the main cook. Howard was a chubby man with a pointed face who taught me that orange juice is like gold and nothing is free. He had a young guy who worked the grill and a crew of waitresses, four or five of us, the others all with experience and drive. I felt out of my depth when I started there, but was sure I would catch on.

Howard’s had amazing hand-dipped shakes and malts; egg-nog and butterscotch were my favorite, but his specialty was  fried chicken, the preparation of which fell to the wait staff. While the others were jockeying for the good shifts out in front with tip-leaving customers, I, unaccountably intimidated by both the customers and the other waitresses, slumped into the back room and pried half-frozen chicken pieces apart so they could be batter dipped. I found out that my hands are painfully sensitive to cold and that I hate the wimpy side of my personality that trembled rather than demanding my share of shifts out front. No one was doing great, because even though the food was decent and reasonably priced, the traffic just wasn’t there. They made me choose a different name because mine, Lynnette, was too similar to one of the other waitresses, Annette, which was confusing. I refused to go with Lynn, so I took Val, from my last name, Vallery. Val became my alter-ego, and not the fiery kick-ass alter-ego I would have enjoyed, but the one who was trying to warm up her hands and wondering how she was going to pay for both groceries and rent.

Halfway through the summer I saw an ad seeking a manager for the Peanut Shack at the mall. Peanut Shack was a counter-front shop that sold fresh-roasted nuts, popcorn, and a variety of candy that we either freshly prepared or purchased. The manager’s job was to work shifts, hire and train staff, schedule other people to work shifts, track inventory, keep my mouth shut when the owners came in and grabbed a handful of cash out of the register to go shopping, and balance the cash drawer as well as possible under those circumstances. I rarely saw the owners except when they stopped by for money. I enjoyed the autonomy. The mall was small and in summer doldrums. Most of my customers were people who worked there. I stocked the Jelly Belly jellybean jars, I roasted cashews and other nuts, and made nut clusters with white, milk and dark chocolate. I dipped potato chips in chocolate and begged people to try them, because they were amazing. I made a homemade version of Almond Joys that taught me to love coconut. I could eat as much of the popcorn, nuts and handmade candy as I wanted, and got a discount on the candy purchased from headquarters. I loved the products, but quickly got sick of eating them as my main sustenance, and daydreamed of pot roasts and lasagna. When my parents gave me a beautiful Black Hills gold ring for my birthday, I was disappointed. My heartfelt desire was three big bags of groceries.  They had no idea. Of course, I also spent some of my hard earned wages on cheap 3.2 beer at the Lucky Lady,  the only bar that served 18-20 year olds in town, but I couldn’t have bought much of a pot roast with what I spent on happy hour brews.

I counted boxes of truffles and caramels and jellybeans, and cartons of raw nuts and chocolate for melting. I worked as much as I wanted, and more, when my meager staff didn’t show up for their assigned shifts. One day a woman came up to the counter and asked if I had any jobs. I looked at her in disbelief. Her hair was greasy and snarled. She stared at me blankly, breathing heavily through her mouth. Her blouse was misbuttoned, gaping open between her unrestrained breasts, and didn’t match her stained polyester pants. “Nope, no jobs here,” I told her, and she shoved a paper at me to sign for the unemployment office, attesting to the fact that she had indeed applied for a job at the establishment. The light went on–she had dressed, not for success, but for failure. Mission accomplished, signed and good-bye.

This was also the summer I rode everywhere on my big sister’s ten-speed bike, which she had given to me for my birthday a few years before. It was my sole mode of transportation until the accident. I was approaching an intersection where I had the right-of-way and the cross traffic had to stop. Seeing a car approaching the stop sign, I slowed slightly to make sure they were really stopping, then pedaled forward. The driver came to a complete halt, and then, when I was just past the center of her grill, she went, knocking me across the hood of her car onto the street and crushing my bike beneath her tires. “Don’t move! Don’t move!” she and a few passersby insisted, and a police officer showed up, but spent most of his time talking to the driver, who told me her husband owned the Taco John’s. Eventually the hot, gritty asphalt became too uncomfortable and I crawled to the curb, surveying my road rash and crippled bike glumly. The driver took me to Kmart a few days later and bought me a brand new Huffy ten-speed that cost probably a fourth of what my sister had paid for her bike, but I didn’t know any better. I named it Grace, and instead of becoming nervous about riding, I started edging toward a daredevil mentality, blazing through town in the dark of night, alone. That was where I found my kick-ass alter-ego.

At the end of the summer I went back to classes full-time, and declined an invitation to stay on with The Peanut Shack. Weeks later the owners went into bankruptcy and the store was closed for months before anyone else took it over. Howard’s Restaurant eventually folded and remained vacant a long time as well. Summer is tough going for business owners in a college town, and it isn’t a picnic for the people who work for them either. I never took another job in the food service industry, though I deeply respect the people who are great at it. For me, there were other worlds of work to explore.

Related Post: Tour Guide, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Related Post: Working Girl, The Pig Years

Working Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I was sixteen, I scored one of the best jobs of my life. I became a tour guide for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Society. My hometown of De Smet, SD is famous for its connection to the writer, author of the Little House series of books that chronicle pioneer life in Minnesota and South Dakota in the 1800’s. For several years, Laura lived in De Smet with Ma, Pa, and her sisters Mary, Carrie and Grace. She became a schoolteacher and met and married Almanzo Wilder there. Her stories of life in De Smet carry readers through several of her later books: By the Shores of Silver Lake, Little Town on the Prairie, The Long Winter, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years. Wilder’s first books, Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, and On the Banks of Plum Creek featured other locations. In De Smet, we prided ourselves on being the setting of most of Laura’s stories, and having: two homes the Ingalls actually lived in (one of which Pa built,) the graves of Pa, Ma, Mary, Carrie and Grace, and an open air portrayal of some of her stories. “The Pageant,” as it was known by us locals, was performed by volunteer townspeople out on the prairie near the homestead location. Hundreds of people flocked to De Smet each night on the last weekend in June and the first two weekends in July to see amateurs in costume act out parts of the books, or in later years (due to copyright restrictions) original works that were written to reflect the life and times of the Ingalls family. Every summer thousands of people toured the Surveyor’s House (the original, from the Silver Lake book) and the Ingalls Home (built by Pa when the time came to move into town some time after Laura married Almanzo.)

To be a tour guide you had to be reasonably presentable, comfortable with  public speaking, and knowledgeable. We had to know the entire series of books backwards and forwards (no problem as I was a true fan,) but we also had to know the behind-the-scenes facts: the dates of births and deaths, the later lives of the siblings, and the untold year that occurred between Plum Creek (set in Walnut Grove, MN) and Silver Lake; when the family lived in Ames, IA where a baby brother was born and died, and Mary got scarlet fever and went blind. We had two tours to learn, one for each house. We learned ticket and gift shop sales and crowd management. On busy days, guides would give back-to-back tours to roomfuls of people, while the next group waited impatiently in their cars or out on the front lawn. We had to keep people from climbing the forbidden stairs in both houses. I’ll grant you, they were enticing, but they were also moderately dangerous and only led up to stifling unrestored rooms where we kept brochures and merchandise. Usually accompanying bus tours was a job that fell to the matriarchs of the guides but sometimes we younger girls were permitted to do this, guiding the driver from house to house to cemetery to homestead site, with views of the big slough, and Lakes Henry and Thompson where Laura and Almanzo took buggy rides.

We sold these "Charlotte" dolls. They were made by an old lady who remembered when Mary Ingalls used to sit out on the front step of their house. My friends and I bought dolls and were probably a little weird about them. The dress on the left is for parties.

The Pageant: me, as Laura, with a member of the visiting film crew. Maybe the director? I like to imagine that in 1984 I was some kind of equivalent to a rock star in Japan.

It was my job to confuse small children and reduce adults to disappointed tears by telling them that the stories of Laura Ingalls as portrayed on the television show, “Little House on the Prairie,” starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert are, to a large extent, fictional. No one who loves that show wants to hear that Albert was a made-up character, or that little Laura never climbed to the top of a mountain to offer God her life in exchange for the baby’s (there are no mountains within hundreds of miles of De Smet.) Look on the bright side! we urged. Mr. Edwards and Nellie Olson were real and featured in several stories in multiple books! Real life on the prairie was difficult, charming, and just as cool (if not as action-packed and dramatic,) as it was on TV! Really! At the height of the season the crowds were unrelenting. During the day I’d repeat the memorized script so many times that I’d wake myself in the middle of the night, sweeping my arm to the right and saying out loud, “…and here is an actual dresser built by Charles Ingalls, who, as you might recall from the books, was a skilled carpenter.” We wore long dresses in keeping with the period, though no corsets, and as little else as possible because it was hot in those houses, especially when they were crammed with tourists. It was hard work, but I loved all the curious people who wanted to know something that I could tell them. Laura fans tend to be wonderful folk. I loved the old houses and the history and the challenging  questions and how there was no mud or manure involved (see related posts: The Pig Years.) There was even some fame to be had. The year I turned eighteen, the only year I participated in The Pageant, I was given the role of Laura. That same year, some Japanese filmmakers visited De Smet for part of a documentary they were making on Laura’s life (she is HUGE in Japan–I mean, we had tourists from all over the world, but evidently Japan LOVES her.) The LIW Society made a special exception and allowed them to photograph and film parts of the houses, and the crew also recorded at least part of The Pageant. We understood each other not at all, but everyone was very nice and so enthusiastic. I had a mullet that year, as was fashionable, and so my braids were stumpy and French, but no one seemed to mind.

Signing autographs before The Pageant. Note the braids. I find myself wondering what the kid in the blue jacket is thinking about.

Related Post: Working Girl, Prologue

Related Post: Working Girl, The Pig Years

Working Girl, The Pig Years

The single-digit or subzero cold spells are the times I remember best. Trudging out to the back field, through the arcing windbreak of leafless trees, there was no sound except the crunch of snow beneath my heavy boots. Soft tissue inside my nose and throat cringed as the icy air assaulted wherever it could reach.  I opened the front of the little shed where the feed was stored and filled white five-gallon buckets with pulverized grain. Repeated trips carrying the buckets six steps up to the platform, lifting, and emptying gave me the shoulders of an Amazon. By the time all was ready, my face, hands and feet would be freezing, but my core would be sweating under my puffy insulated coveralls Then, I opened the door.

To farrow means to give birth. The farrowing house was a maternity ward of a sort. The tropically steamy atmosphere inside frosted and fogged my glasses, blinding me, as the walloping stench took away my breath. A farrowing house is built over a pit, a cesspool for swine. Adding to the pungent reek of excrement and urine was the very specific pig smell impregnated into the dander, which floats invisibly in the air and settles on every surface including my skin, clothing and every strand of hair. I was resigned to the fact that I would smell like this place when I was done. The sows were confined in two rows of crates, seven on each side facing a center aisle with a food bin and water dispenser by their heads. Heating mats on the slatted floor and hot air forced noisily out of the blower kept everyone toasty, regardless of the outdoor clime. Bars inside the crate kept the mothers from turning around, reducing but not eliminating the chance that they would lie down on their young, who milled around the perimeter of the crate, and smother them. If I found a poor dead piglet, I had to reach in and remove it ASAP. (DON’T READ THIS, YOU OF DELICATE SENSIBILITY!) Sows often chew on their own dead piglets, I don’t KNOW why, (psychosis, hiding the evidence?) but I will tell you that picking up a dead piglet is much less traumatic than picking up half a dead piglet. And on a hot summer day, having a feed bag containing a dozen whole and partial dead piglets break open at the bottom and spill out over your shoes will mark you for life. Life. (DELICATE FOLKS, YOU CAN BEGIN READING AGAIN!)

I moved down the center aisle, pouring feed into the bins, so the sows could in turn nurse their offspring, the reason this was all in place.  I have never heard a pig “oink.” Our pigs either grunted or more frequently barked with a toss of the head, baptizing me with saliva and snot. It could be argued they were joyously greeting me, the bringer of food, but I think not. To reach into the crate, I had to face down their intimidating teeth and beady, glaring eyes. It was a contrast to the sight of a pile of newborn piglets piled in a warm and content heap, sleeping and occasionally flapping a delicate pink ear or tail. After feeding was cleanup when I used a scraper to break up the piles of manure, (which I called shit loudly and repeatedly inside my head,) pushing it between the floorboards into the fragrant pit below. “It’s just dirt,” as my dad said, often, in exasperation or amusement.

When the piglets were big enough, they graduated to the next room in the building, dedicated to feeder pigs. Liberated from the constraining and threatening bulk of their mothers, the young pigs scampered in pens with their friends, eating, sleeping, urinating, defecating and socializing until they were big enough to sell.  With thunderous little hooves stampeding in tight circles and excited squealing in unison, the sound was deafening. Much more filling and emptying of heavy buckets, but the excrement was more manageable. All done, the door shut behind me, I breathed in deeply the silence and the pure arctic air. This was my first paid job. Every day I tended the pigs, I drew a tally mark on the blackboard in the house. Every so often I’d call Dad to account. I wish I remembered how much one hour, give or take, in the pig house was worth. I learned a lot about dirt and unpleasantness and doing the job anyway. I learned about being responsible. I learned about showering so thoroughly that no one would ever guess how I spent my after school time. This is what I do, I assured myself, not who I am. But of course it is both. “It’s good for you! It builds character,” Dad used to say, and no matter how many showers you take, character never completely washes away.