My parents tried their best to school me in the ways of the world. When firemen came to the door, my father handed them a ten and took the book of raffle tickets. "They'll watch our house burn to the ground, if I don't," he explained. And at the dinner table, my mother, weary from her eight hours, related detailed stories about workplace back stabbers.
When I started college, I figured I had enough cynicism to make it on my own. I was told that Patrick Henry jumped through a window down to a waiting horse after presenting his liberty vs. death ultimatum. And no, that is not pepper on those street-vendor pretzels. I figured I was ready.
Professor O'leary led a relaxed seminar where we compared Paris to Odysseus and Penelope to Helen. Entertaining and approachable, he had the class over to his apartment for cocktails at the semester's end.
"Bring your paper by," he said, squeezing my hand. "Let's talk about it." I was ready to be his protégé and spent all night with Virgil and Homer. I clutched the carefully typed paper running over to his place fueled only by black coffee and one hour of sleep. I'd been standing at his door for almost fifteen minutes when my gentle knocking transitioned to persistent pounding. When he finally snatched the door open, Professor O'leary was red faced, barefoot, drenched in his own perspiration, wearing a sweatshirt inside out and his belt was undone. He nodded at me impatiently as I told him all that I had discovered about Dido and Helen. He grabbed the exposition from my hands and slammed the door.
I was in my 30s when gentrification brought a new restaurant to replace the dive bar on the corner. I needed my Food Safety License to take over as chef in this new kitchen. The food safety class was led by a dedicated and knowledgeable health department inspector. Food poisoning was serious business. It didn't take many classes for me to recognize the violations that were being committed in the kitchen I was taking over. There had been a fire. Since then they were cooking on an old grease-covered hot plate plugged into a light socket over the charred stove. From a basement faucet, I followed a green garden hose up to the pot and pan sink. It was coiled like a snake in a sink full of brackish water.
"How did they get by with this?" I asked the landlord.
"The Health Inspector had to have been on the take," he winked at me.
The instructor made sure all of us had the tools to leave his class and run a clean kitchen. I stopped him after class one evening and told him about the hose I'd found in the kitchen at my new job.
"It's a back flow hazard," his voice trembled with anger and concern, "It could contaminate the whole water supply." This restaurant should have been shut down and made to pay the $50,000 fine. I rushed back to the building that night, wrapped that green hose around my arm and heaved it into the dumpster.
We'd been up and running for months when in the still-shiny dining room I saw a familiar face. It was my food safety instructor. I was happy to see him and proud to show off my place to someone who would notice that I was doing this right. By the time I made it to his table, nausea was rumbling through my gut. The instructor looked around. The bright dining room didn't make a smile take over his face the way it did everyone else. I had to remind him who I was. He had an iced tea, and then slipped back into his rain coat, grabbed his briefcase and left.
Follow Gillian Clark on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChefGillianInDC