Wednesday, July 12, 2006

I Was Once a Granola Maker

Ok, I'll admit it, I miss college...who doesn't? Most of us were away from home, could drop in on our friends or have our friends drop in on us without it being a major production, and had plenty of movies and concerts to enjoy when we weren't working, which wasn't often since me and most of my friends worked like dogs. Still, it was nice to know they were there. The movies and concerts that is, as well as the friends. I remember Christine Lavin and Chris Williamson performing, as well as The Cleveland Orchestra and John Hiatt. I remember seeing "Woodstock," "The Bridge on the River Quai," and "Brazil" through the independent film series, and seeing "American Gigolo" in town with my roommate freshman year, who shared with me a one pound bag of peanut M&M's and a huge crush on Richard Gere.

I went to Oberlin, which, for those who don't know it, is a "liberal" liberal college in the Midwest, just outside Cleveland, with an outstanding music conservatory among its many glowing offerings. Students aimed high, and so did I. I played flute, and got to study with the music majors, who helped me through Debussy and Bach and Vivaldi - pieces of music that were way too hard for me. I was an English and Creative Writing major, which meant I spent a lot of late nights writing papers on Henry James and Faulkner, and many hours in poetry workshops hashing out rhyme and meter, trying to find my voice while trying to figure out of someone else's poem was about the joys of new found love or the death of their poodle. This being a liberal arts education, I also learned about Doric vs. Ionic columns in Ancient Art, read "Zazie Dans Le Metro" in French literature, and memorized the islands of Japan for a Modern Japan class.

By the time I got to my junior and senior years, I had tired of the cafeteria style meals and signed up to eat in the food co ops. And strangely enough, my strongest memories are not of my classes, but cooking. Cooking in a hurry, and for a lot of people. In contrast to certain aspects of the college experience that had a tendency to drag on and on, such as up in the air relationships, and courses that sometimes felt like they never ended, the meals, with their hectic pace and rapid turnover, were something of a relief. Just like good writing, they had their beginnings, middles, and ends, with the occasional catharsis in the form of someone jumping on one of the dining room tables to make an announcement (someone was pilfering raisins from the dried fruit bin) or to initiate the inevitable and unconquerable co op vote. Who wanted dinner to be moved to 6:30 instead of 6:00? Would Friday night's special dinner be lasagne or turkey noodle fricasee?

The good news was the food was great -with typical offerings of homemade bread, muffins and cakes, stir fries, spanacopeta, brown rice concoctions, etc., a big improvement over the questionable Salisbury steak, tired jello, and pale vegetables from the cafeteria. The catch was, you had to earn credits to be part of the co op, and had to have a job in order to get credits. Menu planning was considered the most glamorous job, since it didn't make you sweat or mess up your hair. I watched with envy as the menu planners drew their neat sketches of the days of the week in colored magic marker, their Moosewood cookbooks readily in hand, carefully writing in veggie chili one day, broccoli cheese soup the next, tofu surprise the next. They had the power. KP, or kitchen prep, was my job for a year, a year where I madly chopped and diced and sliced everything from tomatoes to zucchini with a team of three other women, suffering the occasional knife wound, crying onion tears, and searching madly for the green beans ten minutes before dinner. One year I was dinner cook, and made fried chicken for 80 people, while sustaining hot oil burns on my arm that necessitated an emergency visit to Lisa Cook's house for treatment - she had a collection of aloe plants. The whole experience was like an exhilarating nightmare - like Kitchen Stadium on speed.

Senior year, I was granola maker. I had to make an entire garbage bin of granola every Sunday, enough to feed about 100 people for the week. The first time I made it, I carefully stirred together the ingredients, honey, raisins, oats, etc. , combined them with spices and oil, and lay them out on about twenty flat pans, which I then threw into the oven. An hour later, the granola was cooked, but much to my horror, would not come out of the pan. I had forgotten to grease the pans. It was right there on the instructions, and I had missed it. Not one pan, or ten pans, but twenty of them. It took hours- indeed the rest of the night, as I recall, to get the granola out of the pans, prying it out in clumps with a knife. I cried over how stupid it was. I cried because I had homework to do and papers to finish, and I had to get the stupid granola out of the pans. It came out burnt and bitter, but people ate it anyway. In fact, much to my astonishment, no one seemed to notice at all, and I even got a round of applause at the dinner table one night.

Looking back on this years later, I realize this was one of the greatest life lessons I learned in college: that there are many different ways to finish something, but the end result is often the same, no matter how you get there. Or, in other words, don't cry over burnt granola.

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