Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Note to That Guy I Live With

In 1846, poet Elizabeth Barrett wrote to Robert Browning, her future husband: "Was ever any in the world, in any possible world, so perfectly good and dear to another as you are to me!" It was just one line from one of more than 500 letters exchanged over 20 months' time, chronicling the friendship and courtship of two great British writers.

The letters are unique in their volume and passion. Separated by her health and a possessive father, they mourn the time spent apart in language that shows, so sincerely, how desperate they were to be together. Thankfully, the world has their correspondence. Another great love story was not lost to oblivion.

We are not recording our love stories in the same way. We do not write letters in the 21st century, and based on what we see in the media and from celebrities, I think a lot of us are cynical about love. Although we may see flashes of love stories in feature articles or two-minute spots, evidence like the Browning letters is rare. Will we have a great love story of our age? Yes, but it won't be recorded "in the moment," and that, I think, is a tremendous loss.

I feel a bit of solidarity with the Brownings and their desperation to be together. I do live in the same house with my husband, which is fortunate, but sometimes all I see of him is a sleepy two minutes in the morning before I leave and a sleepy two minutes at night when he gets home. Most days, I can barely stand to be away from him. He knows that, but I never write it down.

Somehow I feel that our letters detailing daily life would be decidedly less romantic and more functional than the eloquent Browning letters, but maybe, in the interest of history and spreading love to a world that needs it, I should try.

"Dearest -- We have a laundry situation again. I fear that the load in the washer has been there for three days, and the children are all starting to look like they dressed themselves. I hope you were not attached to that Ming Tsai cookbook, as it is now in 30 pieces, some of which are thoughtfully decorated with crayons. I have come to accept that we must abandon the "couch is not a jungle gym" argument. No amount of time-outs have been effective, and to be truthful, I wish a little bit that I could jump on the couch, too. I missed you today, partly because I had to retrieve the thrown macaroni and cheese from under the table all by myself, and partly because I just miss your steady presence and your slightly inappropriate jokes. The baby is kicking as I write this; perhaps he or she misses you already, too. I feel lonely when you are gone, and look forward, all week, to those four hours together as a family on Monday evenings."

Chef Matt and I do not do date nights but once every three months or so, and a weekend away is about as likely as you would expect. We do spend 20 minutes alone together on Friday mornings, eating muffins in my work cafe, catching up on the week before he has to be at the restaurant. And that is what has come to work for us; a sliver of a day that always leaves me feeling happy but a little sad to see him walk away.

The Brownings did what they had to do to maintain contact during a painful separation, and the world is better off for their hundreds of pages of declared love. We also do what we have to do, and that has developed into a Friday-morning reconnect that is neither especially private or especially romantic. But that 20 minutes is as important to us as a weekend trip or weekly dinner out might be to another couple: this is the way that we keep in touch.

I do not know that ours is one of the "great love stories," and maybe people today do not have the patience or interest to read pages of letters that I could write, lamenting our separation, but I want our children to know that their parents wanted to be together, though they rarely see us so. Maybe a note here and there would not be a bad idea. Even if no one ever sees them but our family, I would feel better knowing that our story would have been recorded at one time, even when we have long passed from this Earth.

"But to the end, the very end .. I am yours." Robert Browning, 1846. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

And Financial Complications Arise

While waiting tables at a gourmet pizza place a number of years ago, a customer told me that her pizza better be solid gold for what we were charging. I smiled politely, replied with an explanation of our fresh, high-quality ingredients, all the while wanting to tell her to shove it and go to Domino's.

If you want an example of how your high-school economics class matters in the real world, eat or work at a restaurant. After 15 years of waiting tables and six years as a chef's wife, I am well aware that going out to eat is not a simple matter of order food, make food, eat food, pay for food. It is far more complicated than that. And at the moment, there is a potential situation in my home state that will have even more complicated effects on the restaurant industry.

The Minnesota Legislature is seeking to pass a bill raising the minimum wage. In one version, the rate would go up over three dollars in the next few years. For Minnesotans making the current minimum wage, this will be an economic relief. It is hard to make ends meet making non-tipped minimum wage, and I am, of course, in favor of helping the lowest-wage earners keep up with the rapidly rising cost of living.

But then I consider the situation of some restaurants, and it gives me pause. Since Chef Matt has been an executive chef, I have learned more than I ever wanted to know about food cost and labor cost. Food and labor are both expensive, and every week, Matt crunches numbers, cuts shifts, creatively uses food, and works extra hours himself to keep the restaurant running. The solution could always be to raise meal prices, but then you have the "solid-gold pizza lady" issue making a reputation for your restaurant's value.

For small restaurants, increased labor cost, for tipped employees in particular, is going to create difficulties that could make it hard to keep business running as usual. Matt's restaurant is farm-to-table, but local, high-quality foods are often more expensive, and with higher labor, it could complicate his ability to purchase the produce and meats he wants to. His restaurant has a reputation for unique, interesting dishes that make use of beautiful ingredients, but that, too, can be expensive.

If this bill goes through, and tipped employees are granted a higher minimum wage, he will likely have to sacrifice some of the things that make his small restaurant the place that it is, charge more for dishes, and work more than he already does. The part is that is frustrating for him, too, on a more personal level, is that in his company of restaurants, many of the tipped employees average a higher hourly wage than he does.

I was a server, so I know how hard they work and how essential that paycheck is. As a server in Iowa while in college, I made $2.13 an hour, and my paychecks were essentially negative. That is not okay. But when the executive chef of a restaurant, whose job it is to balance food cost, labor cost, customer prices, perceived value, food responsibility, and the creative art of cooking in a 55-hour week makes less money than a tipped employee, it is a little hard for me to swallow.

I am aware that this makes me sound insensitive to the thousands of hard-working, deserving tipped employees in the state. But there is always another side to the story. Many restaurants are not huge money-makers, especially the small independent ones. And what I see is what my husband lives each day and how this might effect our family. He is not the big evil business, desperate to cheat workers in order to increase our profit. He wants to do right by his employees, and stresses and sweats to make all things as fair as possible.

But I fear that if this bill passes, and in the next couple of years the minimum wage rises two to three dollars, some of the restaurants that this community loves will need to compromise quality, raise food prices to a difficult level, or close altogether. And to me, that means loss of integrity, loss of business, and loss of jobs. I do not know what the answer is, but there must be a compromise at hand, so the hard workers of Minnesota can continue to be employed at the restaurants that they, and their customers, and their chefs, love.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Marvann's Aluminum Pot

Once upon a time in Minneapolis, there was a restaurant that no one remembers. As the Cold War grew out of the underbrush of World War II, this restaurant opened and closed without fanfare. The proprietors were a young married couple who would someday be parents to seven children, among them two sets of twins.

But when Marvann's opened its doors for the first time, they were still just a young man and woman seeking dreams in the shape of a little 1950s restaurant. Ann worked in the kitchen, learning often on the fly and on at least one occasion from a customer, and Marvin handled the business and the conversation. They were young and happy, and only when a series of unfortunate events tumbled down around them did they step away from Marvann's, never to return to the restaurant business.

The restaurant was never a Minneapolis institution, and it did not meet a ghastly end by fire or flood, so in all likelihood, the only people who remember it are Ann and Marvin themselves. The historical ephemera that sometimes survives closed restaurants, such as menus and placemats, may or may not be tucked away in a box somewhere. Only one relic survives that we know of: a black, well-used, aluminum pot.

That pot, perhaps fittingly, lives at our house: the home of a chef and a historian. Even more fittingly, it lives in the house of Ann and Marvin's grandson, the only one of their grandchildren to pursue a career in the culinary arts, which ensures that the pot is used and its provenance remembered.

We have had this pot since we were married, and we have used it a number of times, although not as often as our more everyday pots and pans. Extracting the heavy pot from its cupboard seems to unleash its past use, like a flurry of moths from an old, deep closet. What did Ann stir up in that pot 60 years ago, and is her grandson somehow channeling her dishes when he creates dishes for his family? What busy restaurant conversations with Marvin are somehow echoed in the chatter of his three great-grandchildren?

The wonderful thing about this artifact, as opposed to most other historical objects, is that we can still use it. Our braised meats are cooked just like theirs, with no fear of harming the pot. It may, in fact, simply grow better and more seasoned with age. The more we use it, the less of Marvann's we lose.

As a historian, I wish that more evidence of Marvann's existed to help continue its memory when Ann and Marvin are someday gone. But as Chef Matt's wife, I am so pleased that the pot ended up in our hands. If there is to be one single piece left from Marvann's, we will be grateful custodians and continue to cook up beautiful things to serve alongside the history entrusted to us by Matt's one-time restauranteur grandparents.