“So how’s this for a guiding principle: The work is more important than the personalities. We can be friends but let's not be sweethearts."– Young Hearts Crying, by Richard Yates
Well, Friends, today is October 14th and we all know what that means. That’s right. Today marks the 64th anniversary of the sound barrier being broken during level flight by Charles [Chuck] Yeager. If you’ve seen the movie “The Right Stuff,” you probably remember the scene when Sam Shepard, as Yeager, slightly squinty eyed in that delightful Shepard way, contorted his body to fit into Glamorous Glennis, the orange Bell X-1 that hurtled them both into aeronautic fame and now hangs from the ceiling of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C. In the movie, just as Yeager slides the cockpit door closed with a sawed off piece of broom handle (two of his ribs had been broken in a horseback riding accident), he asks for a piece of gum from the Flight Engineer. He made the gum look so delicious that I had to wonder for a moment – is gum the Right Stuff?
Whether this delightful scene occurred in Tom Wolfe’s book, the source for the movie, I don’t know – I haven’t read it. But I do know from reading my McGee that gum has been considered delicious by humans for thousands of years:
“Europeans and North Americans chewed the relatively harsh resin of spruce trees; and the Maya chewed chicle, the latex of the sapodilla tree (Achras sapote) ten centuries before it was commercialized in New York City.”
Now, I’d learned about the chicle tree a few years ago during a trip to Guatemala with my Father and Stepmum. As we wandered around the jungle covered ruins of Tikal, ducking beneath tree branches mottled with white growths – perfect camouflage for a waiting boa constrictor – our guide pointed out a fairly nondescript tree and told us that it was chicle. Always a fan of meeting ingredients in their native form, I was delighted when, not a minute later, he pointed out another tree and asked me to smell the trunk. Never one to shy from smelling a tree, I leaned up to the bark and took a deep whiff. What was that? Apple pie? Beeman’s gum? A really good Dark and Stormy? Christmas time? Nope. It was an Allspice tree.
I may have been the only one in the group to find the proximity of these two trees as fascinating as I did, but truly, Friends, I believed in that moment that I’d cracked the Gum Code. That long-ago, one of the Mr. Wrigleys visited this jungle, took a look at the two trees, pulled a cigar from between his teeth, and announced, “I believe we have found a remarkable convergence of materials, see…perfectly suitable for manufacture of a Chewing Gum for pilots and other wizards of invention!” I suppose this could have happened, but let's not forget that the Maya were snapping gum (a punishable offense back then) long before the New York City sidewalks were bespeckled with flattened disks of chewed and spat out Juicy Loot. We have to thank for that a certain Thomas Adams, a New York inventor who was introduced to chicle in 1869, added sugar and that was that. The Wrigleys and Fleers followed soon after. And while clove, licorice, teaberry, sugar and sassafras were all early gum flavors, there's not much evidence pointing to an allspice version of the chewable tree secretion. The only Gum Code I cracked was the origin of the name "Chicklets."
There’s not a lot of gum chewing in kitchens. The last thing you want is a customer finding a piece of chewed Double Yumm in their pizza crust. The. Last. Thing. Sometimes customers place their chewed gum on the edge of a bread plate, especially in restaurants that offer only cloth napkins. When the gum goes through the dish machine, the hot water smears it all over everything, leaving behind a sticky, minty plate coating about four molecules thick, impossible to remove without acetone. And while I don’t recommend sticking gum to the bottom of the table or the underside of a chair, I do urge the dining public to refrain from sending their gum back with their other leavings. This work is already tricky without having to also ferret out nail polish remover.
I'm reminded of Glamorous Glennis often during a shift because the burner I cook most everything on is a single, double-ringed gas eye of fire. When I sear livers in a rondeaux, my face is directly above the popping organs and fat, while my apron dangles just inches away from the tongues of fire that lick the bottom of the pot. This is a useful device for cooking enormous batches of stocks, gumbos, soups, beans, and also for shooting people across the sky.
Kitchens are – restaurants are – arenas in which daily dramas play out, dramas in which every employee must bring the Right Stuff because every employee runs into barriers and boundaries: The language barriers between the Spanish and English speakers; the boundaries of professional regard/disdain that exist between the Front of House and Back of House. The right stuff in a kitchen might mean having your station set up and backed up before service starts. But every shift is about pushing personal boundaries, learning something new, braving the demon that lives in the fire, and putting a perfect sear on a piece of halibut. This kind of Stuff comes from wanting, wanting to be the best at a station and not caring who knows it, wanting to be a part of a team, wanting to seamlessly present perfection on a plate.
Today is my favorite day for indulging in these personal reflections, a chance for me to unwrap delicious, fresh-flavored dreams and start chewing on them until next year. Were I to offer you a piece from the fresh pack of dreams, I would also offer this: There is, there must be, a certain grace, a humility that comes with knowing that there will always be those better and worse than you at your job, and that without the entire crew working together, nobody’s gonna fly.