I remember, with great fondness, my time spent on the top of the hill in Crow. For those who do not know my background, my start in this kitchen life began when I was 16 years old in Crow Agency Montana at the Custer Battlefield Trading Post and Café. My job was the “and Café” part. I worked there for eight years under the tutelage of a great many women who were driven by a passion that was born of dedication to work and dedication to family. They were the breadwinners of their households; not solely, since almost everyone worked, but certainly equally. And they won that bread through the solid steady work of feeding tourists.
Where I come from, you are given options for jobs when you are of an age to work. Keep in mind that “of an age” is a loose term. Most children, where I’m from, drive at the age of 7, enlisting the aid of a younger sibling to either work the gas or the brake while they man the steering wheel. So working age can come any time shortly after that, and on some occasions even before. Your job choices, in my world, are to work at a restaurant or convenience store, work for the Crow Tribal Government, work for the mine, or to not work at all. The people whom I worked with in the Trading Post were some of the most dedicated restaurant workers I’ve ever met. And let me tell you why.
In the Café that I was created in, the kitchen was a box. It was roughly 12 feet by 20 feet and had an entry point that lead either to a steaming dish pit or into the kitchen itself, and it had an exit point that I would learn later in life was our pass (the place where food goes from the kitchen and into the hands of the server) that was actually a homemade table that could hold no more than ten plates at a time. Keep in mind we routinely served busses of 80 people on a consistent basis and we did so in less than thirty minutes. Tourists, bus tourists in particular, do not wait! Inside this box there was a sandwich prep station, a two bain warmer, a four burner gas range, a flat top griddle, two deep fryers, and a “frybread table” so dubbed because it was where we rolled out frybread for the masses, and then a kitchen sink and a refrigerator. At eye level to me were also our plate racks with the standard brown rim ceramic plate you’ve seen in every diner you’ve ever been in anywhere in the country. They are cheap, durable, and classy in a timeless way. And across from that was our spice rack which held onion salt, parsley flakes, ground pepper, and turmeric. Why turmeric? Because I worked with older women and turmeric is a curative for a great many things and when you had a problem they were likely as not to mix a tablespoon in a glass of warm water and make you drink it.
This box and its contents were the hottest kitchen I have ever worked in, in my entire life. No other kitchen has even consistently come close. We had stick thermometers which we temped our taco meat with to satisfy the absurd curiosity of the health department and we always left them standing point up on the plate rack. In August, when we pulled a thermometer to see visually with our own eyes just how miserable we were, the temperature was regularly 114 degrees. Gordon Ramsay tells a story about the cooling system crashing on opening day in one of his kitchens and the line reaching 114 degrees and members of his crew blacking out. I can tell you with no shame, we were too busy to be bothered with blacking out. If you lost consciousness, you better damn well finish rolling dough before you hit the dirt.
I worked in this tiny oven with some of the people who have meant the most to me in my entire life and whom I still carry a deep regard for. At the top of this list is the woman I worked with for the entirety of my time there, Tela. Tela was a Ute who married a Crow man in her youth and the two of them moved to his reservation where they raised a family and built a life together. When the Trading Post opened in Crow, Tela was one of the first people to start work there and she remained until her retirement. Tela and I had a running joke about her age and when she was 62 I bought her a silver cigarette case and had it engraved externally with “To the World’s Oldest Living Ute.” And internally it read, “Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette.” Reference to an old cowboy song that Tela and I sang on the busier days when there were no breaks to be had. I did not smoke, and still do not, but Tela was always kind enough to ask me to accompany her on her breaks because she knew I’d never leave the kitchen otherwise. She always joked to people that we had to go on break together because she was a smoker and I was a second hand smoker.
Tela and I laughed, constantly. The most fun I’ve had in a kitchen was by her side. We once served three bus loads of 80 people, a grand total of 240 heads, Indian Tacos all by ourselves. She manned the fry bread table while I built the tacos and sent them out. Occassionally she’d call from her corner, “What’s my count, boy?” And I’d let her know where we stood in the din of it all.
Tela called me boy from the day I started. She claimed to be terrible with names and so she would refer to all of us in the kitchen by gender alone. Even after eight years together I still answered to boy when she called. Some of my favorite stories came from Tela’s and my time together.
Terrified of snakes, Tela would always make me accompany her if she were taking out the trash or dumping the oil from the fryers for the day. Our oil for the fryers was stored outside in those days and when we had to refill we would grab the 35lb jugs and lug them back into the kitchen, dumping them into the fryers. They sat on wooden palettes outside so that nothing could get on or in the jugs. During the summer months we would routinely have 15 to 20 jugs stored and that would deplete as the days went on. The day before a delivery we were changing the fryers and when we went out to get more oil Tela climbed atop the palettes and barked orders at me to pick up some of the boxes that had been tossed out the back door through the day. As I picked up the boxes I looked beneath her feet to see a large bull snake coiled and she had not yet noticed it. I tried, with all my might, to get her away from it without her seeing.
“Old woman! You can come help me throw these boxes out, it’ll do you good to lift something for once today besides potato chips to your mouth.”
“Boy, this is spring chicken work, you just pick up boxes and do your job, which is to listen to what I say.”
“I think I hear the ticket printer, you should go inside.” I said.
“I think I hear it too, you should go to hell.” She said. And then she looked down.
She screamed so loud she dropped the cigarette from her mouth and I barely had time to catch up to her before she crested the hill and headed towards the battlefield itself.
On one of our particularly hot days she was fanning herself with a newspaper and mopping her brow with a towel. “My word, I can’t take it any longer. I’m going in the back and take all my clothes off.”
“Oh good Lord, spare us all, we’ll go blind.” I said.
She headed for the prep area, decidedly the coolest spot in our kitchen and yelled back to me, “Don’t worry, I’ll leave my apron on.” Her laugh, to this day, makes me smile.
At the end of the season we would pull everything that remained in house and either freeze it or cook it for the staff. We’d be down to bare bones minimum at this point and usually it would just be Tela and myself in the kitchen serving the stragglers who had missed the peak of the summer but still came to see the battlefield. Our cooler in the back was a four door affair, two on the top and two on the bottom, divided only on the outside by stainless steel. Inside the height was about five feet from floor to ceiling. We had cleaned it out and pulled the plug on it when a genius idea came upon us. As Tela scrubbed the floor and crawled inside I said, “Hey, you could fit in there.”
She said, “Yup, that’s how we’ll know it’s clean, I’ll inspect your work.”
“No,” I replied, “We should scare somebody!”
Neither of us could stop laughing. Tela got inside and I closed the door and she immediately threw it back open, “I’ll suffocate!” She yelled.
I closed the door again saying, “It’s a small price to pay to scare somebody, you’ve had a good run, now close the door.” And so she did.
And then I ran over to the gift shop side and found a fellow employee. I’ll change her name here in case she doesn’t want anyone remembering the details of this. Nyla was my first victim. I casually walked up to her and said, “So, we’ve got some extra meat in the cooler in back I don’t think we’ll freeze it. If you want it you are welcome to dig through it and see if you want to take any of it.” Unable to resist free food of any kind she headed back to the cooler. I yelled after her, “It’s in the top right, take all you want.” and then followed a distance behind her as she headed that way. She got to the cooler and threw the door open as Tela leaned forward and stuck out her tongue and yelled “Bleaaaah!”
Nyla screamed, turned to run, twisted her ankle and fell to the floor all while screaming, “OHHH YOU MEAN OLD F####ING WITCH!!!” Tela and I absolutely could not stop laughing. Nyla crawled her way across the concrete floor, whimpering and giggling all at the same time. Unable to stand she extended her hand to me and said, “Let’s do this to Fred!”
I got Fred next and told him the same lie about free food. He opened the door and Tela did the same routine. Fred screamed like a woman and ran backwards so fast he broke a boot heel, all while taking a swing at Tela. She dodged the throw and slammed the cooler door back shut as Fred buckled to his knees wheezing and panting. Tela then opened the bottom door and said, “Fred! You broke your boot!” Fred looked at her and yelled, “You broke my boot! And there’s nothing in that damn cooler I want!” And stormed back over to the gift shop, lopsided in his retreat.
Tela and I had a great many antics in our time together which I may relay in this blog as the statute of limitations runs out on some of them. My only regret in this life is that I moved on to bigger things. While this has benefitted me my whole life over because of the path it has lead me down, the path that allowed me to create and open Local with people who are dear to me and whom I would do anything for, I still regret, occasionally, that I didn’t get to finish out my days in the deep heat of that reservation kitchen, standing next to one of the best friends I’ve ever had, endlessly grousing at each other until her shift was over and she’d say, “Boy! I’ve had enough of you, I’m going home.”
So the next time you see me smiling on the line, seemingly to myself, know that Tela is standing next to me in my head saying, “Boy, if you don’t rub my bunions nobody else is gonna do it.” While I make marks in the flour piles on the frybread table to keep count of how many people we’ve served that day so that in the end, we can sweep the slate clean, and start the whole thing over, joyously, the next day.