Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ponderosa Steakhouse

I'm definitely loving kale. I think part of the appeal is my past history with it. I worked at Ponderosa Steakhouse  in Chicago Heights, Ill., when I was in high school. I could walk there-- cutting through the hedge at the end of my street-- and Ponderosa had been part of many minor childhood adventures (sneaking in and getting paper cups of water from the fancy water fountain) and suburban legends (the bullet holes in the side of the building and stories of armed robberies). For about the first six months, I was on salad bar and bussing tables, the first step before becoming an order taker and eventually, a cashier.

It is amazing that the hedge was the only thing separating us in Park Forest from Chicago Heights, which was all around a much more "dangerous" place. Meaning it was more urban and more poor. Crossing through that hedge put us within a block of the corner of Lincoln Highway and Western Avenue. That corner was a gateway to a number of places. Of chief interest to us as teenagers were White Castle, Dunkin Donuts and Brunswick Bowl.

You really weren't supposed to walk across any of the intersections at this junction, or so it seemed to me at the time. It was a pure car environment, meaning a mass of strip-mall type entrances with people driving in and out, parking, multiple lanes of traffic, etc. Given the fact that most of my childhood was spent on my bike traveling safely and without any harrassment from cars, in Park Forest and then into the leafy neighborhoods of Olympia Fields and Flossmoor, Chicago Heights represented a certain very concrete (in both senses of the word) form of inaccessibility. And since I was making sub-minimum wage, $2.90/hour, at Ponderosa, it wasn't like I could afford more than the occasional donut or slider anyway. Looking back, I think there was also a movie theater over there. I think my sister and I saw Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure there when we were stuck at home without a car later on in life. Once, stir-crazy in a snowstorm, we walked to Brunswick Bowl. Otherwise, it truly felt like my world ended at the hedge at the end of Farragut Street, with an exception made for slipping through to go to work at Ponderosa.

I do find it sad and kind of a symptom of what's wrong with our food culture that I did not learn a single thing about cooking while working for two years at a restaurant. The only food-related things I learned was 1) the tomato shark is an essential piece of kitchen equipment, and 2) Fruit Fresh would make my hands itch and swell up to twice their size. I also developed a lifelong dislike of French dressing, which seemed to ooze from my pores after a night of working the salad bar.

Fruit Fresh was pure MSG, and we'd soak kale in a clean tub of cool water and the stuff before putting it out as decorative garnish on the salad bar. I liked the look of kale, and the texture, but it seemed clear to me that no one ate the stuff. It was soaked in chemicals to keep it from wilting and then placed over ice. At the end of the night we'd wash the spilled French and blue cheese dressing off of it and put it away, in the tub of fruit fresh, in the cooler for the next day. It seemed some part rubber, like a fake plant, and I wondered how someone came up with the idea of putting kale as decorative garnish on a salad bar. I remember wondering once, also, where it came from. Iceberg lettuce, I knew, came from California. Hard-boiled eggs came frozen in a carton and were very popular, so you had to make sure to get them thawed before you ran out or customers got crabby.
I look back on my Ponderosa experience fondly, entirely as a social experience, because of the people I worked with. I did also learn there how to smash a foil-wrapped baked potato with the heel of my hand and push on the ends to make it flower open. I burned my hand on roll pans, like the boys who worked the grill burned their arms on racks of baked potatoes. But cooking? Hmmm. If you run out of coctail sauce, you can substitute ketchup with lemon juice. And, uh, I did make quite a few gigantic trays of jello. When it wouldn't work out (something about the temperature, it would sometimes get hard on the bottom), we'd slurp it down and once has a jello fight in the kitchen with the dishwashers.

My friend Michael Parks talked me into applying for the job, with tales that turned out to be not so far-fetched about the antics of the employees. I liked the uniforms, which for girls consisted of a brown polyester jumper over a not-itchy flowered knit blouse and a matching flowered hairband. I would wear my hair in looped braids with the hairband and Michael called it my "Princess Leia Hair."

An essential part of our training for the job was learning what to do in case of an armed robbery (I thought this had been a myth, but I was wrong). We were very well-coached to give the thief the money, not do anything stupid, and tell the thief, for example, that someone might come through the swinging door to the kitchen, so don't get alarmed and shoot him, please. I remember the training vividly. It included a video.
Michael was working the day there actually was a robbery, and I was not. The cashier was ordered into the manager's office, behind the cash register, where they were made to strip to their underwear and open the safe. Michael walked in to find out how many Ribeyes he should take out of the freezer and realized something was wrong. He also had to strip down, and the thieves left with the money from the safe, into which they locked the employees' clothing. I thought this made them very professional.
I never faced a robber, but one afternoon an old man who I waited on in the empty restaurant from order through cashier, died of a heart attack while I was at his table delivering his food. He sort of communicated without speaking that I should stay with him, and I did, and then he had the heart attack, and I went through his pockets for medication, which said "Take with orange juice," and then he was slumped over in the booth. I went for the manager, and it turned out the only other customer in the place was a nurse. She did CPR until the ambulance came -- which was fast, this being Chicago Heights -- I'd just turned 18 and it had a very large impact on me.
The next day when I came in, the manager said, "Hey Susan, I was just telling Mr. Henry here how you killed that guy yesterday." That's the kind of people are managers at Ponderosa. Another one of them delighted in telling us stories of "sucking up villagers' huts" with his plane in Vietnam. I don't know if he was bombing them or what, but he said he was close enough to see them running around trying to get away as their homes went up in flames. Another one loaned me stacks of record albums, all of which, in the end, with the exception of The Kids are All Right by The Who, which I asked him for, were terrible. (They included such prizes as Manfred Mann, 10cc, LSD (Lake Shore Drive) and a couple by this cocky young telephone line worker from Indiana, John Cougar.) 
My experience at Ponderosa Steakhouse, in the end, had nothing to do with food. It had very little to do, even, with my everyday life. When a customer, a tough-looking Hispanic kid, asked for my phone number, Michael pointed out that he had a gang tattoo and told me to never give my phone number to a customer (as if I would!). I remember when a family who used to come in quite regularly asked me, near the end of my final summer, if I'd be going to college soon. I told them yes, and they said, "We thought so. You are clearly a bright girl with a lot going for you. You really shouldn't stay here." (As if I would!) By then I was up to $3.35/hour, after being bumped up a quarter when I threatened to quit earlier in the summer.
I also remember this: one of the cooks, my good friend J.T. Berkley, who is now an engineer for Ford Motor Company working on hydrogen fuel cell technology, was fond of pointing out that the steaks came all the way from Australia.
Oh, and if you don't have a tomato shark, you REALLY should get yourself one. They make great stocking stuffers!


Sarah Reynolds said...

It was always "special" for my family to go out to eat. And, Ponderosa, was especially special.

For some reason I can picture brown uniforms....

It was next to my orthodontist, Dr. Calza (sp?).

In HS, I applied to work at the Dunkin Donuts on Westerns. When the manager asked, "Are you afraid of guns?" I withdrew my application.

I happily took up work at the Boys' Dept. at JC Pennys in the Lincoln Mall.

Ahhh, our first "real" jobs!

Thanks for writing this article!

Hans Christoffersen said...

I spent three weeks at St. Rocco's parish in Chicago Heights in May of 1983, mostly in helping to organize the weekly parish bingo, I'm afraid. The parishioners were great, though, but no Ponderosa visit that I remember.

diane housley said...

I worked at Ponderosa in 1979. Do you happen to have a picture of the uniforms they made us wear? I was telling my grown daughter about it the other day and I'd love to be able to show it to her, but I can't find one in the gazillions of loose photos I have in various boxes. thanks.