Something that has always amazed and intrigued me is the way certain smells – even the tiniest of whiffs – have the ability to instantly trigger a flood of memories.
The other morning I decided that my breakfast would be raisin toast, as I hadn’t had any in ages and there was a brand new loaf just waiting in the freezer. I pried two slices away from the rest of the rock-solid lump, popped them in the toaster, and set them to cooking.
Within seconds the air was filled with a complex, yeasty aroma of crisping grains, warm cinnamon, and softening raisins… and in a flash I was 15 again, walking through the front door of the combination bakery-cafeteria that was the site of my first job, where the staff baker had arrived hours earlier to start the day’s production of bread, buns, and cookies.
As first jobs go, it was a pretty good one. I made $3.15 per hour – 15¢ more than minimum wage at the time! – and was given enough hours to keep me in pocket money, but not so many that they interfered with school or my budding social life. My boss (the owner of the restaurant) was fairly young, but seemed to have mastered the skill of firmness tempered with kindness, and my co-workers were for the most part pleasant and in some cases fascinating. On the down side, the fact that the restaurant was cafeteria-style meant no tips – but it also meant no waiting on tables, which was perfectly fine by me, being shy and not at all outgoing when it came to strangers.
Our uniform was our own white pants and white shirt, augmented by a restaurant-supplied orange-and-white gingham bibbed and ruffled apron and (believe it or not) a frilly white cotton lace-edged nightcap. Horrifying! We’d all try to get away with skipping the hat, but were reminded to don it anytime the boss noticed that it was missing.
I learned some silly little lessons at that job that have stuck with me to this day; for example, I discovered that milk or cream will curdle when added to herbal tea. Also, a steaming hot empty glass coffee pot will emit an ear-splitting crack as it shatters when placed on a cold laminate countertop (and as a bonus, will create a ring of unfixable bubbles and burn marks in the aforementioned counter’s surface). On the plus side, though, my first job taught me about the delicious wonder that is the everything salad, which I make and enjoy to this day.
That job also led to me creating a particular signature treat that I absolutely love even now, but that receives grimaces of disgust when I try to describe it to anyone. See, there was a group of construction workers who used to come in to the restaurant for breakfast and they would always order cheese toast with peanut butter to accompany their coffee. At the time, the thought of combining cheese with peanut butter baffled me, until one day I was overcome with curiosity and decided to try it for myself… and fell in love with the taste combination. Though we didn’t normally have cheese bread at home, through trial and error I developed a method of making a toasted peanut butter and cheddar cheese sandwich that was beyond delicious and that I still make on occasion. (I suspect you’re feeling ill at the thought, but hey, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!)
I remember one particularly bad night at the restaurant. We were cleaning up and preparing to close and I clumsily dropped a large melamine container full of Thousand Island salad dressing. The container didn’t break, but landed hard on the ceramic floor tiles, sending splotches and glops of the pale orange fluid seemingly everywhere. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, when I started trying to clean it up I slipped in the dressing and fell flat on my butt, right into the middle of the goopy mess.
I was laid off after about a year, along with the rest of my co-workers, when the ownership of the restaurant changed hands. I soon found work elsewhere, and moved on with school and my life, but never forgot my first job.
And the aroma of breakfast the other day reminded me once again.
Do you remember your first job?