Monday, March 12, 2012

Fr. Cyprian’s Kitchen

I stood in a dimly-lit basement wrestling with a sack of potatoes. It’s a quarter to seven, though my body tells me it’s an hour earlier due to the time change. I hoist the fifty-pound sack over the automatic potato peeler, hearing the dull thuds of lumpy tubers. I set the timer, turn on the water, and flip the switch. Whirr! goes the machine, and whizz! go the potatoes as they fly out the side. Whoops! I forgot to make sure the side hatch was secure. I start all over again, salvaging most of the potatoes.

This was my first kitchen assignment in a month. I wasn’t thrilled to see my name on the assignment sheet, since I had just come back from Hawaii and all the clocks were going to spring forward. Plus, the head cook was Fr Cyprian, who was known both for his good food and goodly number of hours to prepare it. Nevertheless, I steeled myself, set my alarm to six o’clock, and got some rest. The next morning, my body sprung up into action. It’s funny how my usual tardiness is interrupted by fits of punctuality. It was still dark when I got to the trapeza, where I found my workmate Dima already up getting the dishes ready. There was no sign of Father. Dima asked me to call him. So I did.

“Hello?”
“Father, bless. We’re in the kitchen.”
“Wait, isn’t it 5:45?” Apparently his phone forgot to spring forward.

Fr Cyprian promptly arrived, and we were well under way. We were short a man so the work was steady. A pilgrim came before liturgy to help us out, though. After the aforementioned potato peeling came slicing and chopping. Our Greek hieromonk decided to make vegan moussaka, which involved cooking each ingredient separately and then combining them in one delicious casserole. Plus there was soup, cooked zucchini, and dolma—stuffed grape leaves. I busied myself with slicing potatoes and preparing the dolmata, then started some pre-emptive dishwashing. Dima handed me a scoop to wash which had the remnants of what looked like mashed potatoes attached to it. I surreptitiously tasted it before putting it in the sink.

“Was that mashed potatoes?” I asked.
Fr Cyprian answered. “No, it was soy milk plus margarine and flour and cornstarch.”
I blanched at the thought of having eaten raw flour, but said to myself in consolation: “Well, it’s no different from eating cookie dough…”

We continued preparing while listening to the liturgy over the intercom. The kitchen table was filled with freshly baked moussaka, so I had to use the old iron stove as a counter. As I filled plate after plate with uncanned dolmata, the stove’s door playfully teased my shins by falling on them from time to time. By the time we were finished plating the food, the liturgy was well past the anaphora; we had to hustle.

People came in. Fr Luke rang the bell, and we stopped our work to sing the Our Father. As Dima served the rest of the food to the incoming crowd, I fumbled with pots and tea bags. Thankfully, everything (for the most part) got served, and everyone happily ate the moussaka.

After lunch, Fr Luke asked everyone to help us, since we were shorthanded. Some generous pilgrims helped us bring in the food and clean the tables, and one of them, named Nicholas, washed the dishes and told stories. We were all done by two in the afternoon.

I dragged myself back to the dorm, my clothes reeking of kitchen—that strange mixture of food and sweat and old grease. Some of my friends were in the dorm lounge. I plopped down next to one of my classmates, who commented on the good food and my exhausted visage. After some computer time, I took a well deserved nap.

Round two began that evening, which meant that I missed the Sunday vespers. Dinnertime was easy because it mainly involved serving leftovers. I also started washing the crusty trays I left to soak from lunch, in the process spilling some greasy water on the kitchen floor. Following Murphy’s Law, Fr Cyprian came in with some Greek sweets for us and slipped and nearly fell! Thankfully, he caught himself in time, though powdered sugar flew everywhere. I spoke apologetically after he mopped the floor. “No, the whole floor’s like that—it’s like an ice rink,” he said. “We need to get a replacement floor.”

We continued. Nicholas came by in the evening as well and helped out. He entertained us with stories from his air force days, including the time he crashed his F-8: “For a second, the only thing I was aware of was that I was alive. Then I asked myself, ‘Where am I?’ and I answered, ‘In a plane, dummy.’” I finished washing my part and then Dima and I took out the trash.

We finished by eight, having in total worked nearly nine hours. Though the hours were long, they were productive and rewarding. One of the benefits of kitchen work is that the results are immediate. It also helps to work with good people. Thanks to Fr Cyprian and my workmates, I heartily enjoyed the product of my labors.

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