Alice Sturm

Everyone Hates Vegetables


Cast of Characters:

Alice: Me, the narrator, an intern assigned to work in the kitchen of P.S. 98 in the Bronx assisting Helene, the Chef in Residence. Interested in the so-called “school food movement,” I chose to do my culinary school internship with a program that works in public school kitchens to make the food healthier. As the least important person in the kitchen, it seems incongruous to put myself first; I am, however, moderately central to the story.

Maria: The cook in charge of dinner, whose reputation is tarnished by the defective training she received under a former employee who was less than efficient. Also, by her habit of asking where things are before she looks through the refrigerator really thoroughly.

Helene: The “Chef in Residence” from my program, let’s call it HealthFood, dedicated to improving health in New York City Public Schools, so, my boss. She lives in the suburbs with her husband, who is a contractor, and, to hear her tell it, an extremely handsome man, basically identical to both Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington. Extremely concerned by Maria’s habit of not searching the refrigerator well enough, and also quite proud of her own refrigerator searching skills.

Edith: The head cook of the kitchen of P.S. 98, and a very sassy lady. Her management style consists of creative, humorous hyperbolic attacks on her employees and is startlingly effective—she manages to be a good boss and close personal friends with all of her employees at the same time. Her husband died several years ago, and now she lives with a man who doesn’t cook as well as her husband did, but is pretty nice.

Star: Edith’s main assistant, and her companion for frequent concerts, spa days, and nights at the club (they are both grandmothers, but still have it going on). She likes her men dark, but for some reason the ones she ends up with are always “high yeller.” Her motto is that all kids like to feel special, so she goes out of her way to give them secret extra helpings, triple-decker PB and J’s, and other treats.

Juanita: The cook in charge of prekindergarten and breakfast, who also still has it going on, despite being of an age even more advanced than that of Edith and Star. This did not stop a young man dressed only in a Speedo and a cowboy hat from pursuing her down a Miami beach because “Mama looks good in her bathing suit.” She talks about her cats, and their veterinary bills, and her daughter, a lot.

Ines: The cook in charge of lunch, and the certified food handler. Cute as a button, she is always kind and always running into the cafeteria to force food on her young children and nephew, all of whom go to our school. When her picky daughter accepts anything anyone cooks, it is a cause of general celebration.

Adam: In charge of supplies, receiving shipments, heavy lifting. Often discusses the disciplining of children with Star, as his son with his ex-wife has many behavioral problems which stem partly, he feels, from different levels of discipline in the two homes. He sometimes misses school to make sure the kid isn’t playing video games while he’s suspended.

Leroy: Like Adam, at least as far as job description is concerned. He too, is married, and thinking of moving with his wife to the Bronx. Known for his (clever) habit of leaving at the end of his shift without saying goodbye, because if he came in to the kitchen to say goodbye someone would give him one last task, and there’s definitely no overtime.

Janine: The new girl. Tries to avoid serving (as in, serving the kids instead of prepping in the back) at all costs, and often worries about things like whether or not she has blood cancer; there is no evidence to suggest she does, she “just thinks about it sometimes.”

The Diary

Week One, in which I begin my job, sleepy and filled with foreboding, and am addressed as “Gladys,” “Pat,” “Cathy,” and “Alexis,” among other things.

Monday: “Cilantro is good for you.” Today I discovered that our job is only to improve the food given to one third of the school (because it’s really two schools, and we only have a relationship with the junior high that rents space from the elementary school), and to leave the others to rot, and that the fresh vegetables brought to the school for our program are mostly herbs (a sprig of parsley on every plate is the new chicken in every pot, apparently) and mostly getting slimy. I made a cilantro pesto consisting of cilantro and Culinary Oil™, and was asked if I “can follow a recipe.” I said I could, though I had a bad feeling that I was not destined to have an opportunity to back up this assertion.

Tuesday: “Please, one without the green stuff!” Today was the day I found out that, if I arrive before Helene, Edith will give me a menial and trying job that has nothing to do with the healthy food program. Not coincidentally, today was also the day I spent five hours ladling canned peaches into small plastic cups, then putting lids on said cups. A child, presented with a turkey, cheese, lettuce and tomato sandwich, tearfully begged for one “without the green stuff”; one was proffered, but, seemingly too traumatized by his brush with verdure, he went away with no lunch.

Wednesday: “They look like…” “No! Don’t say it!” “…worms!” Today I made a loaf of “peanut butter” sandwiches, then had to re-do all of them, because apparently the jelly was implied. The denizens of the kitchen, usually unfazed by vacuum packed pre-dressed salads and the like (because they are more fazed by the idea of actually dealing with fresh vegetables?), take up arms against poisoning children with processed foods because of the apparently horrifying girth of the lo mein noodles that arrived in the shipment from HealthFood. The cole slaw that didn’t have to be refrigerated was taken in stride.

Thursday: “The bananas cannot be touching each other.” Today all the ladies (except Helene, of course) congratulated me for “inventing” the method of ripening bananas by putting them in bags with other bananas that are already ripe, and thereby saving Adam’s life (the unfortunate had accepted the shipment of 9 cases of green bananas, because, it later became clear, they are not allowed to reject shipments; this did not increase anyone’s sympathy for Adam). I then sorted the bananas into ‘more green’ and ‘more yellow,’ rendering ten cases of the latter. I was told these, while comparatively yellow, were still too green, so I re-sorted, rendering four trays of the yellowest of the yellow. I was interrupted by an officious Department of Education dignitary who directed me to spread the bananas, not touching each other, on trays to ripen from the electric light. After he left, a peeved Edith directed me to return them to the bags to ripen according to our previous method.

Friday: “I felt it! I felt it!” Today I (failed to) drastically improve the health of the school by putting a teaspoon of broccoli on each of two hundred pizza slices, then covering said broccoli with at least a tablespoon of extra cheese. Star grabbed her neck and ran back and forth through the kitchen, shouting “I felt it, I felt it!”—a cockroach had fallen onto her neck from the ceiling. Juanita thought she had been visited by the Holy Spirit until she saw the roach in the sink. I made ten loaves of peanut butter (and jelly) sandwiches.

Week 2, in which my relationship with Helene nosedives, but I am largely supported by the other ladies, despite the fact that no one knows my name yet. Gladys, Cathy, etc., are partially replaced by “babe,” “baby,” “mama,” and “mamita,” perhaps because everyone’s failure to know my name has become embarrassing.

Monday: “My man, my lover, my roommate, my king.” Today I learned about everyone’s love life, including Star’s relationship with the custodian (one way or imaginary affair? Unclear: he only giggled in response to references to him as “Mr. Star” and “Star’s boo”), and Edith’s change of heart about her much maligned partner due to his having agreed to buy her a 37” HD TV. Helene encouraged her to refer to him as her “king” and ditch all use of the word “friend”; I found my relationship with Helene growing strained, perhaps as a result of this comment, and perhaps because of our later disagreement on whether eating fat causes one to become fat, or whether excess calories are to blame.

Tuesday: “It’s always something.” Today Janine got very upset over the anniversary of her brother’s death, and Helene told her to just get over it and move on. Meanwhile, I divided my time between horror at Helene’s callousness, and confusion at who on earth Janine was, because I’d never seen her before and no one seemed to be expecting her. I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ham and cheese wraps, and Helene made a bunch of salad dressings. Maria did something smart (unspecified) and was congratulated by the ladies: “Maria’s back! Out from under Jawani (a former and apparently not stellar employee with whom Maria used to work the supper shift)!” and “Wow Maria, she on today! Smart cookie for once!” I jokingly reproached them, saying “Come on! Maria has been smart before!”; Helene turned to me with a look of incredulity to explain that “No, you don’t understand, Maria is not very smart, this is very unusual.” Maria carried her tray out to begin third shift lunch service.

Wednesday: Hooky! Ill-timed, as it happened… Maria was out with strep and Juanita was out with a cold, so apparently 1. A plague has struck the kitchen and 2. Everyone was really busy in our absence.

Thursday: “It’s a power thing.” Today Helene had a one-way power struggle with Edith (despite being one way, it was a no-contest) using me as a proxy; how much garlic sauce to make for the garlic bread and how to cut and then prepare said bread were both topics peevishly discussed. I was filled with ill-suppressed irritation; I ate lunch with the ladies in the lunch room for the first time. The children were forced to sing “Happy Birthday” in unison as a form of punishment, as well as a song called something like “Put Your Head On”? I couldn’t understand either when the children sang it or when the ladies told me its title, which they somehow gleaned from the children’s incomprehensible singing. Ines explained that she is able to shrug off Edith’s frequent unfounded accusations of theft because her husband frequently levels similar accusations. Edith found her pen, apologized.

Friday: “You could do more than you’re doing.” I roasted red peppers for Edith; Helene came in and suggested that I needn’t bother, because “all children hate red peppers.” Then she insisted that blanched spinach would be a kid-friendly pizza topping. I added vegetables to the pizzas while Helene, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, individually critiqued each slice. My irritation was apparently obvious to the other ladies, who kept saying things like “poor Gladys,” or squeezing my arm affectionately while struggling to remember my name. Star and I discussed people who have babies when they should just get dogs; I horrified everyone by revealing that I was in sixth grade when “No Scrubs” came out.

Illustration by Tom Tian

Week 3, in which I stop dwelling on the fact that we do not actually improve the health quality of the food at the school and that no one in the school ever eats vegetables, and embrace the satisfying aspects of the work, like wrapping and stacking high fructose corn syrup-filled sandwiches really nicely.

Monday: “Pbbth.” No one was in a good mood, probably because it was Monday, but many were sporting new ‘dos (Star, Adam.) We ran out of jelly (!) so the PB&J kids were forced to eat cheese sandwiches or do without. Even Star’s special kids, for whom she makes custom triple-decker peanut butters, had to eat pasta (we always serve mac ‘n’ cheese or lasagna on Mondays, because it’s “Plant Based Food Day” according to the new schedule. We mostly celebrate that famous plant “cheese.”) I grated carrots, added them to salads, washed oranges, cut oranges, put oranges in bags, and put bags of oranges in coolers; I diced green peppers for the next day’s potato salad, then, according to Helene’s instructions, removed the eyes from ten pounds of baby red potatoes. Then she said, what the heck, let’s just peel them. So then I peeled twenty or thirty of them, before leaving work (half an hour late) and agreeing to peel the rest tomorrow. Edith stuck her tongue out at Helene behind Helene’s back.

Tuesday: “I have to turn on the bathroom light.” Today I made sandwiches, unsurprisingly on a sandwich day with two (2!) cooks out sick, and listened to Leroy and Helene discuss the importance of treating men like the head of the household. Star and Edith expressed skepticism that men are even generally qualified to act as such. I revisited my suspicion that Leroy has a mental deficiency of some kind: he can’t seem to focus his eyes, or easily call to mind words like “vegetable,” or even “pizza.” However, he held his own in the argument with Helene, a fact which could swing the balance of evidence in either direction. On the one hand, his arguments were cogent, if somewhat chauvinist; on the other hand, he didn’t seem to realize that she was agreeing with him. His first wife might be able to shed light on the matter, but apparently she’s a psycho whose psycho-ness is rivaled only by that of the chick who punched Star’s son on the street, and continued hitting him until attacked back by Star and her daughter, Emerald. This incident led Star to take Chris Brown’s side.

Edith forgot her hairnet for hours and thus looked much sassier and more stylish than usual, though the health inspector might not have thought so. My wrap-making technique was universally applauded, and my attempts to reassure everyone about the cobra that recently escaped from the Bronx Zoo (weather too cold for reptiles) were only partially successful—it is very warm, one is reminded, in warm water pipes, and in sewers. The ladies did not feel as comfortable going to the bathroom in the dark as they once did.

Wednesday: “They robbed the babies.” Today I discovered Juanita’s unpopularity with the children and its cause, namely that she refuses to give anyone extra ever. I sliced tomatoes and cucumbers for the salad bar, and prepared a spinach salad (universally considered disgusting), also for the salad bar. Adam’s son was still sick, so he was replaced in the office by Tyree, who was, predictably enough, teased by Edith, comforted by Star, ogled by Juanita (reference should be made to her cowboy-in-a-Speedo story), and actually (inappropriately) pursued by Janine, who, when not preoccupied by death or hypochondria, is chasing tail. Junior high students stole all of the pre-kindergarteners’ snack time strawberries, an event unsurprising to anyone who has ever had to walk through the school carrying visible strawberries.

Thursday: “They loved the red peppers.” Today Helene, irrespective of her former extreme resistance to roasted red peppers, took credit for the enthusiasm the students actually turned out to feel for the red peppers, and Edith and I generally shared glances about the all-around excessive devotion to making things from scratch exhibited by Helene’s biweekly hour-long French dressing-making extravaganza; seriously, we have cans of that in the back.

Friday: “We don’t get paid to think.” Today I made pizza toppings, and it became clear that Helene will contradict everything I say, even when it is clearly a joke, and no matter if she agrees with it or not. The ladies called me into the back on a pretext to commiserate on the subject of Helene treating everyone like a complete idiot, commenting that “we don’t get paid to think,” a fact which explains the fact that she thinks she knows how to do everything better than we do. I remarked that “I don’t get paid at all,” which perhaps explains why I am so unwise as to express the results of my cogitations to Helene. Star tried out my peanut butter and jelly making method, and said it helps her keep focus when sleepy. We discussed Lorena Bobbit, briefly, but came to no conclusions.

Week 4, in which I earn my place and am given my badge of membership.

Monday: “I’m going to have to cut Alice.” Today the custodian (to whom Star is jokingly romantically linked, and possibly actually romantically linked, but I don’t think so) told Star that he liked my shoes. Although he “tried to save it” by saying that they matched her shirt, she still threatened to cut me, a threat she repeated several times, all the while mysteriously remembering my name. She relented later, announcing, “I’m not going to cut you, ‘cause I love you, but I’m going to slice you, ‘cause he likes you!” Edith also flew into a joking rage when I wouldn’t translate the head count of how many kids ate (it’s always delivered in Spanish, which she does not speak), so, all in all, today everyone got mad at me except Helene! Definitely a first.

Tuesday: “She’s a Bronx girl now.” Sandwich day, hectic as always, especially as Maria was out with pneumonia and strep throat (Helene missed this bulletin and continued to make Maria-is-a-slacker jokes, apparently without noticing that the atmosphere was less receptive than usual) and Janine was out, legitimately just being a slacker. Helene’s hostility toward me was more naked than usual (it’s usually completely clothed), to the extent that Star, out of pity, decided she was not going to cut OR slice me. Edith, trying to claim the leftover hummus as hers and hers alone, licked a finger meaningfully and stuck it in, saying, “You see that? Now don’t eat any of this!” When I replied that her exhibition only made me want to eat it more, everyone hooted with laughter and shouted out “She been in the Bronx too long! She’s a Bronx girl now.” There was a pause, then Helene added in a flat, factual tone, “Alice is nasty.”

Wednesday: “I love you.” Today I served for the first time! Still short of staff, after spending most of the day preparing salad greens (19 bags of pre-chopped romaine that expire tomorrow), other salad bar items, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (the bread of which, unfortunately, did not have time to fully thaw before service), and cheese sandwiches, I went out and served with Juanita, the iron fist. Child after child begged piteously for more food (the serving sizes were little over a tablespoon or two, it seemed) only to be rejected without a second thought by Juanita; they would then beseech me in whispers, which, as I was standing a mere six inches from Juanita, availed them less than it might’ve if I’d been left to my own devices. When I went into the back room at the end of the day to get the locker room keys, Star stopped me to give me a hug and tell me that she loved me. Tapping on our shoulders saying “I’m jealous!” Edith then gave me a big hug and said she loved me. And that she could do without Helene. Then I went home.

Thursday: “Here’s your own thermometer.” On this chicken day, I was put in charge of putting together the salad bar, marinating, cooking, and panning up all the chicken, as well as making tomorrow’s pizza toppings and a tomato sauce for next week’s chicken. This was notable only because Helene mostly helped with dishes and cleaned out the fridge. Nothing appeared wrong with this arrangement until I was staggering around under multiple, heavy pans of chicken, with nary a door or stove opening hand. However, everyone commended the way I cooked the chicken (not the feat it might be, considering the chicken is pre-cooked and one need only thaw/warm it) and Ines gave me my own thermometer straight from the package! She got it from the back room, and handed it to Helene to hand off to me; I thought I detected a hint of jealously in Helene’s mien when she passed it off to me. I pinned it proudly to my apron, and stabbed it with an ever more diluted sense of pride into many successive pieces of chicken.

Friday: “We’ll scare her away.” Janine came back today, after quite a bit of time out sick, and complained constantly about how antibiotics make her sleepy, an observation of questionable relevance when paired with her other theme of the day, namely, that she had not taken any antibiotics despite how sick she is. Ines, usually such a gentle and kind soul, didn’t cut her a break all day, and was backed up by Edith. She later revealed to me that this is a plan, and not the first operation of its kind, to pester inefficient and whiny workers into applying to transfer schools; she’s unable to do this to Helene, as she’s not a HealthFood employee, so we have to just wait her out. With Janine, on the other hand, they are taking a more active approach, and (we?) plan to have her gone by summer break.

Week 5, in which everyone gets a little personal.

Monday: “I had to wake up and watch Joel Osteen.” Today, Star confessed to having lewd dreams which she could not control, and thus, to having gotten very little sleep this weekend, instead watching televangelists late into the night to try to get a handle on the situation. As she said, “Sister Meow” wants what she wants, but you have to control her with your mind and not let her do all the thinking! All the ladies offered mostly unprintable advice, except Helene, who just kept saying “Oh Lord” and Juanita, who just kept saying “Yeah but it’s better than being married! I didn’t like that at all,” while gravely shaking her head.

Tuesday: “Adam is a giant baby.” Yesterday Adam came in with a huge bandage encompassing, to hear Star tell it, practically his entire arm. When questioned, he said he had cut himself at work, so Edith told the supervisor, who told him to come in to the Field Office to report his injury, so today he didn’t arrive until noon or so. He came without even a Band-Aid, and when asked about his cut pointed to a barely pink scratch on part of his thumb. He apparently had not been told why he was going in to the office, and was mortified when they asked him to fill out five papers about his injury—he said he bandaged it the way he did because he was out of Band Aids. Everyone else agreed that he’d probably cut himself out of sadness when Maria was out sick, and finally he wore down and said he’d been trying to carve an “M” into his hand and messed up.

Wednesday: “I want some sexy meat.” We began lunch service at 10 (if you can call it lunch at that hour) with some trepidation, as we were feeding the kids black beans instead of kidney beans today and replacing the white rice with brown, substitutions that would affect mostly the visual, it is true, but might well have caused a riot. Things went smoothly, however, with even Ines’ picky daughter eating some rice, and, though I spent most of the day making peanut butters for those children that rejected the beans, there were fewer than usual. Maria’s request for some “sexy meat,” which she repeated again and again after each hysterical response (Edith, striking a pose: “It’s all sexy, how much you want?” Juanita: “Adam can you get you some if you don’t got it!” Star: “That’s what I been dreaming of!”). Finally I asked her what kind of meat? And she said, “It says sexy on the package! Z-E-S-T-Y.” Then everyone made fun of her for being an immigrant, and I wondered what on earth “zesty meat” was. It turns out to be red shredded stuff that comes in a bag, and not from any animal in particular.

Thursday: “Thees ees feenger.” Today, during a dispute about whether a salt container is called a box or a bottle (I would go with carton, but I kept my mouth shut), Edith played the race card and announced to Ines in an accent straight out of West Side Story, “In Amereeka thees ees bottle, thees ees box. In Puerto Rico, everytheeng bottle, but in Amereeka thees ees box.” Ines, after first telling me to avert my gaze, responded, “In Amereeka, thees ees feenger,” and flicked Edith off. Everyone laughed, Ines saying, “We been working together a long time!” The plan to scare Janine away hit a major roadblock today, as she spent most of the day on the phone reporting unfriendly and unfair workplace treatment she had received at the hands of Ines and Juanita. The supervisor seemed understandably incredulous (but not correctly, as it happened). Everyone was pretty annoyed that she was on the phone instead of working, but, somewhat surprisingly, her actions were seen as fair play and she was treated totally normally on her emergence from the office. It seems that, in complaining, she has shown the necessary spunk to be accepted.

Friday: “We family, in this kitchen.” Everyone was in a great mood today because we have next week off! Also, we did so much extra work yesterday there was hardly anything to do today except stand around drinking tea with condensed milk, and cook off fifty-odd trays of pizza.

Toward the end of the day, as we were getting ready to clean up and head home, Janine brought out an ice cream cake that she had brought in with her. Maria cut pieces for everyone and Star called everyone in to the kitchen. Everyone was thanking Janine and eating her cake—she said she’d brought it in “because at first I was like, ‘Oh my God these people,’ but now I think I understand you and you understand me, so let’s have some cake!” Everyone laughed and agreed. Then Star pulled Helene in to complete the circle (she had opted out of the ice cream cake—health, you know) and said she had a speech to give, hopefully without crying.

“We family, in this kitchen. I want to thank you, Janine, for this cake, and I want to thank of all of you, because we all look out for each other in here. But we also have to look out for each other out there—you’ll all be in my prayers, but stay careful this break! I want to see everyone come back here safe after Easter.”

“Also, lets pray—” (Maria threw in an “Amen, Lord!” here) “—for all of us, for our families, and for Janine, that the things she’s facing in her life get easier—help her carry her burdens, Lord!” There were murmurs of assent from the gathering—Janine started to cry quietly and slipped away to the back room, saying, “Sorry!” Edith said, “Don’t worry babe, I go back there when I need to scream, everyone knows that!” Then everyone else went around the circle hugging each other and wishing each other a happy Easter. Star told me to stay away from her boo (he had come in to the kitchen too) and got out a knife to drive her point home. Janine came out, wiping her eyes, and had some more cake, and we all speculated a little about this and that, like whether the custodian had a foot fetish, then packed up and went home.