Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Donut Deli

It was only two weeks until Christmas. I’d been driving a cab for over a
year and was sick of the hustle. I needed a change. I was tired of staring at the rain on the
windshield as I sat for hours waiting by the cabstands. I was tired of the fares that didn't pan out. I was tired of the whores, pimps, small time drug pushers and I was especially tired of the sad middle-aged businessmen who slipped me something extra to keep quiet about their comings and goings.
My interview at the Donut Deli lasted only fifteen minutes. The elderly couple who owned the place led me into the back of the restaurant. The man explained, “We serve donuts and coffee in the morning, soup and sandwiches for the lunch crowd.” The job opening was for a relief baker on the night shift, but besides baking the donuts, I would have to serve people sandwiches if they came in at night. The bars closed at 2 AM and the owner said a significant part of their revenue came from hungry people stumbling out of the taverns. “We lock the front door at 3 AM.”
The couple took turns questioning me about my former work experience. The man was pleased I was a veteran. After completing the verbal portion of the interview to their satisfaction, they watched me from across the stainless steel table as I fumbled around with sliced meat, pickles, tomatoes and lettuce, attempting to put it all together as a hoagie sandwich. I finally wrestled all the ingredients into a bun and held it up for inspection. The man had a horrified look on his face. The woman turned and said to him in a quiet voice "Give him a little time, I think he'll do all right."
The Donut Deli was a small brick building right on Main Street, with a parking lot behind. A big green awning hung out over the sidewalk shading the front window. Three small tables with two chairs each and two booths were in the space in front of the counter which housed the doughnut display case. Behind the counter was the doughnut making area. There was a stainless steel cabinet with the fryer on top and doughnut rising shelves below. Along side was a large butcher block work space for rolling and cutting the dough. The cash register was at the far end of the counter and behind it, a large freezer that held 15 flavors of ice cream.
When I arrived that evening, George was already setting things up for the night's work. Country music was blaring from a radio perched on top of the ice cream freezer. George was a short balding man with a powerful chest and bowed legs. He had thick dark eyebrows and bushy sideburns, but was clean shaven. He said he had one week to train me before taking his vacation. I would be on my own for the next week and after he returned, work the two nights a week he was off.
He didn't waste any time in idle chit chat, but thrust an apron into my chest and motioned for me to follow him to the back. He grabbed a cake of yeast from a big silver refrigerator, unwrapped it and plopped it into a giant silver bowl. He placed the bowl in the sink, pushing the spout over to the side and turned on the hot water. Passing his finger repeatedly through the water stream, he made slight adjustments to the cold water knob. Finally he motioned for me to pass my finger through the water just like he was doing. "When it has a little bite to it, it's ready." I felt the hot water bite my finger and gave him a nod. The yeast was fickle and needed the temperature to be just right.
That night we went through the whole process of making doughnuts. It was a lot more complicated than I'd imagined. George wasn't one to explain things, but always made sure he had my full attention when showing me critical parts of the process. When he saw that I’d gotten the essence of what he was showing me, his eyes lit up in delight. His enthusiasm helped me feel motivated and challenged to learn the process. He had me poke the dough after the first rising to check the elasticity and we carefully examined the clarity of the oil in the fryer. After dropping the cake doughnut batter into the hot oil, I watched him twirl the chopsticks like a rock ‘n’ roll drummer before gently turning each doughnut over. He asked me to count the number of twirls; after six the doughnuts were ready to flip. We rolled out the dough for the raised doughnuts to a precise thickness and repeatedly pressed the doughnut cutter into the dough in neat rows paying close attention to the spacing between. I watched as he deftly pulled out the doughnut holes and pieces around the edges. He tossed these to the side of the butcher block to be used later for cinnamon rolls. At one point he turned to me with a hand full of doughnut holes and began juggling them. He laughed and then tossed them into the pile of dough scraps. This short chunky man was light on his feet and graceful to watch. He seemed to enjoy himself and appeared to be playing rather than working.
At the end of the shift, when all the freshly made doughnuts were lined
up on their trays and sitting in the display cases, George pulled out one glazed doughnut and held it up in front of my face. I thought he was offering it to me to eat, but instead he asked me to carefully observe it. “The fruits of our evening’s labor are best revealed by the glazed doughnut,” he stated. He then pointed out some important things to look for: the brown color on both sides was not too light and not too dark, the light colored ring on the outside edge was the same width all the way around, the doughnut was plump and not saggy, the glaze was clear and even with no runs or globs. As I watched and listened, I had to admit, this was truly a superb doughnut. George then pulled out a maple bar and held it up. I thought he was going to describe the subtleties of this particular doughnut as well, but instead he said, “These are my favorite,” took a big bite, turned on his heels and disappeared into the back to start cleaning up.
George wasn't like anyone I'd met before. He didn't seem to care what
others thought of him. He did care about people and was a good listener, but was happy to let them be without feeling the need to exert his opinion or advice. I felt fortunate that he made an exception with me and imparted a little of his wisdom. Sometimes I would complain to him about all the assholes I had run into while driving a cab. He told me not to be so quick to judge others; “They just might have something to teach you about yourself.”
Once when I was busy baking, I overheard George talking with one of the customers. This man and George had obviously talked many times before. At one point the man loudly exclaimed, "What do you know about it George? You've barely been out of Seattle. All you know how to do is make doughnuts." To my surprise George didn’t react, saying nothing back. I knew that George had been all over the world. He was an Airborne Ranger and fought in the Korean War and after that he spent over ten years in the Merchant Marines. I asked him about this conversation later. “George, when that guy accused you of never having been anywhere or done anything, why didn’t you set him straight?” He replied, "People will believe what they want to believe until they want to believe something different."
I had trouble understanding this at the time. I always felt a need to assert my opinion and didn’t miss a chance to let people know what I’d done and where I’d been. But I knew George was a wise man and had voluntarily dropped out of society to a certain extent. I had another question for him. "So George, what is it that you believe?"
Without hesitation, he answered. "I believe in making good doughnuts."
Even though it’s been over 30 years since I worked with George in the doughnut shop, when I’m feeling down or defensive or without direction, I find myself thinking about him and some of the things he told me. I’ve boiled his philosophy down to one statement, “Let people believe what they want to believe and go out there and make good doughnuts.”

1 comment:

  1. The Donut Deli now there's a good combo. I once thought of opening just that idea of a place in the suburbs of Rochester, MI. I long ago worked in a Deli inside of a train that did not move. Great story!