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LAce Posted Monday, December 2nd, 2002
Following my Stomach: A Gastronomical Job Hunt
Lucy O'Connell

Our first meal in Philadelphia of fried chicken and collard greens was purchased on a soggy night from Pakistanis through a bulletproof window on Girard Street. Willie and I feasted on plastic sporks on Styrofoam on our linoleum kitchen floor surrounded by walls of damp boxes. Like an oral surgery patient on liquid Valium, shivering and inexorably lethargic, I passed out for 13 hours while Willie unpacked the first of the boxes, and I awoke to a new kitchen full of pink dishes and cookbooks.

During the first few days that we were in our new city, Willie and I took a comprehensive survey of Philadelphia’s grocery stores and markets. We discovered that Whole Foods was the closest supermarket. While Whole Foods' groceries met our quality standards, its prices exceeded our meager budget. The Italian Market nearby, however, remote and often stinky, was dirt-cheap.

Next, we found De’Bruno Brother’s, a genuine cheese shop that sells over one hundred and twenty different cheeses. De'Bruno Brothers even came complete with a little old Italian lady who often needed help lifting hunks of dairy products. (We obliged in exchange for her curded delights.)

Finally, we stumbled upon the Reading Market, a converted railroad terminal with 60 different culinary booths many of which are run by farmers and the Pennsylvania Dutch. You can get anything from freshly churned butter to sashimi tuna to coffee beans roasted on the premises, to local purple potatoes to Bluefoot mushrooms, and oh the sausage...Needless to say this marketplace became our favorite, partly because of the food and partly because I am a sucker for girls in pinafores and net caps and long-bearded men in suspenders. I know that they are probably just costumes, but it sure made me feel like my produce was wholesome.

Willie soon started his new job with Nader’s Pennsylvania P.I.R.G. while I stayed at home driven mad by job searching on the Internet. The first night he returned at 11, and I had fallen asleep with a cold meal sweetly laid out on a cardboard table. He claimed he came home earlier than most, because he skipped pizza night, and that he had spent 3 hours driving and 9 hours walking door to door to door trying to get people to join Sierra club. The second night that he came home at 11:30, he found another cold meal on the table, and me trying to sleep, but laying irate on the couch. "That’s it! Save the Children was next month's cause, and what did it have to do with the Public Interest Research Group?" I would not have this scamming, asshole, “Activist” employer interrupting our meals of saffron risotto and chard for a measly $4.50 an hour. We learned our first "real world" lesson: Be weary of any job that hires you at the interview. Alas, we were pretty naive, and after all, that’s what P.I.R.G. had counted on. The next day we spent a pleasant afternoon applying for jobs, running in the park, and cooking.

Bouillabaisse, eggplant and tomato pie, hazelnut ice-cream, bratwurst and sauerkraut, homemade fettuccine with gorgonzola and pears, Tai chicken noodle soup, ginger pots de cream, gyoza, quiche Lorraine, samosas and Mole chicken have been among the highlights of our recent months in Philly. These examples are not particularly aberrant from a typical meal at our place, and every dish was absolutely delicious. It is not because we are particularly good cooks, but we were able to acquire fresh food and started using cookbooks religiously. Our library card has become our meal ticket. Sometimes I wonder if we have been too excessive in our culinary pursuits and can honestly say, "There have been times." For instance, we might have gone too far when we ate chocolate mousse every night for two weeks straight.

Despite this extravagance, we were in economic straits. We were literally pinching pennies and at one point walked three miles to return a half-eaten package of $1.00 moldy tortillas. We learned to make many compromises, we substituted NPR for cable T.V., library loaned books-on-tape for movie tickets, bicycle for car, scavenged for bought. Besides the entertainment of cooking, one of our favorite pastimes became combing the streets of our neighborhood on Trash-night Thursday. In the end, we were willing to deny ourselves of almost any pleasure, but we would simply not sacrifice our palates. Our lavish meals served as a gastronomical anti-depressant, moderating our manic emotions during the quest in a desolate job market and feeding our sinking self-esteems.

During the interim, I was working at a photo shop on an “as need basis.” I entered believing that it was a full-time position and quickly discovered that my boss had no intention of fulfilling our verbal contract (lesson # 2: Get it in writing!) or ever paying me much more than minimum wage. Adding one more officially full-time employee would have legally bound him to providing health insurance for the whole staff (god forbid). So instead, he hired a number of clueless high school kids and, of course, me. I left early one day to go out of town for the weekend and came back to an angry answering machine message. Things started looking up when I got fired. (And this event coincided with the chocolate mousse phase.)

Almost immediately after my termination, Willie and I started temping, and he was offered a temp-to-hire position. The first day of my second assignment, I got four emails regarding interviews and one about a volunteer photographer position at the Pennsylvania German Society. That afternoon I lined up meetings and made a lavish dinner of mussels steamed in white wine with a cream sauce along with purple potatoes au gratin, baby greens, and, of course, chocolate mousse.

At last, I was feeling more comfortable in a suit and had gotten the hang of covering-up my ingenuous countenance. My interviews finally seemed to go well. In addition, my induction into the German Society was scrumptious. I ended up photographing the annual Wurst Fest. It was an evening packed with ruddy German immigrants and jovial language scholars and tables brimming with sanguine sausages and an abounding meal prepared by a fat five star chef.

I had a good feeling about my interview with the German Department at the University of Pennsylvania, and my German karma seemed to be extremely strong. Later that week the German department followed up my interview with an invitation to proceed to phase two of the hiring process: testing. I knew I was in luck when the German Department staff invited me out to lunch for my pains. The moment they said “White Dog Cafe”, I knew this was the job for me. The restaurant was a celebrated gastro-political hang out, with ties to sixties activism and the organic food movement. I had an amazing mid-afternoon meal of smoked trout and wasabi salad along with a side of red cabbage and beets. But what literally took the cake was that we lingered for dessert – a gigantic piece of pumpkin cheesecake. I got the final offer yesterday, and though I am not a particularly religious person I cannot help believing that there is some gourmet demiurge watching over me, with a greater gastronomical plan.

Comments [post a comment]

Posted by Robert O'Connell on Wednesday, December 4th, 2002 at 12:54 PM
Good article. But what's a demiurge?

Posted by jocelyn johnson on Thursday, December 5th, 2002 at 4:32 PM
The same thing happens to me. Sometimes the most tedious, unpleasant task can be paired with the most sumptuous meals. Maybe I'll attempt Pumpkin Cheesecake.

Posted by Lela Schneidman on Friday, December 27th, 2002 at 12:35 AM
I've been to the White Dog Cafe, and you're right, it does seem to have some good ju-ju flowing. How are your cheesesteak skills? Now, one of those will really cheer you up (and possibly keep you up with indigestion if you eat it at the right time of night). Good luck in the city of Brotherly Love...You've inspired me to never make gastronomic sacrifices.

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