Nonfiction: Chicken Mondays by Rebecca Bornstein

 

For five years after I graduated from college, I worked in the deli of a popular organic grocery store in Portland, Oregon— probably the store you first think of when hearing the words “organic grocery store.”

When I started, we sold approximately 30 rotisserie chickens a day.  They cost $7.99 each, and we prepared them in a variety of flavors, which entailed rubbing pre-mixed dry spices on the outside of the chicken before roasting.  I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the people of northeast Portland are strongly in favor of Rosemary Garlic, much less enthusiastic about Tandoori, and will buy a plain chicken (is it seen as less of a value?) only under duress.

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My coworker Jim taught me how to truss rotisserie chickens on the second day of my nine-day long “week” of training. He’d been hired the week before me. Because nobody at the store had anything like set days off and my manager didn’t check the schedule from one week to the next, she often had people working eight- and nine-day stretches. She also had a penchant for giving people weekly clopens — shifts where you would close one day, working until around 11 pm, and then be scheduled to resume work at 6 am the next morning.  There is no law against this, at least in Oregon.

Jim was tall and skinny, with ear-length brown hair reminiscent of a young Syd Barrett.  He wore tight corduroy pants and snuck home boxes full of leftover macaroni and cheese or teriyaki chicken after closing shifts.   Jim was pretty immediately labeled the rotisserie chicken guy, or “el pollero” by the Latina women who worked in the mornings.

Jim liked working with the rotisserie chickens, he told me, because it meant he got to turn his back to the customers for a half an hour or so, and because sometimes parts of the skin would fall off for a snack.

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I never really got used to dealing with the chickens.  It was too hard for me to separate them from the living bird they used to be — much harder than the processed chubs of black forest ham or already-separated cases of chicken thighs.  About half of the people working in the deli when I started were vegetarian or vegan (myself included), and the rotisserie chickens were universally seen as the worst task.

Cleaning the rotisserie (we called it the chicken coop) was perhaps the second-worst task.  The process had two goals: clean the walls well enough that our bosses never looked closer, thereby realizing there were actually two panels on the sides that could be removed and were probably meant to be taken out and deep cleaned at least weekly, and to use as few yellow dish rags as possible.

If anything in the deli came close to as big of a deal as rotisserie chickens did, it was dish rags.  As a store, we never had enough.  Departments would raid the weekly stash as soon as they came off the Aramark truck, hiding the unopened bags in obscure storage areas, sometimes even in the crawl-space above the tiled ceiling.  I took to hiding five to ten rags in my locker at the beginning of the week.  It took at least three rags to clean the chicken coop — one for each side of the walls and one for the glass.

In addition to the walls and glass doors, we also had to pull the drip tray and take it to the dish pit to be washed.  The drip tray weighed at least 20 pounds, and by the end of the day was sometimes inches deep with hot grease and parts of chickens that didn’t make it off the spit, bits of skin floating like buoys.  Carrying the drip tray was a delicate maneuver, since the unit itself was usually still hot and the heat-safe rubber gloves used to handle the chickens were rather slippery.  It was especially difficult for me because the chicken gloves were sized for the Hulk and my fingers were barely long enough to reach across the palms to the gloves’ finger holes.

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Some instructions on trussing a chicken for our commercial grade rotisserie without using the elastic ties we brought in later for people with bad coordination:

  1. Get the disgusting black plastic dolly used only for raw rotisserie chickens — it has probably been wedged under a metro rack in the back of the department by one of the dishwashers.
  2. Grab a case, or several cases, of chickens from the walk-in cooler. There are 18 birds in a case — the case weighs about 40 pounds.  Two cases can fit side-by-side on the dolly.
  3. Roll the cases to the rotisserie, a closet-sized unit that faces the public so that children and the elderly can watch the chickens spin and spin. On the way, grab a sheet pan, parchment paper, a paring knife, and the skewers — long metal rods, octagonal and hollowed out, sharp, impossible to clean.  There’s a metal cart — it looks somewhat like an autopsy table on wheels, but lower — with the wheel stoppers down, next to the rotisserie.  This is the chicken-trussing station.
  4. Pull out three chickens and put them on the sheet pan, on the metal cart, belly up. With the knife, make a very small cut through the flesh above the right hip of the bird.  The smaller, the better — otherwise you risk compromising the chicken’s bodily integrity.
  5. Take the chicken’s left leg and cross it, place it into the knife’s cut. Delicately— make sure not to rip the skin.  Then take the right leg, cross it over the left, and tuck, making a sort of dead bird half-lotus.  This is the most important part — if the cut is too big or sloppy, the skin will rip and, during roasting, the bottom half of the bird will fall into the drip tray to be fished out at the end of the night, its skin mummified with heat and oil.
  6. Grab the wings and bend them back behind the necks, like they’re sunbathing.
  7. The skewer goes through the hole in the middle where the giblets used to be. The chickens go three to a skewer.
  8. The first skewer is always plain, and it goes on the top so that nothing will drip on it.  The next rows are flavored.  Remember to be mindful of allergens when arranging the rows — no rubs with soy or wheat can drip on anything without it.
  9. A good pollero will prepare the packaging for his chickens while they’re cooking.  Each chicken goes in its own plastic container, shaped like a flat-bottomed egg.  Because the chickens are produced on an imperfect schedule and have a handwritten time-stamp, you need to print out barcoded labels for each round.  When they’re finished, you write the time they come out of the rotisserie in the blank space of the label in black sharpie for customer ease.  If they come out at 7:45, feel lucky; upside down and in sloppy handwriting, with the open 4, it looks like you wrote the word shit.

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As the store grew in volume, so did the public’s desire for rotisserie chickens.  By my third year working there, instead of doing 30 chickens a day, we were doing 24 chickens at a time, the chicken coop’s maximum capacity.

One night we were cleaning the chicken coop, and my coworker Lisa noticed a wire dangling from the ceiling in front of the doors. The marketing department had been hanging it above the rotisserie to string bunting-style advertisements on for an upcoming sale, but they’d abandoned it only halfway finished when their shifts ended.

Standing on a foot stool, she put her head through the loop and pretended to hang herself while I snapped a picture, wrote a macabre caption, and uploaded it to Facebook.  The store had been running a bingo-esque competition for the employees where we each got one card, and every day without an accident report the HR manager would announce a number.  One of the first comments on my picture came from a cashier on shift at the other side of the store.

 There goes safety bingo, it read.

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In the fall of the last year that I worked at the store, corporate decided to run daily promotions.  Every day of the week, there would be a different sale in the department— buy one get one free on take and bake pizzas, half off Caesar salads, etc.  By this time, a rotisserie chicken normally cost $9.99.  On Monday, the deal was that rotisserie chickens were on sale for $5.99.

You would have thought we were paying people to take them.  On Mondays, we were loading 24 chickens in the rotisserie at a time nonstop, plus roasting another 27 at the same time in the ovens.  My bosses just rolled their eyes at me when I pointed out that if we roasted them in the oven, they weren’t actually rotisserie chickens and told me to print out more stickers.  My supervisor started to have weekly breakdowns and needed to be removed from Mondays’ schedule due to the stress.

We no longer had Jim to be our full-time pollero.  He had quit mid-summer, or at least gone on an indefinite leave, with the goal of riding his bicycle down the length of the Pacific Coast Highway, from the northern Oregon coast all the way down to the town where he grew up in the Mojave desert of southern California.  He stopped in all the little towns along the way, keeping in touch over text and email.  He shared stories about the kindness of strangers and the beauty of nature and boasted about his calf muscles.

Chicken Mondays were a fucking madhouse.  At 7 am, when the first dishwasher showed up, he started trussing chickens.  Chicken-herding no longer meant you got to turn your back to the customers.  Now there were often people leaning over the counters and hollering at whoever went to temp the chickens to make sure they’d reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees, saying the warmer (the hot counter where the roasted and packaged rotisserie chickens are merchandised) is empty and could they possibly buy one of the half-done chickens and finish it at home?  Oregon law does have something to say about this: no.

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The customers were bad, but by far the worst part of Chicken Mondays was our store manager, Tammy.

Tammy parroted the grocery chain’s “core values” with religious fervor.  I can still recite them from memory despite my best efforts to forget.  She cried when we broke sales records.  She scolded us if we talked about other grocery stores in anything but disparaging terms.  Shortly after she started, she fired a coworker of mine for eating a plate of leftover mashed potatoes that were going to be composted, anyway.  She made us each come up to her office one by one to talk about possible theft in the department, quickly and permanently unifying us against her.  She had a secret nickname — Mayonnaise  — that we would use to warn each other when we saw her come into the building or the department.  We would post people at the walk-in door and stand behind a speed rack inside, eating whatever food was about to be composted as quickly as we could.  If someone called for you to get the Mayonnaise, you swallowed and put the fork in your pocket.  If we weighed it first for the waste (“shrink”) log, kept watch like this, and took the compost out ourselves, we could eat as much as we wanted and nobody would know.

Tammy was a stickler for details and presentation.  She had a prominent mole on her face, and when she drew smiley faces on the end of her notes, they, too, had a mole.

In particular, she was often almost singularly minded in making sure that there was never a smudge on any glass surface in view of the public.  The public face of the deli was approximately 70% glass — the glass on the front of the chef’s case, where the pasta and potato salads I made were sold for exorbitant amounts per pound, the glass of the sneeze guards on the 16” salad and hot food bars, the glass pane that separated the sandwich and pizza lines from their customers.  She would often have us clean these surfaces three or four times at the end of the night, doing finger tests on the scales to make sure there was no dust, examining every inch for a forgotten fingerprint.

If we had a problem hanging on to dish rags, it paled in comparison to how we failed at rationing the one bag of lint-free glass rags we were allotted each week.  Once, in a fit of exasperation at the end of the night, I told Tammy if hell was a place where you repeated a task that you hated forever, and if I were destined to go there, I would be cleaning the windows of a skyscraper with her standing behind me, urging me on with a spray bottle of blue cleaner and a bag of yellow rags.  I thought for sure I would get a write up, but I was a good cook, a hard worker, and I think some part of her admired my gall, so she didn’t.

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Tammy loved Chicken Mondays.  I don’t know exactly how much a case of chickens cost us, but we were clearly still raking in profit from selling them at $5.99.  Her schedule varied, so you were never sure if she would show up, clapping her hands in an enthusiasm whose impetus seemed equal parts genuine and forced, asking if we were ready to “satisfy and delight” the grocery buying public with our poultry at 7 am or at 3 pm.  I prayed she would come early and spare us the Inquisition during dinner rush, when it was literally impossible to cook as many chickens as there were people waiting to buy them.  On Mondays, rotisserie chickens were her entire life.  She would ignore calls for help from the rest of the store to badger the dishwashers about when, exactly, the next round would be done cooking and how many more we had ready to put on.  The dishwashers started trussing ten cases of chickens on Sundays in preparation.

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Chicken Monday screwed us coming and going.  Not only could we not keep up with the demand for rotisserie chickens during the hours when people wanted to buy chicken, but Tammy would force the dishwashers to roast 30 chickens to come off their skewers as late as 9 pm.  At 9:30, we would remove the (usually at least 25) remaining chickens from the warmer, take the tops off their plastic cartons, and wait for them to cool enough to be handled so we could remove the meat from the bone to be used for chicken salads and soups.

The only person who liked pulling rotisserie chickens was Mark.  Mark worked one shift a week, Monday mornings.  He was 31 years old, deaf, and had cerebral palsy along with other neurological impairments.  He communicated through sign language that was mostly ASL, with some modifications for his lack of motor skills.

After his bike trip, Jim returned to Portland and picked up one shift a week in the deli.  He requested that it be the same shift as Mark.  Jim had experienced a religious reawakening while on the road and reconnected with the church he grew up in, the Seventh Day Adventists.  He lived in an RV on an active farm run by some members of the church and worked on the farm in exchange for room and board.  He taught youth group two nights a week.

In his spare time, Jim taught himself sign language, and began to teach Mark how to do basic vegetable prep for the salad bar.  Before Jim, Mark had been a dishwasher, and miserable.  He hated being alone in the dish pit.  He hated washing dishes.  He would often only pretend to wash them, and then put them away, still dirty.  But Mark loved working at the salad bar station, which was at one end of a long table, with the production cook (usually me) on the other end.  Mark worked in the middle.  He taught Jim and I the signs for all the vegetables, and when he didn’t know them (he had a lousy poker face), he made them up.  He gave me my name sign, a “b” with your right hand (fingers straight up, thumb crossed over your palm) tapped it against your temple twice.

The ASL sign for “chicken” is made by pinching your right index finger and thumb together with the rest of your hand balled into a fist, pointing out from your mouth.  Think beak.

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In the late spring before I quit to go to grad school, a group of us volunteered to clean the break room.  We were members of what was more or less the student council of the grocery store, in charge of planning the parties and managing a couple of small appreciation funds.

One of the biggest complaints by team members was the state of the break room. Among other problems, it had a rather persistent and disgusting odor.

I volunteered to clean because I would be getting paid to be in the break room, unwatched, not dealing with customers, not making potato salad, for hours.  Two other members also volunteered. We started with the most grueling task — getting rid of abandoned pairs of the nonslip safety shoes the store required us to wear and which were almost universally left behind after their owner quit or was fired. These, we figured, were the cause of the bad smell.

We had mostly finished with the shoe business, and were fishing lost things out from under the lockers with a broom, when I heard one of my co-cleaners scream.  She was at the other end of the lockers, with a moldy black, plastic, egg-shaped container at her feet and the broom in her hand.

“It’s most of a rotisserie chicken!” she announced.  “This is some Girl, Interrupted shit!”

Not long after I started working in the deli, I read something about little-known rituals.  I remember one in particular: if you think a building has bad energy, you can change that energy, or give the building some much-needed good luck, by leaving a whole roasted chicken as an offering to the left of the entrance.

The chicken we found in the break room that day was under the lockers.  It wasn’t really to the left of anything except the refrigerator and the bins for compost and recycling.  But I’d like to think that whoever left it there had heard about the same practice as I had.  Perhaps they couldn’t prevent themselves from eating at least a little bit of it, first, and then got carried away.

Perhaps they left the chicken there with good intent instead of as a malicious, disgusting, supremely lazy act.  I’d like to think that they hid that rotisserie chicken — an almost sacred object of the deli  — with goodwill in their minds, with a healthy dose of mysticism in their hearts, and with the (misguided) belief that someone would find it less than six months later and throw it away.

 

 

 

Rebecca Bornstein is a poet, essayist, and worker currently living in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA from North Carolina State University and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Slice, the Rumpus, Word Riot, and elsewhere. Links available at www.rebeccabornstein.com.

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