"Another Expression of Art"
[Thursday, April 23, 2015]
Shiv jittered around the kitchen
at Blues Moon, waiting for
the nutritionist to arrive.
Boss White wanted
to upgrade the restaurant,
and Cook wanted Shiv
to help with the planning.
What the hell?
Shiv hadn't gone
to food school and he
sure as shit didn't want to get
stuck dealing with some lady official.
So he just hid behind the snack table
and watched everyone else setting up
stuff for the recipes on tonight's menu.
When the nutritionist arrived, Cook
clapped his hands and said, "If you
can wrap up what you're doing, then
do that and take a break for an hour.
If you're just chopping things, then
take it out to a restaurant table."
That cleared out everyone but
Cook, Shiv, and Gray who was
making some fancy sauce that
couldn't be walked away from.
"Hi, I'm Pam Garner, the nutritionist
from Eat Healthy Omaha," the lady said.
She wore black slacks and a white blouse
under the kind of open-front white coat
that some food workers liked, and she
looked like she actually ate food,
so that could have been worse.
"I'm Cook, and my boy here is Shiv.
He's an eater over at Freeman's and
our specialties buyer at farmer's markets.
That's Gray standing over the sauce pot,"
he said with a wave of his hand. Gray
waved back without turning around.
"I'm pleased to meet you," Pam said.
"We're going to have so much fun today!"
Shiv snorted. Like that was going to happen.
"You don't like food?" Pam said. "Or you
only like eating it, not talking about it?"
"I'm not a fan of the lawnmower-clippings
that people try to fob off as health food,"
Shiv said with a shrug. "I eat real food."
"Good for you! Real food is healthy,"
Pam said earnestly. "Good food should
look beautiful, smell appetizing, and
taste delicious. Otherwise people
won't want to eat it, nor should they."
"Cook makes good food," Shiv said.
"People smell it all down the street
and come in here looking for it."
"Barbecue will do that," Cook said.
"There's an art to good grilling."
Pam grinned him, bouncing a little on
her toes. "The preparation of good food
is merely another expression of art,
one of the joys of civilized living."
"Cooking is an art and patience a virtue,"
Gray said. "Careful shopping, fresh ingredients,
love, and an unhurried approach are all that you
need. With a combination of these things you can
become an artist. You make plates or pictures of
sunshine that taste of happiness and love."
Riiiight. Shiv felt a little lost now.
"What kind of artistry in food
do you enjoy, Shiv?" said Pam.
Shiv opened his mouth to say 'nothing'
but then remembered Mrs. Dr. G showing
him how to slash patterns in bread dough.
"I like cutting designs on a loaf of bread
before I bake it," he admitted. "And colors --
like when the farmer's market has peppers
or carrots or tomatoes in a whole rainbow."
"We cook a lot with color here, and I
don't want to change that," Cook said.
"Soul food really relies on stewed greens,
sweet potatoes, red drink, and suchlike."
"That's good," Pam said. "Eat the rainbow!"
Okay, maybe this wouldn't totally suck.
That was one of the better guidelines
about food that Shiv had found.
"Anyhow, Mr. White wants us
to upgrade the restaurant without
changing the style of the food,"
Cook said. "Preferably, without
breaking the budget either."
"I've studied your menu and
what nutritional information you
have so far," Pam said. "One thing
we can offer you is more consulting
on the nutrition profile of new recipes.
If you level up, you get a certain amount
of free submissions for laboratory testing,
as well as the estimation software."
"That program is a lot easier than
doing the math by hand," Cook said.
"Be nice to confirm it, though."
"But that doesn't give us
good recipes," Shiv pointed out.
"I think that I have just the thing
for you," Pam said. "Have you
heard of ancestral eating?
The African Heritage Diet
features many foods familiar
to African-American cuisine,
and its Oldways Plate counts
as a Healthy Plate in our program."
"We added a halal option to cover
a special diet," Cook said. "We ain't
got room to make it here, but we get
plates sent over from a halal restaurant."
"Yeah, and anything left over at the end
of the day, employees can take home,"
Shiv said. "That's some good stuff."
"I'm happy to hear that," Pam said.
"The reason I suggested Oldways is
that they offer healthy recipes which
should match your current style."
"Makes sense," Cook said.
"All right, what do you have?"
"Here, start with the food pyramid,"
Pam said, offering her tablet computer.
Shiv couldn't resist leaning over to look.
"The whole bottom layer is greens,"
he said, tracing it with a finger.
"Exactly," Pam said. "Each cuisine
is different, based on what grows in
that part of the world. When Africans
came to America, they had to find
replacements for some things, like
sweet potatoes instead of yams. But
the overall pattern stayed the same."
Cook nodded. "We always got greens
on the menu, some kind of peas or beans,
fish we can grill or fry. It depends on
what Shiv finds at the farmer's market."
"Yeah, I look for the best greens, and
sometimes I find bargains," Shiv said.
"Fresh fruit, too, or vegetables. Folks
like African stuff when I can find it --
plantains, papayas, that sort of thing.
In summer, you can buy a fruit basket
sculpted from a whole watermelon."
"We have plenty of recipes," Pam said.
"Anything I give you will already have
a nutrition panel and markers if it's
low fat, high fiber, and so on."
"Let's take a look," Cook said.
"Here, I can key in your phones
if you want," Pam offered.
Shiv pulled out his phone
and touched it to hers,
giving him access.
There were recipes for
peanut soup and hoppin' john,
blackened okra and chicken yassa.
The maple walnut teff porridge
made his mouth water. He
hadn't got lunch yet today.
"Some of these I recognize
from Dibi Chicks," he said.
"They make yassa chicken."
"Restaurants have the option
of registering which recipes
they use," Pam said. "It reduces
competition when you can see
what your neighbors are serving
and choose something else."
"We can do that," Cook said.
"A lot of these look good."
"Which ones caught
your eye?" Pam asked.
"These here," Cook said,
"black-eyed pea fritters and
Ethiopian teff veggie loaf -- I
could use more vegetarian food,
but I ain't found a veggie burger yet
that stands up on the grill. You
got any ideas about that?"
"Not in this file, but let me
send you a few possibilities
from our vegetarian file,"
Pam said. "Try those and
tell me if they work for you."
"Much obliged," Cook said.
"Now look at how some of
these African recipes fit
together," Pam said.
She showed them pictures
of an Oldways Plate with
pumpkin soup, collard greens,
brown rice, black-eyed peas
with celery-onion-bell pepper,
and okra with peanuts.
"It's beautiful," Shiv said.
He wasn't keen on greens,
but he'd probably clean
the plate if he was hungry.
"It's also affordable," Pam said.
"That meal has a balance of proteins
in the beans and rice, and it costs
half what you'd pay for meat. This
is how you can offer healthy food
at a discount if you want to."
"Let me check the file," Cook said.
"Yeah, that discount is on the list
for the Improved level we're trying
to reach. We'll try this plate."
"The file includes a whole set of
Oldways Plates from all around Africa
and the American South," Pam said. "Most
of the meatless meals are bargains."
Cook made a note. "This thing
come with a shopping list?"
"A shopping list, common foods
and spices, glossary, the works,"
Pam said. "There are even tips on
getting enough whole grains,
tubers, nuts and seeds."
Shiv poked at the new file
and found those entries.
"Looks like a treasure hunt."
Pam grinned. "I thought I'd find
something you'd consider fun."
Well, hell. She'd been right.
"Okay, you got me," Shiv said.
"I like looking for bargains at
the farmer's market, and
finding new foods too."
"Does that count as
two ethnic cuisines,
African and soul food,
or only one?" Cook said.
"One, because they're
so closely related, but you
have halal too," Pam said.
"Do you want to add another
for a local health concern?"
Cook waffled a hand in the air.
"We got stuff scattered all over
the menu for low salt, low sugar,
heart healthy, and such," he said.
"But it won't pull together, and
every time I try, it just makes
a mess of the balance."
"I've heard that before,"
Pam said sympathetically.
"It's hard to add a health focus
to a menu that's already cohesive."
"What about yours, Shiv?" said Gray.
Shiv startled. He'd almost forgotten
that Gray was even behind him.
"What do you mean, mine?"
"That list you use when you're
shopping for your own kitchen,"
Gray said. "It's pretty good."
"Oh, that," Shiv said. "It's called
the Get Your Sh!t Together Diet.
Dr. Bloch made it up last year
for mood improvement and stuff."
"It is ready for wider use?"
Pam said. "I can approve
a new diet as long as it meets
certain parameters of healthy eating."
"I dunno," Shiv said. "I can ask."
He sent a text message to Dr. Bloch.
"Thank you," Pam said. "Meanwhile,
can you tell me more about it?"
"I can show you it," Shiv said,
calling up the file on his phone.
"I don't think that we could do
the diet part in a restaurant,
because it counts servings
per day and stuff like that --"
Pam shook her head. "That's
not the goal for a menu," she said.
"You just need to make it easy for
people on a given diet to eat here."
"No problem," Shiv said. "Once
you throw out the counting part,
it's just a list of foods that are
good for your body, your mood,
and aren't full of processed crap."
Pam looked at the description.
"How well does it work for you?"
"Kind of ... embarrassingly well,"
Shiv muttered. "I don't always eat
exactly this anymore, but I stick
pretty close because I like how it
makes me feel. The food's good
and I don't get hungry too soon."
Then he shrugged. "But I'll eat
whatever Maldivian stuff Heron
brings over to my place, too."
"Variety is good," Pam said.
"Do you think it would appeal
to your customer base?"
Shiv thought about
how many guys from
prison lived around here.
"Yyyyeah," he said. "Some
of them would recognize it."
Then he chuckled. "If we
could get more folks eating
that, it'd give the bouncers
a break. It does wonders for
self-control and nonviolence."
"Really?" Pam said. "That's
quite a claim. Can you back it up?"
"I dunno, ask Dr. Bloch," said Shiv.
"He's the one keeping records. I just
know what it did for me, what I saw.
He said the vitamins should help."
"Is the supplement aspect
something that you could
use here?" Pam wondered.
Shiv snapped his fingers.
"Red Sea! Hydra makes
this sport drink, you can get it
in a bottle or a dry mix packet.
It has minerals in the salt. Then
HydraTe has rooibos and hibiscus
that're good for trace elements."
"That's a thought," Pam said. "Keep
an eye on commercial beverages
and ultra-processed foods, though --
reducing those is another goal."
Cook groaned. "I'd rather not."
"Yeah, people are still pissed that
we dropped Jazz soda and then
RosySo," Shiv said, shaking
his head. "I get it, you know?
But that shit can kill people."
"I know," Pam said sympathetically.
"The loss of soda flavors sweetened
with emulsified corn syrup has
become a major complaint."
"We've been trying to expand
our selection of nonalcoholic drinks,
too -- it helps make up for what's gone,"
Cook said. "Some people like that."
"You could expand healthy beverages,"
Pam said. "Connect them to your theme."
"What about putting mix-ins at the bar?"
Shiv said suddenly. "They're already doing
mixed drinks, and fruit juices or smoothies
for the nondrinkers. Vitamin packets would
fit right in there. I seen 'em at smoothie booths."
"That's a good idea," Pam said. "You
could suggest it to your bartender."
"Buttermints," Gray said.
"Excuse me?" Pam said,
looking totally lost.
Shiv said, waving her off.
Gray meant that they should
include fat-soluble vitamins for
strongmen, speedsters, and
others who burned off fat so fast
that it wouldn't store vitamins.
Buttermints and other high-fat candy
made a good way to replenish them.
"That reminds me," Cook said. "We
gotta be careful balancing health standards
against workload. A lot of people around here
do heavy labor in factories. They can't live
on rabbit food, and they depend on us
for stuff like all-you-can-eat beans."
Not to mention all the people with
high-burn superpowers, Shiv thought,
looking up at the emergency honey
that now sat atop the first aid cabinet.
Teleporters were prone to run out of fuel
and faceplant without warning, and
the restaurant had quietly added
some richer foods for their needs.
"Food doesn't have to be low-calorie
in order to be healthy," Pam said.
"Eat Healthy Omaha does not
advocate forcing everyone into
the same 'healthy' food selection."
"Good to hear," Cook said. "Now
how do we make it work with
your health food program?"
"You already list calories,"
Pam said. "Just mark things
with traits. If your diners need
high-nutrient foods, tag that too."
"All right, we can do that," Cook said,
making a note to update the icons.
"Think about all the different diets,"
Pam said. "Some people eat low fat,
but keto is a high-fat diet. Paleo runs
high in protein, but some people need
a low-protein diet. So offering a range
of recipes invites more customers."
"Like the My Diet boxes," Gray said.
"I love those things! You can get them
with all kinds of different features. I
like the Organic / Non-GMO Box."
"Yeah, they put clinical-grade chocolate
in those," Shiv said. Gray shared his,
sometimes. "Paleo's not bad either."
One time the Paleo box had been
chock-full of wild salmon, and
Shiv had splurged on one.
Then his phone thrummed,
alerting him to a reply.
"Dr. Bloch says for me
to give you his number,
so's the two of you can
discuss his diet program,"
Shiv explained. "Okay?"
"Yes, thank you," Pam said.
"You've got my contact info
in the Eat Healthy Omaha file."
Shiv looked it up and sent her
a message about Dr. Bloch.
"That's all set, then."
"Back to our earlier topic,
health food," Cook said.
"We need a balance."
"I'm not trying to make
everything on the menu
'lite' cuisine," Pam said.
"I just want to help you
minimize empty calories
and offer healthy choices."
"I've got an idea," Shiv said.
"Why don't we look for things that
are indulgent, but have nutrients too?
Take sweet potato pie, that's a favorite
here. It's dessert, because it's rich,
but it's not empty calories because
one piece has about as much
Vitamin A as you need in a day."
"Oh yeah," Cook said. "Remember
that time we had the fried chicken with
whole-wheat flour and nuts in the breading?"
"And then couldn't find the breading mix
ever again, that sucked," Shiv said.
"People pestered us for weeks before
they gave up getting it again," Cook said.
"Damn, that was some good chicken!"
"I have a recipe for whole wheat and
almond breading," Pam said. "If you
remember the nuts and seasonings,
that should give you a starting point."
"Send me that one," Cook said.
"We'll test it on the staff and
see what they think of it."
"Awesome," Shiv said. "I will
totally be your guinea pig."
"Okay, this sounds promising,"
Pam said. "You need seven steps
to qualify for Improved status.
Let's run down the list."
"We're going to reprint
the menus to mark foods
as low-sugar, locally produced,
and stuff like that," Cook said,
marking it on his phone. "We
have at least three healthier items
per category on the menu, too."
"How are you on healthier methods
of food preparation?" Pam asked.
"We use grilling, roasting, steaming,
broiling, and baking," Cook said. "We
are not going to give up frying."
Gray chuckled. "It would start
a grand rebellion if you did."
"We recommend testing out
new menu items before making
any permanent changes," Pam said.
"You have a religious diet along with
an ethnic one, and I'll look into
the mood-improving diet."
"We've always got desserts that
are no-sugar-added or sugar-free,
and low-fat or fat-free," Shiv said.
"Cook has me looking for fruit, and
people like it better if it's cut up fancy.
I dunno why, it doesn't change the flavor.
Cook makes diet jello or pudding too."
"That covers seasonal foods
as well," Pam pointed out.
"Wait, you're getting ahead
of me," Cook said. "I think
the Oldways Plate will appeal
to our diners, so we'll try that."
"What about enhanced foods --
not fortified, but fermented or
nixtamalized?" Pam said.
Shiv just pointed toward
the giant crock of hominy
behind its hazard tape.
"I make fresh hominy,
which is real popular here,"
Cook said. "Some days,
I make yogurt parfaits as
one of the desserts, since
the ladies love that stuff."
"That makes eight," Pam said.
"You're actually one ahead of
the goal, so you've got wiggle room
in case anything doesn't pan out."
Shiv resisted the urge to whoop
and punch the air in celebration.
"Wiggle room is good," Gray said.
"It lets us try out a bunch of things
and then keep the most popular ones,
rather than making changes all at once."
"Start thinking about what new perks
you want to choose," Pam suggested.
"Art cups," Shiv blurted. "Boss told me
to do up some art so it could go on
those reusable cups you have."
"That's definitely an option,"
Pam said. "Do you have
any art ready for that?"
"Well, I doodled up
Shiv said. "I didn't know
what size you'd need,
or anything like that."
"The manufacturer can
resize art if necessary,"
Pam assured him.
"Then yeah, here,"
Shiv said, bringing up
the first image on his phone.
He had drawn blue notes
in marker for one plastic cup,
and piano keys with creme pastels
for another. The ones meant to go
on metal were delicate pen sketches
of a saxophone and a trumpet.
"My goodness, these are good!"
Pam said. "You're quite an artist."
Shiv blinked. It was always startling
when people called him anything
that wasn't somehow horrible.
"Did you see the daily special menu
on the way in?" Cook asked Pam.
"I did, and it's gorgeous," she said.
"I could recognize all the fruits and
vegetables on it, even some recipes."
"That's his work too," Cook said.
"Boy's got a gift for art, all around."
Shiv's face heated. He wasn't
used to people praising him like that.
"Then keep him in mind when you're
ready to reprint your menu," said Pam.
"The current one is classic, but you've
got a real resource here, if he's willing.
Shiv, what do you think about that?"
"Me?" Shiv squeaked. "It's up to the Boss!"
"Yeah, but it's your art," Cook said. "You
get to decide what you want to do with it, or not.
It'd take a lot of time to illustrate a whole menu."
"Does it count as desk work?" Shiv said,
casting a sidelong glance at Cook.
Gray burst out laughing. "You'll do
damn near anything to avoid paperwork!"
"Yeah well, I hate it and I suck at it and
it ain't what I signed up for!" Shiv snapped.
"That's enough, boys," Cook said mildly,
and they both hushed. "Art should count
as desk work, Shiv, since you do it at a desk."
"Then yeah, I'll do the menu," Shiv said.
"Uh ... dunno about pricing, though.
I'd have to ask Tolli about that."
Cook waved him off. "Don't worry
about it," he said. "I'll look up
estimates for illustrating a menu,
and we'll use that for inspiration."
"Oh good," Shiv said.
He had to admit the idea
intrigued him, though.
Shiv liked illustrating specials,
seeing just how accurately he
could draw the foods of the day.
It was another expression of art.
* * *
This poem is long, so its notes appear separately.