Food Poem – Short-Order Cook by Jim Daniels

An average joe comes in
and orders thirty cheeseburgers and thirty fries.
I wait for him to pay before I start cooking.

He pays.
He ain’t no average joe.

The grill is just big enough for ten rows of three.
I slap the burgers down
throw two buckets of fries in the deep frier
and they pop pop spit spit…
The counter girls laugh.
I concentrate.
It is the crucial point—
They are ready for the cheese:
my fingers shake as I tear off slices
toss them on the burgers/fries done/dump/
refill buckets/burgers ready/flip into buns/
beat that melting cheese/wrap burgers in plastic/
into paper bags/fries done/dump/fill thirty bags/
bring them to the counter/wipe sweat on sleeve
and smile at the counter girls.
I puff my chest out and bellow:
“Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries!”
They look at me funny.
I grab a handful of ice, toss it in my mouth
do a little dance and walk back to the grill.
Pressure, responsibility, success,
thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries.

“Short-order Cook” by Jim Daniels from Places/Everyone. © The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

From the Writer’s Almanac:

4 thoughts on “Food Poem – Short-Order Cook by Jim Daniels

  1. jcharles00

    Nice prose. Reminds me of working at Frisch’s Big Boy. There was a cadence and timing to everything. I worked the grill station for drive through and the fry station for drive through and dining room. Fried chicken was the hardest thing to fit in the rhythm. Egg wash and flour on everything.


    • lsbanu

      I’m so curious about working / cooking in a diner. Specifically because of the timing issue. It seems you would have to develop peripheral senses alerting you when its time to flip or remove. I’d like to hear more about your experience when you have time.


      • jcharles00

        Hmm. I don’t remember a lot of details.. This was 1994 or 95 – a lifetime ago! I do remember that everything revolved around order tickets, and key elements. At Big Boy is was mostly a burger + fried thing affair. when the tickets came in, I’d go to the walk-in and grab the appropriate number of hamburger patties. I’d throw them down on the grill, then start the fryer stuff. usually dumping fries in, or onion rings. ..and then there was some timing with the bun toaster. I probably put the buns in the toaster after the fryer stuff went in. Then it was time to flip the burgers. Start the next ticket, then throw cheese on the burgers, pull them off the flat top and start dressing them. These things were the core activities. Anything else was kind of an outlier that had it’s own process. fried chicken, steaks, etc.. I remember liver and onions being a weird one. I guess this all reflects some prioritization that I unwittingly was doing, probably taught to me by other unwitting participants. Serve the core menu fast. more “home cooking” items are expected to be slower. In rush times, grill space was an issue, and burgers are the fastest thing to cook, so they were the the easiest way to clear space for new orders. Also adding to the complexity, some things needed to be re-prepped. Onion rings were made from scratch and if the projected supply was depleted, more had to be made up. ..inbetween all of the other things going on.

        I think this stuff is especially interesting when compared with a systematized restaurant system, such as White Castle, which had both more protocol and more specialized job positions.


      • lsbanu

        So interesting…this process of systematizing. Were you trained or was it a watch, learn, process? Could you program a robot to multitask and work the grill? Yes…liver and onions a weird one. That says a lot…as if naturally resistant to fast food efficiency. Thanks for writing back with details. I’ll have to think on this some more…


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