It’s Festival Prep Week! *Scary Music Here*

It’s all coming back to me now.

The heat! The sweaty grossness! The dirt and grime and long hours!

I have a tendency to romanticize the past, make things that were difficult all so wonderful and rosy in my mind. And the Food and Wine Festival is no different. Only here’s the thing: the festival has a weird effect on Cast Members. Everyone is a walking-talking-working zombie at times, but when the Festival ends, everyone is sentimental and absolutely enamored by the events that have just occurred.

I won’t lie. I am charmed by Epcot. I think the Food and Wine Festival is the best experience in the world.

But it’s so hot. It gets so hot you forget what it’s like to feel A/C. Sometimes you’re so hot that you even forget that you’re hot until someone opens a cooler and you feel a nice breeze and you just want to move to Antarctica on the next available flight.

This year I’m working under a new team of chefs, and they’re… um, intense.

And if you haven’t heard of Chef Jens, the Executive Chef of Epcot, let me just tell you that man strikes fear into my very being. (When he shook my hand today and welcomed me back to the Festival, it was all I could do not to just throw out a slew of, “YES CHEF! HEARD! ALL DAY!” and run across the kiosk. As it was a managed a surprisingly cool, “Yes, Chef, thank you Chef.”)

My new chef team is based out of the Norway kitchen (Akershus, the princess dining in the Norway pavilion, is a name that everyone has a hard time pronouncing, so we just call it “The Norway Kitchen” to keep it easy.) They are, for the next three months, my immediate superiors and nothing that goes on in my work life occurs without their explicit approval. My fellow Cast Members, who will be running the left-hand side of World Showcase with me–that’s Patagonia, New Zealand, Australia, Florida Fresh and South Korea–are my family for the next 53 days.

I will do nothing but eat, sleep, breathe and dream of the Food and Wine Festival. I will get to know my team inside and out, and converse with nearly no one else.

“Here are the ground rules,” one of my chefs said to us today. “First, if you have family here, tell them goodbye for the next three months. You’ll get two days off a week if you’re lucky. Two, you’re being moved and placed and judged on your performance. You don’t walk, you stride. You don’t talk, you communicate. Understood? Third, this is your restaurant. You’re inviting thousands of guests over, and you’re their host. Take some pride in your work. And, lastly, don’t try to out-drink the Norwegians, or any of the International College Program Students, okay? They’ll drink you under the table. If you come to work hungover, I’ll send you home. If you come to work drunk, you’re fired. Clear?”

“Heard!”

“Yes, Chef!”

My other chef is a slim, snappy woman who has probably heard the line, “You’d make a great hostess!” as many times, if not more, as I have. But that’s where our similarities stop. She’s tough. She takes no crap. She is the most fierce chef I’ve ever encountered, as if she’s making up for her looks by being as strict and tough as possible. She scares me a little, but I also have tremendous respect for her. I kind of hope she has a little bit of mercy for me–you know, a girl-chef-to-girl-chef kind of way. (We’ll see how that goes.)

Anyway, all I can recall about last year is being thrown into the festival without hope of a life raft. I had none of the on-site training I needed. I just showed up and was told to grill lobster in Hops and Barley, my first kiosk. (Awww.) I learned the hard way last year.

This year, my new area and my new chefs seem to very adamant that we learn the menu back and forth, that we learn how everything is to be produced and that we make no mistakes and have little leeway. I, like the crotchety old grandma I am on the inside, keep thinking things like, look at these newfangled contraptions! as I look at my menu lists and listened to the safety spiels. I was actually given a tour of the kitchen. I was shocked. (Where was I last year? How did I miss all the important stuff like, where do we store the food?)

As the chefs educate everyone on their jobs and the upcoming 53-day culinary boot camp that is Food and Wine, I find myself nodding along like a redundant bobblehead. Of course, the second I realize I’m doing it, I stop, because I don’t want to be that guy” that thinks he/she knows everything. I detest those people.

So I stand, in the front, trying to look both eager and serious at the same time. It’s hard, because on the inside I’m jumping up and down and skipping and singing and thinking, “Yes! I’m back at Epcot! Oh, how thrilling!” On the outside, I’m just trying to keep my, “Yes, Chef,” as even and monotone as possible, because I’m pretty sure everyone would think I was crazy otherwise.

As it stands, folks, there are FIVE days until the official opening.

Less than a week.

Are you ready? I’m ready. I was born ready.

LETS DO THIS THING.

 

Pippi Longstocking Syndrome

There is a name for my problem.

“Pippi Longstocking Syndrome: An instance or event when a peer or superior in a male-dominated field treats a young girl as supremely inferior due to her age, gender, personality or a combination of the three.”

This is, of course, entirely made up. But it has been done so with the utmost consideration. You see, yesterday I had the chance to sit down with (or, rather, work alongside) several burly men in the culinary field as we set up for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association’s ginormous culinary convention at the Orange County Convention Center. I was merely a volunteer, but we entered through the loading docks (super awesome, by the way) to help move and clean kitchen equipment and, essentially, set up several makeshift kitchens for various competitions.

Found on the FLRA website.

Found on the FLRA website.

“No offense,” one of them said to me, “But you do give off kind of a…hostess-y feel.”

I propped my fists on my hips. “Excuse me,” I said. “I am culinary.”

There was one other woman there, about ten years my senior but the same size as me, who piped up in my defense.

“Just because this is a male field doesn’t mean we can’t do just as well, if not better, than the men. Do I look like I can lift fifty pounds? Well, I can. And I can cook better than all of you.”

The guy who had issued the comment backed up, affronted. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just the Pippi Longstocking thing you have going against you.”

Admittedly, I was in my dirty work clothes, which means I was sporting an old black t-shirt, some sneakers and a worn out pair of jeans. And the jeans may have sparkled, because I bought them on sale at Charlotte Russe for two dollars after Christmas. I’m me. I like cheap, sparkly clearance items. They are great work pants.

And, uh, my sneakers may have also sparkled.

And, if I’m continuing with this honesty streak, my hair was in two side braids a la Anna from Frozen, but only because my hair wouldn’t stay in its ponytail. (Hazards of new conditioner, you feel me?)

Anyway, the comment should have offended me, but I knew I was kind of asking for it, so I didn’t respond. Pippi Longstocking, huh?

This prompted a conversation of influential women in the kitchen, and the phrase Pippi Longstocking Syndrome found its way into our vocabulary. The chefs we were working under (American Culinary Federation bigwigs and the Banquet Chef from Universal Studios) also gave some opinions over lunch, and it was a great conversation. If I were in more of a feminist ranting mood, I’d relay it all here, but I’d rather share a bit more of the overall volunteer experience. It was awesome.

Photo Credit: jjkllc.com

Photo Credit: jjkllc.com

If you’ve never been to the Orange County Convention Center, it is a truly massive building. The first day, it was nothing but a big cement room. Gradually people began to roll in machinery,  equipment and carpet through the giant loading dock entrance. Booths began to sprout up. It’s also high security–people are paying big bucks to attend this convention, but even the setup was strict. No wristband/ID/badge, no entrance. The first day the wristbands were purple. The next day they were blue.

I was a grunt worker, thanks to my status as Cheerful Volunteer. I moved the heavy refrigerators and cleaned them all out, which was a rather unpleasant job. For one, it required me to bend at all awkward angles to get to the corners of these reach-in coolers, and they all smelled funky, sounded funky or were covered in funky residue from their last event.

“Look at this!” I said to one of my fellow volunteers. “It looks like coffee grounds.”

“Pippi,” he said (my new nickname, thanks to my braids) “That’s rust.”

The whole underside of one of the shelves had rusted and was raining down physical contaminants onto the cooler floor. After serious scrubbing, wiping and shelf replacing, the issue was fixed, and I was covered in cleaning chemicals.

All the work was worth it, though, to see the finally assembled kitchens all in a row. (One of my best friends is competing in the big event, and I’m awfully excited for it.)

The next day (today) was even better. Out of ten volunteers, only two of us showed up–me, and my fellow Pippi Longstocking. As rewards for our efforts we were given lunch and some extra products from sponsors. And, of course, we got the last laugh.

Plus, we got free lunch.

How I Deal With Dead Lizards

It’s officially Death By Sunshine season in Florida. The humidity is rolling in full force and the only acceptable time to be out and about is early in the morning and late at night.

The itty bitty lizards around here have discovered they can escape the terrible oppressive heatwaves by crawling under my door and lying on the cold floor at the bottom of my stairs. They have been scaring the daylights out of me as I leave and enter the house. And I leave the house early in the morning, when it’s dark, and have a mini freak-out every time skittery lizardy reptiles run around where I can’t see them.

This morning, I got up early to take a bike ride before work, and found a large lizard sprawled in front of my door. I stared at it, no idea how to progress. I reached over and gently eased the door open to the outside world.

“Go on,” I ordered it, like I was Cinderella and this was some Disney film where animals obey girls who ask nicely. The lizard had never seen any princess movies, however, and just  lay there.

“Alright,” I said, my patience dwindling. I snapped my fingers at it, hoping the noise would scare it away. Nothing. I picked up a small piece of bark and tossed it towards the reptile, and it didn’t move one skittery inch.

It began to dawn on me that the lizard was probably dead, and I’d spent my morning talking to a dead lizard, which was the epitome of sad.

I now had a new dilemma: how do I get rid of this dead creature? I didn’t want to touch it. But it was not going to stay and decorate my doorstep.

I did what every normal human being would do–I poked it with a stick. Then I flicked it out the door with an expression I’m sure was a hilarious sight to behold, and I shook it off my doormat into the bushes, where it landed belly-up and stiff as a board.

“Good enough!” I declared, and covered it with a large leaf. “Rest in peace. And tell your buddies to stay out of my house.”

So now I have a problem of sorts. How am I supposed to keep lizards out of my apartment? Is there… lizard spray? I have to Google this, because I’m tired of running into reptiles every time I leave my house. They usually scamper back under the door when I charge through my entryway, but I get the heebie jeebies thinking they have free reign of my apartment when I’m off hi-ho-ing to work.

As a Wyoming girl, I never dealt with reptiles before. (Are they even really reptiles?) I just dealt with the occasional wind scorpion, maybe a spider or two. A few snakes. That’s the extent of Wyoming creepy crawly life.

But here in Florida there are lizards and cockroaches and who knows what other kinds of odd life.

I guess you could say the Clueless Northerner strikes again! Look out, lizards. I’m about to get educated.

The Clueless Northerner Discovers Aldi

“Good food always comes to those who love to cook.”

If we are to take those words from Auguste Gusteau to heart (and yes, that is the chef from Ratatouille) it seems only natural we assume being broke isn’t a problem for foodies. This is a (usually) wrong assumption since, as we all know, food costs money. And money does not exactly grow on trees. (Cotton does, however, and that’s what our money is printed on, but I will not digress.)

It was with this idea in mind I tackled my dinner problem last night. My dinner problem is a reoccurring issue–empty fridge, empty wallet. I always have eggs, milk, butter and flour on hand, usually a fruit or vegetable on the brink of turning to the dark side and some bottles in the back of the cupboard that look like soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and vanilla. There is also usually rice. If I’m lucky, there are some tortillas or half a loaf of bread floating around. It doesn’t matter if the bread is stale–crutons! Panzanella! Bread pudding! Yes, those I can manage. Microwave French toast in a cup (thanks, Pinterest!) has saved my hide many a time.

But last night was just plain sad. My fridge was bare and sad and hollow. Not a cup of Ramen or stray turnip in sight.

Where should I turn? Publix? No, I spend too much money at Publix. Walmart? Ehhh. Any time after dark, my local Walmart is sketchy at best.

With ten dollars in my pocket, I jumped in my car and headed for an adventure. Aldi.

Aldi-sued-logo.svg

Aldi, the German global discount supermarket, is an unfamiliar company to me. We don’t have Aldi in Wyoming. But my friend Biker Bill swears by it, and I knew there was one nearby, so I decided to give it a shot. If all else failed, I would fall back on buying a bag of apples and a jar of peanut butter to live off of for the next few days.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but I walked into Aldi and found myself in the center of a large, wide aisle stacked top to bottom with boxes of fruit snacks, vitamin water and applesauce. It felt kind of cold and not particularly friendly, no music playing to ease shoppers under the florescent lights. There was no one in the store under fifty except the cashier, who just stared at me as if I didn’t quite belong. I didn’t blame her.

There was a very limited selection of fruits and veggies, but I took it as a challenge to create a dish based off of the cheapest items I could find.

I picked up the following items: a five pack of frozen tilapia, a can of cannellini beans, two lemons, a head of garlic, a container of crimini mushrooms and a package of eight Roma tomatoes.

The cashier was the most unfriendly woman I’ve ever encountered. She thrust my items at me, saying, “You don’t need a cart for these.” A kind man in line behind me found an empty cardboard box to keep me from juggling my dinner to the car.

I took my box home, pan fried the tilapia, cooked down the garlic and mushrooms, added the cannellini beans, chopped up the tomatoes and added them all to the pan with some olive oil and a squirt of fresh lemon. Salt and pepper, of course, made an appearance.

I served the fish with the bean/mushroom/tomato mix and had enough left over for two more meals.

And you know how much I spent at Aldi? $8 even.

Was the store surgically cold? Yes. Did I feel a little like a rat in a maze of discount surplus? Yes. It was like the love child of Ikea and a cardboard box.

But I got a great deal on dinner.

Am I the only one new to Aldi? Has the rest of the world spun on with this knowledge that I have been so deprived of? I don’t see how it is possible for me to have lived in Orlando for almost a year without this glorious discount knowledge.

I, Erin, The Clueless Northerner, will definitely be going back to Aldi for my groceries from now on. And I will bring my cardboard box and most disarming smile with me.