Eating on the Job

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When I think about work, and the world and life of work I’ve experienced, it doesn’t take a big effort to think of the world of food that has gone along with it. I spent a lifetime working different jobs and it’s easy enough to recall the food that broke up these jobs, for the most part seasonal or part time jobs, after all I’ve made my fair share of life decisions to stay out of long term employment.

The first work was bucolic enough, fairly idyllic really come to think of it. My first paid employment was on a farm, picking potatoes, harvesting them may well be the proper verb. The food that came with this job was summer holiday lunches at at my kitchen, fairly unusual as I was well used by then to eating lunch primarily at school . A little later I abandoned my farmer neighbours to work at the local golf club, however this wasn’t to caddy or anything (although come to think of it I did that a few times for money too) but to become once more a harvester, this time as of stones, rocks, pebbles: dozens of the town’s schoolchildren were hired ad hoc when the club expanded its course with six brand new holes, the fairways needing to picked clean in order to flatten out pristine fairways, bunkers, putting greens. This was easier work, relative to the back breaking work of picking potatoes, so the hunger that came with it was of a less immediate, necessary kind. Picking potatoes made me want to eat potatoes. Picking stones made me just to eat ice cream.

Thinking back over my work and the food I ate with the different jobs, the connections aren’t always all that logical, they follow a pragmatic pattern of eating whatever is most convenient, usually at not too great an expense. Sometimes there has been food provided: workers really appreciate that, and it’s something I always have felt employees should consider, even it meant a loss to profits. Years later, after college and at a loose end as to what I would do next in life, I went back to work on the same farm neighbouring my mother’s house. In the time since I worked there as a boy, they had invested in a potato harvester, a machine that did the work of many former seasonal farmhands: I helped out on the back of this, grading the potatoes as they were dug up, or lugging the full bags onto the ground, to be picked up at the end of the day. This time, as the only employee was just me, I was invited to join the famers in their kitchen and we would eat lunch together. Often, if my memory is right, we would eat potatoes. They would be peeled and cut into thick chips, and then deep fried to become moist, oily chips that we would have with some meat and veg. Or we would have ham and cheese sandwiches. And tea. Lots of tea, always. Milky with sugar. These lunches were really quite leisurely and full of chat. The milkman – I’m not making this up, even though it does all seem a bit overly idyllic – would call in and he would really have always quite a bit of chat in him, as we say in Ireland, even if there was no chat, he’d find the chat.

But I’m jumping ahead. After the potatoe picking and stone picking, I think my next gainful employment was a summer or two further along. I would have been maybe 14 or so, and my mate got me in at where he was working: a furniture store, or rather a small chain of three stores spread across the county, and specifically is warehouse, located in the centre of my town, where a small fleet of delivery fans set out each morning across the province. This was a good job to get. I had the job that first year for only the last three months of August, to fill in for workers taking summer holidays. It was tough, we would do all sorts of crazy work I’m sure health and safety laws, not to mention questions of age, would prohibit today: we would carry armchairs on our heads, down flights of stairs, or huge six foot mattresses, no point wasting time using two people, when one could somehow do it alone. Somehow being the important word: I feel even today I couldn’t carry some of the things I did at that job, and I was still just a growing kid. This would lead inevitably to hunger.

Anyway, I’m digressing, but here I was introduced to the world of the tea break, almost as important as the cigarette break for workers across the world, if they’re lucky enough to be able to enjoy them. At 10:30am each day, once the trucks were loaded with the days’ deliveries, everyone would decamp to the bakery next door on the mainstreet of the town and load up on milky tea, a type of donut whose name I cannot for the life of me right now recall – it was an elongated donut, cut down the middle and filled with sugary cream, possibly from a can, with a line of bright red jam along the top of this. A kind of éclair. Perhaps that’s what it was called: a cream éclair? And then for those really hungry, and my mate was always one of these people and I soon joined him, one would also get along with this something called a breakfast role, which is a bread roll, roughly the size of half a French baguette, cut open and filled with various ingredients of the traditional Irish fry up: sausages, Irish pudding (blood sausage), rashers, a fried egg, hash browns, all doused in ketchup or brown sauce. Quite an extraordinary item of food really, but one that has prevailed: the breakfast roll quickly charmed itself into the mind of many Irish people, a stable of mid morning stops at petrol stations or your local Spar delicatessen, variously used to act as a brunch on the go or a hangover cure, the perfect food for a hard worker. I don’t know why, but I still associate the ascension of this food item with the economic phenomena of the Irish Celtic Tiger.

This ritual of the tea break as feast was quite novel to me, for while the potato picking was (literally) back breaking, I guess it didn’t require quite the cardio vascular exercise or weight lifting that went into moving heavy pieces of furniture and rolls of carpet. This work made me ravenously hungry, and the routine of it and satisfaction that some of the hardest work of the day was over, allowed me to enjoy the banter in the tiny little staff room we packed into in order to sup our teas and devour our breakfast rolls. It was an intimidating environment mind you, a tiny cell with barely any natural light filled with older men eager to pass their bored familiarity with each other and their banality of middle age by focusing on the youth amongst them, naïve and clueless in the greater ways of the world.

These really are just one or two of the earliest jobs I had, countless many have followed. And in a way they seem very distant, from another world, and one I’m happy to look back on fondly. The iconography of workers eating together is quite present in many cultures and more often than not when it is depicted, it is done with not a little romanticism. The farmhands eating an improvised picnic on the edge of a field, a dozen builders sitting, smiling, smoking, eating and drinking along the length of an exposed girder, a thousand meters above the island of Manhattan. Dinner tables are where we can get everyone together, even those who, due to one reason or another, are forced to spend much of their days together at work, spending perhaps more time with colleagues with whom all they might have in common is a profession or a employee, than with their own families or friends. Even criminals eat meals together. Tarantino has his gang of bank robbers shoot the shit over a meal at a diner before their heist, allowing us to better get to know who it is we’re dealing with here.

Eating and working allows for the moments that otherwise might be missed, moments of personality – sure they allow colleagues to talk about work related issues, but it is also the moment for personality to reign, for common interests to be shared, in short for the lifeworld that exists beyond the constraints of the job and the manager’s demands to make an appearance and work the social dynamic in the way that only sharing a meal can. This is perhaps why deals are often, if not made over a meal, than sealed and celebrated with a meal. It is why professional companies that value the calibre of their staff and their perceived social standing and grace, will often pay for the employees to take ‘finishing’ classes or seminars on how one conducts themselves at the table. What knife and fork goes with what course? How does one exactly eat a lobster without mindlessly smashing the thing against the table? How does one eat a breakfast roll, a donut, a Kit Kat and a cup of milky tea at 10.30 in the morning?

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