Crackerjack Girl

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“I see you’ve made it back,” said Michelle, sporting neato retro eyeglasses and handcrafted rings on nearly every finger of every hand. Waiting tables, delivering three four five plates at a time, is two-fisted three-fisted work.

“I have to try the pad Thai, after seeing the folks next to us digging into it the week before last,” said Vera.

‘That’s one of Emily’s best, definitely. Would you like to start with a drink?” she asked, one of the three grown-up servers on the floor the early September weekend evening.

“What is a good mixed drink?” asked Vera, running her eyes up and down the menu.

“Everything, but Kim can mix up anything if we don’t make it.”

“What is Straight Shine?”

“Shine.”

“Like moonshine?”

“It’s our island-made moonshine.”

“Like Ole Smoky in a mason jar?” asked Frank.

“Not the same, it’s served more like a margarita,” said Michelle.

“That’s a step in the right direction,” said Frank.

“My God, I might moonshine,” said Vera. “My grandfather used to make vodka at home. All his friends from Lithuania, who escaped during the war, would come over on Sunday afternoons after church, drinking the rest of the day, reminiscing, yakking it up, and singing their old country songs. OK, I’ll try it.”

“I’ll have a pint, something IPA,” said Frank.

Frank and Vera Glass were at The Mill, a restaurant on a high bank overlooking the River Clyde in New Glasgow, on Prince Edward Island, up the eastern Canadian coast. The eatery is in a two-story Dutch Colonial-like blue building built in 1896. It served as a community center and courthouse, among its many later incarnations. It was converted to a restaurant in the 1990s by the Larkin’s, nearby poultry farmers who are the largest turkey growers in the province.

“We used to have a guy in shipping, in the warehouse, from West Virginia, who brought back moonshine every time he went home for a visit,” said Frank, as Vera sipped her Straight Shine. “He always said you could tell it was good if you put a match to it and the flame burned blue. That meant it was good to go and wouldn’t make you go blind.”

Michelle walked up and lit the tea candle on their table.

“How is it,” she asked

“It looks good to me,” said Vera. “What I mean is, it tastes good.”

When the Larkin’s transitioned out of the dining room business twenty years later, The Mill stayed down home when PEI chef Emily Wells took over, putting her fusion-style stamp on the dining room.

Vera ordered the stir-fried garlic ginger cilantro lemon juice rice noodle fettucine pad Thai with lobster and Frank ordered the special, curry sweet potato soup, baby back ribs with mac and cheese, and dessert. It was East meets West meets Italy. Fusion cooking is the art of mixing ingredients and preparation styles from different cultures into a distinctive dish of tastiness.

The window Frank and Vera were sitting at had gone dark by the time they finished their dinners, although Vera was still on the last lap. She was a slow eater and her plate had been stacked. A quarter-moon in a cloudless sky reflected a milky light in the river. Frank leaned back in his chair as Vera lifted a final forkful to her mouth.

“Since we both ordered something new, why don’t we try something new for dessert, too?” Frank asked Vera.

They had eaten at The Mill several times the past three years and usually ordered coffee and carrot cake after dinner, since the carrot cake was about the best they had eaten anywhere.

“It’s better than my mom’s, and she’s a pro,” said Vera.

Vera’s mother was a freelance pastry chef in Cleveland, Ohio, who during the holiday season mixed in making website-ordered Russian Napoleon cakes, shipping them frozen solid all around the country by Fed-Ex next-day air.

“How about the chocolate cake that couple from Miami told us about?”  asked Vera.

“We move around the island a lot,” said the husband from Florida. “We’ve eaten at a lot of restaurants but overall this is our absolute favorite.”

“What’s so great?” said the lady of the house. “The unique combination of flavors and menu options, and there’s not a deep fryer in the kitchen! They’re dedicated to local food sourcing, which means super fresh food and vegetables. Make sure to try the chocolate cake even if you’re full. It’s made in-house and melts in your mouth.

“And the portions are large, too,” she added.

Unlike more than one restaurant with a swell reputation on Prince Edward Island, in the meantime serving prison camp portions at penthouse prices, The Mill gets it done with a square deal, even though it has as much, if not more, in the culinary arts to crow about.

“Do you bake this here?” asked Vera.

“Our baker does,” said Michelle.

“It’s totally delicious, the dark chocolate, if you want to let the baker know.”

A few minutes later a strapping young woman with disheveled hair walked up to their table.

“Did you make this?” asked Frank, pointing to the half-eaten slice of zuccotto he was sharing with his wife.

“Yeah,” said Anna, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Do you make the carrot cake, too?

“Yeah.”

“It’s our favorite carrot cake anywhere,” said Vera. “Your chocolate dessert is what chocolate dessert should taste like, up-to-the-minute. They can be boring, doing the same thing over and over again. This is definitely bomb cake, in more ways than one.”

“You seem awfully young to be making cake this good,” said Frank

“Yeah,” said Anna with a big smile.

“How old are you?”

“I’m 17-years-old,” said Anna. “I was 15 when I first started cooking here. I came in to work one day, I was bussing tables, and my boss said, you’re scaring everyone out there. You have to go into the kitchen. From that point on I’ve worked in the kitchen.”

“Scaring everyone?” asked Frank.

“Yeah, they said my personality was too big.”

“Too big?” said Vera.

“I was fourteen. How scary could I be?” asked Anna. “I guess I can be scary sometimes. Nothing’s really changed.”

“I told her when she worked out front that she was scaring the customers with her huge personality,” said Kim, the mixologist. “Now that she’s in the kitchen, she’s come up with pet names for all of us. We won’t talk about that, though. It can get gross.”

“What did you guys eat?” asked Anna.

“She had the Thai and I had the special. Last week we both had the big seafood chowder bowl,” said Frank.

“Ahhh,” said Anna.

“I’ve heard you have a name for it in the kitchen.”

“We have a pet name for it, yeah.”

“I tasted orange in the soup,” said Vera.

“Yup, there are orange peels, marinated, and bay leaves, that we take out right before service. We make our own fish broth, and our own vegetable broth, too.”

The new Mill, brainchild of Emily Wells, who was named one of the north’s top chefs by the Matador Network in 2016, serves fresh local food made with global flair. She works in a classic vein, adapting her recipes to what’s in place and on time. “You’re buying local lettuce, local tomatoes,” she said. “A huge chunk of it, it’s seafood season on PEI.” A graduate of the first class at the Culinary Institute of Canada, she cut her teeth in kitchens in Ontario and Prince Edward Island, and made a name for herself at The Dunes in Brackley Beach.

“I’ve been at it for thirty-five years,” she said.

“Oh, I’ve got mussels on the stove, back in a minute,” said Anna, striding out of the dining room.

“I thought Emily was making the desserts, or they were buying them from some high-end bakery,” said Vera.

“If that teenager is the pastry chef, all I can say is, she’s totally up to speed,” said Frank.

“Do you make all the desserts,” asked Vera, when Anna came back to their table.

“Yeah, I’m a line cook and the baker.”

“My mother is a pastry chef,” said Vera. “You’re very good.”

“How did you learn to bake so well?” asked Frank.

“Emily taught me. I‘m a quick learner. I learned a lot from my grandmother. I used to spend all my time with her when I was a kid. She taught me to pickle and bake.”

Not everyone is good with pastry, not by any means.

“I make no bones about it,” says Michael Symon, chef, author, and restaurateur. “I have no understanding of pastry.”

“Honestly, I hate to say this,” said Anna, “but my aunt makes an even better carrot cake than I do.”

“You’re early to be nearly as good as your aunt,” said Frank.

“Most of our staff is young,” said Anna. “Everyone in the kitchen is under 20, except Andrea and Emily. We have a 19-year-old, another 17-year-old, and a 13-year-old, who is my sister. Luke, our other prep, has three younger brothers who work here.”

“It’s like a family line on the line,” said Frank.

If you are under 16 in the province and want to work, you must have permission from your parents, only work between 7 AM and 11 PM, and not work in an environment that is harmful to your health, safety, moral or physical development, among other things. If you are over 16, those limits don’t apply.

“I’ll tell you about PEI and Atlantic Canada, it’s a culture of honest, hard work,” says Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Sometimes known as the “Million-Acre Farm,” farming is king on the island. Farming for a living is hard work. You won’t ever need a gym membership. There are some advantages. You are your own boss, you can go to work in boots and a dirty t-shirt, and you eat like a king.

“I started as a dishwasher,” said Anna.

Working the dish pit means long hours on your feet, getting wet a lot, and ending the day smelling like food and dirt. It’s not markedly different than farming.

“The kids are great,” said Kim. “Ours is a teaching kitchen, so they get an education, and get paid. They all have a great work ethic. The little hostess, she’s fifteen, a crackerjack like Anna. It’s great to see that they want to work. I’ve worked in other places, and it’s like pulling teeth, all standing around. Here, they’re eager to learn and do.”

“A lot of people, their idea of baking is buying a ready-made mix and throwing in an egg,” said Vera. “I make carrot cake at home, but it’s just carrots and stuff. One of our cats likes a piece now and then. Yours is both more subtle and more complex.”

“The main spices we use are ginger, cloves, and cinnamon, and a bit of all-spice, and that’s about it.”

“The cake isn’t heavy, which is what I like,” said Frank.

“There’s pineapple in it.”

“The frosting is terrific,” said Vera.

“I couldn’t come to work yesterday,” said Anna. “I decided my cat died.”

“Oh, my gosh, that’s too bad!” said Vera. “What happened?”

“She was an outdoor cat. I had her since I was six, I came home one day and asked, where’s my cat, but nobody had seen her for days. It’s been a month. I sat outside in my lawn chair until it got dark, but she never came back. I’m pretty sure she got eaten by a coyote.”

After paying the bill, Frank and Vera lingered at the rail on the front deck. The band that had been playing in the loft was in the parking lot, still hooting it up. The night air was damp but brisk. The moon hovered in the inky sky. Across the street, lights glowed over the bay doors of the New Glasgow Volunteer Fire Department.

“That girl might be one of the best 17-year-old pastry chefs no one has ever heard of, not anywhere, except for right here,” said Frank.

“Besides the known and the unknown, what else is there?” said Vera.

“That moonshine seems to have gone to your head,” said Frank.

“Ha, ha. Anyway, she’s got a big smile, big energy, and some scary cake talent. Somebody will hear about her, sooner or later.

There’s always a “Surprise Inside” every box of Cracker Jack.

They walked to the end of the deck leading to the side lot. Fluorescent lights blazed the windowpanes. Dishes clattered through the open windows, the kitchen staff having a gab fest as they cleaned up. They heard a rowdy high-spirited laugh, which followed them down the steps and stretch of gravel to their car.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.