by Gina Sestak
When I was an undergraduate, I held a part-time job at Winkys. Winkys was a local hamburger chain that rivaled McDonalds for a few years, then went under. I worked at the location closest to the University of Pittsburgh, where students came to fill up on fifteen-cent hamburgers and fries.
I had done counter work before -- taking orders, handing over food, operating the cash register. Winkys was the first place where I also got to cook.
My idea of cooking had been formed partly by my grandmother, who made her own bread from scratch, with cakes of yeast and mounds of flour, measuring ingredients by how they felt in her hand. She made jelly, too, and canned her own relish and picklelilly. To her, making hamburgers involved reaching into a bowlful of raw ground beef to mix in raw eggs and breadcrumbs before forming thick patties for frying. [Maybe that hands in raw meat thing is one reason I became a vegetarian.]
At Winkys, the hamburgers came frozen, flat and preformed. I dealt them out onto a grill like cards, then flipped them when the center bulged up, a certain signal that the underside was done. At that point, a cheeseburger would get a slice of American cheese plopped onto it, to melt for a few seconds before the hamburger patty was moved to a bun. The buns were soft and white - no whole grain there.
Frozen pre-cut potatoes went into hot oil in a fryer opposite the stove, held in a metal basket with a long handle. When they were brown enough, I'd lift them out of the bubbling oil, give the basket a few shakes, then turn around to dump them into a holding area beside the grill. No matter how much I shook those fries, I'd always manage to drip a few drops of boiling oil onto my legs and feet. Amazingly, they left no scars.
The crown jewel of that kitchen, though, was the microwave oven. At that time (late 1960s), microwaves were still a novelty. I was amazed that the microwave could bake a potato in a few minutes, rather than the hour or so that it would take in a conventional oven. [I later learned that potatoes also bake very fast when wrapped in aluminum foil and place in a campfire or (my ex-husband's way) by sticking two screwdrivers into the potato and connecting each to a live wire -- do not try that at home!]
One noteworthy thing about Winkys was cleanliness. It was the most sanitary restaurant I've ever worked in. Every night, we scrubbed the grill. With steam, we cleaned everything that touched food, and everything that touched anything that touched food. It took about an hour for two of us to scrub down that small kitchen. Most of the time, I worked with my friend/roommate Audrey and our manager, a veteran who would regale us with stories about his experiences in Vietnam. It didn't pay much -- my recollection is about $1.14 per hour -- and so I soon moved on to other jobs. But as jobs go, I'll always have a soft spot for that Winkys, where I got to play short-order cook.