Monday, November 26, 2007

FAST FOOD

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.

12 comments:

Tory said...

I worked one summer in college at Long John Silvers. I have to say, I was impressed with their quality control. And I'll always have a soft spot for Long John's chicken planks.

Annette said...

Gosh, Gina, I remember Winky's! We used to stop at one in Weirton all the time. My grandfather always complained that their burgers were made with kangaroo meat. I think he was used to burgers like your grandma made, so there had to be SOME reason these ones were different.

mike said...

Gina--Picklelilly...my gosh, haven't heard that word in years! Do you think our grandmothers were related, cause yours sounds like a stand-in for mine.

Annette said...

And by the way, it's piccalilli, although I always thought of it as picklelilli, too. Amish places still sell it.

Gina said...

Thanks, Annette - I really couldn't figure out how to spell it, so I went with the "sounds like" method.

Mike - did your grandmother make lye soap, too?

My maternal grandmother was the most amazing person I've ever met. Her family forced her to drop out of school in the 4th grade and sent her to Pittsburgh to live with relatives and find a job. She raised 8 kids, supporting them while her husband was unemployed and disabled. As a young child, I watched her cook, clean, hang wallpaper, disassemble a double hung window to replace a worn rope -- there was nothing that woman couldn't do! I've even been told that she gave birth to my aunt, then got up and did a load of laundry! No wonder I feel so incompetent.

mike said...

Yep, Gina, she did. By the time I was old enough to sit out on the front porch with her in the rocking chairs and chat, Grandma was well past the wallpapering age. But she maintained a big garden and put up tomatoes, beans, corn, piccalilli (thanks, Annette!), and pears and peaches from her fruit trees. She acted as general contractor when she and Granddad built a house in the city (York) and a farmhouse in the country. She was a rather formidable woman. I was always rather in awe of her.

Anonymous said...

when you were asking for locations wasn't there a Winkys across the Homestead Hi-Level Bridge? (excuse please now the Homestead Gray's Bridge)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the fond memory of my all-time favorite fast-food restaurant. I grew up in Cheswick and used to stop at Winky's with my friends after school band practice. I LOVED their food, especially the hot dogs and shakes. I left the area in the mid-70s and later returned home to find all the Winky's gone. I've Googled it and can't find a peep online about the history of Winky's or why they disappeared. I'd love it if someone with that information would start a Wikipedia thread. "Winky's make you happy to be hungry....." I still remember hearing that jingle on KQV. Ah memories....

Brucie said...

I did a stint at Wink'ys in Dubois PA in 69 or 70. Great time to be a teen! 15 cent hamburgs, cokes, 25 cent fries an I think a big wink was like 69cents or maybe 49 cents. What great memories. Iron Butterfly, rare earth, edwin starr, on the jukebox.

Anonymous said...

There was a Winky's at the corner of Morgantown & Berkely Streets in Uniontown, about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh...great flavored burgers! Hot & fresh!

Hutch said...

I had a crush on a girl that worked at the Winky's in Bloomfield (Pittsburgh). It was at the bottom of the Bloomfield Bridge which was under construction/repair at the time. I loved the joint, you could watch them deep frying donuts in the morning and for fast food it was good and cheap!

Theresa said...

I also worked there. I remember wearing the orange stripped apron. I loved making doughnuts. That is where I found my husband. He loved my legs and the "Big Winks" I worked there occassionally along with my father. I worked at the Carnegie Mellon one. Yes, there was one over the bridge. It was where the Wendys is.