Just in case it needs to be stated: Ronnie’s honorable intentions for our romantic relationship that he described on our first date didn’t mean that it was absolutely necessary to wait until marriage for us to share a room and bed. By the end of the August 1983, we were sleeping together and eating together as well as working together.
I wasn’t satisfied for long with a diet exclusively of restaurant food. I started buying fresh fruits and vegetables to prepare and eat at least some meals in the room. We used a cooler which I usually stocked with ice from the hotel ice machine. Sometimes it was necessary to buy ice from a gas station. Probably it would have been more considerate to other guests to buy ice blocks all the time, but I didn’t think of that at first. When I did, my first resort was to become more discreet, finding ways to make it less obvious to the hotel management how much ice I was fetching each day.
Some of the ice making machines worked a lot better than others. Some of them really didn’t deserve the name “ice maker” at all.
Once when I had been to the grocery store, I got back and realized how carried away I had gotten in the produce aisle. There was no way I could keep all that food in the cooler with adequate ice too. So I extra-cleaned the bath tub and filled it with ice and vegetables, explaining to Ronnie that pretty soon we would have eaten this food supply down enough to go back to using the cooler. He went along with it.
When Fred came by (he, Donald, and some others were always around; even though we had our own rooms, it really had some aspects of everyone living together) he saw the filled bathtub and congratulated Ronald, telling him his bathtub had never looked better and that his new girlfriend was a good influence. I appreciated that thought, even if it was two thirds very basic, sincere compliment and one third sly amusement. Fred was a gray-haired, long-bearded hipster or former hipster (a point regularly disputed) who believed in the importance of natural foods. He was very concerned about the health effects of white sugar, white flour, prescription drugs, and too much television on Americans’ health. He was less concerned about the dangers of weed or alcohol, which were clearly greatly overstated in the corporate media. Fred and I were more aligned than you might think, but maybe that has made the differences we had all the more difficult.
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I started carrying other kinds of food equipment too. A critical item would always be some sort of electric cooking kind of thing. I tried a variety of electric skillets and other vessels. The best had some coil at the bottom and were a few inches deep, so one could simmer, steam , or fry. You can’t make many choices how to use a crock pot. We received an electric wok as a wedding gift, and it was versatile. I kept a few cheap dishes (I tried hard not to use disposable dishes except for larger group meals): three cereal bowls, a few larger bowls for mixing/serving, a few spices, a small bottle of liquid dish detergent. For a while, I even kept a paperback Betty Crocker Cookbook just in case I wanted to try something new and special. Everything had to nest very well and take minimal space in the car.
I kept one knife that I carefully wrapped in newspaper before each jump, but at first I avoided even a cutting board because usually I could get by with the back side of a cereal box or something. That was a drag and finally I purchased a small wooden cutting board, apple-shaped, from a grocery store. After a while it warped and about one third of the apple shape broke off. I still keep and use it in my kitchen now.
It could get very tedious always learning where the new town’s grocery store was and finding my way around it, in addition to hauling all that ice and peeling and slicing vegetables in a poorly ventilated standard hotel room not designed as a kitchen, but I guess it was important to me.
We often invited managers or agents to eat with us, and sometimes I would prepare a larger meal for everyone. Sometimes we had conference room or hotel picnic table where everyone could sit together; otherwise we might just sit around whatever furniture there was in the standard rooms.
One of the things I used to make was sloppy Joes with a lot of chopped vegetables, including small-diced celery and carrots, in with the ground beef. Another was chili and other hearty soups with meat purchased shortly before cooking (for safety’s sake), tuna salad (again with a lot of vegetables included; someone said it really was salad when I made it). I would add side dish salads and hot vegetables as well. Sometimes also Ronnie would grill meats, or he would get someone else to do that, and I would prepare all the sides. A few of the other managers or senior agents and their wives or girlfriends cooked too, and they sometimes invited us over.
When first I started going to the grocery stores and preparing what meals I could at the hotels I thought I was doing an original thing. No one on our crew had done that yet or had suggested to me,. But it stirred memories for Ronnie, and he then started telling me about his memories of meals that had been served Rhea, G’s wife in the days long gone, when Ronnie was a young agent on his first crew. Ronnie described to me favorite dishes that Rhea had served him more than twenty years ago, and I understood how much that warmth and those home-like meals meant to him, just as I knew mine meant a lot to the agents I fed.
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I had some years earlier encountered the book by Frances Moore Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, and I was really moved by the thought that maybe we should all stop eating meat, or at least try to get much more of our protein from vegetable sources in order to combat world hunger. I tried to make use of canned beans as much as possible even in these hotel meals, but I had a hard time coming up with food experiences that seemed to work for everyone – including me, truth be told. We did eat more beans for my efforts, just not many more.
On the other hand, we certainly had some major meat-based feasts, both barbecues on the road (sometimes a hotel would have a grill, and during the summer sometimes we stayed at lakeside cabins with such), or barbecues at the family home on Thirtieth Street, where there is a brick smoker his father had built. In the past, Ronnie’s family used to have a road house on Highway 151, and they would serve ribs they had smoked in this smoker, and it is still present, and periodically used, to this day. Those barbecues would be events when Ronnie got all the crews to Cedar Rapids at the same time, and he would invite some of his other friends and family as well. I don’t recall when he started that, but it was not a little later – maybe the late 1980’s or the 1990’s. Karl used to help smoke the ribs. Eventually he mastered the techniques and brought his own science and improvements to it, becoming a true master of this art.
There were “steak and beans” contests culminating in a restaurant banquet. Based on results from a competition for high sales over a week, half the agents, with higher production, would dine on steak, while others would be served a meal featuring baked beans, although all the sides were included, and the meal was planned to be filling and pleasant for all. This was a sales crew tradition from some time before I was involved. I did not completely approve of it since it exalted beef over legumes, and I remember asking for the bean entrée.
Ample amounts of alcohol were part of all our food experiences. I never drank much myself. For me, alcohol just wasn’t usually that appealing. Once in a while I would enjoy a beer, and then everyone would take a second look and say, “Aileen! I didn’t know you drank.” But it was standard to have a lot of beer and sometimes liquor ready, and to make additional trips to the store if the party was still rolling and good, and the supply running low. It was very normal for me to be around others’ drinking and to support it in this way.
Also, day in and day out, many crew members drank heavily or used or abused other substances. Some did not, but it was an environment with a lot of that kind of thing. Sometimes in the morning I would learn about something that had happened the night before.