Andy Haslam / The New York Times

April 10, 2020

Food Ethics | The Third Saturday

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The local restaurant in Pennsylvania where I worked was easily defined by seasons. The year started off in a barren winter. The garden beds out front were hugged in snow, the thermostat dropped low and customers, especially after a holiday shopping spree, were scarce. I’d find myself staring at the clock, willing it to chime closing time, 2:00 p.m. Winters were scarce of many things: Fresh food, warmth, entertainment, customers and, most importantly, tips. I never liked winters in the restaurant very much.

Spring in the restaurant dawned like clockwork around Easter. Back in a festive spirit, with the sun shining more freely, customers began to frequent our restaurant more. We hung Easter eggs on the ceilings and opened our curtains wide. The garden wasn’t yet in bloom, but seedlings began to sprout, and there was hope for a bountiful future to come. I never minded springs in the restaurant.

Summer came in early June when the schools let out. Liberated from their duties as student or parent or teacher for a few months, our little restaurant swelled to capacity with hungry customers. They were as happy to eat as we were to serve. Our garden was full and we garnished dishes with homegrown herbs. If I ever felt like complaining of my sore feet and exhausted self, I thought back to the empty pockets and empty minds of winter and appreciated the buzz of voices and clatter of dishpans a little bit more. Summers in the restaurant were my favorite.

The year eventually began its slow descent to closure in the fall, which was marked, for the restaurant and the community, by the first day of hunting season. The public schools had a day off in honor of the quasi holiday, and the clientele of the restaurant shifted considerably. On any given day in the fall there were significantly more camouflage-clad customers and orders off the lunch menu. I guess a pancake doesn’t satiate the stomach after a long day in the woods as well as a burger does.

This change in clientele was particularly acute every third Saturday of the month, unofficially dubbed “Hunter’s Day.” At 11:45 a.m., we would clear out the restaurant and prepare for an onslaught of camouflage and muddy boots spanning four generations.

At some point during one of these Saturdays a few years back, George, a first generation constituent of the hunting group, took an interest in me. He started calling me Smiley for irony’s sake, claiming that he never saw me smile. A few weeks into the fall, he told me he had a surprise for me in his truck. I warily glanced back at my boss who waved me on, and then I followed this almost stranger into the crisp end-of-fall air. In the back of his truck I saw a tail wagging, and then a wet nose and floppy ears started attacking me with loving enthusiasm. I smiled.

Fall for me also became defined by this new and welcome routine. Every third Saturday George would announce he had “my smile” waiting for me out front, and I would step out and say hi to the energetic pup. George passed away in June 2017. Cancer, which had been metastasizing in him for eight years unbeknownst to me, took his life. My smile in the back of his truck never came back but fall unfailingly did.

For all the instability in the life of a waitress — from variable tips to unpredictable customers and harshly irregular hours — there was one thing that tethered me down: The seasons. They taught me to maintain an even temperament and they filled me with gratitude for what I had in any given season and what was to come with the next. Now more than ever I find myself searching for this gratitude and patience in times of unparalleled instability.

If we were still defining this year by seasons, it would certainly be winter in the restaurant — barren. Yet, spring brings us small pieces of encouragement: The generosity of strangers, the altruism of essential workers and the intermittent sunshine between cloudy days. There will be a spring and even a summer to come, I try to remind myself daily. For now though, we are still submerged in a deep, scarce winter and must foster community and kindness whenever possible. No winter lasts forever.

Brianna Johnson is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].