Ted's Kitchen . . . mmm, that's Good Cookin'
My mother warned me about all kinds of things, hitchhiking, taking candy from strangers, the dangers of smoking; but she never said anything about Ted’s kitchen. Ted, his wild-eyed alcoholic friends, special knocks on the back door - the whole set-up was clearly illegal and scared me. But the food was irresistibly good, so I paid, and ate the best food in my life.
Hundreds of people saw Ted’s “Kilroy-was-here” style cards. “Feast days” had as many as 25 strangers at a time filing through his kitchen and living room, though as far as I know, only three people from my college ever visited the place. Simple, cryptic, the card’s absence of detail caught my attention.
“…mmm, that’s good cookin’”
Soon I noticed it everywhere. On corkboards in coffee shops, next to vending machines, even on tables at the campus library. If not properly stamped and officially condoned, no sign could last long, but Ted only had the business cards, and the cards could show up in laundry rooms or with bus schedules -- places no one on campus bothered with. Perhaps my classmates were oblivious to the cards. The cards taunted me until my first encounter with Ted’s kitchen.
Despite freshmen mixers and the like, two months of college produced no social life to speak of. I decided to try blending in at a bar further off campus. I knew nothing about the bar itself, but its hippy neighborhood assured me the place wouldn’t be too rough. I was spot-on about the hippy culture. I was at least a generation younger than the rest of the clientele. Despite a good drink deal, I wearied of my long-haired friends, drained my glass and left.
Outside the bar, it was much colder than I noticed only an hour earlier. In the parking lot, three or four men were loitering around the back of a pick-up, talking excitedly, bargaining over what sounded like a delicatessen menu. I considered my alcohol impairment slight, but was baffled that a ham and Swiss sandwich stirred such interest in the freezing temperatures. My dumbfounded gaze must not have been too subtle.
“Young man! Yes, you. You look like a hungry young fella.” I heard from one of the voices.
“Me? No, I’m fine.”
“Oh, don’t be shy. We’ve got all kinds of good things. Come on over, see what we’ve got. How does a hot sandwich sound on a crisp night? Do you like roast beef? What about a Reuben? I bet you’re a Reuben kind of fella.”
Again, I was dumbfounded. Cold, hungry, a little tipsy, a stranger was offering a favorite food off the back of a pick-up behind a bar in the middle of October. I always had a hard time escaping from salesmen. I didn’t know how I was going to say no. I went over.
“That’s right. I can tell what a man likes just by lookin’ at him. Now, young man, I normally charge five dollars for a sandwich like this, but I like you. How ‘bout we just say four dollars tonight. You have four dollars don’t you?”
“Yes. I have four dollars.”
I started fumbling through my pockets. My parents would have thought I had lost my mind -- handing money to a stranger for God knows what. The biggish, middle-aged stranger gave me a heavy warm sandwich wrapped in foil. I peeled back a corner smelled caraway seed and bit into the fragrant pumpernickel concealing hot, thick corned beef. The sauerkraut was mild. I love Reubens, but they’re always a gamble – often the bread is soggy from too much sloppy sauerkraut or Russian dressing or the bread is just plain stale. Why Americans don’t eat more pumpernickel I don’t know. My sandwich had been put together within the last hour. The bread certainly baked that day.
“Wow, this is really good. It’s not soggy or anything. You must have just made this.”
“You know your sandwiches. That is a pretty new sandwich indeed. … mmm, that’s good cookin’.”
I’d been devouring my hot food, but at the mention of Ted’s trademark line I paused and looked directly at him.
“Oh, did I say something?” The friendly stranger cast a sly side-long smile at me.
“Is this from Ted’s Kitchen?” Listening to my own voice, my question sounded as though Ted was a rock star and this sandwich was autographed by him in Russian dressing. I did my third mental check of the evening’s drinking. Yes, it had only been two beers.
“Do you know something about Ted’s Kitchen?” Again the sly smile, but his tone told me I had spoken the shibboleth.
“No… I’ve seen the cards. I just wonder where the place is.”
“That’s what everybody wants to know. Where’s Ted’s kitchen.”
He didn’t tell me, but promised that if I returned to the same parking lot next week with eight dollars he’d take me to Ted’s for a whole dinner. And I wasn’t supposed to talk about my sandwich. The other men had already left. I understood why they argued over the last ham and Swiss.
Having wolfed down my sandwich, I trekked home in the cold, wondered what I had done and what next week’s rendezvous would bring. Ted was no street vendor. Was the man I met the mysterious Ted? Where would he take me? I imagined other less savory endings too. Was I being lured to a place to be robbed? Poisoned? Perhaps murdered? Why the secrecy? As the effects of the alcohol dissipated, none of the questions did. Was I an idiot? In the end I kept coming back to my primitive satisfaction. Four dollars bought the best Reuben in my life, not from a New York delicatessen, instead off the tailgate of a pick-up.
The following day my anxieties slowly ebbed. I reminded myself that people eat food everyday from anonymous street vendors and in restaurants of suspect quality. My nervousness gave way to smugness. I couldn’t tell anyone, but I had had food from Ted’s kitchen. I was going to Ted’s kitchen for dinner. Seeing a card in our dorm elevator made me smile. I knew.
On the night of the dinner, I started to lose my smugness and thought I better at least mention to my roommate that I was going to “Ted’s kitchen” for dinner. I received a blank stare followed by, “Ted who?” My hunch about the oblivion was correct. I showed him the card, but surrendered any hope of explanation. I tried to be optimistic. Certainly that sandwich confirmed that I would get my money’s worth at Ted’s.
I went to the hippy bar early, got a seat overlooking the parking lot and ordered a beer. The bar was busy, but if they were going to Ted’s, they weren’t talking about it.