It was a big part of college life for me.


Slicing a beef roast. These are thick “restaurant cuts”. They were thinner in the fraternity kitchen, and I always cut the roasts “bone in”. [Photo by José Ignacio Pompé on Unsplash]

September 1952 was a big time for me starting school at the University of Michigan. In the last four months I had graduated from high school, spent a week in New York with Aunt Peg and worked as a helper at Reska Spline, a tool and die shop, alongside my dad in Detroit. I arrived in Ann Arbor entering a “new world” along with five friends from Southeastern Highschool in Detroit. Three of us were assigned to South Quadrangle. Mike and Cal roomed together and that lasted a semester.

I elected potluck and my roommate was Charlie Edwards. He was 23 years old, had just finished a four-year stint in the Navy, was engaged and was studying in the school of Architecture and Design. He was travelling in a different universe.

With me a seventeen-year-old premedical student I guess we could be called an “odd couple.” We both must have put on our room assignment profile we liked to sleep with the window open and were willing to pay a little extra to have a sink. We travelled different paths outside and, in our room, studied and slept. He was like a big brother.

Outside of the class work, the biggest adjustment for me was mealtime. In a large dining hall serving cafeteria style we had three meals six days a week and two on Sunday. Of our “room and board, the most expensive was board, the food we ate. After a week I got a job as a busser earning free meals. Then I heard that “meal jobs” were available at fraternity houses and the food was better. I went to the Phi Delta house on a hill overlooking the corner of Washtenaw and South University and was hired as a waiter.

My instructions were: serve from the left, pick up from the right, fork on the left and knife and spoon on the right with the knife blade facing the plate and the spoon on the outside. While not told explicitly, it was clear that waiters did not speak unless spoken to.

Unfortunately, I had occasion to speak at lunch in the third week. My words were to apologize for spilling the hot chicken noodle soup held in my right hand down the back of a brother. I was serving as I should with my left, but my other hand tipped and out poured the soup. I wasn’t fired. Instead, I was transferred to the kitchen.

My job there was to help the cook. We called him Red. He had been an army cook. That job was OK, and I soon tumbled to the truth that the kitchen crew ate better than the waiters, another reason I was happier there.

As the semester was ending, another old Southeastern friend told me they needed a cook’s helper at the Nu Sigma Nu Medical Fraternity. I applied and got the job. It turned out to be a good fit. I worked there through my junior year in medical school. Over those seven years I worked for four cooks and with dozens of other students like me.

Here I helped prepare salads; we had lots of molded Jello cut in squares that I plated on a lettuce leaf with a dollop of mayonnaise. I also plated the main course and placed the food on the dumb waiter connecting us to the dining room upstairs.

My biggest responsibility in the kitchen was to carve a standing rib roast on Tuesday and a turkey on Thursday. The portions had to be equal, and everybody must be served – NEVER run out! There were always just a few leftovers. This was an acquired skill from on-the-job training. For me it meant job security because our cook, Mrs. Bacon, made it clear if I go, she goes, and everybody loved her!

Over the years I pledged a social fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon and after entering medical school joined Nu Sigma Nu but only after they amended the rules to allow a kitchen helper to be a member.

In my eight years of school and membership in two fraternities I remember a total of six dinners at a regular table. Five were at South Quad and one at the SAE house. Did I miss something of college life? I will never know. I do know I enjoyed the camaraderie at my job and needed to save the money. In the kitchen I was part of a proud sub-culture and in those times of low tuition, food was by far the most expensive part of a college education.



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1 thought on “Being a Cook’s Helper

  1. That brought back many memories. I, too, worked – tho’ in the office as a typist. I was a whiz – typing 80wpm! That income paid for personal expenses, scholarships took care of tuition and books. Summer jobs helped with Room & Board – you’re right, that was the biggest expense. Thanks for reminding me of those happy, productive years.

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