Finding Christian practice in a chili pot
Everyone hated the chili pot.
It sat on a back corner of the flat top all evening, with a half load
of chili weeknights, full-up on weekends. It was battered, and really
more of a large metal measure for scooping flour or sugar in
quantities, once upon a time, with a riveted metal handle you had to
grab with a counter rag, another reminder that this was really the
wrong tool for the wrong purpose.
But it was there when I started working at the student union grill,
and three years later it was still there as I left. It might be there
yet. The advantage to this odd non-pot pot was that it was taller
than it was wide, so it held enough chili for the chili burgers and
chili dogs without being so wide as to block our other uses of the
flat top grill.
The bent and battered bottom meant it didn't perfectly contact the
surface, which actually helped keep the contents the right
temperature, not quite to boiling. Overall, though, what it meant was
that every night, about 1 am as we shut down, someone had to clean an
inch of carbonized gunk out of the bottom of that pot, scrubbing back
down to grey metal at the bottom of this (as you'll recall) taller
than it was wide container. It was a real pain, even with steel wool.
Technically, the grill cook that night cleaned the chili pot. The
problem with that plan was that the regular grill cook, a townie who
had contempt for both the college students he served, and even more
for many of the ones he worked with behind the counter, would walk
back, at close, and toss the chili pot into the dish room sink where
the counter man was cleaning all the parts of the ice cream machine
and the drink fountains. You could try to hand it back to [Name
Redacted], but few did. Or did twice. I saw him once throw the chili
pot the length of the behind-the-counter space from the grill to the
dish room and skip it off of the shoulder of the hapless new guy at
[Name redacted] had a thing going on with the night manager; not with
each other, but they liked to sit and smoke (this was in a different
century, children) and tell each other about their most recent heavy-
breathing encounters, so throwing heavy metal objects was not
something he was going to get disciplined for, not in this life. So
you scrubbed it.
I worked all around the horn, sometimes as cashier, sometimes out on
tables, sometimes in the back room doing prep, sometimes grill cook
when [NR] was off or just when he was recovering from the night
before and wanted to sit out in the dining room smoking with the
manager. Usually, I could avoid the chili pot by taking the trash
out; my long arms meant the full bags didn't drool on my shoes as I
walked them out to the dumpster.
One night, not long after I'd admitted to the crew that, yes, I had
applied to seminary next year (to which, I should note, the manager
applauded and gave me a hug), I saw on the clock that it was almost
close, and the place was empty. I thought about what [NR] had sneered
about last break to me as to the meaninglessness of religion & faith.
Wiping down the front counter and picking up some trash in the public
area, and seeing the weary look of the shoulders of the new swabbie
on dish room, I leaned over the grill from the customer side and said
"[NR], give me the chili pot. I'll clean it."
He looked up, startled. "Nah, let the newbie do it. It's cooked down
good." I shrugged, nodded, reached over the service counter, and
scooped up the pot and walked back to the dish room. It took five
minutes, and I didn't get too much black goo under my fingernails.
It became a tradition. Every night, just before close if we weren't
dealing with a last rush, I'd come over and grab it. After almost two
years of avoiding the chili pot, leaving it to some other poor
schmuck to scrub, I'd just get it and do it first (and clean the sink
out when I was done before the dish guy had to do the fountain parts).
It would be nice to end this with telling you that [NR] later
accepted a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. I can't tell you
that. I will say we probably talked more those last six months than
we had the years before. He knew the chili pot, and he valued someone
choosing to take care of it, because the fact of the matter is: none
of us could go home until the chili pot was done. Someone had to do it.
And he stopped making snide comments about how stupid going to church
was. I pray for him still, from time to time.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around
central Ohio; he knows his steel wool. Tell him where you ran into
Jesus recently at firstname.lastname@example.org.