The Weight of Paper (featuring Key-less Lime Tartlets)
“Yowwowowwoooooooo!” Amelia alerted me to the mailman approaching our stoop.
I was channeling some teen-with-a-crush-waiting-for-him-to-call energy and didn’t go to the door immediately. I didn’t want to jinx it. Maybe it would be there if I didn’t run straight to the mailbox. Maybe waiting until the postman had moved down the street a bit would make the check– two checks actually– show up in my mailbox. I played hard to get and went upstairs for a moment. Then checked my email. Brushed my hair. Got a glass of water. Doop de doo, no big deal. Just doing stuff. I peered out the window and saw the mailman moving to the next block.
Ok, now, I thought.
I stuck my hand into the cold metal box and pulled out a bank statement, a cell phone bill for Francis, and three junk mail circulars. I rifled through the stack again, shaking the coupon bundle hoping my mail had been accidentally stuck inside, but no. Nothing there. No paychecks.
And here’s the thing… this wasn’t me waiting for some sweet old woman holding tight to her checkbook in her little house. No, these were gigs for two large companies—one a national bank you’ve all heard of. These were companies that could afford the small cost of a cocktail party with basic food and service. These were two different office parties thrown a week apart where the clients had been thrilled with everything. It had been two months since those parties. I had been assured payment was on its way though they were dealing with a new system or an inefficient worker or a personal tragedy.
And maybe that’s not a lot of time if you’re a big business with thousands of transactions, but if you’re a small business owner like me it can be terrifying.
I can count on one hand the times I’ve chased clients for money over the 30 years I’ve been cheffing. Honestly, I can count it on one finger. And now two clients in a row? Both entitled big businesses giving me “the check is in the mail” runaround. Actually, neither client responded when I first asked them to make sure the invoice was in their system. I became invisible. Or maybe I always was.
So what do I do? I make it my fault. I gaslight myself—a skill I’ve honed over the years for all my business and personal relationships.
I tell myself I’m being too tight. The check will come tomorrow, silly, I think to myself, shaking my head and rolling my eyes. I’m the worst– no patience, all paranoia, I scold.
Then I move onto the mistakes I’ve probably made. I must have typed the wrong address on my invoices – even though my invoices use an uneditable template through my payment system. I double check the invoices on my computer a thousand times, just in case.
There’s also trepidation based on personal history. Back in New York, my apartment building was victimized by mail theft for months. A lot of paychecks were stolen from me and my neighbors and then illegally cashed by cheapo check cashing places that don’t require ID.
I’ve been hurt before, not by the clients, but by criminals. Is it possible someone has stolen my mail, cashed my checks, and I’ll never be paid for my work?
My mind spins web after web.
I know! Maybe I was unclear that I wanted to be paid for these events!
WHAT???? That’s insane, Alison. But you see? I convinced myself I’m insane.
After a few unfortunately timed gig-less weeks, I booked a job. It was another office party for a successful local business. I was guarded, but Sandra, my contact there, had been responsive as she worked with me on menu, budget, and timelines. My unpaid and unrecognized persona was quickly replaced by the eager small business chef that I truly am.
The night before the gig, Sandra asked if I could bring some takeaway containers for the staff to pack leftovers in. Frequently at office parties such as this one, many fewer guests show up than have RSVP’d and there are heaps of uneaten food. I only had a few containers left, but I told the client that I could bring some sturdy paper plates and plastic wrap for the leftovers. She thanked me, and I went into storage to fish out a sleeve of heavy-duty sugar cane compostable plates which I buy in bulk from my restaurant supplier.
The party the following day was good. They had an impressive guest count who all ate well. Nothing makes me happier than to feed hungry people, but of course, there were some leftovers at the end. The office manager, whom I’d never met or spoken with, walked into the kitchen area and I told her that I thought we could leave out the food for a little bit so that the employees of the company who probably hadn’t tasted anything during the party could pack stuff up to take home. She sharply said no, they definitely wouldn’t do that and brushed past me as if I wasn’t there.
I busied myself washing my platters and cleaning the kitchen as the servers brought more food back into the kitchen from the buffet. I told them to leave it on the table just in case. Much to the office manager’s chagrin, minutes later the kitchen was full of employees happily eating and packing up the leftovers. She curled her lips and started putting things in the fridge with a huff.
I was exhausted and happy to almost be out of there. I started packing one of my bags with squeeze bottles of sauces and clean Tupperware when the office manager asked me a question.
“Where are the paper plates?”
I looked quickly on the table, but I didn’t see the small inch-high stack of plates that I’d taken out earlier. I did see the top of the plastic sleeve of plates peering up from a chair I had placed them on earlier and I pointed to them.
“There are some there.”
She lifted the whole sleeve of plates—probably a foot and a half tall, took them out of the wrapper, and placed them in the office kitchen cupboard! Not one plate, not two; maybe one hundred, into the cabinet for future use. Not for that night. Not for this party.
I must have a made a sound because I was in shock.
And she turned to me, fire sparking in her eyes, and said, almost laughing, “Did I do something?”
It wasn’t a query. It was a challenge.
I looked at those plates… MY plates and I momentarily reviewed my options. Confrontation? She was waiting for me. And though those misappropriated paper plates felt like they represented every single thing that’s wrong with the world today, I knew I would never win the battle for them. Her brand of entitlement bests my bruise of exhaustion every time.
I left the kitchen to deliver the invoice to Sandra. She sucked in sharply and said, “Oh no, our bookkeeper left a little while ago! I’ll have to mail it to you.”
I felt the impact of the paper plate theft knock the wind out of me right then.
“No, thank you. I need to get paid. I’ll come to pick it up in person on Monday morning.”
Which I did.
Some battles are fought to the end.
And some aren’t worth it at all.
Earlier this week, I received one of my delinquent paychecks, and yesterday I received the other. All accounts are paid in full.
I know I’ve probably overstayed my welcome with the length of this post, but I have one more short story about dealing with the service industry. Trust me, it’s worth it…
Years ago when I lived in New York, I had the pleasure of catering a party for David Hyde Pierce. He was a regular guest at a Passover Seder I used to cater annually and he thought of me when he needed a chef. His was a cocktail party for a sizeable crowd. I had three on my team that night and when they arrived, I introduced them to David.
“This is Brad, your bartender for the night.”
They shook hands, smiling.
“And this is Chloe and Shannon, your servers. I’m going to finish up in here the kitchen, but they can help you with any last-minute tasks.”
David said, “And what do you do when you’re not working for Alison?”
Brad replied first, “Well, I do web design for a number of political and social activist groups.”
“Wonderful!” David belted out. “And you?”
Chloe responded, “I’m in law school.”
“Amazing!” David said.
“And I’m a visual artist working on a mural now.”
“Nice to meet you all.” David reacted. “All right, I’m going to go get ready. I think guests will be here in about 45 minutes.”
He left the kitchen and we went about our prep tasks.
The party was a huge success. I heard peals of laughter and glasses clinking as my servers brought me empty platter after empty platter. I went home very fulfilled (and paid) that night.
The following day, I send David a thank you email to let him know how grateful I was to have the opportunity to cater his party.
He replied, “You were fantastic! And what an honor to meet a web designer activist, a future lawyer, and an accomplished artist. That made me think we should have been serving them!”
We were seen.
And that’s something I’ll never forget.
Here’s my gift to you… a beautiful little treat that’s easy, cheap, and the perfect way to end any meal. I call them key-less lime tarts because they’re made with regular limes instead of key limes, which can be a lot harder to find and more expensive (which leads people to substitute bottled key lime juice which doesn’t come close to fresh).
Happy holidays all! Thank you for seeing me!
Key-less Lime Tartlets
Makes about 24 mini tarts
- 9 graham crackers
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- scant ½ teaspoon salt
- 5 tablespoons butter, melted
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Pulse crackers in a food processor until crumbs. Mix with sugar, salt, and butter and blend with your fingertips until it comes together.
- Fill two mini muffin tins with mini cupcake skirts and then, using a cookie scoop, drop about a tablespoon of crust into the skirt and press down with the tips of your fingers and up the sides a bit. The custard filling will sit on top of the crust, but I like to divot the crust a little bit.
- When all the crusts have been tapped into the skirts, place the tins into the oven and bake for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, you can make the custard filling.
- 1 14-ounce can sweetened-condensed milk
- 4 large egg yolks
- ½ cup fresh lime juice
- 2 teaspoons lime zest
- Whisk ingredients together in a large bowl.
- When crusts are finished baking, leave the oven on. Using the same (rinsed) cookie scoop, fill the crusts with about a tablespoon of filling.
- Bake for 10 minutes.
- Let cool and then refrigerate for a few hours before serving (actually, they’re better if you let them sit overnight in the fridge).
And here’s me making these on KATU’s Afternoon Live: https://katu.com/afternoon-live/cooking-recipes/key-less-lime-tarts