What a Caesar Salad Taught Me About Writing – And Life

No one was more surprised than me when I, the clumsy shy girl, landed a waitressing job during college.  I overcame the urge to run home crying on the first night, after being yelled at by an irate woman who didn’t appreciate wearing three Cokes.  (That tray balancing thing takes practice.)  Several months, many patient customers, and few angry ones later, management wanted me to work the day shift during the summer.

“Noooooo!”  I begged and pleaded in a panic.  Mornings at a breakfast restaurant were crazy busy and I had just stopped soiling my customers with food and beverages.  Management would not hear any of my protests.  My choice was to show up at 6 AM wearing my “big girl” pantyhose or return to fast food.

I showed up at 6 AM as ordered scheduled.  As the weeks passed by, my confidence soared because my customers hardly ever wore their food anymore.  One day, a gentleman took a counter seat and ordered a Caesar salad.  I smiled because I hoped for a tip, but inwardly, I groaned.  I hated Caesar salads because it wasn’t a cook order – I had to make them.

In a rush, I measured the romaine in the bowl, added dressing from the white pourable container in the fridge and mixed until the lettuce was coated.  I absently topped with parmesan cheese and croutons, while my mind noted the table that needed coffee refills, another one waiting for their check, and the new couple seated that needed a drink order taken.

I slid the salad in front of the man, confirmed he didn’t need anything else and dashed off to tend to the other tables.  It wasn’t long before the man called me over.

Man:     “The salad tastes funny.  Are you sure you used Caesar dressing?”

Me:        “Yeah, why?”

Man:     He tasted another bite and grimaced.  “Could you have used horseradish?”

Me:        Absolutely.  “I’m not sure.  Let me get you another one.”

As soon as he suggested the possibility, I knew it was likely that I did use horseradish – the Caesar dressing and horseradish were kept in identical pouring containers.  As I mixed the new salad, Deb (the head waitress on the day shift) approached.

Deb:      “Do you know who that is?”

Me:        “Who?”

Deb:      “The man at the counter.”

Me:        Salad Man was the only one at the counter.  “Nope.  Never seen him before.”

Deb:      “That’s Robbie.  He’s one of the owners.”

My breath caught in my throat.  Of all people to serve a horseradish salad, it had to be the restaurant owner.  Lucky for me, he ended up having a sense of humor.

image by PETA.org

This experience taught me a few things about writing (and life in general):

  • Focus.  Devote my full attention to the task at hand, whether it’s developing characters, planning an outline, or putting together a (boring) business document for work.    
  • Don’t forget the details.  Take a final look at an edited story and review character behaviors with a critical eye to find inconsistencies.  Proofread text for errors.
  • Take responsibility.  If something goes horribly wrong in a writing piece, I am fully responsible.  The same philosophy works in life; no excuses.
  • Approach every task like I’m serving a Caesar salad to my boss.  I never know who I’ll meet at a company gathering, who could lead to my next career opportunity, or who may want to publish my writing.  Doing my best ensures that I couldn’t have done more.
  • Laugh it off.  When I make mistakes I laugh about it.  Trust me, this works – I’ve used it often.  Way too frequently, if you ask me.

What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from an embarrassing moment?

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30 thoughts on “What a Caesar Salad Taught Me About Writing – And Life

  1. duke1959 February 16, 2011 / 7:11 AM

    Some of the greatest lessons in life are those than come from the smallest of situations.

    • jannatwrites February 17, 2011 / 6:47 AM

      I agree, Duke. My problem is pushing the embarrassment aside enough to see the lesson 😉

  2. Tori Nelson February 16, 2011 / 8:07 AM

    This is so clever! What a BIG lesson to take from a salad!

    • jannatwrites February 17, 2011 / 6:48 AM

      Thanks, Tori! That was one HUGE caesar salad that changed the course of my life. Okay, that was an exaggeration, but it was a good learning experience!

  3. J. P. Cabit February 16, 2011 / 8:35 AM

    I like to laugh situations off. Other people, however, do not…I guess the trick is to keep laughing. (Unless you’re at a funeral of course.)

    Awesome story, BTW. I’ve worked in the food industry, and it can be a tough situation when you KNOW that you’ve done something wrong and the customer picks up on it. I wonder if people would rather get “Perfect” service (I say that in quotes because I mean it’s not perfect, it just looks perfect, but trust me, it aint), or to get honest service. I’ve been dead-honest to people about a certain product before (“Trust me, miss, you DON’T want to eat that…”), and the customers have been very appreciative about it. (“Oh, really? That’s good to hear. I’d rather you tell me that then I waste my money.”)

    Just thought I’d share. 🙂

    • jannatwrites February 17, 2011 / 6:55 AM

      Well, J.P., laughing at a funeral wouldn’t be appropriate. Thank goodness I haven’t had that urge! Glad you liked the story and can relate to the food service environment.

      I think that giving an honest opinion is part of creating the ‘perfect’ experience. If you conceal the truth about an awful dish and the customer order it, and doesn’t like it – they aren’t going to be very happy. (Satisfaction level correlates with tip amount.) I never felt uncomfortable suggesting another menu item for one I didn’t like if the customer asked. Unfortunately, I’m not a big fan of breakfast food, so finding a menu item I liked was difficult for me. (I still HATE the smell of maple syrup, by the way :))

      Thanks for sharing your take on honesty/perfection in service. J.P.!

  4. dorcas February 16, 2011 / 8:39 AM

    When ever I embarrass myself, I laugh it off too. Cause, come on, everyone goes through these times. 🙂

    • jannatwrites February 17, 2011 / 6:56 AM

      You’re right, Dorcas. A benefit is that if we’re laughing, it can ease awkwardness of any witnesses of the embarrassing moment.

  5. Carol Ann Hoel February 16, 2011 / 10:35 AM

    Too many to count them, Janna. I must keep a sense of humor. I try very hard not to make mistakes, but I still do. Blessings to you…

    • jannatwrites February 17, 2011 / 6:57 AM

      I make too many mistakes too, Carol. It is of some comfort to know I’m not the only one 🙂 Thanks for reading and sharing your comment!

  6. 2blu2btru February 16, 2011 / 11:38 AM

    Oh, my! My embarassing moment would be a post all by itself! I’ll save you some reading and just say I learned that if it puts you in an awkward situation whether someone repeats it correctly or backwards, just keep it to myself! (At least that’s the moment that came to mind first, and the lesson that came to mind first. I’m sure they are Legion ;-))

    My main character of my NaNoWriMo novel should read this…or probably not, because that would ruin all the shenanigans she gets into 😉 Great post!

    • jannatwrites February 17, 2011 / 7:01 AM

      Hmmm…that would be a fun post to read, 2blu….do it! You character sounds like fun – it’s always an entertaining read when the main character is a bigger goof than I am. Even though it’s fiction, I tell myself that there is someone more awkward than I am. (Sad, I know!)

      • 2blu2btru February 17, 2011 / 8:38 AM

        At the moment, she is fun! She keeps interrupting the writing I’m supposed to be doing, though. She has no concept of time and is always too late or too early, along with all the other mishaps from not following your sage advice in this post 😉

        I would write a post on this embarrassing moment, but it’s already a creative non-fiction piece (I spilled my humiliation for an A and publication in the school’s Prize Papers. I consider that a fair trade). Perhaps I’ll share it with you one day, if you ask nicely. 😉

        • jannatwrites February 17, 2011 / 6:07 PM

          A creative nonfiction piece? Now I’m reaaaaalllly interested 🙂 I can ask nice; super-nice, “pretty please?” Now, maybe one day you’ll share – if you feel like it, of course. If not, I understand if you want to leave the embarrassment buried in it’s shallow grave 🙂

  7. Aligaeta February 16, 2011 / 11:41 AM

    Many great lessons learned here : )

    • jannatwrites February 17, 2011 / 7:01 AM

      I’d rather have learned them by reading someone else’s experience, Aligaeta!

  8. clarbojahn February 16, 2011 / 4:41 PM

    Waitressing can be a lot like nursing. And I’ve done both. You have to smile whether you want to or not and if you make a mistake you have to own up. In nursing once when the patient noticed I said with a smile”just your ordinary competency test” and it was forgiven. You can only do that if the mistake didn’t hurt their well-being or health.

    • jannatwrites February 17, 2011 / 7:05 AM

      I don’t have it in me to do nursing, but I sure admire those who are up for that challenge. Both are stressful jobs, but at least with waitressing, a mistake doesn’t put someone’s health in danger (well, depending on what they ordered ;))

      I’ve learned with any job that it’s easier to ‘fess up than to hide a mistake – or worse, make excuses or blame someone else. So far, it’s worked out well, especially if I can explain a plan to make sure I don’t make the error again.

      The “competency test” line is good, Clar – I like that!

  9. nrhatch February 16, 2011 / 10:39 PM

    Wonderful post, Janna.

    Along the same lines, as a law clerk, the head of the legal department asked me to answer the phones one afternoon because two secretaries were out sick.

    Before I got the hang of the phones, the CEO of the Company called to talk to the head of the legal department. Instead of transferring the call, I hung up on the CEO.

    Oops. 😀

    • jannatwrites February 17, 2011 / 7:09 AM

      Thanks for sharing your moment, Nancy – no one else has taken me up on that offer! Hanging up on the CEO is an embarrassing moment, for sure. I can relate because I have hung up on several transfers, none of them the CEO, though 🙂

      I try not to interact with management because it’s a good bet I’ll embarrass myself. I almost dropped spaghetti on our CEO 2 Holiday Parties ago. Luckily it landed on the white table cloth between us, instead of on his lap 🙂 I made an impression, all right.

  10. Hilary Clark February 17, 2011 / 10:27 AM

    I don’t recall learning anything from an embarrassing moment, although I’m sure I learned something. I tend to block those embarrassing things out and pretend they never happened. I’m all about “let’s not discuss that, moving on here.”

    I have had epiphanies from comments made by others that have resulted in major changes in behavior and attitude. I’ll take those experiences over making a fool of myself every time. 🙂

    I think it’s great you did the waitress gig, and succeeded at learning to carry that tray (how do you do that???). I always figured that I’d purposely dump a tray on a cranky customer’s head on my first day, so I avoided waitressing like the plague. 🙂

    • jannatwrites February 17, 2011 / 6:12 PM

      I’ve blocked my fair share of embarrassing moments because they are just too painful to rehash! The ones I came to laugh about stay with me, though. I do agree that it is preferable ot learn from other’s mistakes/embarrassment.

      On carrying the tray: lots of practice (and spills). Don’t ever try to help a server out by grabbing a glass off the tray – I had a couple soggy people find out why. Over the years, I became less able to give rude people the benefit of the doubt and my sarcasm ran wild 🙂 I don’t think I could work with the general public again.

      • J. P. Cabit February 18, 2011 / 8:02 AM

        Ha ha ha ha!!! You are overly sarcastic too! I am not alone then!!! My mouth has far too much fun on its own without telegraphing home base first…

        • jannatwrites February 18, 2011 / 8:11 PM

          There was one time it worked out well: This man picked one up the clear cup of syrup and studied it, then asked, “is this boysenberry?” Before thinking, I said, “If you have a good imagination.” I smiled so I didn’t appear so rude. (At least I didn’t say, “It’s brown and smells like maple, what do you think?”) The others at the table burst out laughing and the man got embarrassed. I got a great tip for giving him grief. I found that if I delivered sarcasm with a smile it confused people enough so they didn’t know if they should be upset or not. Now, I aim to keep my mouth shut 🙂

  11. crumbl February 25, 2011 / 10:01 PM

    The best lesson I learned from an embarrassing moment? It wasn’t fatal. I survived to embarrass myself again (and again, and … )

    • jannatwrites February 26, 2011 / 8:22 AM

      I don’t know, Crumbl…I think it’s possible for a moment to be fatal. It’s almost happened to me 😉 But you are right, as long as we’re alive we’re sure to keep embarrasssing ourselves!

  12. nrhatch August 18, 2011 / 9:30 AM

    I laughed all over again ~ with you, not at you. 😀

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