There is a running joke in the kitchen.
It’s a local restaurant that donates meat scraps to our kitchens that many believe should have been scrapped.
But others feel it’s a gift from God, or McManna.
Let me try to explain Portello’s.
The texture is particle board meets grizzle.
The color is fifty shades of non-tempting grey.
The smell? I’ll get to that later.
Even at the shelter, patrons in tattered coats will put up their purple noses when they smell it. “Let’s go dumpster diving,” they’ll say.
On my first day as head cook, Portello’s was on the menu, which put my head on the chopping block.
I looked at the recipe in the menu book and shook my head:
Forty pounds of Portello’s, forty onions, cumin and one gallon of Worcestershire.
Is that it?
I looked on the shelves for a secret ingredient, to make it taste better.
So I threw the meat in the brazier (a grill meets bathtub) then poked it with a paddle similar to what is used in a canoe.
I was afraid that I’d find a pinky ring or a finger among the shavings.
After all, this is Chicago.
I poured in the Worcestershire and listened to it sizzle.
For about ten minutes, the herbs and spices covered up the smell of the Portello’s. But then, the aroma of the Portello’s came back with a vengeance, sucking up the Worcestershire scent like a Hoover.
I fanned the vapors, trying to identify the smell of the meat.
Was it barrel aged grease trap?
High school locker room?
Burrito left in the back of a van?
As the steam subsided, I got a good look at the cardboard meat. I wish I had a bottle of Kitchen Bouquet food polish to dump in to make it browner or meatier, a trick I learned from food stylists.
So for two hours I stirred the Portello’s with a food oar, hoping it would transform into something magical or at least edible.
That’s when I found the secret ingredient to change it’s taste.
A small white lie.
I thought of a study I read, on how perceived ingredients impact taste. Simply adding a flavor to the list of ingredients can actually make the food taste better.
And in this case, removing the name of an ingredient.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. “What’s for dinner?” The hungry kitchen invader looked at the scraps and frowned. “Is it Portello’s?”
“No,” my nose grew an inch. “Actually, it’s a donation from Michael Jordan’s restaurant.”
“Really?” her eyebrows arched. “I’ll spread the word.”
Another guest came into the kitchen, this time, a hairy and scary. He was a big guy with a big smell and no hair brush.
“What’s for dinner?” he grunted.
“Uh, sandwiches made from donations from Michael Jordan’s restaurant.”
“I’ll be on time!”
And as I scooped the meat into cafeteria style pans, a line of Disney World proportions formed outside the dining hall.
The first compliment came from a thin blonde version of Jesus. “Thank you for the meal, Ginger. It was fantastic!”
“Yeah,” a tattooed Mary Magdalene chimed in, “We heard the meat came from a new place.”
“Why yes,” I crossed my fingers. “Jordan’s.”
The undercover Portello’s received raved reviews.
After dinner, I had to shampoo twice to get out the smell out of my hair.
I should have washed my mouth out too, for telling that white lie.
I don’t know.
American Physicist Austin O’Malley once said, Those who think it is permissible to tell white lies soon grow color-blind.
Well if that makes it easier to digest grey meat, so be it.
Have you ever told a little white lie that you regretted?