In the fullness of time, I have had Corporate Lunches in all kinds of settings. Fine restaurants, some in exotic overseas locations. Shanghai hairy crab and Singapore fish head curry. Sandwiches and salads in the office cafeteria. You name it; I’ve probably had it for lunch somewhere … with the possible exception of the local speciality of Evansville, Indiana. That’d be the Brain Sandwich, and you couldn’t pay me to eat that.
One time, I had lunch in the executive dining room at the top of the old Great Corporate Salt Mine headquarters building in midtown Manhattan … a young whippersnapper breaking bread with the movers and shakers making their way through the ranks of middle management on their way to stratospheric senior executive positions. It was a taste of what was possible, given enough business savvy, luck, political acumen, hard work, and general ass-kissing capabilities. Lucky for me, I had none of those characteristics.
The lunches I remember most fondly, though, are the ones I ate in the spartan basement lunchroom in the bowels of the Great Corporate Salt Mine’s research and engineering facility in Baytown, Texas. This was no fancy-pants corporate Dining Hall, no, no. This was bare-bones, minimalist eating at its best.
It was small, this lunchroom, with just enough room to accommodate a few tables and chairs … and a vending machine that offered vile little treats. Tuna fish sandwiches of questionable provenance. Sausage biscuits, consisting of a hard, hockey puck-like disc of sausage shoved between two halves of a biscuit as dry as West Texas itself. Kolaches, a sort of changeling jelly doughnut in which the jelly was perversely replaced, as if by Gypsies, with a heinous porky-tasting cylinder of sausage. There may have been yogurt in there, too, but nobody I know was brave enough to try it.
You showed up at noon; you left at one. Sharp. That was enough time to pound down the contents of your brown bag (unless you were desperate and/or foolish enough to take your chances with the vending machine fare) and squeeze in a game or two of chess.
Once in a while, when the donjon-like atmosphere of our little Basement Luncheon-Hall began to pall, we would pile into our cars and venture out of the Great Corporate Salt Mine’s vast refinery compound to visit one of the local establishments. There were only two that most of us would trust with our precious intestinal health: El Toro, the Mexican joint, and the Brisket Bar-B-Q.
El Toro offered up the kind of Tex-Mex grub that a New York expatriate like me – in other words, someone who didn’t know any better – could love. Simple, inexpensive fare: tacos, enchiladas, chalupas, rice and beans, and the like. The beans, refried Gawd only knows how many times, in Gawd only knows what sort of Porcine Schmaltz, had a runny consistency that no other Mexican establishment has ever duplicated. But for my then-unsophisticated palate, it was heaven. After all, as a college student, I would drive the thirty-mile round trip to Trenton, New Jersey to score twenty-nine cent sawdust tacos – by comparison, El Toro was the Hacienda de los fricking Morales.
And then there was the Brisket Bar-B-Q, where the beverage of choice was iced tea (beer and other alcohols being unavailable not only for lack of the appropriate license, but because of the staunch Baptist views of the owner), and the brisket-and-sausage combo platter was heaven on Earth. It may have been a humble little barbecue place, but it was far better than Otto’s (later to be touted as President Bush the First’s favorite) or any other Houston-area smoked meat option. Years later, I would learn how to make serious Texas barbecue from my father-in-law … and even later, I would discover Goode Company Barbecue, both of which raised the Bar-B-Q Bar to heights the old Brisket could never achieve. But I still have fond memories of that place, which taught me how smoke, seasoning, and temperature could convert a slab of tough beef into as fine a Luncheon Meal as ever I could want.
Beat the crap out of those vending machine sausage biscuits, for sure.