The pride and pain of kitchen injuries.
My kitchen injuries have never been severe. (I feel I’m jinxing myself by writing that line.) Of course, there were the years when my arms were covered in tell-tale bakers’ burns. They come from the hot lip of a sheet pan fresh from the oven and look like fat little caterpillars. I don’t mind them; I think of them as temporary tattoos, an ode to my favorite work and a show of solidarity with other bakers. We are all marked in this way. I’ve never known anyone to complain.
But when I moved to San Juan, I started to have blade-related accidents. I learned how much blood spurts from fingertips when they’re cut. Whether chipped by a vegetable peeler while working on potatoes intended for gnocchi or sliced by a food processor blade while distracted by thoughts of marzipan, they bleed and bleed and bleed, soaking paper towels and gauze and spilling onto the patio of the apartment building, leaving rusty stains for weeks that you can point to and say, “That’s my blood.” The palms of hands don’t bleed as much, even when stabbed in the surprise shattering of a favored designer ceramic bowl, but the wound is more difficult to dress than a fingertip.
After my first big nick from the peeler, I panicked. I cried. I’d moved to this city officially a month or so earlier and my boyfriend, then a bartender, was at work. Only our puppy was in the house and I’d never cut myself in such a way. (When I was in the tiny wine bar kitchen, I only cut myself once and saw my latex glove fill with blood, but one band-aid was fine.) I refused to look at it as I attempted to peel off the cheap band-aids I’d bought to staunch a bleeding much less significant.
With one hand, I googled the hours of the local pharmacy and ran there, finger dripping, eyes tearing, and bought gauze and tape to haul off to the bar. It was early in his shift so I figured he could help me, but when I arrived I found him serving a surprise private party. As I stood with paper towels clutched to my finger, his coworkers walked past hauling cases of beer and liquor. “How are you?” they asked. “Bleeding,” I kept replying. They all told me to stick my finger in salt, a horror I couldn’t face but was eventually forced to endure.
It didn’t work. I walked out with gauze soaking with blood, dripping again onto the sidewalk, crying again because I didn’t think it would ever stop. My boyfriend’s younger brother, a paramedic, eventually came over and dressed the wound for me. Forced to look at it once the blood had been washed away by hydrogen peroxide, I realized it wasn’t worth all of my dramatics. Burns, I’m good with. Blood is another story.
But I’ve become calm now when I cut myself in the kitchen, for the most part. I did recently have an incident where I started barking directions with one of my hands in the air, above my heart, paper towels wrapped around a fresh wound. The funny thing is that the gauze at our local pharmacy has an address from Ronkonkoma, making me think maybe all these cuts are a little joke by the universe to remind me where I come from. Regardless, I don’t make gnocchi from scratch anymore.
A home cook’s injuries are one thing. The idea of putting my bloody, open wound in salt had been as unfathomable to me as it had been an obvious choice by all the bartenders who told me how to take care of it. These experiences just made me want to ask: Is it healthy to be proud of scars and pain?
“I carry my baker’s burns with pride,” my friend Diego tells me. He’s a prominent San Juan bread-maker, and I’ve noticed his scars before. “I don’t work in catering or kitchens anymore, but I look at those lil scars with love and fondness,” Jessica Suss says. This is a common notion, an acceptance of the inevitability of hurt—which is especially real when you’ve spent any of your life doing long stretches of cooking.
“I don’t have tattoos, but I think of my scars kind of like tattoos, markers of periods in time,” Washington Post food writer—and author of the Eat Voraciously recipe newsletter—Daniela Galarza says. “The cuts on my fingers from before I knew how to use a knife. The bicep sheet pan burns from my first real kitchen job. The sizzle platter burns from the Italian restaurant I walked out of after they gaslit me about a fair salary.” She calls them hard-won mementos.
Accidental burns and little cuts are one thing, but the expectation that workers stick wounds in salt, cauterize them on hot iron, or use super glue to close wounds speaks to the toxic expectations of professional kitchens. “I think about the chef who told me to super glue my finger back together after slicing it in a deli slicer,” Samie Luc tells me. “There’s a weird badge of pride about how you deal with kitchen injuries that felt so horrifying to me as a 20-year-old starting out.” She adds that it’s an unspoken expectation that if you suffer an injury during a shift, you have to suck it up and keep working.
“My worst cut required ten stitches in my thumb and I still finished mopping the floor while my hand was bleeding not because I wanted to prove my worth or my mettle but because I knew I would get an email about a bad close if I didn’t,” says Shannon Roche, now co-owner of Crust Vegan Bakery in Philadelphia.
“I feel like there’s a weird, chef thing where much like prioritizing the lack of rest and the hustle, being willing to put your body on the line for this passion is literally proven via burns and cuts sometimes,” she says. She had to institute a policy at her bakery about documenting all cuts and burns in order to discourage not just carelessness, but bravado about things like not using oven mitts to take hot pans out of the oven.
When I asked on Twitter about kitchen injuries, it was more of the same. Bartender Erik Gullberg says, “Finally able to make a fist again after the garnish peeler took the same chunk of my middle finger it always thirsts for. I’ve internalized that this is my fault—the lesson is always don’t rush. That said, I’d like to stop paying for this lesson in blood.”
Duff Goldman, from Ace of Cakes and Charm City Cakes in Baltimore, told me, “Super glue didn’t take and I had to get stitches,” and when I pushed on whether this was an ok expectation in kitchens, he said, “I think the prevailing attitude is ‘if you need to go to the ER, go, but it would be much cooler of you to superglue it and get back to work so everyone else isn’t in the weeds.’ And the pressure isn’t so much from the chef or GM or owner, but from underneath where there’s a kid working prep or garde manger who would really like your spot on sauté or grill and if you go to the ER, that kid gets your station for the night and might take your spot.”
Chef Aaron Hoskins glued a wound together once, too. He doesn’t think it was a worthwhile experience. “You mean, like, ‘I was a salaried sous chef making 26k, working 60hrs/wk had no health insurance, and the expectation was that I not leave to go to the hospital because it was a Friday night and I had to be on the line’ being profoundly fucked up and abusive?”
Kirsten Davis said, “I sliced my finger open on the slicer at work once. Went into total shock in the back room from the blood, got taken to the hospital, given stitches and then went back to work the next day. Manager was pissed I had to be on modified duties because I cut my finger to the bone.”
Chiara Bertolin tells a similar story: “Cut the tip of my finger off (it’s now shaped like a lipstick bullet?), and calmly and quietly wrapped it in paper towel, elevated/pressure. Sous noticed I was going into shock/fainting. Gave me orange juice and superglued my finger together.”
It’s that these miserable lessons are always tied up with self-worth, a paycheck, and a sense of grit that makes it complicated to process whether it’s another expression of toxic kitchen culture (at home or at work), or whether it’s just the job.
Alison Maciejewski Cortez once had a scallop jump out of the fryer and attach itself to her hand. “Thankfully the scar has faded over the years, but working through my shift was a long-time reminder of how I can take care of business when I don’t have the luxury of falling apart,” she says. Her coworker at the time put sugar on it to stop the feeling until her shift ended.
The complications embody kitchen work itself: it’s hard, it can hurt, and it teaches us how to be tough. Just how tough we all want to be or should need to be is a matter of debate, of course. I’m glad I’ve learned how to dress my knife wounds, but when I’m in the wrong frame of mind, I will start crying and yelling regardless—because I have the luxury to do so. My burns will make me curse, but I’ll look at them tenderly later on, knowing I’m part of a club—a club marked by its scars and also its generosity. What a mixed bag: the pride and pain of service, whether it’s dinner or a birthday cake.
“I guess I just wonder how the industry would feel if chefs showed each other scarless arms and said, ‘I could've gotten injured but we slowed down, we took the breaks we needed. Our head chefs understood that the kitchen is a place for comfort and sustenance and that starts with our own bodies which mold the food for others’ instead of the ‘yeah we were went through hell during that stage’ kind of talk,” says Pearse Anderson, who’s now working outside of the restaurant industry. What would it be like if we didn’t find pride in our pain? Do we have to make something of it?
Did you know that Band-Aids were invented by Earle Dickson because his wife, Josephine, kept cutting her fingers while cooking? I want to know her side of the story. Did she even like to cook? Was she trying to get out of it? I saw the story on the side of our Costco box of assorted sizes. We now keep it on top of the fridge.
This Friday’s paid subscriber interview features Mariana Velásquez, the author of Colombiana: A Rediscovery of Rituals and Recipes from the Soul of Colombia. We discuss how she came to work in food, the balance of professional and home cook wisdom, and the prominence of regionality in the book.
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A review of Kate Zambreno’s To Write As If Already Dead at Refinery 29. An essay on learning how to nourish myself through not nourishing myself for Prism. I talked to Zoe Adjonyoh for her podcast “Cooking Up Consciousness.”
I’m in deep research mode, for a feature, for my book (whose deadline I pushed six months), and for upcoming interviews!!!
Beautiful and fucking delicious coconut-creamed collards, pictured above. Lots and lots of red onion escabeche, made with just lime juice and kosher salt.