Val Demystified: The Dish Room

Ever wonder what happens to your dishes after you set them on the merry-go-round tray contraption at the end of your meal? Probably not. But I’m going to detail EVERYTHING you could possibly want to know about the process by which the dishes you eat off of every day are cleaned.

I decided I needed to make some expendable income over interterm for the upcoming semester, and on-campus employment opportunities were limited so I signed up to work at Val, not really having any idea what that would entail. I was assigned to the dish room contingent, and in my two-or-so weeks of working most dinners there, I can say with reasonable confidence that I’ve attained proficiency in every step of the assembly line that is the sanitation of your dishes. I’ll now spell it out in exhaustive detail.

STEP 1: Silverware

Some of you are courteous and separate your utensils into the appropriate chutes. Some of you discard your cups in it. (Who would go out of their way to put them there? #rude.) It’s not a huge deal if you dump all your silverware into the same chute – it’s not that difficult for whosever working cutlery to fix that – so long as you don’t leave your utensils on your tray. That messes everything up.

Dealing with silverware is probably the most Sisyphean task in the dish room. After dipping your rubber-gloved hand into the dirty vats, all the silverware is sent through the dishwasher, cleaned once. Then you have to separate them into the containers you see holding them in the cafeteria. (Thoughts you have entering your third hour of dish duty: “aghh not forks again! Forks are the WORST.”) Then all of the sorted silverware goes through the dishwasher AGAIN, and then is FLIPPED upside down before being delivered into the cafeteria for your hygienically optimized consumption.

Although this job is the most irritating to complete, it doesn’t really rely on anyone else so you can work at your own pace. AKA it’s the best job to do if you bring reading to work.

STEP 2: The Rinse

After your dishes are left on one of the moving trays, they are carried around the corner where two workers are equipped with high-pressure hoses to rinse the visible scum off of the plates, bowls, and cups, in addition to the used dishes from the kitchen. Our purpose here is to get all the goop off your plate. If you have some lettuce left from your salad, or a bowl of applesauce you didn’t eat, it’s really not an issue for the workers to take care of that for you – don’t worry about getting it off in the compost. However, it is DISRESPECTFUL to leave the majority of a chicken breast, or an entire soft pretzel, or plastic peanut butter packets on your plate. Because those things don’t go down the drain. They sit festering in the mush until some brave soul decides to reach his hand down and throw it away. Moral of the story: throw out the big shit. Don’t worry about the little things.

STEP 3: The Hobart 9000

I don’t know if it’s actually called the Hobart 9000, its power-level is just THAT HIGH. Once rinsed, the dishes are put on a conveyor belt where they are shipped through this industrial dishwasher. Here they’re subjected to jets of soapy 170-degree water, followed by a power-steam for sanitation. Loading dishes onto the moving spikes is one of the easiest jobs, but you’re constantly looking into a hot tunnel that smells like burnt cabbage. #occupationalhazards

STEP 4: Unloading

This is one of the more tedious jobs, but it can be made fun with the right attitude! Hot dishes are delivered out of the Hobart, and then have to be stacked in the appropriate bins before they’re carted out into the cafeteria. The key is not to let any dishes get to the end of the belt, otherwise the entire thing stops and everyone gets pissed off.

This is the only job that requires any kind of skill or strategy. When I’m doing this job alone, I play it like a game of Space Invader. Green bowls: 5 points. Yellow bowls: 10 points. Purple dish: 15 points. BOSS BATTLE (aka the waffle-mix pot) 50 points. Haven’t lost yet! (Can’t wait until I’m finished working here…)

The things we do to entertain ourselves….

Usually when more workers than are needed are on duty, they hang out at this station, so there’s a lot of standing around, and no one really notices if you disappear for a while…

So there you have it. Your dishes. I offer these five concluding reflections:

1.) This isn’t the first time I’ve worked in a minimum-wage service job. I’ve plunged clogged toilets and scrubbed vomit covered floors, built bleachers and hauled trash. And now I’ve washed dishes. I think it’s important for people (especially privileged people) to realize that there ARE real human faces that are responsible for your clean bathrooms, floors, etc. And I think it’s important for people to work one of these jobs at least once in life. However, I haven’t gained some “deep” appreciation for the service industry because of it. Just because I’ve done it doesn’t mean that I respect those who do more. I’m just as likely to abuse dining services now as I was before.

2.) ALL of the jobs that we do in the dish room could definitely be done by a moderately sophisticated machine, which really makes you feel like you’re not giving what you should or are capable of contributing to society. Also, there are usually about three more workers than needed working at any given time in Val’s dish room. Which means that for one meal, Dining Services wastes about $75 in wages. That adds up. We don’t complain, obviously – we’re getting paid. But knowing that I’m an active participant in a very inefficient system is somewhat degrading.

3.) We throw away SO much perfectly good food. Someone (more moral and passionate than I) needs to design some program that gives the uneaten food (that is just dumped in the trash) to the homeless people that we all see walking the streets of the Pioneer Valley.

4.) This job actually required a lot more attention and concentration than I thought would be necessary. I tried listening to Hamlet on tape (fail) and then William Faulkner on tape (also fail) and finally NPR podcasts (semi-fail). I was too focused on the job to concentrate on the audio. I now have to content myself with music.

5.) I’ve experienced interterm employment. Everyone’s told me that things are much more fast-paced (exciting?) when there are at least twice as many people eating any given meal. Luckily, I won’t be around long enough to find out.