Lettuce Prep

Written by Rigby Celeste
Art by Pezibear

The lettuce on your In-n-Out Burger was handled in-house by four distinct hands. Two of them belong to an associate on Board, the station designated for dressing and wrapping the burger which will land on your tongue within 8-10 minutes of ordering. The other two hands belong to the prep associate from the morning shift. All the hands that have touched the lettuce are trained experts. Cooks spend years before they hit Board. Lettuce is learned for months before an associate officially becomes a prep body. At my store, a grown mother and daughter duo herald the lettuce team. The two come into work before dawn on weekdays to tackle the preparation process. The daughter leaves before two o’ clock to pick up her sons in elementary school. 

On the weekends, management leaves lettuce in the hands of day associates, at times myself included. My touch is clumsy; I am still unfamiliar with the craft. Our lettuce is first treated to an ice bath. I reach beneath the canyoned sinks and grasp the L-shaped handle that shutters the drain. I turn the metal. The drain is shut, the cold is clogged. 

To keep their hands from freezing, some girls wear two pairs of gloves at once. I choose to instead clutch my palms as soon as they tingle, to comfort them out of their terror. Lettuce is stored in a double-walled cardboard case. I ask men to carry it for me, but I am not too weak to shoulder it. I leave the muscle to anyone but me. Instead, my focus is on the 24 to 36 whole heads of lettuce inside the case, tasked to me for unraveling.

We use only iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce is tough, tight, round. English dictates a whole round lettuce as a ‘head’. The leaves of the iceberg curl around one another, fists within fists. Each leaf is larger than its sister below. Eventually, the outermost green blooms out into the open air. Upon discarding these feathered layers, you will find an oblong sphere, a shape parallel to the human brain.  I cannot help, as I handle the plant, to feel a sensitivity to it. This is why round lettuce is known as heads.

My job is to uncurl the fists so that the heartiest leaves, the protein lettuce, can be used to wrap sandwiches. The bath I’ve drawn acts to soften the leaves. For each small brain, my hands dip into the sink and cradle the whole round. The heads instinctually slip from my gloved finger tips. Like an Atlantic fisherman, I scoop them from the freezing until my hands sting. I must pull the pair apart and stretch my two first fingers so that the lettuce lays between four fingertips. The sink is divided into two by a thick steel rim. I place each head on this rim before I wring my two palms.  Like a mother loosening grass from a picnic blanket, I shake out the cold. My shivers discard into the air until my hands can feel once more. The ice water, which was pooled deep into the smallest caves of the lettuce, has flushed down the rim of the sink. All steps are streamlined from here. Shuck the largest leaves, cut them square, then crush the head into cold lettuce chips. Those chips I will pluck from the hard white stem and leave in a separate bin, for Board to use on top of the patties.

Cold glass can shatter under water that is too hot. Tight jars will burst in the below zero temperature of a freezer. My hands are glass in this arctic sink, so when I am finished with my process, I always run a cold tap to warm my hands. I must not overdo it. I treat myself cold to cold, like I would the glass cup. As I let the water run out of my sink, I remind myself of the pink flesh inside my skull. So much more fragile than lettuce or glass, so much more valuable than any money I could make from this job. I treat myself gently, I take my time at the sink. If I don’t, I may just shatter.