Author Archives: Elizabeth Collis

Elizabeth Collis

About Elizabeth Collis

Elizabeth Collis is a retired business owner and entrepreneurship educator who writes for pleasure. This story was inspired by her experience working in food production and manufacturing industries. She is based in Halifax.

Food Fights

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Bring Your Kid to Work Day and my Eighth Grader wanted to come to the cake factory with me. You can’t have kids on the plant floor when we are in operation, and to tell you the truth I didn’t want her to see me with a hairnet and scrubs on, sorting cupcakes into colours. We make sure the cakes go into the packages blue, pink, then yellow. It’s not exactly what I want her doing when she grows up. You stand on your feet the entire day, doing the same thing over and over while listening to the supervisor moaning how the line didn’t make its quotas. Halley thinks the plant is all Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but she’d think different if she’d stood for a shift smoothing chocolate icing onto cream eclairs one by one.

Best I could do for Take Your Kid day was buy a box of ‘seconds’ cakes from the factory store for Halley’s class and send her to my friend Norma’s café for the day. She wiped the tables down and folded napkins and drank so many milkshakes she couldn’t eat dinner.

Halley would probably hate this place anyway. That heavy, floury sweetness and the hissing of the machines and the hairnet elastic itching your neck. Plus, she’s a real social kid. We work in teams on the lines, but we’re spread out and can’t talk to each other. We’ll use hand signals if we’ve got a problem—like we need the machine slowed. You gotta concentrate super hard on what you’re doing. People think industrial food production is all automated lines and robots, but they still need workers. Women have nifty fingers, so my line is women except for Rob, who pours the icing into the spreader.

Even though we stand apart on the factory floor, we are a good team. We’ll pick up the slack for someone who’s not at their best. I can tell if a girl’s tired by how she holds her hands over the cakes on the conveyor belt. Sure and quick if she slept well, shaky and slow if the baby cried the whole night. There’s a way a woman’s belly settles into her hips when she’s been on her feet for six or seven hours that means she’s feeling it in her back. We know when one of the Bangladeshi girls gets bad news from home, too. Somehow the others tilt towards her, even though they’re spaced out eight feet.

I’d like Halley to meet the girls here one day. She’d get a kick out of them—we’ve got some characters. Tammy and Paula use body language a lot. Tammy is top of the line and Paula right at the end. Their relationship is rocky. If they’re fighting, they’ll sit at the table at lunch, elbows propped, and slant their heads together rigid as an A-frame, chowing down on their food like they’re tearing into each other’s throats. When everything’s good, they sit relaxed on opposite sides of the table and tease each other. Once they were having a tiff and Tammy turned up the production speed of the cakes bit by bit through the shift. Eventually cakes were piling up at Paula’s section and she’s flailing around all panicky, trying to work out why she can’t keep up. Wicked, that Tammy. That’s as bold as it gets for pranks on the line though. No one wants to lose their job.

installation art showing colorful cake

On the Table (Dainties) by Aralia Maxwell

Then there’s tiny Joyce, mid-line and constantly glancing up and down it, checking, checking. I swear she knows the cake colours without looking down. She adjusts the machines and supervises the line. Been doing this for 35 years. Back in the day this was a hard place to work, according to her. No daylight or fresh air circulation, and the noise of the machinery was incredible. I guess we’re lucky to have big windows now. It’s bright and we don’t have to wear ear protection. There’s an outdoor relaxation area. The cafeteria’s clean and warm.

Joyce sticks up for her line. The Line Manager carped on about hairpins and earrings that Quality Control found dropped into the packages and glared at the Bangladeshis with their beautiful long hair. Joyce gathered up her five-foot-nothing and said management should get better hair coverings then. After, she reminded the ladies on the qt to leave their pretty jewellery at home. All the rest of us have short hair. I’ve been a single mom for eight years, no time for anything fancy. Halley could make it in management. She bosses me like crazy. Us line workers are literally the end of the line in the pecking order. Head Office issues orders and sends them to the Regional Directors, who push them on to the Line Managers, and they dump them on the Supervisors, who squeeze us line workers like toothpaste out of a tube.

Joyce may be a softy with her team, but she and her hubby go hammer and tongs. He’s retired. Joyce has two years left. They’re saving for a trailer in Florida. Joyce decided Jeff could make her lunch sandwiches every day since she did it for him for forty years. You can tell how they are getting along by the sandwiches he packs for her, and what she buys for him from the Seconds Shop. Most of us don’t eat what we buy at the shop—you lose the taste for sugar here—but it’s a big perk of the job. They sell anything slightly damaged or not quite up to standard at a deep discount. I get cakes, buns, tarts, all kinds of good stuff, for practically nothing for my mom and my friends. Jeff loves the sweets. The bigger he gets from eating them, the smaller he likes his treats. It used to be chocolate rolls and pound cake, but now he goes for those fancy little squares covered in ganache, and lately he’s been crazy about mini cherry tarts with whipped cream dabbed on top. But Joyce hasn’t bought him any for a bit on account of The Sandwich Wars.

At first, Jeff made Joyce these fantastic sandwiches. Thick whole wheat bread with layers of cold cuts and cheese, garnishes of pickles, and the best mayonnaise. We were all jealous. But then they had a big set-to. The next day it was an egg salad sandwich, the day after that bologna without ketchup. When she got a lobster roll one day, we joked that she got makeup sandwiches instead of makeup sex, but the next day she pulled a slice of Kraft cheese out of two pieces of thin white bread. Not good. Last Monday she opened her sandwich container, pulled apart the floppy bread slices, rocked back on her chair and laughed.

“What? What’d he put in it?” we asked.

“That’s what’s so funny. Nothing,” Joyce said.

“Nothing?”

She opened the sandwich in her neat little hands like a book. It was just two pieces of plain bread that looked like they’d been sucker-punched. Joyce slammed them down on the table and set off for the cafeteria line. She bought herself fish and chips and scarfed them, scowling the entire time. Storm brewing for sure.

Tuesday, she went to the Seconds Store at lunchtime and bought a tray of the cherry tarts Jeff loves. I watched her cut away the cellophane window of the box. It had a tear in it, that’s why the box was in Seconds.

“Made up with Jeff, did ya?”

“Huh.”

Something was up. Joyce carefully scooped the whipped cream off the top of each tart with a spoon and put it on a plate. Next, she took a spray can out of her bag and started reapplying cream on top of the cherry filling, so the tarts looked just like they did before. By this time, she had an audience standing around our table. Tammy and Paula were A for Anger, peering over Joyce’s shoulder. Other line workers started gathering to see what was going on. The Bangladeshis were whispering together with their hands over their mouths, and even Rob wandered over. Things were edgy, like a union meeting.

“I don’t get it, Joyce. Why are you taking the cream off and putting it back on? Don’t make no sense.”

She handed me the can and squinted up at me fit to burst while I read the label. It was men’s shaving cream. Next thing I knew, Tammy lunged right over the table, snatched the can from me, and sprayed it over Paula. Joyce burst out laughing like a steam release on the sealer machine, and suddenly it was complete chaos. Shaving cream schooshing, screams and giggles and the whole cafeteria tizzy with silliness while Jeff’s precious little cherry tarts sat still and red and perfect on the cafeteria table.

Maybe Halley should work here in the summers when she’s older. She’d learn a thing or two.