Back on the Charles when the gigantic CAIN’S sign snuggled next to MIT’s drab buildings, I worked for a while in the mayonnaise factory. Part one of that tale is here.
Learning there was both formal and informal, practical and even philosophical. I learned jar-capping tricks, a surprise peril of working the conveyor belts, why restaurant food tastes better, and even a Teamster form of tax.
First there was the ballet that must occur in all factories. Years later for various magazine stories, I visited, analyzed and wrote about businesses, including factories. Each subordinated natural human inertia and whimsy to the process and output. That required considerable choreography and knowledge transfer.
Magic on the Line
At that Cain’s site, we turned out lots of quart and pint jars of mayonnaise. We also would have rare runs of small jars of horseradish, plain and beet. Then on occasion, we’d switch lines to limited runs of gallon jars of mayonnaise and French or other salad dressings bound for restaurants.
For the latter, I was surprised to see that the contents looked a bit darker and came from different vats. A long-timer explained that those were premium versions of Cain’s products. Restaurants got better oils and other ingredients. Maybea diner’s perception that food out tasted better had as much to do with the materials as what the chefs did.
When I first saw the gallon process, I wondered how we’d keep up with the lines. The human part was attaching the big lids securely. We’d have little time as the massive jars came under nozzles and received their dollop in a second or so of disgusting, diarrhea-sounding deposit.
I had never consider the matter and related it to helping my grandmother can vegetables and fruits. The lid turning and tightening process took much longer than the gallon jugs on the assembly line would allow.
Instead, I learned the technique in a few seconds. The lid fit nicely in a standard-size man’s hand. We’d put a hand on the jar, place the lid on the opening, snap it on over the threading and give it a quarter turn to complete the job in under two second. We had sore forearms after an hour, but we could easily keep up with the line.
More surprising was how many of the workers were hard of hearing. I had relatives in the 40 and up ages and initially didn’t get understand why the men were forever leaning toward each other and asking for repetition, even in the lunch room. By the second day, I got it.
The clinking glass jars were the problem. At then end of my second day, I got to my apartment with ringing in both ears.
The thousands of jars used a shift fed onto a gently vibrating conveyor system that nudged them into a narrowing chute. The jars ended up single file to advance under the filling nozzles. While the clinking was pretty quiet, particularly to those just passing by, hours of the incessant high tones did their damage. A couple of the older guys said they knew the cause, but figured a steady, union job that supported their families was worth it.
I added ear plugs to the hairnet for my costume
The same guys also seemed to enjoy the occasional visits from the rabbi or committee certifying Cain’s products as kosher. From their stories, they all seemed to be Roman Catholic and even with all their church’s trappings and rituals, they views Judaic food laws as amusing.
With no meat entering the plant, apart what we brought in our lunch sandwiches, inspecting Cain’s must have been easy. Everything was clean, well documented, and from known providers. Cain’s product labels had the U in a circle indicating certfication from the Union of Orthodox Congregations.
As a lowly worker, I never saw the visits, but heard from the old guys how it went. The rabbi would arrange an appointment and do his inspection (what the employees insisted must have been blessing the vats of mayonnaise). Then he’d retire with company executives for receipt of his fee and considerable drinking.
That doesn’t fit my image of an orthodox rabbi at work. Then again, I was passing through. If the tale wasn’t true, it should have been. It’s much more interesting than looking at books and checking production facilities.
An occasional excursion to Cain’s warehouses gave me a quick glimpse into new-to-me history. Those guys were long-time Teamsters, now union brothers. They were busy in spurts, but mostly they waited for a task and talked while waiting.
One liked to describe driving rickety trucks over the terrible roads from Boston to Buffalo long before interstate highways. Weather could literally kill you and there was a fair chance your truck would break down at least once.
One at the warehouse also reveled in the bonuses of his job. His favorite was in the days after Prohibition ended and they were back to carrying booze. It involved a desk drawer and paper bag.
He in particular was fond on Scotch and preferred it re-bottled. He said he’d remove a bottle from a case’s corner. He had a spare bottle and a bottle-sized paper bag. He’d put the Scotch bottle into the bag, place the neck in a drawer and crack the glass. Then he’d filter any stray glass by letting the whiskey filter through the paper. In a short time, he had almost a full bottle of his favorite for free and he’d replace the now broken bottle in the box.
Broken in shipment was the expression.
Final Parting Gift
A few years later, after journalism school and running the weekly newspaper in the capital of South Carolina, I found a Cain’s blessing. I moved to Manhattan to get to a real city and fulfill my teen pledge to myself to live there. Jobs were hard to come by, particularly in papers or any kind of writing. Numerous newspapers had merged or failed, as had many newsstand magazines.
I’d go to interviews where more résumé/portfolio clutchers appeared than chairs could hold. Many were much older men, with mortgages, wives and kids. More important, they had decades more experience than I.
After doing temp work, I turned my attention to the many trade magazines in town. Cain’s helped me get a job at one of the first I approached.
Sure my résumé had college journalism, the grant study, and being editor-in-chief at the weekly. Blah, blah, blah — bubkes compared with other job seekers. Yet, both to indicate that I really was a writer and to differentiate myself somewhat, I put summer and college jobs on too. I figured that the résumé should be readable and that being on a carpentry crew for a couple of summers might help, particularly at Construction Equipment.
As it turned out, the editor was a fine writer, John Rehfield. He called me in and told me it was in part for those extra jobs listed. It wasn’t carpentry, rather mayonnaise packer. He just had to know more about it.
He also liked my portfolio and personality. However, it was Cain’s that catalyzed the call.
Coincidentally, I asked him why he’d hire me when all the other writers were engineers. A civil engineer himself, he laughed heartily, leaned forward and said, “You can write. I can teach you anything you need to know about construction. I don’t know anyone who can teach an engineer to write.”