What I Learned Setting the World Record for Most Hushpuppies Made in a Minute

March 23, 2020

Humans evolve. Humans survive. We will survive this COVID-19 thing

Last October my wife opened the West End Diner in Marion, Iowa. AP, as people call her, didn’t want to open a diner, but when no restauranteurs surfaced to lease our building, we had no choice. The diner is just the first piece of our strategy to bring New York’s Bryant Park vibe to Iowa. So, with no experience, AP dove right in and, based on the stellar reviews, opened a kick-ass restaurant. The diner is always packed.

Then came the proclamation from Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds

No dining in. Only take-out or delivery until further notice. Wait a minute. Our diner is all about the vibe, the experience, how you feel when you’re kicking back and enjoying the best Reuben or Rachel ever. We’re screwed. Or, are we?

In 1983 I set the world record for most hushpuppies made in one minute

I worked at Long John Silver’s back then. I started out a Seaman Apprentice and ended up First Mate. Long John’s was a great environment for me. Everything you did was measured and rewarded. To advance as a fry cook, you needed to do certain things in a certain amount of time.

From day one, I was hell bent on losing the title Seaman Apprentice. Ugh. My badge read, “Hi. I’m Jack. Seaman Apprentice.” Dennis, my manager said “If you want to lose that title, you better learn to do more than 60 hushpuppies in a minute.” He also said I was “management material”, so everything about his line of thinking was somewhat suspect.

I struggled to get to 50 hushpuppies in a minute. Sixty in sixty seemed tantamount to impossible. In fact, the harder I tried, the worse I got. My hushpuppies looked more like eggs the faster I tried to go. Management material or not, Dennis was not happy with my progress.

Then I was badly burned on my left arm, my non-hushpuppy making arm

After Dennis dressed my wound, I went right back to the vat to cook. A fry cooks work is never done. To protect it from further damage, I put my left arm behind my back. It hurt like a son of a bitch, but I was not going to give up $3.35 per hour. Plus, Rose the cashier and I had plans for later, after closing.

Seeing the pain I was in, Dennis counted out the hushpuppies for me. Strangely, with my left arm behind my back, I made 57. What the heck? 57? Maybe losing the Seaman Apprentice title was doable. On the next batch of hushpuppies, I made 61. Goodbye Seaman Apprentice…

Having one hand behind my back created more balance, more fluidity. So, to keep from burning myself, I had evolved. Humans evolve. It’s what we do

A few weeks later, we hired a new Seaman Apprentice, an affable, left-handed Seaman Apprentice at that. It was my job to train him. My first challenge was to find the left-handed hushpuppy scoop, which had never been unpacked from the day our location opened.

Lefty turned out to be a dope. Now that I was a Seaman Third Class (Yes, I was promoted to a worse title), I had little patience for this dopey left-handed Seaman Apprentice who kept burning himself. Ugh. Rookie. He couldn’t get past thirty hushpuppies in a minute. Finally, frustrated with his lack of progress, I took the left-handed scoop from him. In one minute and on my first try, I made 52 hushpuppies left-handed, my right arm behind my back. I even amazed myself.

Over the next several weeks I continued to make hushpuppies left-handed, with my right hand behind my back. I eventually got to 67 in a minute. I’d progressed from Seaman Third Class to Seaman First Class. Now I had a title, quite honestly, I was proud of.

One night when it was slow, I had already cleaned up the 3rd vat when a “rush” came. Dennis, still my manager, called out “20 cod. 10 planks. 5 peg legs and double hushpuppies! Now!” Ugh. No way I was going to use vat 3 and have clean it again.

I grabbed both the right- and left-handed scoops, ready to do a double batch of hushpuppies in vat 2. I evolved, again

I pushed the start button on the 60-second timer and went to town making hushpuppies with both scoops at once. First right, then left, and so on…Rhythm, balance, speed, and efficiency.

Dennis and Rose noticed what I was doing and started to count out loud. Dennis even called it to the attention of the customers. In the end I had dropped 106, 30 more than the previous, though never substantiated, world record for hushpuppy production. A few days later, I jumped in my car and left Grand Rapids, no mountain too high for me.

In the face of COVID-19 this week, AP and her West End Diner crew evolved

They had to, really. Faced with a mandated closure, the Diner needed to evolve to take-out and delivery. They did. In fact, the team quickly evolved the packaging, the menu and even the drive-up experience to ensure continuity in this crazy time. Car after car today came up the back alley, called inside and had their meals delivered to them curbside. Regular customers walked in and ordered take-out. The plan worked. AP and the West End evolved.

Humans evolve. It’s what we do.