Have you ever experienced a piece of clothing melting into your skin? I have. And it was one of the most painful ordeals I’ve ever endured. Some lessons in life don’t tax us much; others come at a high cost. The lesson I learned about pressure sent me to a hospital burn ward for a few days and cost me the heavy price of the unshakable memory of seeing – and feeling – my tee-shirt being pulled out of my skin.
I worked in a broasted chicken and ribs restaurant at the time. Today’s pressure cookers are much more advanced and cook at a much lower levels of pressure, but back then, we used large, washing machine-sized, high-pressure fryers to cook the chicken. After the oil was heated to around 275 degrees (the boiling point of oil at 40psi), we would fill a metal basket of specially breaded and floured chicken and place it in the cooker. Then, we would close the lid and lock down the handle, which would create an airtight seal via a large O-ring, and we’d crank the pressure up. About 12 minutes later, the chicken would be cooked to perfection. We’d engage a pressure-release valve and when the pressure in the fryer dissipated, we’d open the lid, lift the basket out, shake the oil off, and serve up the best damn broasted chicken ever.
There were about ten of these big fryers in the kitchen, and each had it’s own personality. Each cooker could deal with the buildup of pressure pretty much the same, but when it came to the release of pressure, some could “handle” more than others. You see, to save a few seconds, we could slowly lift the lid’s handle once the pressure got to near zero so that the last bit of pressure would escape at once via the seal between lid and fryer being broken. Over time, I got to know the different fryers. One could have it’s handle slowly lifted beginning at 12psi, another at 10psi, yet another at 8psi. Once down to 5psi, they could all be opened, each shooting a quick blast of wind as hot air escaped at once around the opened rim.
One night, I was asked to fill in at a different restaurant than I usually worked at. No problem. The kitchens were basically the same. I walked into a disaster: no experienced cook and a ton of Saturday night dinner orders backing up. It didn’t take long to get into a rhythm, though. I filled fryers with various amounts of legs and thighs and breasts and wings and had a symphony of pressure-cookers going at once. The first one signaled a completed cycle and I released the pressure, soon a second, a third and down the line. I was moving fast, saving seconds by slowly lifting lid handles at around 8-10psi and all was good. That’s when I encountered the teacher of my lesson.
The fourth or fifth – and last – fryer I opened that night handled the releasing pressure very differently than all of the other fryers I had encountered in all of the various locations. I waited for 10 psi, and then grabbed the handle delicately, the skill of ever-so-slowly lifting upwards mastered from having orchestrated thousands of similar moves, and waited for the blast of hot air to escape. Instead, the handle popped up, the lid blasted open, and the hot air that usually escaped was replaced by a wave of hot cooking oil. I don’t remember much because the waves of pain were quick and ferocious and they took control of my senses. I do remember being told how lucky I was that the burn trauma center that was only two miles from the restaurant happened to be the leading burn trauma center in the country. At the time, though, it didn’t make the visions of the care and cleanup of my body any prettier. I was in the special burn section of the hospital for a few nights and remember seeing things better left forgotten. Somehow, I’ve only been left with barely noticeable scars on the side of my hip area that took the brunt of the scolding liquid. I was lucky to be where I was.
I’ve found over the years that people can be like those chicken fryers with regards to the building and releasing of pressure. Some people can handle high levels of pressure, others are great at lower pressure, and there are people that will blow up at even the slightest amount of pressure. No two people are the same in that respect. I guess the key to not getting burnt is to know what – or who – you’re dealing with before you assume how they might react to the pressures around them. We all have pressures that are mostly the same really, but how well we release pressure is an entirely different matter: we each have a different point at which we’re able to open up.
With that, a few quotes come to mind:
“That’s gonna leave a mark.” – Chris Farley in Tommy Boy
“Fried chicken just tend to make you feel better about life.” – Octavia Spencer in The Help
“I immediately regret this decision.” – Will Ferrell in Anchorman: The Ron Burgundy Story
“The oil pressure. I forgot to check the oil pressure!” – Robert Hayes in Airplane!