The Cup Code (working at OOB in the 1960s)

A story by Randy Randall from late 1950s and 1960s

Old Orchard Town Square, Maine by Robert Cohen

Old Orchard Town Square, Maine by Robert Cohen

You wouldn’t know about this code unless you worked for Tobie and Jon Nathanson at their fried food shop in the Old Orchard Beach town square in the late 1950s and 60s.

Jon and Tobie operated a pizza shop, a hamburger and hot dog stand, an ice cream shop and a fried clam place. The Clam Stand was located on the corner of the Palace Playland where West Grand Ave. joins Old Orchard Street. The Tilt-a-Whirl banged and rattled right behind us and the Penny Arcade was the next door down. I don’t recall if the place had a name. The neon signs on the front proclaimed "Fried Clams," "Onion Rings," "French Fries," and the "Dodgem" ride. As long as I worked there, people just called it, The Clam Stand.

Teenagers from Old Orchard, Biddeford and Saco made up the work crews. A shift was one "back boy" who did all the prep work, a "fryer" who cooked the food in the fry-o-lators and one or two waitresses who took the orders, served the food, and punched the cash register. We were all 15 -16 -17 years-old and for most of us this was our first job.

The back room had a potato peeler and crinkle cut dicer, a fryer for blanching, a large mixer for the batter, a big wooden refrigerator and a meat slicer for cutting the onion rings. The "back boy" spent his time peeling potatoes and onions, blanching french fries, and molding clam cakes. A large sheet metal hood hung above the fryers and by the end of the summer it was black with grease buildup. You could always spot the fry cook by the globs of grease and batter stuck on his shoes and the acne on his face. A low wall separated the girls in the front from the fry cooks. There was a counter top with metal trays that projected half into the frying area and half into the packing area. One tray for each product. The girls had small flour scoops they used to reach in and grab the fried clams, onion rings and french fries. We fried in batter and that was kept in a large metal bowl with a steel ring attached to the rim. When not in use we set the bowls on a bed of ice to keep the contents cool. The way the process worked - a customer would tell one of the girls he’d like a pint of fried clams. She’d shout over her shoulder to the fry cook "pint of clams." The fry cook grabbed the batter bowl and inserted his thumb through the metal ring. That’s how he held onto the bowl. In his other hand he held a long handle three tined fork. He’d give the batter a stir to coat the raw clams and then using the sharp tips of the fork, pick clam after clam out of the batter and toss it into the hot fat. This was a skill that had to be learned to deftly catch a clam on the tine of the fork and drop it into the hot fat quickly and accurately. There was no measuring. Everything was done by eye and by experience. Eight or ten clams might make up a pint. Each fry-o-lator had two large metal fry baskets. The fry cook took one basket and scooped up the sizzling clams. He lifted that basket up slightly, gave the clams a shake, and set the second basket into the first basket. The two baskets nested together trapping the clams in between. He dropped the two baskets back into the fry-o-lator. The top basket kept the clams or onion rings submerged in the grease for uniform cooking. When the time was right, the fry cook lifted the top basket off, gave the bottom basket a thump on the edge of the fry-o-lator to shake off the excess grease, then swung the basket around turning it over dumping the order of clams into the appropriate tray, at the same time calling out "pint of clams" or "clams are up." The waitress used her scoop to gather the hot clams, gave them a good shake of salt and scooped them into a cup. They used paper napkins to make a collar around the top of the cup to contain the mound of clams. They took the customer’s money, made change and the happy clam eater went on his way.

This is probably a good time to say there were no computers, no adding machines, no calculators and the cash register was ancient. Its front bristled with keys for cents, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollars. The girls did all the adding and multiplying in their heads as well as the conversion from Canadian money, and nothing much was thought of it. On a really busy day they’d choose one girl to run the cash register. This was a tour de force for sure, figuring the exchange rate, pushing the right combinations of keys and scraping the correct change out of the drawer. At the end of the night when they "cashed up," they’d be exact - to the penny – almost always. Likewise, these waitresses knew enough French to take an order for "pomme frits" and give directions to "la plage et la mer."

On a busy weekend or holiday like Fourth of July, people crowded two and three rows deep in front of the large open windows eager to place their orders for fried clams, french fries, fried onion rings, clam cakes, fried shrimp, fried scallops and fried haddock. Those busy weekends and holidays were pure mayhem but we kids loved the excitement of it all and the fast pace. We put on double shifts: four girls out front, each manning her section of the window, two fry cooks and two "back boys." The French fries and clams and onion rings flew out of the back room. The three big fry-o-lators were filled with mounds of frying clams and onion rings. The pace was frantic with orders being yelled back and forth, shouting requests to the prep cooks in the back, and customers conversing in French. We worked like a well choreographed dance, squeezing past each other while holding baskets of hot greasy food. We were all young and yet we ran the shop by ourselves without any adult supervision. We trained each other. We accepted and used all the responsibility our employers allowed, and that was a lot. They just trusted us to do a good job and we didn’t disappoint them. The Tilt-a-Whirl was always clanging and banging behind us, the blare of sirens was constant, the street noise never quieted until after midnight, and the ever-present carousel at the Playland entrance clanged and boomed playing the Organ Grinders Serenade. Across the street people disappeared into the coal mine pulled behind the donkeys and couples laughed and screamed as they scrambled through Noah’s Ark. On a rollicking Saturday night, the old Clam Stand was right in the middle of all the action.

So, here’s where the cup code comes in. We used no order pads. No computers of course and no order slips hanging from a wire. None of that. The pace was just too fast. Someone, I think it was Tobie, invented the cup code. Remember now our three main products were fried clams, french fries and onion rings. These were all served up in different sized paper cups – pints and quarts mostly. The code went like this. Each waitress had a sharpened pencil stuck in her hair. If she had an order for a pint of fries, she set a pint cup on the counter right side up and shouted “pint of fries”. The fry cook could glance over the divider and quickly see how many french fry orders there where and begin to cook enough. Likewise for fried clams, only she turned the cup upside down and shouted "pint of clams." By looking over the wall the fry cook had a good idea how many clams to fry. And for the onion rings the waitress turned the cup over, pulled the pencil from her hair and stabbed a hole in the bottom of the cup. "Pint of rings" she shouted. This routine went on for hours and hours, with crowds jostling up to the windows and the girls' turning cups and poking holes and using both hands to straddle the keys on that old cash register. That was the cup code (right side up = french fries, upside down = fried clams, upside down with a hole in the bottom = onion rings) and every new girl and fry cook soon learned it. When the pile of cups became three or four high, we gave up counting and simply filled the fry-o-lator with as many clams or onion rings as the cooker could hold, knowing full well, they would all be sold and consumed as fast as we cooked them.

Hedy times for sure. Well, those days are long gone. The fires in 1969 and 1976 destroyed most of the Old Orchard Beach Square where we worked and grew up; but the sounds and the smells and the raucous crowds and the pounding surf and the sea salt in the air and the camaraderie of those dear friends who worked so hard and laughed and laughed and enjoyed being alive together will linger until the end of my days. I will still hear Jean or Anne or Sharon yelling out "pint of rings" and the loud pop as she poked a hole in the bottom of a Dixie cup.

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