STUFF IN A BOWL! and other culinary failures

I don’t know if you know how difficult is is to cook for 60 people with complex nutritional needs in the middle of the woods, out of a converted school bus, with questionable running/hot water, electricity, faulty propane, irregular and unreliable food deliveries and occasionally frozen water, skunk encounters and an inadequate budget, but I sure do. I feel it especially keenly as a person who hates failure- despite a hundred different roadblocks that I could not possible have personally forestalled, I view the devastating failure of last season’s camp cooking as entirely my own. It viscerally embarrasses me and I spend almost every moment planning how to make next season better. I have an in depth menu plan evolving constantly, Costco and Dollarama shopping lists and planned excursions to Bulk Barn and Tap Phong. At the end of the season when I dispassionately state, “Never again,” my camp boss and friend says, “Oh, at least one more season!” My linguist pal from the second camp shakes his head in vehement denial. “Call me, call me when you start thinking about going back, and you and I will talk about all the reasons you are not. going. to. do. it.” (Except I think I am, dumb masochist that I am. I feel the need to prove I can do better. Roadblocks be damned, I’ll surmount them and be brilliant, resourceful and innovative… ha.)

After a particularly difficult week in which the diesel generator ceases to function due to a clogged filter, the gasoline generator fails to be strong enough to pump water the three hundred feet from the river, and we then have to boil cooking, drinking and washing water for the entire camp (they don’t leave for the burnt block till eleven thirty, boiling water still steaming in their Nalgenes), when we carry stock pots full of mosquito larvae brimming water through the thick reeds and over the hill and through the thin and snappy brush that whips our shins, and when we have to spend hangover day scouring town for three hundred feet of 1″ PVC piping, wake up staff members from their hangover Hojo slumber and push the bus out of 1″ of mud that mires its incapable tires My food order is delayed, we’re moving camps on delivery day and rather than bus several thousand dollars of perishables hours across the province, I’m asked to wait. I have depleted my supplies significantly- lack of reliable refrigeration and the threat of wild animals curtails the ability to order vast quantities of food in case of such scenarios. Its a delicate balancing act, involving hiding several cases of eggs in the woods under a silvicool tarp when the health inspector visits, due to lacking the necessary amounts of refrigeration. I parked my bus on an slight slope on arrival at this camp and since, my cakes have been baking unevenly, leading to some burnt and crispy edges. Last year, the cooks delivered these burnt ends to the staff trailer. “Cake ends!” they announced jovially, while the black fly burdened staff vultured over the edible pieces of cake that clung to the charcoal.

Forlorn and tired and having given up, dessert one night is cake ends, vanilla pudding and off-brand cool whip. Its all I have. My budget is rapidly disappearing despite meeting the bare minimum of nutritional needs. The hours are endless, the math doesn’t add up. It simply isn’t possible to create anything resembling ‘good’ food with the amount of money available to me, let alone when orders are pushed back and I have dry oats, raisins and pb and J to work with. An old friend from last season asks what dessert is. I don’t have a good answer- its a trifle, realistically, but my tired mind blurts out “Stuff in a bowl!” and a legend is born. Later that night, party night, topless on the bus, the Baby Duck empty and lying on its side in the sink, discarded clothing begins to pile up in Stuffffff in a Bowl! We march up and down the bus aisle adding random items until they are lightly coated in pudding and Cool Whip. A broom is balanced in the bowl up and down the aisle until the inevitable end comes and stale Cool Whip splatters everywhere. My bra is hanging from the hood vent, pudding stained. Outside, I stare at the party going on and moan to Nico, “My busssss.” I’ve lost control. There’s a bus party going on without my attendance, I’m topless, my dog has been lured onto the staff trailer with peanut butter sandwiches by my best friends, and I am also having an existential crisis. “Do you want them off your bus?” my camp boss asks, and I think I answer with an anxious moan of gratitude and eager headshake.

Earlier, outside, feeling myself one hundred percent and having put on my personal persona of “Bex,” I turn to a friend and ask, rather anxiously,

“But what makes me, ME?”

|t|he conversation becomes circular rather quickly.

“Well the things that you do make you, you.”

“But how do I know the things that I do?”

“Nobody else can do the things that you do! I can’t do the things that you do or else I wouldn’t be me!”

It  is both satisfactory and ambiguous.

Last season I found myself, this season I am losing it again. Last season was the pure grind of planting. I have never slept so well- I have seen the end of my depression, and it is through planting. I have come out the other side in clear cuts, where the only thing that matters is reforesting the barren landscape. The only, only, only time I have felt normal or good in the past decade plus is having stamped my 2000th tree into the ground for the day and looked around at the biggest, emptiest sky, the Boreal forest approaching timber line, the bullfrog ridden muskeg. Falling asleep in canvas walls buffeted by high wind and carousing at night to music DJ’ed in yellow mess tents.
“But I, me, who I am, am a good cook, and this season is not working out that way.” Taking a hit is hard. Part of is is so ashamed of how poorly this season went that I want to give up on camp cooking, but a bigger part of me knows that better planning, less fuck-ups out of my control, a better budget and a better work environment will ensure my success. I walk through Costco menu planning, and remember that one of the biggest culinary successes of my life to date was “Chocolate Surprise,” also known as cool whip and chocolate pudding, churned together in hotel pants and served with a spoon.

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