My time at Bear Brook was intended to be a short one, as I was set on going to law school. But as the old Jewish saying goes, people make plans and god laughs. I had fallen in love with the blue-eyed Boston boy whom I had shared my bed, body and life with for 8 months. Unbeknownst to me however, this no good cheatin' man had another girlfriend in Kentucky whom he had invited to come and live with him in our little community in the woods for the following season. It shouldn't have been a shock to me, as his own sister told me that she loved her brother, but he treated women like shit. I didn't want to stay at Bear Brook with the happy couple and I decided to leave.
I had put off law school and was now heart broken, homeless, jobless and directionless. I packed up my car and drove to the Omega Institute in upstate New York, where I had a friend working. It was possible to stay at the institute in exchange for 4 hours of labor a day. I was pretty devastated when I arrived at Omega, and needed to get my bearings. I shamed myself for falling in love with such an asshole. One of the very first songs I ever wrote was called the “Devil's Apprentice” in tribute to his cold heart and cheating ways.
I didn't count on you/that wasn't the plan/but I got knocked over by a red- headed man/So instead of leaving/I'm wantin' to stay/ That devil boy is dangerous/ Oh but I like his ways
Sometimes his horns/ are standing tall/ But there are times/when they don't show at all. His manners are polished/oh but don't be a fool/He's the devil's apprentice/He'll break every rule
He wears a chain/that's five miles long/ a string of women/he's loved and wronged . Well he don't know/ I was born to be free/ And I can get dangerous/If you try to chain me.
Omega is a place of beauty and silence, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, dance and meditation with a huge kitchen capable of serving over 300 people per meal. I volunteered for kitchen duty, this time to be a grunt, rather than the chef. The kitchen was immense with three full sized walk-in coolers, 100 gallon steam kettles and the largest rice maker I had ever seen. My first shift there I spent the entire time taking the stems off of cherry tomatoes for the beautiful salad bar. Four hours of mind numbing monotony. This was the first time I had considered that cooking could be a meditative practice. After the meal was ready, and before we opened the doors to the hall, the kitchen staff all held hands around the food and Om-ed, praying good thoughts into the food. The conscious act of directing positive intention into food, made me aware of how my mood could be transferred into food, like in the book, “Like Water for Chocolate.”
Something strange was going on. Tita remembered that Nacha had always said that when people argue while preparing tamales, the tamales won’t get cooked. They can be heated day after day and still stay raw, because the tamales are angry. In a case like that, you have to sing to them, which makes them happy, then they’ll cook. 218-219
My final weeks at Bear Brook had been consumed by the heart pain of unrequited love. I had cooked all my sorrow into the food, unknowingly, and had possibly negatively effected my friends in the process.
The rest of my time at Omega I spent sitting in silence and reading, The Red Tent, the tale of the 12 tribes of Israel from the perspective of the women, by Anita Diamant. This book helped me to reclaim my power, and end the shaming of myself for my poor taste in men. A lesson that I would, unfortunately, have to learn again and again. When I was ending my stay at Omega, one of the head chef's offered me a job in the kitchen for the end of the season, but the pay was so minimal I scoffed at his offer. Here was a place that people paid thousands of dollars to come to and they paid their staff nothing. It was another awakening into how little kitchen work is valued in our society, and how if I ever planned on having the American Dream, I was going to have to have a profession.
I left the Omega Institute and headed south to Maryland and the Gaia Healing Center where my godmother, Marianne lived and worked. I was continuing my education in life, food and nutrition in the hills of central Maryland dairy country.
The community in Bear Brook State Park was very much like where I had lived in Ely, MN when I worked for Outward Bound. Small cabins dotted the forest with a large dining hall/kitchen building in the center. The members were all young, energetic conservationists of varying degrees from all over the country, except for one, who was sent there by his parents from Texas to give them a break. He was neither outdoorsy, nor an environmentalist. He was a pale, young gaming male, whose only exposure to light was the dull hue from the computer screen.
During the first week of training when the members were given lessons in splitting wood, necessary to keep their cabins heated through the long New England winter, the director asked if any of them had experience using an ax. Nat, while rubbing his hands together Mr. Burns style, replied, “Well I've dabbled in swords.” Poor Nat, he was hard to bear and easy to love. Not accustomed to physical labor, he would lay flat on his back trimming the branches that lined the road into the park, snipping here and snipping there, to then, stand up and pick up the three small branches he had removed and walk them slowly over to the brush pile. Nat was on one side of the spectrum and Erin, a recent high school graduate, with previous trail building experience and her very own double-bit ax that she sharpened herself and kept under her bed, was on the other.
This small community of 20 members and three staff were short one staff member-a cook. I still had three weeks of service left with my own AmeriCorps program, but I would then return to Bear Brook to serve as the Kitchen Coordinator. My interview with the director, a hulking woodsman who had also played harmonica in a band in Montana, was a 30 minute conversation on bluegrass music, my experience at Outward Bound the only thing he needed to know concerning my cooking abilities. On my first night cooking for the Brookers, I made spinach pakoras, as my boss stood next to the fryer eating every third one.
I loved the Bear Brook Kitchen! It had the nicest collection of cast-iron north of the Mason-Dixon line that hung on an industrial pot rack above the prep table. The 8 burner dual oven Vulcan stove from the days when the original CCCs built the stand of cabins in the woods as a future summer camp, worked awesome. There were long stainless steel prep tables, a bulk spice rack as complete as any health food store and an ancient walk-in cooler that took a certain amount of physical force to open and close. There was a deli-slicer, a three compartment sink, and a Hobart dishwasher. The breeze way between the kitchen and the cooler was the recycling zone where everything that could be recycled, was stacked, smashed and stored till we could fill the trucks with the evidence of our conservation ideals and haul them to Manchester to be recycled. Our pantry, which was known as the MFZ (mouse free zone), was also located off the breeze way and housed the 25 lb bags of beans, rice and oats, gorp, chips, crackers as well as anything in a jar or a can. Although it was called the MFZ, we still had some traps set for the rouge mouse who made it past the door. One morning when I opened the door, I swore there was a bat dragging around a mouse trap. It turned out to be a flying squirrel. I was thankful for the wild, red haired Boston boy who warmed my bed, and disposed of animals in traps.
Cooking for the Brookers was quite the juggling act, as there were 24 of us, 6 vegans, 9 vegetarians and 9 meat eaters. These were still the days when I was on the vegetarian side of the plate, and my specialty, of course was vegetarian, as that was how I was raised and my only real meat cooking came from Outward Bound, where I pretty much ruined everything by over cooking it to a hard gray density, bemoaned by all those meat eaters who were dying for some hearty rare flesh, after 20 plus days on the trail eating gorp and oatmeal with a bunch of teenagers.
My true challenge came from the vegan diet and it's many restrictions. Every night I would have to make 2 or three separate entrees for the group. This was 2000, and the vegan phenomena was in its infancy. None of the Brookers had really been a vegan before, but they thought that it was a choice that reflected their conservation ethics, and since they had a person to cook for them, they didn't have to worry about how to make corn bread with neither egg, nor milk or how lasagna could be made without cheese and still taste good? This is when I first really started to research recipes.
There were three computers in the office and we had a dial up internet system in the middle of a 12,000 acre forest, which was slow and unpredictable: too much snow, no internet, too much rain-no internet, too much wind-no internet. But I would diligently look up recipes for vegan baked goods and add them to my repertoire of cooking. Looking back on my first year in the Bear Brook Kitchen, I spent a hell of a lot of time trying to please everyone and make everything fair. This would bite me in ass later, and I would blow up on some poor unsuspecting member who asked if this bread was made with honey, thus making it not vegan enough for her.
When the weather warmed up, the Brookers shifted from teaching environmental education in the public schools to trail construction workers, where for 10 days they would live in the various state parks around New Hampshire and build bridges, turnpikes, retaining walls, repair erosion and re-direct water flow. My job was then to pack them out with meals. I had purchased 50 lbs of vegetarian chili mix which was filled with TVP, also known as texturized vegetable protein, but should really be called indigestible soy byproduct that will give you such horrific gas as to send tent mates abandoning the bug free nylon domes for the fresh mosquito filled air.
This was a big eye opener for me about vegetarian food, as I had been raised to believe it to be superior to meat eating, and that its foods were better than meat. After realizing how horrible the TVP was and what it was doing to the insides of my friends, I sifted out the offending non-food from the 50 lb box, causing me to be heralded as a saint. This is when I also started to understand that just because something was vegetarian didn't mean it was better, in fact, it could be worse than eating meat, and that soy could be good for you, but it could be bad for you too!
I did my best for the meat eaters among us. I learned to make salmon, although it was farm raised and dyed pink, and I made burgers, stroganoff, and ground beef was an option on burrito night. I also let each member pick a birthday meal, and thus I began to push myself beyond my comfort zone. I learned how easy pork roast was to make, I even made ribs! Coaxing good flavor out of beans and vegetables takes a fair amount of time, or at least that is how I had learned to cook. Meat had it's own deep flavor that simply adding salt and pepper to could please a carnivore.
My boyfriend at the time, the red-haired rodent releasing fellow mentioned before, was a blue-eyed Boston boy whose family came from New Newfoundland. He was a staunch meat and fish eater, and there weren't a lot of vegetables to found in his diet. As I cooked for him, he was constantly bombarded with all manner of vegetarian food. He complained to me one night that if he had to eat all this "crazy" vegetarian food, then I should at least try to eat some of the things he liked to eat. I agreed with this logic, and thus began my first experience with fish and seafood, not counting the terrible trauma of the tuna as a child!
Living in New Hampshire helped dispel another vegetarian misconception that I had-fish smelled bad! I learned that fresh fish, certainly did not smell bad. I had eaten fish one other time before this, when my big Swede boyfriend caught some walleye in Bass Wood lake and we ate a shore lunch of the fish cooked in butter and seasoned with a little salt. It was incredible. The Newfie boyfriend suggested I start with fried sea food, since fried foods all kind of taste the same. I tried fried shrimp, ehhh, fried clams, ehhh, and then I had fried cod, holy Moses, I had been missing something good!
Eating fish for me was like getting plugged into electricity. I started to order it regularly. I still had a hard time with things like swordfish, a bit too meaty of texture for me, but for the first time in my life, I was expanding my food consumption horizons, and my choices at a restaurant expanded exponentially.
This maybe something that carnivores never consider- for a vegetarian eating at a restaurant in the 70's, 80's and 90's, what you could order was limited to salad, baked potatoes, mac-n-cheese, or grilled cheese. Going out to eat was usually a bore, unless it was an ethnic restaurant that served different kinds of dishes, Mexican, Italian and Indian being favorites of mine! Ninety percent of the menu was off limits to me, by choice, of course, but I was missing out on a huge flavor world, that I wanted to explore!
NCCC, like most government programs, had its bonuses and drawbacks. On the up side was the composition of the group. Young people between the ages of 18-24 from all over the country were living in a somewhat closed community on a decommissioned military base on the grounds of a VA hospital. We had a super fun time hanging out with each other and sharing our lives. We had physical training everyday, but it was fun and diverse. We had huge games of capture the flag and wonderful house parties and shared dinners. We had big kitchens and dining rooms which accommodated our functions.
It was during this year that I held my first Seder dinner (all vegetarian)for my new friends-printing off my own extremely edited version of the Haggadah for the event. We had matoz ball soup, asparagus, matzokopita (a spanokopita that uses matzo instead of phyllo), and Mrs. Dunklemans chocolate cake, which was simply matzo soaked in brandy and layered with chocolate whip cream. We quickly abandoned the Haggadah and drank all the wine and ate all the food!
The down side of NCCC was all the crazy rules. The people who ran the program were all ex-military and they were unaccustomed to people questioning their authority, which being the smart-mouthed, opinionated woman that I was (and am), ran me afoul of their good graces. During a community wide meeting, (there was about 120 of us) it came to light that NCCC could access our health records from our personal physicians, thus eliminating doctor/patient privilege. I stood up and announced to the assembled group that we had signed over rights when we signed up for the Corps.
They were always trying to dismiss people from the program for stupid reasons. During a dismissal hearing, you could have someone represent you, a lawyer even-if you could afford one on our $125/week stipend. I became the de-facto lawyer for people facing dismissal. I would call up the attorney for the Corporation for National Service in DC and find out how to argue the case for my client. It turned out that I made a great lawyer, and usually prevented dismissal for the member. Let's just say that they were happy to see the back side of me cross the stage at graduation.
During the last project of my Ameri-Corps service year, we were stationed on Long Island working with the Nature Conservancy, with one short stint in the Hamptons where we planted beach grass in front of mansions at a gay pick-up beach. We shocked the hell out of an older gentleman in a Mercedes who was parked in the pick-up parking lot, when we knocked on the window and asked him to take a group photo of our team. At first he wouldn't even roll down the window to talk to us. After he realized that I was not trying to sell hetero-sexual favors to him, he laughed and relented. He took my disposable camera and tried in vain to make it work. He laughed again and said that it was hilarious since he was the guy who made all the Herbal Essence commercials with fancy cameras, but he couldn't figure out a $6 disposable Kodak. We of course did not realize what the place was until a local explained it to us. Then we understood why there were so many single use KY Jelly packs and used condoms in the sand where we were planting beach grass trying to stop erosion in front of millionaires' mansions.
During our stay in New York, my old boyfriend from Ely, MN, a hulking Swede named Pete, recently joined the Student Conservation Association's New Hampshire Parks AmeriCorps program in Allenstown, NH. During a long weekend we made plans for me to travel up north to see him. I took the train to Grand Central Station and got on the Amtrack to Worchestire, MA where my friend was going to pick me up on his motorcycle and drive me the hour and a half through the cold New England fall back to New Hampshire. Luckily, his bike wasn't working, so Pete, in the company of 3 other fun loving people made it a road trip and picked me up in a safe and warm car taking me to a place that would again, alter the course of my life
I returned to Kansas where I finished up my degree in American Indian History with flying colors and had every intention of taking some time off, before returning to get a law degree. As college came to a close, all I wanted to do was get outta Kansas and go to the woods. I landed my second cooking job at the Voyaguer Outward Bound school in Ely, MN where I was the assistant cook. This job changed the direction of my life, as I became an outdoor enthusiast. I loved living in nature and cooking. I assisted the lovely and talented Lori Nacius, a former Outward Bound instructor who had a torn ACL and couldn't hike. We got along like gangbusters, loving food, and the same music. We played the same Nanci Griffith album almost every day, till the upstairs office people complained.
Outward Bound sported a straight up industrial kitchen complete with walk-in freezer and fridge, Hobart stand mixer, 12 burner Viking and convection ovens. Lori was a hard working woman and had high expectations of food. Disappointed by the crappy bread available from Sysco, Lori determined that we would bake all the bread for the camp, no small undertaking, as we cooked from 30-100 people/day. We also did incredibly insane things like make bagels from scratch for everybody! Lori and I were both vegetarians and the camp was half vegetarian and half carnivore back in 1999. Unless of course bacon was on the menu, then we had to make enough bacon as if there were 100% carnivores. Where I had never eaten bacon, and thus did not swing on BLT day, my fellow bacovores succumbed to the seduction of crisp cured pork flesh every time.
We made awesome vegetarian food, but our meat dishes lacked love. We made hamburgers one night, that looked like overcooked meatballs. Some of the hard core carnivores, when back from being in the field, would offer to make things, ie what we made sucked. We would gladly turn over the cooking of beer boiled brats or burgers on the grill to the ones who loved meat!
Lori was an awesome boss, and she let me experiment with different recipes. This was my first introduction to Molly Katzen's Moosewood cookbook, and we made her hummus recipe every other day. There were several Jewish folks at OB, and one night I got a wild hair to make a traditional shabbat meal for 35, complete with 9 baked chickens, noodle kugel, hand rolled rugalach and challah bread. It was quite an undertaking, and I basically went nuts. It was the first time I really got over my head with some cooking endevor, but it wouldn't be the last. The part that killed me was carving the chickens. I had done it only once before, and one chicken took me an hour, granted it was raw and we were camping in Chaco Canyon with no running water. I just didn't know the anatomy of a chicken coming from a vegetarian household and that yes, in order to cut it up, I had to break their little joints apart. By the fifth chicken I was doing better, but it was a massacre.
By the end of the summer, Lori had to leave for ACL surgery and I was promoted to head cook. After Lori's tutelage, I did a great job and I finished off the season with a good recommendation. I moved back to Kansas and lived with my boyfriend. We were fixing up the upper floors of my flooded out house to live in rent free. We were both super broke and all our extra income went to buying stuff for the house. I made money by tutoring the athletes at KU, but wasn't very happy, in either my relationship, living situation or job. I wanted out of Kansas and I applied and was accepted for a position with AmeriCorps NCCC, which is like a modern version of the Civilian Conservation Corps from the depression era. It is the only residential AmeriCorps program and works to support American communities and I was going to be living in Cecil County (affectionately referred to as "Ceciltucky"), Maryland.
I was already living on my own when I started college, living with siblings, but working, going to school, and supporting myself. I went to the University of Kansas after graduating from high school, even though I really wanted to go out of state to a small liberal arts college. There was no money for that kind of education, and while I was a great student, I didn't receive the kind of scholarships that would have made it possible. I moved into the dorms freshman year, and ate at the cafeteria. This was my first bout with industrial food production, and the food while plentiful, was just kind of dead food. I got a stomach ache everyday eating there. After one semester, I moved out and in with my mom and her boyfriend, and finished the year with them. Sophomore year I moved into my first apartment with two roommates, one who was awesome and one who was flat out loca!
We had the same arguments most young housemates have; who will wash the dishes, take out the trash, who ate my food, drank my beer etc. My crazy roommate never went to class, didn't have a job and spent her days drinking beer and talking to herself-sliding deeper and deeper into depression. One night while hanging in my room with a couple of friends laughing and joking, I heard from downstairs my roommate yelling, “Bitch, I know you are talking about me you, bitch.” Things culminated on the night when my good roommate and I were awoken by the phone ringing. Our friend was calling to wake us up, because loca roomie was coming to burn our house down while we slept.
Thankfully her parents came to take her away “ha ha ho ho he he” and I got to finish out the year without a chair wedged under my door.
Here began my real experimentation with food. I loved to feed my friends and roommate and I started a mature dialog with myself at the store, “One pound of gouda cheese equals one double Kettle One and tonic at the bar.” I wanted the good cheese. Slowly my love for good ingredients took over my love of partying and I cooked more -diverting my drinking money to grocery money. Keep in mind that I was making $5.75/hour (above minimum wage) at the Financial Aid Office at KU. It took over an hour of work to buy one drink, or one pound of Gouda cheese.
My boyfriend and I would have cooking dates as going out to eat started to be disappointing. I could cook better than most of the restaurants that I could afford to go to, opting to buy good ingredients and cook at home became a fun experiment in recipes.
During one of the summer breaks, I took a job in La Pointe, WI located on Madeline Island in Lake Superior where I had some family living. I was bar tending at one of the coolest bars I have ever been too, Tom's Burned Down Cafe. The bar used to be high on stilts with 360 views of the Lake, until one night, a disgruntled patron lit fires under the stilts, and it tumbled to the ground. Tom Nelson, the notorious owner, lived out of the stilt-less house adjacent to the bar. Tommy's was a rambling sprawl of edifices covered by a giant circus tent. The cash register, smokes and what not were all in the back of a semi trailer and all the beer coolers located out on the deck could be locked. The bar is filled with signs with sayings like, “Stop the Slaughter, Boycott Baby Oil” and “If you are going to rob Peter to pay Paul, you can usually count on Paul's support.” My favorite sign is the one over the cigarettes for sale which reads “Volunteer Slavery, $10.”
While the tips were good at Tom's, I also took a job as a short order cook at the Thirsty Sturgeon-a small restaurant that catered mainly to locals. The Sturgeon's owner trained me on the job for about 2 hours, and then he left the state. Breakfast went alright, but at lunch I was feeling very nervous about cooking meat. I still had never really cooked it, and I was so afraid of food borne illnesses, certain that I was going to under cook something and make someone sick. My pseudo brother (my half sister's half brother) came in for lunch and ordered a burger. Luckily, things on the Island are pretty laid back, so I just asked him to come back into the kitchen and let me know how cooked he wanted his burger. I repeated this process with everyone who ordered meat. This pleased both the patron and me, who could not tell the difference between rare or well done.
Life on the Island, or “The Rock,” as it is un-affectionately referred to as by people who know it's darker side, was like a Twilight Zone. It is an open container city, which acts to condone drinking at all hours of the day and night. Beer was often served with breakfast, and jokes about alcoholism all held a bit of truth to them. There was also this kind of unspoken rule that when people were low on funds, those with funds, or those slinging drinks would enable your buzz. As a bartender, I bought drinks for broke friends out of my tip jar. This behavior supported a daily alcohol consumption that leads to one place, alcoholism! The night before I left the Island, I was dropping off a friend at the bar around 5pm. I didn't have any money on me, it was my day off and I wanted to hang low. I was encouraged by my friend to come in and have one drink, which turned into so many drinks and shots, the next thing I know I am waking up in my car in the parking lot of the bar and it is only nine at night.
I knew that I had to get off the Rock, or join the hordes of alcoholics who still live on the Island. I boarded the ferry the next day with my last 7&7 in my hand, content to return to the financial aid office, my boyfriend, and family.
Things back home were not great. My parents rocky relationship did not withstand the houseful of independent minded teenagers and all the stress that sex, drugs and violence brought with it. The bonds of my close knit family broke in February of 1993 when my father moved into an apartment in town. Both my parents, and several of the kids, started smoking, drinking and eating meat. The foundation of our lives disappeared and our home was soon to follow.
In April of that same year it rained for 40 days and 40 nights till all the mighty rivers in the Midwest overflowed their banks and swallowed up thousands of homes, ours being one of them. The water rose so fast that we had to walk out ½ of a mile through the fast moving muddy water teeming with all manner of drowned animals and debris. We were allowed to take one bag of personal items and, being 14, I chose clothes, a curling iron and shoes. No one grabbed the family photos, or the box of keepsakes deep in the closet. We didn't move things to the upper floors, as we had before when the river got high. We lost everything. In a matter of hours our pink house with a red heart on the side was a partially submerged island in the middle of the Kaw River. The water reached five feet inside the house and stayed for over a month leaving behind a mud so fine and toxic, the smell never really went away. There were also all manner of dead animals in the house who sought refuge in the upper floors of our house, only to die of starvation.
With no home to call our own, we were all split up. For a while myself and two sisters stayed with Patti Norman, a close family friend, who I refer to as one of my godmother's. Later myself and a brother moved into my dad's apartment, as he never stayed there, preferring his girlfriend's house. My younger brother and sister stayed with my mom at her boyfriend's house, and my older sister moved in with her boyfriend where I would later join the household.
This was the time of darkness for my family. I believe that both my parents were experiencing midlife crisis, and the children were all somewhere on the suicide spectrum. I was in my junior year of high school, working at Taco John's, and taking a hefty course load at school, and fighting off serious depression. I lived on bean burritos and nachos, lucky to have that food. I remember making a pot of beans, which I then left on the stove for days. Waiting for the grownup to take care of the that seriously awful smelling mess. That was the day that I realized, that I was the grownup and it was going to have to be me.
I came to work at Taco John's out of necessity. When I as 15, and a freshman, I got into a fight with a middle-class girl. Now, having grown up in pseudo-poverty, fighting was something that my peers did, and it was never very serious. My older brother and sisters fought and it was always over in a few minutes, egos either damaged or inflated. But beating up someone from the middle-class was different, they called the police and the police filed charges with the court. All of a sudden, I was be charged with assault and was propelled into the court system, where I quickly racked up over $1000 in court fees and doctor bills,and was forced to complete 10 hours of community service. I know it sounds horrible when I say that I had to pay doctor bills, but this was another difference between the classes. Poor people did not go see a doctor because they had a couple of black eyes. They knew that they would heal. This girl's mother acted as if her poor child had permanent damage, which was hardly the case.
My parents decided that since I foolish enough to get into a fight, I should be the one to pay the fines. I had always worked, since I was 11, cleaning houses and babysitting, but I needed a chunk of money, I needed a real job. My older sister had worked at Taco Bell, as her first job, but I liked the food at Taco John's better, so I applied there. I still remember sitting in the restaurant filling out the application. The last question filled me with disgust; it was , “Is there any reason you would not be able to fulfill you duties within the next nine months”-a question that basically discriminates against pregnant women.
Taco John's was a my first real foray into the food service world. I had a uniform of polyester gray pants, a turquoise cotton top, a visor, and a time card. I was paid $4.75/ hour which was minimum wage at the time. My duties initially were prep, register and cleaning. I would wipe down tables, change the garbage, bring the trays back into the kitchen and reline them. I also learned how to wrap each item in the thin paper and how to stack them in the bags for carry out orders.
I liked working the register as it gave me a chance to interact with people and it didn't take long to remember the regulars and their orders. We wrote down the orders in short hand with a grease pencil and stuck the orders on the line. The shift supervisor then assembled the order and we sent it out either on a tray or packed in a bag for the drive through. Prepping for the day was also part of my job. I would come in at 9 or 10 and slice up a 25# box of tomatoes, being instructed for the first time in knife skills. Shredding lettuce and onions, emptying 10 lb bags of shredded cheese into white cambros and making the ground beef. This was the very first time that I cooked meat. Taco John's bought 100 lbs of ground beef from a local supplier that came in bloody 10 lb bags. The site of that blood repulsed me, as did the smell of it. We had a steam kettle that we would place a bunch of onions in with the bloody beef and a Taco John's beef seasoning packet and cook it till it was done. We had this giant potato masher that we would use to break up the meat as it cooked. Every time someone lifted the lid off the beef, the smell of it would permeate the air, making me nauseous. In time I got over my repulsion, but those first few weeks were a culture shock, to say the least.
Anyone with half a brain can move up quickly in fast food. I think I worked there 6 months before being promoted to supervisor, at which time I was 16, and past the restrictions in the child labor laws. Supervisors opened and closed the store, counted out the registers at the end of the shifts, delegated the duties of everyone on the schedule and were the principal “cooks”. There wasn't any real cooking at Taco John's outside of the beef and chili. Beans were dehydrated and were combined with hot water. The chicken came frozen with grill marks already on them and only needed a small amount of water in the rectangular hotel pan to be set on the steam table to heat to temperature. The only person who did much “cooking” was the fryer, who made the chips, taco shells, and fried flour tortilla salad bowls. Cooking at Taco John's was more about assembly of predetermined ingredients in predetermined weights contained in either a crispy or soft shell. Occasionally Taco John's inspectors would show up unannounced posing as a customer and proceed to weigh and take the temperature of all the food they ordered. Oh how I would fret over the sight of the scale on the table in the dining area.
The best part of working at Taco John's, or any place, for that matter, is the people. Working at a restaurant is like being on a team, except I spent way more time with my co-workers than I did with my team. Having good friends at work, made the long hours enjoyable. Busting out the lunch rush with efficiency and good humor was simply satisfying. I made great friends with the people I worked with and the fact that each one of us could and did do every task required to keep the place, clean and stocked, from washing every single dish in the place at closing to cleaning out the bathrooms, created equality between the workers. Not that there wasn't a hierarchy, but the manager could easily be taking out the trash as be counting out the cash registers.
My favorite person from my Taco John's days was Chris. A tall sweet Navajo guy who was a student at Haskell Indian Nations University, which is one of two federally funded institutions of higher learning that satisfy certain treaty requirements made between the US and Indian tribes. It always pisses me off when people think that Indians get to go to college for free, let's not kid ourselves folks, they paid for everything in spades. Chris had one of the best attitudes about work. He worked steadily, never complained, and was always eager with a smile. He was raised in a two room house on the Navajo reservation in Window Rock, AZ with his grandparents, who had 11 daughters. His mom was the oldest and Chris was older than his youngest aunt, growing up together like siblings. He and I spent a lot of time together and became good friends with eachother's families.
A few times a year Chris' grandparents from Arizona would load up in the king cab pickup and drive to Kansas to visit Chris and his sister-cousin who was a student at Haskell, too. His grandparents would come with any number of grandchildren who would all file into the restaurant during the slow part of the day, where we would make a feast for everyone family style. His grandma, whom I loved, called me Chris' white girlfriend in Navajo, since he had a Navajo girlfriend and a baby. This always slightly confused me that they used this name for me, even in front of Rita, the real girlfriend. His grandma didn't speak English, but it never stopped her from talking to me.
When Chris and Rita got married back at Rita's parent's home in Defiance, AZ myself, an assistant manager and one other co-worker all went to the wedding. It was the coolest wedding that I have ever been too, although the groom's party, of which we were a part, were two hours late! There is no daylight savings in Arizona, except for certain parts, and while being 1 hour late is acceptable, 2 hours late meant that people had started to eat thinking that weren't coming. The grooms family all parked at the end of the long drive way. Everyone got out and put on their wedding finery, which for Chris was leather leggings and white shirt and trousers tied with a colorful scarf. It was late August and hotter than Hades, but this seemed to bother no one so much as me, who had on the thinnest cotton summer dress. Chris' grandpa was wearing a yellow turtleneck, black jeans and cowboy boots when we arrived at his house the day before! It is a Navajo tradition that the woman's family must be honored with bride gifts, the negotiation of which had been done by the family some months back. Many sheep, goats and turqouise had already exchanged hands. All that was left was the cash amount, of which Chris did not have. He could not go to the ceremony without the money. We were all standing around in this big circle with all of Chris' aunts and uncles and myriad of cousins, just kind of waiting, when all of a sudden the children rushed Chris, money flapping in their upraised hands. It was beautiful. Then we all walked to the ceremony which was held outside in an open-sided dwelling with a pine bough roof. All the elders from Rita's side sat along one side and Chris' on the other and Chris, Rita and their daughter Christina sat where the two families met.
The ceremony, which took place in Navajo, consisted of the elders of the families giving advice on how to be married-practical advice about what to do in times of turmoil, and how to be good to eachother's family. Then we all scooped up some blue cornmeal from a woven basket and drank water from a dipper, and they were wed!
I didn't last too much longer at ol' Taco John's. It was the first and only time that I was fired in my life. I have a pretty good work ethic, not a Yankee work ethic, but a solid Midwestern one, and I am loyal far longer than is usually healthy. I had started college and was still working the dead end job among the high schoolers and 50 year old ladies who were content to work minimum wage and skim off the registers, something that I never did. I gave enough bean burritos away to feed ½ of Juarez, but I knew what the food cost ratio had to be for the store to make a profit, and no matter what we gave away to our friends and family, it never made a dent. In the end I was fired for cursing to co-workers about a customer who, during the lunch rush, ordered something that took 3 minutes to fry, not when they ordered, but at the window when they paid pushing back all the orders, letting everything cool, and believe me, that food was hardly palatable hot!
This was the first time I had to evaluate my self-worth in relation to how others viewed me. It was such a crushing blow to my self-esteem, to be seen as lacking by my employer. I overvalued people's perceptions of me, but I was paying for college on my own, and I had to get another job pronto! I ended up getting a job at the Financial Aid office at KU, which as it turned out, was way more helpful to me in my current life than slinging tacos!
I did not miss the cloying scent of fry oil that stuck to my hair and clothes long after my shift ended. I had a friend who used to call it job perfume, teasing me that all the hungry, poor men would seek me out for free food. I was ready to do something more challenging with my brain, than assemble mediocre food on the fast food line.
By the end of the 80's our back-to-the-land life had slid into the mainstream. We shopped more at regular grocery stores than our local coop, we watched a lot of television, my mom bought margarine, and we no longer farmed. We had a bunch of dogs and cats and a few ducks, chickens and geese, but that was it. We kids wanted to be “normal,” and after a bit of culture shock after entering public school, we were soon as acclimated as our non-hippy peers.
At 14 my parents sent me to the Voyageur Outward Bound School in Ely, MN for a 21 day canoeing expedition in the Boundary Waters Canoe area. I spent 19 days paddling northern waters with a bunch of city kids who could not see the meal potential in all the dried beans and grains that we packed into our 50lb Duluth Packs. Nor did they know what to do with the 10 film canisters of spices in our cooking mess. Because I was a vegetarian, there was no meat allowed on the trip, quite a shock to the McDonald's set with whom I shared canoe and tent. I appointed myself crew cook, as I liked cooking and the food, for me, was familiar. We had a good selection of staples and big hunks of cheddar cheese wrapped in cheesecloth that oozed grease and got smashed to bulbous shapes in our food packs. The others did a good bit of complaining and dreamed of Whoppers and McNuggets. There was one German girl on our crew and she dreamed of her mom's homemade pot roast and vegetables. This was very illuminating for me, to see how mainstream Americans were conditioned to value nutrient depleted fast food over nutritious homemade food. We lived off of all-natural mouth gluing peanut butter and jam, a high calorie trial bar appetizingly called a “flapper” and lentils and rice.
During our “solo” time, where we were dropped off on our own little section of wilderness for 3 days, we were only given 1 cup of granola and 1 flapper with all the lake water we could drink. Many of us decided to fast during the time. One guy on my crew decided to eat all his food as soon as he was dropped off because he was going to fast for the duration. He was a super skinny 15 year old with a high metabolism. By the evening he was starving. The next day he tried to spear a woodchuck with his pocket knife that he had tied to a stick, but his efforts left him despirited and down a pocket knife which fell into a crack in the rock that was his home for three days. What he would have done after that is a mystery, as we weren't allowed to have a fire, and I doubt the city boy had ever skinned anything. He ended up eating his chap stick instead.
On my solo, I ate conservatively and drank a lot of water. Although we weren't allowed to have a fire, I built a fire pit and decorated it with a nature mandala. I also had smuggled my book with me, although we were told that solo was a time for reflection and no reading materials were allowed. I felt no guilt at reading my contraband. Three days is a long time for reflection for a 14 year old.
At the end of the solo, our instructors made a us a feast of calzones-complete with home made yeast bread and melted cheese. It was superb and it was the first time I understood how deprivation and appreciation could impact taste and experience.
Outward Bound was definitely a turning point in my life. It taught me that I could do anything, that nothing was insurmountable, including navigating 90 miles with map and compass and telling time with the sun. When we returned to the base camp, we did a service project for the camp of staining the dock on the lake, as an appreciation for the experience we endured. At the feast that night, a meal of lasagna, salad and bread, I could have eaten 10 pounds of salad. That is what I missed most on the trail, fresh food-alive and juicy. After dinner my team and I helped with the clean up in the kitchen.
This was my first experience in a commercial kitchen, and I loved it. I loved the Hobart dishwasher and the sprayer, which after washing dishes in lake water was like arriving in heaven. The gleaming stainless steel prep tables and stacked large pots all made me feel happy. This was the first time I ever saw a walk-in and I loved looking at all the cambros labeled and dated. It some ways it was the best part of my Outward Bound Trip. It left such a huge impression on my 14 year old mind, that I would return to the deep North woods 9 years later, after I graduated college, to be the assistant cook.
When my eldest siblings became teenagers, our lives drastically changed. Being money poor and food rich was harder when we all wanted to participate in sports and school trips. My dad quit farming and got an associates degree in accounting and my mom opened a recycling center where she bought cans and bottles from the area's homeless people. With both parents out of the house for the first time, homemade lunches became a thing of the past. Once we hit public school, we started eating lunch at school. My brother who was going through his growth spurt which would end in a 6'4” frame, was so hungry at lunch that he started eating meat as a way to get more calories. He played sports and was always hungry. He used to drink an entire gallon of milk a day. My sister also started eating meat, yet another way to conform to the mainstream.
We were money poor kids, so we qualified for free lunches from the school, but you had to go in before school to get the tickets. I still remember how ashamed I was to have to go and get those “special” lunch tickets. It amazes me as I look back on how shame about receiving something as elemental as food was already programmed into my brain. While almost everyone agrees that it is a travesty if people don't have enough food to eat in this rich nation of ours, there is still a negative stigma associated with being a food insecure person. This I believe is the biggest barrier for people to apply for SNAP benefits (food stamps), or to reach out to food banks.
I stayed with the vegetarian diet, eating mostly salads and those instant mashed potatoes sans gravy. We always had a good breakfast before going to school with eggs and potatoes, fried brown rice with cheese, malt-o-meal, or bagels with cream cheese, and the lack of protein at school was not a problem for me. Where I suffered as a vegetarian was when staying the night with friends. When we started going to public school, we made friends with people who, not only did not eat like us, but who hardly recognized what we ate as food.
My first non-hippy friend lived up the road from us. We rode the bus together to our first public school. Her family was very poor and ate food that I had only seen at the grocery store. It was at her house where I first tried Kool-Aid, sweet tea, white bread, and processed sugar cereal. The first time I went to her house I was entranced by the microwave, as they were new to the world and we, of course, were not allowed to have one. I was making myself a “grilled cheese” on white wonder bread with individually wrapped generic processed cheese slices in the microwave. It was a disgusting soggy mess. The bread just kind of disintegrated and the cheese oozed everywhere only to congeal into a tasteless orange blob. For breakfast I had Captain Crunch and for dinner while they ate hamburger helper, I had a potato. By the time I went home I felt sick, and was dying for some protein.
It was worse when friends came to our house. They had never eaten lentils with rice, or tofu sandwiches. Sometimes we ate a whole mess of vegetables for dinner, and most of our new friends didn't like vegetables. They didn't like coming to our house because of the food so we usually went to their homes. One mom was so perplexed about what to feed me she made me my own pot of boiled cabbage. We ate cabbage at my house, but usually it was raw in a salad. Occasionally my mom made creamed cabbage, but boiled cabbage with nothing on it was awful! I was trained to never waste food, so I diligently ate it, but was careful never to be at their house for dinner again! The father of another friend of mine thought he was doing me a kindness by getting meat flavored veggie burgers, not realizing that I didn't miss meat, I had never had it. He was mystified that I didn't like the flavor!
Both of my grandmother's were good cooks, and I learned a lot from them. They were both in the follow the recipe to the end of the road kind of cooks, where as my mother, was never to make the same meal twice, even if she tried! From an early age my grandma Dorie would allow us to help her in the kitchen. With the patience of Job, she would let us crack the eggs, fish out the broken pieces of shell, and my favorite part, let us use the hand beater to mix up the batter. I liked being in the kitchen while people cooked. Sitting on the counter, watching and asking questions. My mother claims that I asked more questions than all of my siblings combined, an exaggeration I'm sure! I was a good helper in the kitchen and was confident enough at eight to make pancakes for my family of 8.
When I say made pancakes, I am not opening up a box of Bisquick, rather I am reading some food smudged piece of handwritten paper complete with fractions and abbreviations. After I had completed my first batch of beautiful silver dollar sized pancakes, I tasted one. YUCK!!! It tasted like a salt lick, and yes I did know what a salt lick tasted like, as we had them in the goat barn, and I was curious. I had misread ¼ teaspoon of salt for ¼ c. of salt, and there was no salvaging the batch. That was the day I learned that some ingredients are much more powerful than others.
Grandma Dorie tried to teach us girls the traditional skills of home making. We were taught how to embroider, sew, cook, iron, and flower arrange, or at least we liked to think that were were flower arranging the handfuls of weeds we picked for grandma.
I received Betty Crocker's Classic Cookbook from Grandma Dorie when I was 12, with the instructions that it was a great resource for the beginning cook. Inspired, I decided to make my own spinach fettuccine, from scratch with no pasta maker, just my mom's rarely used rolling pin.
I had no idea how hard it would be to roll out pasta. I rolled and rolled and rolled, and what I ended up with was thick, chewy egg noodles. I remember thinking that it was ridiculous to make pasta from scratch when it was only $1 for a pound of it. It took me over four hours to make what really were spinach dumplings, totally unsuitable for Alfredo sauce.
I tried to make Alfredo sauce, too. I think we had it once at a restaurant and I was hooked, thick creamy and vegetarian. I did not understand the concept of reducing liquid levels, and I don't know if I ever had heavy cream to start with. I remember the butter floating around on the top of my “sauce”, which I tried to thicken with Parmesan. It tasted alright, but was not the rich coating of sauce that I wanted. It wasn't until I was out of college and working at Grauman's Deli on the Main Line in the suburbs of Philly where the chef explained to me how to make real Alfredo sauce by reducing the heavy cream by half before adding the cheese-what a discovery!
My diet took a drastic turn, when at age 8 my siblings and I all got whooping cough. My siblings recovered quickly, but I languished for some reason. My mom was very pregnant with my baby brother, and couldn't tackle my illness. We did not go to doctors, were not immunized, and used herbs and diet to combat illnesses. Because of the severity of my illness, (the whites of my eyes were red from broken blood vessels) I was sent to stay with a Japanese healer. Her home, which was as quiet as the sunset and just as simple and beautiful, was a hard adjustment for me. There was almost no noise in her house and no animals, compared to the complete absence of quiet in my house and two animals to every human. There was no television, radios had to be kept very low, and people spoke in what seemed to me as whispers. Reiko also ate meat and fish and believed that eating animal protein was essential to strengthen my immune system so I could fight off the coughing disease.
Meat was absolutely forbidden in my house. My parents followed an Indian guru (spiritual teacher) and we refrained from eating meat as a way to allow clear communication with our consciousness. I was taught that eating meat was cruel and unhealthy. The only time I had eaten meat was when my oldest sister and I were watching the cats for my uncle up the road and they had canned tuna fish in their house. She wanted to try it, so she opened a can of it. The smell was enough to make me gag. She didn't like the taste, but we both knew that wasting food was also forbidden and she made me help her eat it. I took one small bite and that was it. Why we didn't just feed it to the cats, I'll never know, but I was only six or seven at the time. I was thoroughly traumatized from the event and was completely convinced that the vegetarian diet was the choice for me. If meat was in something I was eating on accident, I could immediately detect that unique chewy texture, and I would spit it out.
The Healer did not have an easy time of getting me to eat meat. I refused fish, because of the tuna incident, and pork, that affronted my vegetarian and pseudo-Jewish self, beef was out of the question, which just left chicken and turkey. I did alright with broth, but I could not bear to chew muscle. I ate small amounts of meat in addition to a lot of miso soup and seaweed and after two weeks I was on the road to recovery. The healer instructed my mother to keep giving me meat, but since it wasn't allowed to be cooked in our house, my mom would buy me chicken nuggets from McDonald's. I didn't mind the taste and the texture wasn't so meat like. It's hilarious when I look back on it now. There was nothing nutritious in chicken nuggets, yet that was my mom's solution to providing me with some animal protein. After I recovered from the illness, I went back to my strict vegetarian diet.