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.