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!