I was able to go to college and stay there, all four years, thanks to a combo platter of financial aid: a tuition reduction from Reed College, a Pell grant, student loans, and the work-study program, which meant that I worked a certain number of hours per week in the campus bookstore and on campus security (with a flashlight and a walkie-talkie). It was the 1980s. I didn’t think twice about this largesse – my family was poor, and I needed to go to college, and my grades and SAT and Achievement scores were okay, so of course I’d get help. That was how it worked back then.
Except for the three weeks every summer when I joined my family on Tuckernuck Island, I worked between school years. Again, because it was the 1980s, jobs for college students weren’t hard to find. The summer after my freshman year, I was hired by Jo, a senior at Reed, along with four fellow Reedies, to cook for a camp for emotionally disturbed children near Shawnee, Pennsylvania, in the Delaware Water Gap.
The camp offered an eight-week program. The kids lived in cabins with their counselors, and we cooks lived together in our own cabin – Jo, Jen, Lucy, and I, in four little cots in two straight lines. Ben, the only man on the kitchen staff, bunked with some of the other male staff, probably the grounds crew.
We had a rotating roster of duties. Breakfast duty, for example, meant showing up before 6 in the morning and breaking eggs into a Hobart from pallets that held 8 dozen each (I got very good at the two-handed egg crack; we all did), beating them with electric paddles, adding milk, cinnamon and vanilla, and soaking loaf after loaf of generic wheat bread in batches in the egg mixture and frying them on the huge griddles.
Lucy and I were frequently on breakfast duty together. Lucy was my favorite person on the crew, and my friend. She was little and fine-boned but very strong, with wavy long blonde hair and a wry, calm disposition. She wore white wife-beaters and baggy canvas shorts and Birkenstocks. We listened to a lot of Bob Marley; now, whenever I hear “Natty Dread,” I’m suddenly back in the camp kitchen at dawn.
Jo, our sterling, super-responsible, serious boss, armed us with ring binders she’d assembled, full of recipes proportioned for however many people we were, 200 as I recall. It was classic cafeteria food, all of it — red-bean chili, which we stirred with paddles in tall stainless-steel pots, and spaghetti and meatballs, and various casseroles like baked ziti and mac and cheese, which we baked in industrial ovens in pans the size of small sleds.
Because the children all had varying degrees of “issues” and disorders (which these days would naturally be medicated), their diets were severely restricted. The recipes were filling and healthy – heavy on vegetables and starches, light on meats and fats. The kids weren’t allowed to have any sugar at all. Desserts were sweetened with sugar-free applesauce, industrial-sized cans of it; I still remember the vast sheet pans we made of gingerbread and brownies and cobblers, which came out of the oven smelling delicious and looking bona-fide and tasting… disappointing, at least to me. I had a sweet tooth, back then, years before I discovered alcohol. Applesauce did not cut it.
One day, I came into the kitchen for my shift and was confronted by a walk-in filled with boxes I was evidently expected to haul forth and deal with: 40 whole, plucked, very dead chickens, all of which needed to be hacked apart into the usual components: breast, thigh, drumstick, wing. I had never butchered a chicken before. I took the first one from its tightly-packed box and laid it on a cutting board and hefted the cleaver I’d been handed by Jo before she headed back to the cabin for a nap.
The chicken looked small, and vulnerable, and goose-pimpled, as if it were chilly and wanted a blanket. It was about the size of a very young human baby.
I looked at Ben, who was on duty with me that day. “Have you done this before? You’re the guy.”
“No,” he said. “And don’t be so sexist.”
Ben was sweet-faced, intellectual, pale-skinned, and mild-mannered. All things considered, I was possibly the more viable candidate.
“Here’s a chart, I think,” he said, handing me a piece of paper. Then he went off to make vats of potato salad.
I looked askew at the chart, put it down, and got to work. The first attempt went badly; I’ve never been much good at following directions, having a rebellious, self-directed personality that brooks no bossing-around from authority of any kind, even harmless and potentially helpful pieces of paper. I was glad the poor chicken was already dead. The second attempt was little better. I now had a heap of hacked-up bird parts and was starting to feel, of course, like a serial killer. I arranged the third one for dismantling. It looked as daunting as the others. With inward resignation, I consulted the chart, finally. According to the instructions, birds came apart neatly. It was a matter of knowing where the joints were and severing them, not cutting into bones, but liberating each piece from its neighbor with a sharp, well-placed chop. The carcass itself likewise came apart with little resistance if you sort of tugged it open it like a book and cut through the hinges of cartilage.
About ten chickens in, I basically had the hang of it. By my thirtieth, Ben could have blindfolded me and I would have taken that thing apart no problem, chop-chop. I stopped seeing the chickens as once-living beings, stopped worrying about desecrating their little corpses. They were food, damn it. They were going to be coated in spiced breadcrumbs and baked. They were going to feed a bunch of kids who were hyperactive, depressed, out of control, manic, hypersexual, maladjusted, violent, and/or learning-disordered. And this was my job.
Potato Salad for 200
Boil 60 pounds of potatoes until tender. When they’re cool, peel and cut them up. Add 8 cups chopped onions, 15 cups chopped celery, and 60 hard-boiled eggs. Mix together 12 tablespoons salt, 4 tablespoons pepper, 4 quarts mayonnaise, 4 quarts Miracle Whip, and stir into potato mixture.