Sunday, March 22, 2009

Where Plaid has Always Been in Style.

For the past two summers I have cooked at a treeplanting camp, inciting much curiousity amongst family and friends who always ask what it's like to live in a camp full of Wild Treeplanters. Here’s the run-down of a typical day and an example of one of the many interesting places food has taken me thus far.

I get up at 4:25am in the morning, and without-fail curse myself for taking a job that begins in the middle of the night. It physically hurts to expose your body to the air in May, in northern BC, before the sun has come up. This pain is lessened however by the fact that I never, EVER wear pyjamas, but rather dress for the next day the night before, requiring myself only to pull on gumboots before stumbling down the hill in the dark (usually tripping along the way and swearing some more).

Without a doubt, the most important thing in the morning is to start the generator (aka “Tina”), because she:

a) Makes tons of noise and let’s the planters know how much earlier I have to get up than them, and
b) Provides the kitchen with light, running water, and keeps the fridge and freezer cold (Heat for the stoves comes from propane tanks attached to the back of the kitchen. They remain nameless but are of vital significance as well).

Tina needs a lot of TLC because she is old and important. Every once in awhile, to my great horror, she chooses not to start. In this case I silently panic, see if I can fix her on my own (rare), and usually have to wake up Dave, my boss, who is always willing to help out his less-than-mechanically-brilliant-but-trying-desperately-to-learn cook.

With Tina up and running, into the kitchen I go to make breakfast. First and foremost, I turn on the coffee urn; I don’t even drink coffee but would be chased out of camp with sticks and planting shovels if I neglected to make it for others. Next I turn the ovens on to keep the food, and myself, warm, because although the sun is starting to rise by this time it’s still pretty frosty and my bones still hurt.

How much breakfast do 65-80 planters consume in one morning? Quite a bit. Down their hatches go about 11 dozen scrambled eggs, 5 pounds of bacon, and 12 loaves of bread, and that’s just the hot food. By the time the bleary-eyed planters arrive at 6am to eat, I have been up for an hour and a half and am buzzing with energy from my large black tea with too much honey. If the planters find this ‘morning spirit’ of mine to be annoying, they have yet to let me know. Until they do I’ll think of it as invigorating and continue to be liberal with the honey.

After breakfast the planters pile into their trucks, coffee by the litre in hand, and set off to the block. I then thank goodness for choosing to cook, not plant, and get to work. Between 6am and 10am my energy remains, and I spend this time running around the kitchen focused solely on completing a 6 course meal for 80 people within 4 hours. Impossible, obviously, but for a brief time each day I entertain the fantasy that it’s do-able. So with the music cranked I work like a mad-woman, chopping, stirring, mixing, and mashing, only occasionally looking at the clock to scream “12?? It’s TWELVE o’clock ALREADY??!”

My days in the kitchen never go slowly. I am being perfectly honest when I say that a 17 hour day goes faster than an 8 hour shift at a job I don’t like. When you’re focused on getting a set number of things done, rather than riding out a certain amount of time, the hours and minutes melt.

And there’s a lot to get done; each evening the planters eat soup, 1-2 salads, vegetables, meat, a carb, often bread or biscuits, and dessert (made by the baker). For example, a meal might be mushroom soup, spinach salad, couscous salad, roasted zucchini, pork roast, mashed potatoes, foccacia bread, and apple pie. Because many planters’ appetites rival those of sumo wrestlers, the rations for 65-80 planters are what about 100-120 non-planters would eat, so portions are ample and you can imagine what our weekly food order looks like.

It usually takes until 1:00 or 2:00pm to get all the prep done, unless of course I’ve made some sort of monumental error (often) or have chosen one of many over-ambitious menu choices, in which case I don’t leave the kitchen until bed-time. But, on a day that I am done prep by 1:00, I get to enjoy a lovely little afternoon break, either hiking to nearby Quality Falls, lunching outside in the sun with my exquisite kitchen co-workers, or taking a trip into the sleepy little town of Tumbler Ridge (lovingly dubbed “TR.”)

Despite the long hours, this is hardly a thankless job. Planters live for their food each night, and lavish love and appreciation upon those who give it to them. There must be few people in the world who feel as appreciated as I do when at camp.

Days off are spent adventuring in the mountains, jumping off waterfalls, slack-lining, reading, watching movies or, depending on weather and what the party was like the night before, lounging half-asleep in the planter-invaded TR library. Whatever we did for down-time, over the last two seasons I have become good friends with many of the planters who I met at camp, and this alone makes the summers worth it.

This year I have my long-johns and gumboots already purchased and am returning for a third summer. This brings me to my final love of camp: clothes. Out come the long-johns, mis-matched patterns, and wool socks with crocs. Because we’re in the bush, judgement fades, and I relish choosing my outfit based solely on what’s clean. One of my good friends in England is soon to be starting an internship with Vogue, and despite seeing pictures of me at camp, has chosen to remain my friend. Thank you, Lisa.

Camp may be cold at first, you’re never really clean, the bugs are brutal, my tent leaks sometimes, and it’s exhausting, but I really do enjoy it. It has been what my father describes as “character-building,” and I look forward to rounding out my character a little more this summer. Planters, I’ll see you and your appetites soon.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

You Should Fuddle More.

The full-extent of my geekness is revealed when it comes to potlucks. You may have thought that high-school debating accomplished that (provincial champs 1999, yo!) but you’d be wrong. My obsession with potlucks launches me into the nerd stratosphere, and boy do I love space!

According to Wikipedia (I’m no longer in university and don’t have to seek out reliable sources, ok?), synonyms for the word potluck include “Jacob’s Join,” “Pitch-in,” Carry-in,” “Bring-a-plate,” and “fuddle.” FUDDLE!! How strange and great.

Everything about a Jacob’s Join is splendid----the planning, friends, food…..I just can’t get enough. It is my belief, simply put, that the world would be a better place if people potlucked more. Here’s why.

The greatest benefit of a Pitch-in, obvious and groan-worthy as it may be, is that it brings people together. Even if you’re complete strangers who’ve arrived bearing the same vintage casserole dish at a friend’s home, it doesn’t take long for people milling around a food-laden table to get talking. It’s the perfect way to meet new people and catch up with old friends.

Next, the food. People tend to go that extra mile when making their Carry-in dishes, therefore building a wickedly rich, calorie-rific buffet for all to indulge in. Unless of course you are attending one of the many raw-vegan potlucks I’ve seen advertised in Victoria, which I’m sure offer lovely conversation, if nothing else (did I type that out loud?)

Because everyone has a different style of cooking, a Bring-a-plate not only exposes your palate to great food, but may introduce it to something entirely new. For those who love cooking, different dishes are likely to instigate the swapping of ideas, techniques, and any other gastronomic wisdoms gleaned from the Food Network or, even better, culinary school! I have yet to be to a potluck where the food wasn’t fantastic, even the time when we failed to communicate to each other that for breakfast we were all bringing muffins. And what a spectacular muffin-buffet it was.

And then there are the endless creative possibilities! Potlucks can either be wonderfully eclectic, drawn together by a theme, or a little bit of both. Whether the food is inspired by national or regional cuisines, classic recipes, holidays, or dishes created up on a whim, the possibilities are endless and give you a chance to flex your culinary muscles.

Of course, there is the possibility that all those attending are wildly unenthusiastic potluckers, in which case you may end up eating nothing but store-bought chips, salsa and dry cookies. These people are addressed in the Points of Potluck Etiquette compiled by my friend Caylee and I (who, incidently, was my debating partner. She joins me in the nerd stratosphere by sharing my wish to make potlucking T-shirts that read “Brunch Like You Mean It.”) There are only two points, and they really are very simple:

  1. First Rule Of Potlucking: Effort. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if your dish turned out like the soup in Bridget Jones’ Diary (blue), or if your macaroons got torched. What matters is that you put in the time and effort to make something for those you are joining. Bringing something store-bought puts you on very shaky ground in our book because ultimately it shows a lack of effort on your part (the clause in this case being that you were either given very late notice of the event and/or have recently broken your back, legs, or arms). If I sound judgemental on this point, it’s because I am. Do not be intimidated and run to the store; try cooking something, anything, even if it’s scary! I would rather eat a blackened cookie made with love than one made with apathy by Mr. Christie. This leads me to my second point...

  1. If you absolutely have to buy something, then whatever you bring has to be QUALITY. If you can’t put in the time, then put in the money. That is it.

Can’t wait to see you at one of the many, many Fuddles I will be attending if the near and distant future.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Take me to the Borough Market, please.

The Borough Market in London is easily one of my favourite places on earth. After visiting its website yesterday I was overwhelmed with the desire to get on a plane and move there. And I don’t just mean London; I wish to pitch a tent at the market itself and be surrounded by its greatness day and night. A bit excessive, I know, but I love it that much. Alas, writing about it will have to suffice for now.

I first went in 2005, the year I moved to England on a university exchange, and have been many times since. As I strolled into the market for the first time, I felt as though I had arrived at my perfect place. It is everything a market should be and more; open, airy, bustling, noisy, colourful, and packed with all things food. Strictly, glorious food.

Where even to begin? There is fruit and veg in abundance; organic eggs, milk, and yogurts; butchers selling every kind and cut of fresh meat; jams, jellies, chutneys and dips; handmade fresh pastas; cheese of every kind; artisanal breads; decadent French patisseries; English puddings; barrels of olives, buffalo mozzarella, and pesto; cocoa-dusted truffles, and so so so much more.

Because of the market’s ample size, it takes a lovely long while to peruse each vendor and sample their goods. Apart from all of the luscious flavours, the sheer abundance of food is impressive; Flour Power bakery is famous for its giant pyramids of brownies, while the ComtĂ© sellers display their immense wheels of cheese in simple but striking stacks of alpine goodness. The bread bakers’ tables are crowded with a golden mass of freshly baked loaves which one can see, simply by looking, are delicious. Vendors at all stands enthusiastically offer samples, yet allow market-goers to make their rounds at a leisurely, unpressured pace.

Every time I go, I end up spending an excessive amount of time and money and leave a happier person. I almost always buy lunch from a hot food stand, my latest choice being a colossal, freshly cut roast pork sandwich from the vendor who is clearly the favourite of every young businessman in the district (I was the only girl in a very long, winding queue). After enjoying this first course I move on to dessert, at which point I am forced to choose amongst literally hundreds of tantalizing options. You can imagine my agony. This process usually ends with the purchase of one treat to be eaten then, and several more to be eaten later.

Several bakers at the market make the bold claim of having the best brownie. In fact, it is the brownie which has managed to usurp all other desserts as the marker of market status. While the Flour Power brownies are delicious, and most famous, it is a lesser known cake stand which has won me over. Firstly, their brownies are the size of bricks (so large, in fact, that I am forced to only eat half at a time, this being remarkable in itself) and secondly, are so rich, thick, and truffle-like that they will remain as the most insanely-good brownies I have or will ever eat. Those who like cakey brownies need not seek these out (and by the way, you’re crazy).

Finally, I always leave the market with at least one loaf of bread and some kind of antipasti to snack on that evening. Last time this was mushroom pate, which didn’t look like much but instantly won me over upon sampling. It was earth, buttery, and divine.

Next time I intend on fawning over the cheesemongers in Neal’s Yard Dairy and purchasing some market honey and Stilton to share with my friends in London. This plan, as well as what will be a joyous reunion with my brick-size brownies, are what my dreams are made of.