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.

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