In May of 1991, I took a job as the head cook of a Minneapolis YMCA Summer camp named Camp Menogyn. Located along the Canadian border in Minnesota's rugged Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the camp was set amidst beautiful surroundings. This is just one story of many memories from this magical place. I worked there until March of 1993.
Meals at the camp were simple and straight forward. Pancakes and scrambled eggs along with cereal, milk and toast for breakfast. Lunch was sandwich fixins, or grilled cheese n’ soup. Dinner was full course with salad. meat, potato, veggie with bread butter and dessert.
Since the YMCA is a non-profit organization, we had access to Federal commodities like vegetable oil, flour, butter, peanut butter and cheese. At Menogyn, we made all our own bread from scratch everyday. The recipe used was for a sturdy wheat bread which most kids found hard and crusty and a lot of it was wasted. I altered the recipe and with a little tweaking came up with a softer sweeter bread which became the mainstay of every meal. Fresh made sliced bread along with peanut butter and jelly were always on the table. Finicky eaters always had that to eat if they didn’t want the chosen fare.
We ate a lot of spaghetti and pasta products, too. But I varied the presentations and actually cooked the sauces from scratch instead of opening cans and heating up their contents as had been the provisions for many years past. Desserts were made from scratch as well. Cakes and pies. Brownies smothered with ice cream.
When I made pancakes, I made hundreds, and served them all at once, family style, to the whole dining hall congregation at once.
Pan upon pan of scrambled eggs or french toast. Two or three boxes of cereal at each table, all different kinds. the fun was watching the campers switch boxes from table to table. Captain Crunch was the favorite!
Lunches were easy and not required to be memorable, but dinner in the dining hall was an experience. The place full of tables, all set and prepared to accept the hoards suddenly were filled to capacity and the noise in the large log studded room was deafening. Singing and pounding on the tables, screaming, yelling and a lot of laughing. Children, in an artificial environment, some rules suspended as they weren’t at home, laughing and enjoying themselves.
It was a site to see and I was overwhelmed at first. I realized quickly that the food wasn’t the most important item on the campers itinerary. I could have served them bowls of hot water. They loved being there together, each group gave a skit or sang a song. Camaraderie to the nth degree. The whole place alive and vibrant.
My job was to get a meal served and get the place cleaned up so I could serve the next meal in the morning. I had some help, but it was unseasoned, unpaid help and they wanted to be singing and playing with their counterparts. It was a huge task and I found myself quickly taxed and working so hard I wondered, at times, why I had wanted to do this.
As I look back and recall those days, I realize that the camp, the camp staff and the campers themselves saved my life. Where else could I immerse myself into a task that totally consumed me? Where else could I have been to find solace for myself other than a place where I was surrounded by beautiful children as I mourned the loss of one of my own?
One of the first groups to come to camp every year was group of foreign exchange students sponsored by the Rotary club. These kids were to be my test dummies. The first dinner meal I made was a spaghetti feed. I thought I had done a magnificent job preparing a home style sauce and the home made bread was fresh and warm.
All this commotion and not a lot of the food eaten. What was I suppose to do with all these left overs? The campers filed out of the dining hall and left me a mess of gigantic proportions. Most of the help disappeared and my wife and I cleaned up, and being new on the old equipment found ourselves washing a lot of the dishes by hand. Dishes for 130!
The campers left the next day after breakfast for their canoe trips. They would be back in 5 days and a banquet style meal was to be prepared and served to welcome them back. It was tradition. I had to outdo myself and I had thought I served the best meal of my life for that sort of group to begin with. I was stressed out to the max and wondered what I’d do.
I had many experiences at Menogyn over that two year period. Some in Winter, some in Summer. But none like the one I had when that first Rotary group returned from their trips and I served my first banquet.
I was up to the challenge and decided to build a BBQ of epic proportions. This was to be colossal. I needed enough room to roast six turkeys, side by side by side, and serve them as my feast for the weary canoeists when they returned.
I scrounged up the tubular steel drum like remnants of an old pontoon boat. Hauled them to town, had a welder cut and attach them in such a way that they had a hinged lid. I used recycled refrigerator racks as the deck inside the grill. I filled them with charcoal.
While the welding was being done, I had these birds soaking in a brine I concocted using soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, garlic and honey. When I lit the charcoal and it glowed bright red and white from heat, I placed the foil wrapped turkeys on the racks. They bowed from the weight and the meat on the ones that sat in the center of the racks touched the coals.
I served this poultry with baked potatoes and cole slaw I made from scratch. Of course there was the now softened version of the Menogyn bread, and scratch made pineapple upside down cake, smothered with real whipped cream for dessert.
I was still new at camp and had accepted the fact that my efforts might go unrewarded. After all, these were kids at camp. It wasn’t an epicurean experience at some castle in Denmark or a sampling of the daily works at the Culinary Institute of America. This was a YMCA camp.
I sat in the kitchen, as I did during all meals. I sat and waited for the cleaning to begin. I heard a rumble, then it got louder and louder. There was screaming and chanting. These kids were clamoring for something. I wanted to know what, but hadn’t earned a place outside of the kitchen yet in my mind.
The doors of the kitchen entrance which passes into the great hall burst open and the noise was deafening. They were calling my name. They wanted me to come and take a bow. They wanted to see me and smile at me and thank me for caring for them. As I write this and whenever I think of this moment in my life, tears come to my eyes.
This was my World Series home run. My touchdown catch in the Superbowl. I cry from the warmth and respect they showed me. It was simple appreciation given out to one by many. Foreign exchange kids from all over the world making me king for the day. They didn’t know it was to be for the rest of my life. They didn’t know the pain I was in, still reeling from the accidental death of my first born daughter not two weeks before this event. They don't know how they picked me up and placed my soul on their shoulders.
I went through the hall amid the yelling and screaming and the pounding of fists on the tables and stamping of feet on the wooden floor. I bowed before them in all directions. I had been so dubbed “The Cook” at Camp Menogyn. I had become legend.
The years rolled by and when I left Menogyn to go on to the next adventure, I had many memories. Needless to say, this one I cherished the most and still carry the sweet memory.