Every high school summer, Besty Friend and I rolled our sleeping bags and matching homemade Batman pajamas into our backpacks and rode 30 bumpy miles into the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness. We fell in love with the mountains and with the unwitting camp counselors. We planned to grow up and get married to these complete strangers and live in a conjoined mansion for the rest of our lives.
So it followed that what I wanted most immediately in life was to become a camp counselor, just like those older, cooler people. With the singular focus that humans under the age of 21 still possess, I dreamed and waited and schemed until I became old enough to qualify for the job.
I spent one whole summer as a counselor. I don’t know if I was any good at it. I spent a lot of time falling into extreme love/hate relationships with the rest of the staff, battling mice, gossiping, and making bargains with teen hustlers/arsonists. I wasn’t nearly as cool as I thought I would be and neither was anyone else. I developed a crush on a fellow staff member, but since he was dating another staff member, I figured the chances of marrying him and securing my half of the mansion with Besty, who had long since eschewed outdoor life, were pretty slim.
When next summer rolled around, the camp director called to ask if, instead of returning as a counselor, I’d be interested in heading up the kitchen. I explained that, as a college student, I was skilled at opening cans and applying milk to cereal and that the last time I’d cooked something on a gas stove, the potholders ended up on fire. Was he sure I was the correct choice?
He assured me that the duties were about organization and grace under pressure — skills I had shown the previous summer. He pointed out that my grandparents had owned a restaurant and that he’d attended a church meeting where my grandmother had served bouillabaisse in real seashells. He was sure that talent lurked deep inside my genetic makeup. I agreed to be agreeable and signed on as “Co-Head Cook” with Sarah, another counselor turned chef.
I’ll fast forward through the parts where I baked sixteen loaves of bread without proofing the yeast and how the cap came off the giant pepper shaker when I was making soup. It’s probably best to avoid mentioning how I vaporized my eyebrows while lighting the pilot light, convinced I had blown up the entire camp, and and how I caught an unsecured oven rack with my bare hand trying to save a pan of whatever and accidentally screamed “Fuck!” in a volume audible to those in the dining room who, I later learned, were in the middle of saying grace.
What Sarah and I hadn’t thought through fully were the turkey dinners. Each week, when the backpacking groups finished their trips, the camp celebrated with Thanksgiving dinner. Yes, you read that right: Thanksgiving every week. It’s one thing to eat Thanksgiving dinner every week, which we did the prior year without complaint. It’s another thing entirely to create that feast on a regular basis.
Imagine my surprise when the first week of Thanksgiving dinner rolled around and I calculated that I’d need to cook four (four!) turkeys the next day. Try to picture my face when the camp director asked if I’d taken them out to thaw two days earlier. Go ahead and paint the scene of Sarah and me desperately soaking four turkeys in the dishwashing sinks all night long. We pulled it off, but it’s a hazy miracle I can’t recall anymore due to sheer exhaustion.
Some weeks, we had to cook six turkeys, which took up all three ovens. That meant stuffing, potatoes, beans, cake, and bread had to be prepared early or without an oven. Sarah handled dessert and vegetables and potatoes on those days while I handled the rest. I carved every turkey we served, hot out of the oven–singed fingers, slippery floors, and turkey grease in every pore. Growing up in Montana usually inures a girl to squeamishness about large amounts of protein, but nothing had prepared me for this.
As it turned out, I loved the job and came back as Head Cook for several years afterward. But because of that job, I’ve cooked over 200 turkeys–over five for each of my 35 years. Certainly more than any sane person would prepare voluntarily.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I don’t much like turkey anymore. When I attend Thanksgiving in other places, I try to be gracious and take some and eat it quietly, but even the smell throws me back into the bright, tall-ceilinged kitchen where I’m shucking leg meat from turkeys with the speed of a competitive butcher. At first, my family argued that I was being finicky, which wasn’t without precedent, but after subsequent reminders of my plight, they usually concede a tiny ham on my behalf.
And how thankful I am for that ham. I’m as thankful as those tired and sore backpackers who’d tell us how grateful they were not to have to eat trail mix or flatbread or drink iodized water. And they’d rinse off the dirt and I’d rinse off the turkey grease and we’d all gather at the campfire resting our tired feet and we’d sing songs together, thankful of the company and for the goodness of food and friends, mindful of what we so often took for granted. Because that was really what it was all about.
And still is, whether we’re eating turkey or pizza or chicken lasagna. This Thanksgiving, I’ll be thankful for love and food and togetherness. But you can still have my serving of turkey.