The Camp Cook
Out in the wide open spaces, where men are men, the camp cook is a superman
HAVE you ever lain beneath a mosquito-bar canopy in a tent in the woods, and been awakened on an early summer morning by the braying of a moose-horn made of birch bark? Have you ever been aroused from your slumbers in a ship’s bunk by a panand-spoon gong? Have you ever been brought hurtling from your blankets, half awake in the dim dawn of a lumber camp, by the resonant clangor of an iron trian gle?
If none of these things has happened to you, you have missed something in life. If recollection p i ctures such an occurren ce however, you will doubtless remember that your first thoughts were vituperat i v e,—t hat you could have slain, quite cheerfully, the white-coated disturber of your dreams. The.i, through the tent door, or down the gently swaying passage that led from the galley, or through the chinks of the log hut, there stole to your nostrils the unbelievably lovely, never - to - be - forgotten smell of ‘outdoor’ coffee and bacon. Your wrath subsided immediately, and was replaced by a smile of ineffable content.
For the woods and the plains and the hills and the sea create ravenous appetites which can only be ministered unto properly by a breed of men who stand apart, as it were, from the rest of mankind, aloof, serious, dignified, and usually as silent as graven images. If you were lucky, on the morning in question, it was one of this breed who summoned you from your blankets.
The Real Tyrant in any Camp
^\F all men, the male cook is the least understood. The life of the average husband is an open book as compared with that of the average male cook.
He holds up a still, motionless hand to you from the box-car kitchen of a railway construction camp, or he flutters a white dish-cloth from the wind-swept deck of a passing freighter. That is all the public ever sees of him.
Even to the men, whose meals he prepares and oftentimes serves, he is an unknown quantity, an
enigma, a strange, almost secretive sort of person who performs prodigious feats, such as feeding a hundred men at a sitting from one small cook-stove, and doing it efficiently, unobtrusively, and without fuss or noise. He may be too small physically to seem dangerous, or too fat to be an active fighter—yet he is the real tyrant of the camp, the shanty, or the ship, whose quiet word all men obey, and whose regulations are lived up to as are few government laws.
What mysterious knowledge gives him this power over men? What are the secrets behind his ability? Truly these things are worth knowing, for they are taught in the roughest school in the world,—in a college wherein Mother Nature and mankind seem to have conspired together to make life so hard and bitter as to be unbearable to the ordinary type of man.
Your successful camp cook is, in the first instance, a much traveled person. His particular kind of wandering, however, dees not knock off rough edges. It puts them on. And in his journeying he seems to have made it his particular business to study every quirk, dodge, prank, practical joke and trick that is known from the Arctic to the equator. There is a variegated knowledge to be acquired by the earnest seeker in ships’ galleys, in the kitchens of large hotels, and in the cook-houses of rough and-tumble lumber camps in the north woods,—and your good cook, by virtue of the very fact that he has lasted, has sought for that knowledge both earnestly and diligently.
A Rolling Stone
TWO great forces keep him constantly on the move.
The first arises out of the exigencies of wilderness development. A survey is completed, a mine runs out, or a forest is depleted of timber, and Mr. Cook turns over the leaves in his thumb-worn pocket-book and selects his next job. Please note that the good cook can always select his job. The second force is an inherent spirit of wanderlust.
I remember sitting in a lumber shanty in the northern Laurentians, while the chef showed me his photographs, which he had produced, with great eclat, from a battered
old metal trunk. The snow outside the cabin was three or four feet deep on the level, and the forest trees were snapping in the bitter cold.
“This sort of life is all right for a season or two,” he told me, “but I get a hankering, sooner or later, fer palms and crocodiles, or a whiff of salt water. Here’s where I was last winter,—Palm Beach, Florida. No I wasn’t the chef. Second assistant. Here’s me in rry hotel garb.
“Great life down there. Thousands of guests, band concerts at night, dances, white lights stuff. But ycu get tired of that, too. Here’s some pictures from an oil tanker cruise down South America way, the year before. You ought to see those harbors,—Rio, Santos, Victoria. Along the coast, the mountains often go straight up for two thousand feet, solid granite. Oh, the south’s all right, but when you’ve been there for a while, ycu crave the snows again.”
A Hard Training School
Y'OU can see how this chap had been getting his training. A rough, working knowledge of the psychology of men, with accents on rough and working, is an absolute necessity to a gang cook. The greater his wisdom in this respect, the greater is his ability to handle crews,—not crews so much as obstreperous members in crews. He not only has to know how to act, in dealing with some recalcitrant, but when to act. He has to be at once a diplomat and a strategist. Some cooks, in addition to acquiring all the knowledge they can obtain along these lines, deliberately build up for themselves reputations for fierce, ungovernable tempers, for fearlessness and absolute recklessness. Let one of them, for example, deliberately hurl a pot of boiling coffee or a sharp butcher knife at some tormentor, with all the strength and venom he possesses or can simulate, and that cook’s reputation will spread over a continent with remarkable rapidity. The city people won’t know about it, or the press, or governments; but where men buck saws in the
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deep snows, or muck in mines, or man deck winches, his name will be a byword. With anything like a fair knowledge of the culinary art in its pure and unadulterated form to add to such a reputation, that cook’s future is assured.
Effete city gourmets, who love to demonstrate their table-wisdom in a crowded grill room by sending uncomplimentary messages to the chef—please note. The chef in question might, just possibly, be a backwoods Tartar taking a holiday in the busy haunts of men, —in which case the results might be disastrous.
Physical dominance on the part of the cook can hardly be expected, however, when it is realized that the men, with whom he has to deal, are living a hardy, out-of-door life. For all of this, your good cook has a hard eye and is unafraid, despite his muscular inferiority. The fact that, usually, he lives unto himself alone, making few friends, and allowing special privileges to no one, creates about him an aura of distinction, of peculiarity, or of fear, even, which is a far more potent force for the controlling of rowdyism than a pair of husky shoulders, or a set of brass knuckles.
I shall never forget the marvelous doughnuts which were made by that chef in the Laurentian hills—which brings me to the question of the bill-offare, and the inclusion in the menu of a vast variety of sweets.
Wielders of Wicked Skillets
QWEET food is held in the highest ^ esteem by these wielders of wicked skillets,—first, for the purely economic reason that it is cheaper than meats. The good cook always keeps a watchful eye on expenses, and, in consequence, merits the respect and the support of his employers. Furthermore, the richer the food the more the men like it, and, incidentally, the cook who gives it to them. The latter becomes at once a person with whom it is well to stand in favor. The cook, in his turn, permitting no familiarities and playing no favorites, runs no risk of arousing jealousies and keeps the whole camp in check, as it were, each individual constantly playing for, yet never securing, special privileges.
Another axiom of the first-class camp
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kitchen, which has a similar psychology, is to have the table heavily laden—to appeal to ‘stomach vision’ as well as to mere appetite. “Pile the stuff up, one dish on top of another if you can,” one forestry cook said in answer to a remark of mine concerning wilful waste. “If you want to see the way the trick works,” he added, “watch the boys when they come in at noon.”
I watched. Even before they had started on the meat course, practically every one of them had peeked into the underlying sauce dishes and pie pans— for all the world like youngsters at boarding school. There were seven different kinds of pie on that particular table, apart from all the other dishes of sweet things, and the men were as cheerful as crickets.
Apart from a pot of coffee or tea upon the stove in winter, or a pailful of iced lemonade or other cooling drink in summer, the camp larder is as unproductive, between meal times, as the Painted Desert. There is always a good clock occupying a prominent position, usually near the kitchen doorway, where the men can see it passing by outside. That clock runs the camp, and the men and the foremen and even the bosses, set their watches by it. It is kept accurate, to the very tick, and all meals are served sharp upon the minute arranged by schedule. If a man is late he is usually out of luck—and the larger the camp the more rigidly is this rule enforced. It is easy to see that laxity in this respect would soon create an unmanageable situation. Another rule in the larger camps is ‘no talking at table.’ ‘Eat and get out,’ is a dictum which few successful cooks neglect to enforce. Talk begets leisurely eating, and leisurely eating gives grouchers a chance which would be lacking if the men all around were wolfing every course in order to get first choice on the dishes following.
A knowledge of repartee, and a working ability to incorporate cynicism and sarcasm into the handling of men, are other qualifications necessary to good camp cookery. I will pass over many illustrations which could be used to demonstrate the peculiar aptness which some cooks have developed along these lines in order that I may cite a gem which one cook friend of mine holds as a perfect example of verbal man handling.
The occasion was the weighing of the anchor upon a vessel in a port below the equator. The captain stood upon the bridge, and, in a sing-song drawl, gave the time for the men who were pulling in unison.
“Heave ho! my sons, Heave ho! my sons. You know the kind of sons I mean!”
Rough and Ready Rationing
THE wide open spaces where men are men demand that cooks shall be almost supermen—for in addition to all the savoir faire that a cook must have, he must be a master of the culinary art. To begin with, there is the initial problem of rations.
“When you go into the bush for the winter,” I asked one chap, “how do you figure out your requirements?”
“Usually by the number of men and the number of days we expect to be away,” he replied.
“Potatoes, for instance: It takes a
bushel a month per man; flour, a pound a day per man; sugar, a quarter of a pound; butter an eighth of a pound. One pound of tea will last twenty men three days. When you’ve been at the game long enough it all comes easy, even to soap and matches.”
I first noticed the numbering and marking of sacks when I saw a sleighload of grub supplies going into a Quebec winter camp. The be-whiskered, mackinawed, French-Canadian chef showed me his note-book with its similar entries. “I waste no time, me,” he explained.
“W’en I want a fing, I go ’dere straight.” This was years ago. The practice has since become general.
The Father of Inventions
A GOOD cook is the father of innumerable inventions. On a winter trail he will put sticks in the snow, freeze them with water, turn a toboggan upsidedown, and have a table for you in a jiffy. He is a model of cleanliness. He never leaves food uncovered. All waste is burned or buried, and dish water is drained to a cess-pool. All dishes are washed with a cleanser, and are rinsed in clean hot water. A fresh supply of dish towels is available after every meal.
These are the general conditions in gang cookery all over this continent today, but it was not ever thus.
The writer remembers a railway construction outfit on the prairies west of Moose Jaw, about twenty years ago. The mosquitoes and flies were particularly bad that year, and the chef, so called, made no effort at all to protect his food from these pests. When the sugar bowls had been replenished for two or three months, without ever having been emptied or cleaned, the
result, for decency’s sake, may be left to the imagination. The meat for the party, to cite another instance, was shipped west from Winnipeg, and was merely dumped from passing trains onto the right-of-way, where it was left, sometimes for days, until the blue-bottle chorus from its neighborhood was like the deeper notes of a pipe organ.
Domestic Help Problem of the Wilderness
CO much for old-time stuff. The ^ wilderness and sea-kitchens of to-day are usually models of cleanliness, and orderliness is a watchword. The very cutlery shines—for a very good reason. Watch a couple of husky chore-boys shaking and drying the knives, forks and spoons for a hundred men in the usual white cotton grain sack, and you’ll know why. This, by the way, is just one of the tricks of running a meal-factory without the latest modern devices. No good cook will let you loaf for long around his working quarters, but if you can watch him for a while you’ll see much to learn. Ask any house-wife to tell the difference between a raw egg and a cooked one that is cold. The camp cook will tell you that a raw egg won’t spin!
The problem of domestic help exists in the gang-camp to just the same extent as it does in city homes. Charles Cameron, one of the best cooks that ever blew a dinner horn in Northern Ontario, will
tell you that a good chore-boy is a priceless possession.
“I had an assistant last winter who could wash and dry the dishes and cutlery for a hundred men in less than half an hour,” Charlie told me. “There are three plates and two ‘dish-up’ dishes per man, counting all the cake, bread, vegetable and meat dishes used in the kitchen and on the table. That’s five hundred dishes, to say nothing of the cutlery. A chore-boy’s got to be good. That job would take an inexperienced man four hours.”
The only trouble about chore-boys is that they don’t last. Cameron was right when he said a good one was priceless but as ninety-nine per cent of all the practical jokes in the bunk houses are leveled at the long-suffering cookee, the mortality among his kind is something dreadful. If he survives being dolled up in a heavy flying suit, helmet, goggles and all, and mounted bare-back upon a mule, he is nearly sure to have to go to hospital from having a dynamite cap explode under his chair when he is taking his afternoon nap. Somebody has got to be the butt of the camp, but it is never, by any possible chance, the cook!
The Beloved Tyrant
A MUSEDLY, with red cheeks and with a white cap perched jauntily over one ear, this silent tyrant of the gangcamp watches the rough swirl of life boil about him. But if any one of ‘his boys’ is hurt, or is ill, or in trouble; or if any needy stranger sufficiently shows his distress in his appearance; or if there ever comes a moment in which some word of cheering, rough kindness would help—the cook always seems to be right on the spot. And if you want to have still another view of him, apart altogether from those angles of vision which have to do with his splendid aloofness, his blinding rages, his iron discipline, and his ingenious ability in achieving tremendous results with very little to work with,—watch him with the animals.
You’ll have to be very careful not to let him think you have noticed his attentions to the creatures of the wild. Watch him tame the chipmunks, and play with a weasel with a piece of meat tied on a string. Observe how he watches the birds, and, which is perhaps more extraordinary, how they watch him. The blue jays answer his whistle. The chickadees clamber all over him. When the gangs are away there are great friendships formed between cooks and porcupines. And if your wilderness chef walks into his kitchen some day, and discovers a dainty little black and white animal gaily disporting himself therein, does he back away in horror. He does not. He just stands absolutely still, and very gradually commences to hiss, letting the sound become louder until Mr. Skunk hears it, and becomes restless and moves away. For your really great gang-cook knows the psychology of men and of animals—and owes his greatness to that knowledge.