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Today, I spent the entire day in the kitchen.

From toast for breakfast, to packing my housemate’s lunch, to baking cobbler and betty, eating my lunch while on the World-Changing Writers Workshop conference call, to making the broth and rolling won-tons. A full, long day at the counter and the stove, washing dishes, jamming to music for my radio show this weekend.

I love cooking, but it’s not every day (or even once a week) I am able to spend the entirety of my day surrounded by food.  With the oven on and soup bubbling on the stove, I am completely in my element. I can make a feast from stone soup, though I am blessed enough to no longer need to make those miracles happen.

I came to cooking late in my teens. I was hired to spend a summer washing dishes and doing meal prep at the Girl Scout camp of my youth. I was too young to work as a cook for the camp, and that was fine, because all I knew how to cook was box macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, and ramen noodles from a dime-store package (these are the summer foods of my youth, staying home to care for my sister while my parents worked).

I loved summer camp. 200 girls of all ages, and camp counselors from all over the world, smashed together in one lodge and 6 tent cabins for a week (sometimes longer), eating and swimming and sharing showers together. For me, a young girl who lived in the country with very few friends, it was fantastic. At camp, I could be anyone. I didn’t have to be the girl who was afraid to sleep at night, the one who wanted a lock on her bedroom door and couldn’t have one, the girl who didn’t like broccoli because she had never eaten it before. I could just be me.

At least, I longed to be me. Inevitably, somehow summer camp ended, I was back to playing masquerade with the world.

So, I’m ecstatic to be at camp for an entire summer, AND being paid for it. I’ve got a room shared with only one other person (the cook), the girls all love me because I tell them knock-knock jokes when they bring me their trays, and I can go swimming in the lake at midnight and running on the road at 5am, and no one will bother me.

Until week three of the season.

The cook has been staying out late and leaving her shifts early for a few days, leaving me with a lot of responsibilities which are not mine (or things go undone). I have been putting in extra-long days in the kitchen (6am-11pm, pretty much non-stop). One morning I wake up early for my run, and I find the cook’s bed empty. Thinking she’s in the kitchen already (an already unlikely possibility), I head out to run, and then to the showers. I get dressed for an already hot day and head into the kitchen. It’s Wednesday, so everyone is having “jungle breakfast,” (box cereal and fruit and juice pouches in the woods, on the docks, or in a boat on the lake), which makes prep and set-up really fast and easy. Pair that with the fact that I set most of it out the night before, I am beginning to wonder why the cook would have been in the kitchen since 5am.

She hasn’t been. The kitchen is still empty and dark, just 35 minutes before the first wake-up alarms.

I head back to the room, thinking I missed her in the bed and she overslept. But her bunk remains empty and, upon close inspection, exactly the way it looked last night when I went to bed and she wasn’t in it.

Not wanting to scare the campers or staff, I head into the kitchen, prepare breakfast, and find the camp director.

“Cookie (her camp name) isn’t here. And she didn’t sleep here last night. Breakfast is ready, but you might want to give her a call.”

The director took over trying to find the cook while I handled breakfast. Once everyone had their food was out on the trail, I started searching the kitchen for meal plans, phone numbers, anything that might help us find the cook.

Near 10am, she wandered in wearing the same clothes she left in last night. Bedraggled and hung-over, I let the director know she was in our room and started chopping vegetables for lunch — even though I did not know what was on the menu.

25 minutes later, the cook is packing her things and leaving, swearing the entire time. I later learned she had been bar tending in town at night and was leaving site for her shifts. After returning to a “dry” camp hungover, she was let go. Which is for the best, I’m certain.

Except it left us without a cook. With an entire summer left of camp.

This was my first experience of the need for good food.

See, even though I was legally not old enough to work as the cook, they asked me to take over. I knew the kitchen better than anyone else, and they promised me a new cook would be hired as soon as possible.

We had salad and garlic bread and spaghetti rings for lunch. Because all I knew how to do was re-heat things and add water.

As soon as lunch was over (and the dishes washed — still my job), I headed to the camp library to find a cookbook. Any cookbook. Something with recipes. And clear directions. I needed help. And a plan, since the food for the coming week needed to be ordered the next day.

I asked all the staff their favorite meals. I asked the camp nurse (who was SO friendly) for some cooking lessons. I ordered the food with (wavering) confidence the next morning.

Oh, and for that first dinner? We had chili and cornbread.

They never hired a new cook. I spent the entire summer cooking, then cleaning both my dishes and the campers’ dishes. It wasn’t an easy summer, but I learned more about myself and my resiliency than I knew, at sixteen, was ever possible.

When I went home on the weekends to visit (an hour away), I would ask my mum for recipes and to borrow her cookbooks. I scoured the internet for new ideas. And somehow, nobody went hungry, the campers loved the food, and I survived.

I learned how to cook. And how to trust myself.

Today reminded me of that summer, of spending entire days in the kitchen cooking and washing and cooking some more. I did not feel the same fear and trauma I did then. Instead, nearly 10 years later, I felt excited and experimental. I tried new things. I made up a cobbler recipe, combining new fruits and using my previously-created biscuit recipe. I spontaneously turned extra biscuit dough into a pear betty. And I took a won-ton soup recipe and made it my own, changing and adding as I saw fit.

And I made a list for the market. Just like ordering food.

At the time, that summer was incredibly stressful, arduous, painful. I tried to forget every moment of hot, sweaty work in the poorly-ventilated kitchen (one day we had sandwiches for lunch because it was 121 degrees (F) in the kitchen).

Today, I am glad to feel that industrial kitchen in my bones. From the burned chocolate chip cookies I made, to the homemade tomato soup and grilled cheese on the coldest day of the summer, I survived.

And I learned how to trust myself in a kitchen.

I learned something I truly, deeply love.

I wish you could all come over for soup and cobbler. It’s really, REALLY delicious.