Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Skill

You might remember a couple of weeks ago I talked about getting my food handlers license.  And the reason I did that came to fruition last week.  As Camp Gilmont ramped up for summer camp one of the kitchen ladies, Nancy, was in a bad car wreck and can’t work for a while.  So the food service director called and asked if I could help.  I spent three days last week helping.   And this week will be their busiest week of the summer  so I’m tying on the apron for another week.  Instead of the food tourism like at the Great Gluten Escape, this is All Hands On Deck time. This is real.

Happily, I love to cook.  Cooking is such a creative act.  You take something raw and by heating it you turn it into something different than when you started.  You can take five different ingredients like eggs, butter, flour, sugar and flavoring; things that alone are fairly non-descript  and tasteless but, when mixed  together, become something  tasty and nourishing. 

It’s really not much different from what I try to do here each week:  taking a thousand individual words and arrange them in order that communicates an idea.

I also love to cook as part of a team.  I loved chopping something and handing it off to another woman who will take the process farther along.  I like to think I’m a very good assistant. I can remember when I was little and my daddy showed me how to hand him things when I helped him.  He taught me that the role of the helper was to anticipate what the lead person needed. When I married Beaven I already knew how to shine the flashlight exactly where he would be looking.

The kitchen crew at Camp Gilmont runs like a well-oiled machine.  They get into a rhythm and sometimes it looked almost like they could read each others’ minds.  But they’ve also worked together for years. My goal was to learn how to anticipate what they needed me to do.

I knew there would be some things I could watch but never attempt on my own.  The made-from-scratch yeast rolls seem like something that would take years to learn.  Here's Sandy brushing them with butter.

I started out doing the simple stuff like filling 75 glasses with ice or chopping up a case of peaches.  I already felt fairly competent in both areas.  I liked to think that my contribution freed up the other ladies to do something truly important like making gravy.

By the time I left on Friday I had graduated to knowing how to use the automatic dishwasher and how to fry the chicken.  I went home feeling like a rock star.  I felt a lot more confident in my own kitchen and couldn’t wait to fry chicken using Sandy’s recipe for the coating.

I watched as Sandy put the chicken into a milk and egg bath then dredged the pieces in flour.  Before she did anything else she fried just  two or three pieces.  She invited a couple of the ladies to come taste it. They gathered around and chewed thoughtfully and told her what they thought.  In this case she needed to add just a bit more salt.  Then after making that critical  adjustment, we were ready to fry chicken for 75 kids. 

She showed me how to place the meat into the hot oil and how to check the temperature with a meat thermometer then she set me loose.  I went into a self-induced coma of competence.  I felt like Queen of the Fried Chicken and went home ready to fry chicken.  I went out and bought a fancy new thermometer that is programmed to tell when the oil is just right.  I bought frozen French fries, sweet potato fries, chicken and anything else I could think of to show off my new skills.  

Then the next day I went to the doctor for a check-up and he told me to cut back on fried foods.

Back in the kitchen at Gilmont the ladies danced a relaxed and graceful ballet of moving around the kitchen. 

The confident way they waited for a process to unfold was a far cry from my own shrieks delivered  through clouds of flour.  Or the times when the blender contents exploded in my face.

During the week they hosted different age groups and interests.  They had mini-camps for the little ones who had never been to camp before, a kind of "Intro to camping."  Those kids were so tiny and cute you just wanted to take them home with you.  At the other end of the spectrum was the Interns--the teenagers who were in training to become counselors when they reach 18.  Those kids were tall and seasoned.  A couple of them were from my home church in Winnsboro.  Sean Drennan told me one of the techniques in their training was to do the standard camp games and activities except doing them blindfolded.  It was supposed to teach them to listen and concentrate.  He said they were intentionally set up to fail then taught how to re-group and achieve their goals in spite of the road blocks they ran into. 
 
This reminded me of the skilled craftsmen I saw on the Gulf Coast when droves of people came to help rebuild after Katrina.  These people were also relaxed and confident like the kitchen crew. And like the counselor interns their main skill was not knowing how to do the job perfectly but in their ability to analyze the situation and adapt. 

Beaven and I are not good carpenters.  We both seem to lack any instinct for shapes.  If memory serves me right, we both had the same geometry teacher in high school.  And he was a coach.  Does that explain anything?  How about if I say he took our track team to a state championship?

And Beaven and I also lack the one skill that would make a real difference:  we don’t know how to fix something when it goes wrong.  So many times the skill isn’t in doing the job right the first time.  The true artistry is in figuring how to fix mistakes. 

On one trip to Mississippi our job was to build a deck for a lady.  She had already ordered the deck in a kit form.  It had been delivered and all we had to do was put it together. 

The trouble with the kit was that it was one size and her house was another. Our friend Damon is a contractor and there isn’t a whole lot that he hasn’t seen.  He set out to adapt it all in his mind. During this time he asked me to count all the bolts and hardware.  I later realized his motive wasn’t really the nuts and bolts inventory as it was to keep me quiet and out of his hair so he could concentrate.  As we worked on the house sometimes the kit would be an half of an inch off and the entire crew might have to manhandle it all together while someone nailed it down.  It wasn't necessarily by the book but it worked.

Isn’t that the way life works?   It’s always a constant process of bumping into walls and careening off into a different direction.  Nobody ever gets it right the first try.  You can only hope you learned something from the experience and not make that mistake again. The skill is in learning how to adapt.

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