I’ve been at work for 89 days and my resolve to remain consistently positive and upbeat is beginning to wear thin. Yesterday, for example, seemed designed to test the limits of my self-control. The morning dawned full of promise, until a visit to the cold room revealed that there was no butter. After asking two pilots (a.k.a wonderful friends and frequent life-savers) to buy me butter at the grocery store so that I could avoid admitting to the office that I ran out of a basic commodity three days after freight was delivered, I decided to risk shame and go through the proper channels. What ensued was a stuttered attempt to justify my order by offering the following professional explanation: “these guests really like to eat butter.” Brunch was the next stop. As we were serving lamb, I had the chef make a special chicken dish for a vegetarian guest. Yes, I know, chicken is not a vegetable. This dawned on me while I gave the waitresses instructions to “serve the chicken to the lady who doesn’t eat meat.” A slightly embarrassing misstep, but one that also served to make the otherwise tired chef and me laugh at my total ineptitude. The morning wound down as I unpacked a box of rotten broccoli (that’s generally what happens to broccoli when it sits in the warehouse for four days, waiting for a seat on an airplane). There I was, checking in rotten vegetables, counting pork-chops and discovering that they had sent me five times what I ordered- fifty chops for four guests- willing myself to imagine the calm that was beckoning on the other side of next week.
I will be the first to admit that these bumps in the road are minor. They are troublesome enough to cast a shadow on an easy, uneventful day, but they are not problems worth more than a despondent sigh. Within a few hours of the chicken incident, things were already looking up. By some supply miracle, eight fresh sticks of butter arrived the same afternoon. After a tea so delicious that one guest came back for second and third servings of cake, the camp choir put on an impromptu afternoon performance for a family with young children. The singing lifted my mood and spirit, like it always does. I was reminded of other happy hours passed in camp, the ones that make three months of continuous work worthwhile.
Up until this point, my writing has centered on wildlife and the surrounding environment. The wild is certainly what drew me to this job, but food is what has become the primary focus of my life here. I should note that I was the one member of the family who always tried to avoid cooking or baking, and preferred sitting on the couch until it came time to ask my sister to eat the leftover banana bread batter, or pick at all of my mom’s cooking before she was finished. I was particularly scarce when it came time to clean the kitchen…Strange then that my days now revolve around food. If I’m not ordering food, I’m tasting food, counting food, fretting and sometimes crying over food. On rare occasions I am even allowed to make a bit of food, though I have not progressed past cookies, and I have to hand them over to someone more experienced before they are baked. Our oven has no temperature dial and I do not possess what can only be described as a magical ability to gage the heat and timing required for anything from biscotti to a leg of lamb.
The kitchen is often the loudest place in the camp. Waiters are busy loading the cart, brunch is late, or we are down to our last carton of milk. Cakes flop, eggs break, and the Panna cotta melts into a sloppy mess before reaching the table. A lot can go wrong in that room, and yet, my happy spot is there, on top of the waiter’s trunk along the back wall. If I’m lucky, I can sit on the trunk for a few minutes while I’m waiting to unload freight or issue stock, and watch the chefs at work. P is preparing icing for a carrot cake, folding butter, cream cheese and icing sugar together to craft something decadent and delicious from the simplest of ingredients. K is cutting small cheese biscuits and their savoury scent is permeating all corners of the room. N is kneading bread dough, swaying just slightly up and down, focused and engrossed in the task at hand. Flour and yeast are molded into steaming, comforting sustenance. Slathered with butter, dipped in soup, and perfect for making sandwiches after everyone else has gone to sleep, the bread baked here is everyone’s favourite. I try to avoid indulging in it, and truthfully, the sight of practiced hands working dough is nourishment enough. In these rare moments of peaceful observation, I daydream about our kitchen at home, and the joy of watching my father bake bread. Inhaling the familiar smell, everything is quiet and okay.
When I decided to move here, it was for elephants and sunsets, and I gave little thought to the job I’d be taking to make it happen. 95 days is a long time to stay in one place without a real day off. Minutes and hours of total panic are interspersed with dull stretches of absolutely nothing. We are listless or exhausted, eager for more to do or yearning for a break. When I see a hippo amble down the path just after dawn, or photograph a kingfisher as it hovers over the channel, I know immediately that I wouldn’t trade this existence for the luxury of weekends and restaurants. Then I steal a few minutes in my treasured corner of the kitchen, and am comforted and inspired by all the busy acts of creation that take place there. I want to create something too, however small. That wonderful things can begin with a little flour and willing hands reminds me that there is still time and a chance to figure out how to make something of myself. Trial, error and kind chefs have taught me a great deal about how to manage a successful kitchen, but no other lesson has made so marked an impact. I love living in the middle of a veritable Eden. This living, breathing paradise provides all of us with an opportunity to grasp onto happiness and wonder. On the cusp of a new year that may very well be my last in the bush, I am no longer surprised at the extent to which a hot and smoky kitchen can do the same.