Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Kitchen at Squaw Bay (circa 1975)

“Sah-hah! Va-LEER-rie!” Laurette, our French-accented morning cook, calls up from the commercial kitchen on the lower floor of the lodge, summoning me and my little sister Sarah down the back staircase to pick up our breakfast on one of the silver waitress trays. We live in an apartment above the guest dining room and lounge, but we’re still in our PJs at 8 am. We’re 11 and 7 and know better than to go downstairs until we’re dressed. It’s pancake day, and Laurette will have my stack of three looking like islands in a plate-lake of syrup, just the way I like them. I like the bacon to get all syrupy, too. One of the kitchen girls will have poured us our preferred glasses of 2% milk and Tang.

You see, from mid-May to mid-September, our lives are pretty much dictated by the schedule of the resort my parents own and operate in northeastern Minnesota. The dockboys eat first, at 6:30, then head down to the lake to load minnow buckets, fill gas tanks and launch fishing parties. Guests have their breakfast between 7 and 9. The crew has lunch at noon and dinner at 5, and the guests eat between 6 and 8. The breakfast rotation is equally fixed: pancakes, French toast, eggs, pancakes, French toast, eggs. We pretty much stay on this schedule all year-round; my mom says keeping a regular schedule is good for kids. We've lived here since I was 9 months old, so it's imprinted on my soul now.

We had a babysitter until Sarah turned six, but now we’re on our own. If we’re not up by 9 when the kitchen closes, we have to fix our own breakfast. We have a kitchen in our upstairs apartment, where mom feeds us in the winter. But in the summer the normal-sized upstairs fridge and cupboards are mostly empty. To get a glass of milk, we have to go down to the big six-doored, white porcelain-coated monster downstairs, with shiny steel latch handles that remind me of an old-fashioned icebox. All our cereal and bread and stuff is downstairs, too.

Laurette arrives at 6 every morning in the summer, beating even my mom to work. She rules the kitchen with a wood-handled steel spatula that shines like new -- the kitchen girls keep it that way by scouring it with Comet and SOS pads – or else! Her work ethic was drilled into her by the nuns at the Belgian convent where she grew up and I hear their voices behind hers when she scolds the girls for spilling, “Don’t rush! Slow down! You just make a mess!” She commands the cook's side of the kitchen which is dominated by the massive gas range with its six cast-iron burners and flat iron grill. One of her first tasks every morning is to snick a wooden match on the cast-iron to light the grill, dropping the blackened match into the match can that sits on the stainless steel shelf that runs the length of the wall above the range. That shelf never holds anything else, until Laurette puts a fresh stack of our heavy white plates up there to warm. On pancake and French toast days, the next thing Laurette does is make the syrup, boiling brown sugar, white sugar, and maple flavoring in a steel pot.

The kitchen girls are in charge of the other side of the kitchen, divided from the cook’s area by a center counter where they load trays to carry into the dining room. On the wall opposite the stove are the three stainless steel sinks, the beast of a dishwasher, and rows of open wooden shelves painted light gray for the dishes. Two or three girls come in every morning at 6:30 to pour glasses of juice and make up bowls of butter pats by muscling a set of wired steel plates through a one-pound block of butter.

On pancake days, Laurette mixes up our special resort recipe with flour, eggs, sugar, and buttermilk in the unmovable white Kitchenaid that sits on the big butcher block island. The island sits at one end of the center counter that divides the cooking and dishwashing areas, and its surface is rarely empty except when its being scrubbed. Later in the day, this is where bread dough is panned, desserts and salads are assembled, and carrots and potatoes are peeled. In the mornings, its where the kitchen girls assemble the shore lunch boxes for the fishermen each morning, making up bags of potatoes and onions chopped and ready to fry, a lump of lard, breading for the fish, Bush’s baked beans, sandwiches just in case, and our scratch-baked cookies. Laurette’s husband, Richard, is one of our fishing guides, so he’ll be in shortly to pick up his box.

Laurette is usually gone by 9 am, leaving the kitchen girls to finish the dishes and then sweep the floors clean before they head out. Her daughter Vicky – Cookie, to me--is our supper cook and she arrives around 11 to bake bread and desserts and prepare for the dinner meal. I sometimes hang around the kitchen in the afternoon, begging scraps of cookie, pie, and bread dough to make my own little creations in toy-sized pans. Cinnamon-sugar pie crust is a favorite, and nothing beats fresh bread hot from the oven. If I have nothing better to do, I can usually coax the cook into a hand of gin rummy once everything’s in the oven. We sit at the big round table in the crew eating area between the kitchen and the store room, with the same chrome chairs with chartreuse vinyl seats that are used in the guest dining room. It has a big window from which I can watch the pool and swingset, keeping an eye out for possible playmates. Around three I can hike out to the mailbox at the end of the driveway and bring back the mail, which usually includes magazines and catalogs, my lifeline to the world beyond our small town (population: 5126).

Once the kitchen crew arrives at 5:30 pm, there’s no more hanging around the kitchen. It’s back outside or up to the apartment to play veerrry quietly so as not to draw the wrath of Dad if he (and thus the guests) can hear us downstairs. We usually watch something on the new 20” color TV in the evenings: One Day at a Time, The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, The Six Million Dollar Man. Once we’re back in our PJs, there’s no more going downstairs. Thankfully, the kitchen girls can always be counted on to fetch us a dish of ice cream in one of our fancy glass sundae dishes with little silver-plated ice cream spoons, or a Coke and a Hershey bar. 

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