As a junior counselor, part of my job, in addition to being in charge of a bunk of girls, was to oversee a table of campers at mealtime. Most of them hated breakfast, especially the lumpy oatmeal. One morning, I was doing my best to encourage them to eat when I heard a loud, unpleasant argument coming from the kitchen. Soon the cook stormed out of the dining room, followed by the director who stood, dismayed, watching the cook leave. I heard her say to some of the senior counselors, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ll be lucky if I can get another cook by tomorrow.” No one suggested any action.
What possessed me, I don’t know, but without thinking about whether I could do it, I went up to the director and said, “I can make the meals until the new cook arrives.”
She stared at me, incredulous. “Nancy, you’re only 16. You’ve never even had a cooking lesson. What makes you think you can cook for 100 people? Don’t be ridiculous.”
Her words infuriated me. How did she know what I could do? Just because I was 16? So what? “I helped my mother cook for 25, how hard could it be to multiply it by four?”
She shook her head, dismissing me as if I were an annoying gnat. “There’s a huge difference. Besides, some of the pots are almost as tall as you are. How will you even lift them empty?”
Once I’d offered, it became a matter of my self-esteem. I needed to prove to her she was wrong about me. “I know I can do it. The kitchen guys will help me.”
Caught between desperation and disbelief, she said, “Okay. Let’s see how you do making lunch.” She had no other choice and we both knew it. I followed her into the kitchen, feeling a crazy kind of confidence, and a profound need to prove to her I could do what I said I could do, what she told me I couldn’t do. She showed me where the meal plans were, the recipe files, told the kitchen guys to help me, and left, leaving me in no doubt that she would find a cook as quickly as possible.
The two guys, Felipe and Damon, hooted with disbelief after the director left, which I did not appreciate, and told them so. “Look, I know it seems weird, me offering to do the cooking, but I’m not like the cook who just left. I don’t yell. I can’t give orders. You know more about this kitchen than I do. We can do what we want. I think it’ll be fun.”
Felipe grinned. Damon shrugged. They showed me where the day’s lunch menu was posted. Grilled cheese sandwiches, carrots and celery, chocolate chip cookies. I suggested I start baking the cookies, Damon preparing the carrots and celery, Felipe getting the sandwiches ready to grill. “Is this okay?” They nodded. We got to work. I remember my mother telling me that recipes could be doubled but not tripled. The industrial mixer made it easy to make the batter a few times. Damon helped put the cookies in the oven. Felipe took the baked ones off to cool. I was feeling pretty confident as the smell of baking cookies wafted out to the dining room, but the director checked in on us so many times I wished I had the nerve to say: “Could you please just do it once a meal. You’re making me nervous.” Lunch went off without a hitch.
Supper was a bit more complicated but Cook’s recipe helped. Stew. Rolls. Fruit for dessert. Lots of chopping, cutting, dicing, spicing, putting everything into big vats that were at least half my size. The two guys, enjoying our camaraderie, were quick to offer suggestions that I readily accepted. When they told me how badly Cook had treated them, I said, “No one deserves to be yelled at and cursed. He was stupid. You know a lot. He should have been grateful for your good work.” I had a marvelous time making the dough for the rolls and we had fun pinching bits, putting them on a large baking tray, and tasting our first efforts hot out of the oven with slathered cold butter. Scrumptious.
Except for the director, no one seemed to notice the change in cooks until breakfast. I was determined to make oatmeal without lumps. I asked the guys how Cook made it. Hah! I knew what was wrong. He put the cold water into the oats. Wrong! I heated the water until it was almost boiling, put in some salt, and a bit of cinnamon just because I liked the smell, then added the oats as I continued to stir. When the oatmeal was served, I heard campers voicing their astonishment. “Wow! NO lumps. Smells funny. Tastes good.”
At the end of breakfast, as the two guys were washing pots and I was cleaning up the wooden tables, the director came in. “I really didn’t think you could do this,” she told me.
“It wasn’t just me. We worked together,” I said, needing to give the guys all the credit they deserved.
“Nancy, I hired another cook, but he can’t come until tonight. Can you handle another lunch and dinner?”
“Sure. The three of us, we can do it for as long as you need,” I said, grinning. “We’re a team.”
Have you done something others thought you couldn’t do? What prompted you to do it? What was the experience like for you?
Nancy King is a widely published author and a professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she has taught theater, drama, playwriting, creative writing, and multidisciplinary studies with an emphasis on world literature. She has published seven previous works of nonfiction and five novels. Her new memoir, Breaking the Silence, explores the power of stories in healing from trauma and abuse. Her career has emphasized the use of her own experience in being silenced to encourage students to find their voices and to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with authenticity, as a way to add meaning to their lives.