Most souls who find their way to seasonal employment in the huts come with experience in cookery, education and/or hospitality. Fresh out of high school in 2007, I moved into Lakes of the Clouds Hut with no expertise in any of those fields, unless you call washing dishes and eating cold mashed potatoes from the walk-in at a fraying hamlet called The Granite Café a job. What I did have was a pair of hiking boots, a bag of Halloween costumes and the stubborn hope that I would be hired for my love of the White Mountains and taste for theatrics, having enjoyed many a BFD (the breakfast skits) during previous hut visits.
Either my “Aw, Shucks” candor was more affecting than I realized or the applicant before me had come into the AMC’s Joy Street office with human flesh on their chin. I got the job. Before I knew it, I was skipping my prom to go toss sacks of flour into a rat-proof closet and learn the art of “proofing” yeast, 5050 feet above sea level, rime ice still frosting the boulders.
There were hiccups. My first attempt at cooking a breakfast for 93 people was a near disaster. Having never used a griddle before, I attempted to cook a batch of pancakes on the griddle cover, with the burners on high heat. Had a fellow croo member not noticed the smell of burning wood, recovering from the experience might have required psychotherapy. Another evening, I announced to a full dining room of guests that I would be serving a traditional British pudding dessert called “Spotted Dick”. The announcement was received with stunned faces and muffled laughter from a table of large French Canadian men. Clearly, I had not taken into account that some of our horrified patrons had not ventured outside the United States, let alone New England. I stayed in the kitchen for the rest of the evening, brewing coffee and avoiding eye contact with the crowd.
But things got better. Despite never quite mastering traditional yeast breads, I taught myself how to bake Irish Soda Bread for the ages, stuffing the beast with almonds, walnuts, whole-wheat flour and other ingredients not normally employed during the Michael Collins years. I developed a passion for soup cooking, turning out endless concoctions of savory meet stewed in wine for hours with stocks, vegetables and enough spices to make a Spaniard swoon. Eventually, I grew to view “cook days” not as challenges on par with a military patrol but an opportunity to slay my audience not with undercooked chicken (which, thank god, never happened) but elation: of how French onion soup, steaming lasagna rustico, and deathly sweet peanut butter squares could taste so good, let alone exist in this blessed patch of wilderness.
I have thought of this endlessly throughout the past weeks. As the leaves brown and winter’s breath creeps into the long, dark nights, I am preparing for a departure from the huts. Not just a seasonal one, a final exit as well. The last five summers – and this current fall – have been kinder to me than I thought possible for people my age, in our troubled economy. But with a college degree under my belt and a burgeoning interest in editorial media, urban dwellings and a Danish electronica artist named Trentemøller, I know I have reached the end of my lease in this indescribable place.
The temptation to prolong my stay is strong, as there is much that I will miss: the bristling anticipation of a hungry dinner crowd. The warmth of a bunk after a long day of work. An endless supply of Goldfish. That first cup of coffee in the small hours, when the birds have just stirred to life outside. But more than anything, I will always cherish the huts’ enduring backbone of good labor and good humor at all times. Where cooking, cleaning and assisting others is not outsourced but embraced with unabashed pride. Where one will not only learn from a mistake, but can learn to laugh about it as well.
The spirit of the huts is something I do not expect to encounter again, wherever my work and travels take me. Hopefully, I’m wrong, for in this age, that spirit and its tenants seem more important than ever. When the present is at conflict with the future, a home-cooked meal and a friendly face leap beyond their origins, into the realm of idols, where a whisper of assurance can still be found. Often, a pot of chicken is just that: a pot of chicken. But sometimes, it’s all we have left.
With love and gratitude,
Carter Hutmaster 2010
Madison Colonel 2011
Zealand Hutmaster Fall 2011