March 6, 2021

FTV: Cookin’ With Gas


     In the summer of 1974, Professor Pat Farrell was both my instructor and boss at Northern Michigan University’s Field Station just south of Melstrand, Michigan.  All Geography majors were required to take a class called Field Studies to give us boots on the ground experience using tools of the mapping trade.  My undergraduate advisor, Professor Richard Mahowski, had penciled this into my three year educational plan back in the spring of 1972.  When I finally decided to pursue a teaching degree at the end of my freshman year, Professor Mahowski made it a point to tell me two important things:  “1) You are doing this [schedule] a year late and 2) There is no possible way that all of these classes will be available when you need them.  You may have to substitute other classes because some of these are not offered every semester.”  I reminded him that it would not have been possible to do all this planning earlier because it took me a year of college to get a feel for what direction I wanted to go.  It would also be no reflection on his advising skills if all of the classes he wrote down were not available in the order in which I needed to take them.

     My last meeting to update my education plan with Professor Mahowski took place near the end of my junior year.  He said, “We need to figure out what you will need to fill in for the classes you haven’t been able to take toward your major and minor.”  In my file, he still had a copy of the original list of classes he had jotted down two years before this final meeting.  His eyes narrowed into slits when I said, “Other than the fall semester classes that I have already registered for and student teaching in the spring, I have taken all of them.”  We went back and forth for a bit and he almost seemed disappointed each time he pointed to a class and I said, “Yep, I took that one.”  He proceeded to tell me that he had never had anyone go through an entire program without having to substitute at least one class.  “What about Field Studies?” he asked with a hint of ‘Ah Ha!’ in his voice.  I replied, “I am signed up for that this summer and Pat (Farrell) asked me to be the student manager at the Field Station.  I will also be doing a directed study class with a mixed bunch of high school teachers and students to have enough credits to let me work there.”  He did not quite believe me because he dialed Professor Farrell’s phone extension while reminding me, “The student manager position is always filled by a graduate student, not an undergrad.”  Professor Mahowski was right on that point, but he had to hear the job was mine from Pat: “There are no graduate students interested so Ken has already been hired.”  

     Professor Farrell lived a half a block up the hill from my house on Norway Avenue for many years.  His oldest son was a couple of years younger than me, but in our tight knit neighborhood, adults and kids were all on friendly terms.  When Pat asked me early in the spring semester about the field station job, I was already working for the Geography Department as a twenty hour a week student worker.  None of the student office help had returned after the first semester.   When I paid my first visit to the department office in January of 1974, I heard Pat tell Ceta the secretary, “Hire him.  Raisanen, do you want a job?”  Little did I think my response (“Sure”) amounted to a job interview.  Ceta wasn’t sure I got the drift:  “You know it is twenty hours a week, we can schedule around your classes, and you will be the only student worker this semester?”  I asked, “When do I start?”  Ceta said, “9 A.M. tomorrow will be fine,” and all of a sudden, I had a job for the semester.  When Ceta’s husband was transferred to Dubuque, Iowa at the end of the semester, I ended up being the department’s fill in secretary for a couple of months.  By then I knew the ropes well enough to keep up with everything except the departmental meetings which I was excused from attending.  As soon as we hit the middle of June, I was off to my summer classes and a new job at the field station (I didn’t even meet the new office secretary until the next fall).  

     During my stint as the fill in secretary, they still kept me working twenty hours a week for the rest of the spring semester, three weeks in May, and two weeks in June.  Much of the paperwork involved the upcoming summer classes at the field station, so I knew quite a bit about the place before I ever laid eyes on it.  Pat told me to be in the science building parking lot at 8 A.M. on the Monday morning we were scheduled to depart.  We picked up the two university vehicles we would be driving out to Cusino Lake and loaded up the equipment needed for the class.  I still have a ‘chauffeur’s’ designation on my driver’s license dating back to my summer job with NMU (I could not drive university vehicles with passengers without it).  We had one day to get settled in, open up the buildings, store the food we were transporting, and be ready when students arrived on Tuesday.  By late afternoon, Pat, his younger son Sean, and I were ready for dinner and our first real break since we had left Marquette that morning.  Pat had already warned me there would be a cook on duty Monday through Friday lunch, but I was expected to feed anyone who stayed over the weekend when classes did not meet.  Lila, the cook, wasn’t going to arrive until Tuesday so I half expected the first night’s meal would be up to me.  Thankfully, Pat suggested a visit to a roadside tavern in Van Meer for a sandwich.   We referred to it  as ‘The Silly Sisters’ in reference to the two matronly women who ran the joint but its real name was The Club Majestic.  On the way back to the field station, Pat said, “Don’t think this gets you out of making pancakes for breakfast tomorrow.”  When Pat first asked me about the student manager job, he had asked what kind of kitchen experience I had beyond being a dishwasher at the Huron Mountain Club for the previous three summers.  I told him the scrambled eggs story.  

     During my first summer at the club, the breakfast chef was a short blond woman named Tina.  She had her hands full one morning making Eggs Benedict for the breakfast special.  She grabbed me and said, “Here, you take care of the scrambled eggs so I can get the specials done.”  The breakfast buffet always featured scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, fruit, various rolls, English muffins, and toast.  The scrambled eggs were prepared from gallon glass jars of eggs that had been cracked the day before (I did a lot of the egg cracking on coffee breaks between dish loads).  The eggs were cooked on the gas stove in the largest frying pan I had ever seen.  After filling the buffet steamer tray with a couple of pans worth of scrambled eggs, I went back to work in the dish room.

     As we were finishing the breakfast dishes, Ted, the head chef, stopped by and asked me if I knew that I had made Tina cry.  My face must have shown my befuddlement, so Ted put on a serious expression and explained that nobody would ever eat Tina’s scrambled eggs.  “She likes to make the daily specials so she purposely makes runny scrambled eggs so nobody will eat them.”  Apparently, this was the only day that all of the scrambled eggs had been eaten.  The committee of club members who oversaw the kitchen made it known they expected the eggs to be just like that for the rest of the summer.  After I stammered a bit, Ted burst out laughing and said, “She really did cry about the eggs, but I have been telling her to get them right all summer.  How would you like to be the assistant breakfast chef in charge of scrambled eggs?”  When I found out it would mean being in the kitchen every morning at 5 A.M., I declined and Tina never asked me to tend the scrambled eggs again.  All Pat said at the time was, “So you know how to cook with gas?  Good.”

     Bright and early Tuesday morning, I was in the field station kitchen cooking a pan of bacon in the oven (another little trick I learned at the club).  By the time Pat and Sean arrived, I had a plate of pancakes ready for them.  Half way through the first plate, Pat said, “You didn’t burn them.  Nobody cooks on a gas griddle without burning something the first time.  You didn’t even burn the bacon!”  I told Pat my little secret about oven baking the bacon which he had never heard of.  As long as I remember, we had a small gas stove with a griddle on it at our camp.  By the time I got to the field station kitchen, I had a decade worth of experience cooking with gas.  “I have one complaint,” Pat said after breakfast.  I prefer my pancakes a little gooey in the center.”  “You should have told me that before breakfast,” was all I could muster, but for the rest of the summer, Pat went back to Marquette on the weekends so I never had to cook for him again.

     Being the student manager came with a list of chores that needed to be done when class was not in session.  With no electricity lines, we had a big diesel generator that provided our juice.  Number one on my job list was staying at Cusino Lake on the weekend to keep the generator running for the benefit of the freezers and refridgerators in the kitchen.  The oil in the generator had to be changed after ‘X’ hours of operation, so Pat gave me a hands on lesson in changing the oil and filters. This  routine maintenance would be my responsibility if the generator hit the magic number on my weekend shifts.  I asked how long the electricity could be off before it would ruin the food in the freezers and was told, “Oh, they could be off for ten hours easy because everything is already frozen.”  After a couple of weeks, I started to shut the generator off for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday for the peace and quiet (and to delay having to change the oil for a couple more days).

     Mowing a couple of acres of lawn with a riding mower was another part of the routine.  The weekly swabbing of bathrooms, kitchen, bunk rooms,  and the dining hall took up part of Saturday.  I was free to use anything in the freezers for weekend meals, but it was strongly suggested that using as many leftovers as possible would be a good plan.  Most of the leftovers were fine for lunches but the volume of potatoes left from the past week dictated fried potatoes with breakfast, fried mashed potato patties with dinner, and the occasional bowl of potato salad to add a little variety.  One of the teachers attending from lower Michigan stayed several weekends and asked politely why every meal included potatoes.  I took him into the kitchen and showed him the many containers of spuds gracing the shelves.  Lila expected a clean fridge on Monday morning so I was instructed to ditch anything not eaten after dinner on Sunday night and no matter how many ways I served them, there were always potatoes to toss.  

     When classes ended in early August, we did the closeout in one day.  This included mopping and waxing the wood floors in the two main dorms.  The second half of the cleaning day left my head feeling like it was stuffed with cotton.   Apparently, I was allergic to something in the floor wax we used.  Pat ran down the whole opening and closing checklist with me because I would be doing both on my own when the job extended into the fall.  Groups from the college scheduled departmental retreats on the first six weekends of the fall semester.  With no Friday classes of my own, I would head out to Cusino Lake in the early afternoon and open up the facilities requested by each group.  Opening the camp included lighting the pilots on the water heaters and furnaces, firing up the generator, and doing a quick cleaning of the dining facilities.  If the group wanted the fireplace lit in the main house, it was my job to tend it so they wouldn’t burn the place down.  Checking the gas and doing a test run of the firehose pump down by the lake continued into the fall as we were a long way from any local fire department.  Most groups left soon after breakfast on Sunday and in a matter of two hours, I would have things ready to close up.  At least I wasn’t expected to cook for the weekend groups and most were pretty good about cleaning up after themselves.  The one perk I was given was permission to fill my gas tank from the buried storage tank used to fuel the university vehicles during summer sessions.  Having less stuff to do on Sundays was fine with me;  it meant I had more time to do a little road hunting on the way home.

     Some of the weekend groups were amazed that I had spent all summer at Cusino Lake with no company on the weekends and no TV.  Most were agreeable to having the generator shut off for Saturday afternoon.  Mostly, I spent my down time in the bigger dorm building across the road from the main compound.  Between class work, playing guitar, and reading, my hardest task was keeping a low profile.  They had free run of the kitchen so I had to time my meals around their schedule.  There were one or two of the retreat participants who invited me to dine with them, but I preferred to keep out of the way.  Once they were done with their meals, I could rustle up my own food and take care of whatever was left to clean up at the same time.

    It was the best summer job for me to have after spending the three previous summers living and working at the Huron Mountain Club near Big Bay.  I was getting paid to spend my weekends in the middle of nowhere and it kept my college year routine of living at home during school and away in the summers intact.  I felt like Emerson at Walden Pond although I had more modern conveniences at my disposal.  The one area I could have made a few extra bucks was training people how to use that pesky griddle.  

Top Piece Video:  From 1976, Steve Miller Band talking about cooking!