At precisely three thirty a.m every morning my alarm goes off, followed by an alarm every five minuets until four. Just in case. The first week of the season I often don’t get much sleep, writing mental prep lists over and over again, worrying about water lines and pumps freezing, calculating serving sizes and generally being a little bit disoriented by the return to the bush and waking up separated from the frozen ground by a few meager inches of Thermarest and blankets.
Jude and I disembark from my tent together in the morning and go our separate ways, settling into a familiar schedule. The stars at four a.m are still vivid, numerous pinpoints, and a full-moon light is enough to navigate by. The giant diesel generator lurks behind the kitchen bus and the dry storage trailer and I always feel bad turning it on so early and hearing it roar to life, unnaturally mechanical in the sprawling silences of camps that are often many dozens of kilometers into the forest, away from highways and cities and cell service. Animals are still up and about at this time and Jude has had unpleasant early morning skunk encounters
This is the time where I’ll find out if there are any issues, if the water has frozen, or, worse, if the propane lines have frozen. “Hold up, propane doesn’t freeze,” you say, and you’re right, but the regulator valve can get damp and condensation inside and that can freeze, blocking the flow of fuel to the range and water heater. I’ve learned enough to have the second cook fill up every single giant stock pot and leave them on the range over night so that we have water in the morning, worse come to worse, but it takes me a while to figure out the regulator valve issue. A rapid and vigorous flipping of the tank selector from side to side will usually clear any blockage, although that may necessitate lighting all the tricky pilots of the ovens, range, flattop and water heater… again. Sometimes nothing works, and this is how I find myself working furiously over a standard home sized electric griddle to produce enough pancakes to feed a camp of sixty (rightfully) unhappy treeplanters. When the second cook rolls in around five thirty there’s no time to waste on pleasantries, I just point at the six large cans of ‘Tropical Fruit Salad’ that comprises the majority of the fruit we get delivered and direct him to the can opener graveyard with tidings of good luck.
First things first, turn the burners to boil the gigantic stock pots of water for coffee and tea. We feed the planters Mother Parkers on our inadequate camp budget, but I reserve a tin of ‘good’ coffee for the cooks and staff. ‘Good’ in this case being Folgers or something else I’d usually sneer at. Second order of business, turn on our personal 12 cup drip coffee machine, always, always, always set up and ready to go the night before. Small cook efficiencies like this make me happy. I’m not a tyrant but the expectations I do have are non-negotiable.
This season those small efficiencies were expanded to include task delegation like traying cases of bacon, although with just a few home sized refrigerators to work with, the ‘trays’ are sheets of parchment paper, neatly rolled one on top of another with the shingled bacon and then tightly saran wrapped, labelled and tucked into the ‘meat’ corner of the overloaded deep freeze. Anyway, it makes it much easier, with the million and one logistics challenges of lack of space, lack of refrigeration, maintaining temps, order frequency, volume, lack of time, etc, to simply peel off a few of these sheets, throw them on a sheet pan and into the oven and listen to them sizzle, rather than having to pull a box of bacon the day before, wait for it to thaw, not have room in the fridge for trays, be stuck traying it all the morning of, covered in gross, cheap, shit Sysco bacon fat and silently weeping over it all as you wonder if it will even have time to crisp. Efficiency is key.
This season marked the debut of ‘breakfast buffet’, which while initially a prep nightmare proved a time and resource saving bit of genius within just a few days. Pre-planter arrival we worked feverishly to prepare huge hotel pans of vegetarian baked beans, diced and cooked entire bags of potatoes for hashbrowns, prepared vast amounts of onions, caramelized with sherry vinegar, paprika and salt to season them, kept a solitary waffle iron sizzling in the background for the entirety of the day, producing one inexpensive waffle at a time (fuck you and your Belgian waffles that eat up an entire day’s budget, Sysco, I don’t need you anymore!) The idea was to always have several rotating breakfast options so that everyone could have something to their liking, and have enough. Leftovers could be folded into the next day’s offerings and we could always be a day ahead of prep, only having to throw hotel pans into the oven in the morning to warm up and maybe wrangle some scrambled eggs around the tilted flat top, or nail out some fresh pancakes, and never having to do a full rota of breakfast prep on any given day.
One day a week: bagel day (sliced the night before by the second cook and neatly arranged in a few deep hotel pans to throw in the oven to toast in the morning) served with some vast trays of cheese slices, tomato slices, red onion, bacon, cream cheese and fried/scrambled/baked/whatever eggs, along with the other ubiquitous breakfast buffet offerings, which shall go without saying from here on out.
One day a week: grilled cheese, a perennial favorite and a great way to use up the inexplicably detested bologna, left untouched on lunch meat platters by planters everywhere. I like to always keep a reserve of grilled cheese prepped in the freezer, ready to deploy at a moments notice, and a large part of the second cook’s life has been methodically layering cheese, bread and meat, applying a light layer of margarine and persuading hundreds of these premade sandwiches to fit into the deep freeze nicely, ready to hop right into the oven one early morning as needed.
One day a week: pancakes/waffles, with sides of fruit, dubious syrup, margarine and on very special occasion, whipped topping. Margarine and whipped topping must be labelled, so as not to be confused with one another, lest a very disappointed planter take a bite of a waffle laden with hydrogenated soybean oil and feel the last of his soul leave his body, between the rain, the bugs, the Christmas toe, the tendonitis, the five kilometer walk in and now the fucking margarine filling his mouth like bitter disappointment.
Once breakfast is working away in the background, it’s time to open up dry storage. This is when Jude usually reappears from his nocturnal ventures around the perimeter of camp, in search of breakfast and lunch meat scraps. Its time to re-up the mess tent supplies, mentally inventorying the supply of 5kg tubs of peanut butter and strawberry jam, cases of loaves of white and brown sliced sandwich bread, 50 pound cases of apples and oranges, powdered juice crystals Take out spatulas for the peanut butter and jam (more than one for each container so the line up can move along more quickly). Take out the pre-prepped tray of cold breakfast items (a hotel pan of bags of cereal, a Tupperware of quick oats, spoons, brown sugar, white sugar, honey if we’re feeling extra bougie, containers of raisins, dried cranberries, chocolate chips, various tea bags and instant powdered ginger drink) mental inventory the Rice Krispies, Cornflakes and Cheerios and juice crystals. On that note, drag the giant Gatorade water dispensers over to the sink and start filling them and mixing up Peach Iced Tea and Raspberry Lemonade. Hopefully the second cook read the prep list yesterday and mixed up the powdered milk that you started using this season- its been a lifesaver both for the budget and for the fridge space it saves, and nobody seems to notice the difference. Start bringing out the trays of lunch arrangements- platters of deli meats arranged like disgusting meat flowers in bloom, the unloved bologna arranged prominently front and center. Keep these all stacked in the same place in the fridge, FIFO, labelled and wrapped. The same with platters of leaves of romaine and sliced tomato and red onion and cheese slices, and a neatly arranged tray of liter Tupperware containers of various condiments- pickles, mustard, ketchup, mayo, hot sauce. Set out a tray of some kind of square or baked good that, hopefully, you haven’t fucked the dog on and have prepared and portioned the night before. Don’t forgot the very strict sign indicating portion amounts. You can soften the instructions of “ONLY ONE EACH” with a smiley face. Lay out the hummus and the tuna salad and the egg salad and the large containers of neatly chopped carrot and celery sticks, and watch all your hard work be devoured in mere seconds by the hordes of increasingly hungry planters. I like to have all of this out by five thirty at the latest so that any early risers have access to it.
These are good tasks to share between first and second cook depending on the day, but I’ve been disappointed after delegating this duty before, to have somebody nod assent and say “Yeah, they're good out there,” and then find a line of planters clamoring at the back door of the bus for fruit or bread or whatever it is they don’t have, or find an old box of apples mouldering away in the back corner of the dry storage trailer while the one that came in from Sysco yesterday is being snatched up in handfuls in the mess tent. One of the many advantages of basically having breakfast prepped the night before is that it frees up hands to lay out all the lunch items and mess tent crap in the morning and reduces the, arguably, most hectic, time sensitive part of the day. If the second cook shows up and all of this is out already and breakfast is chugging along in the background, they can get started right away on dinner prep or dishes or baked goods, whatever. Somewhere in between running back and forth to the mess tent with arms loaded with platters, I like to stop to notice the sunrise, which is always stunning in Northern Ontario. Unreal pinks and oranges streak the sky and illuminate the shitty old Cool Bus. Coffee, smoke, jot down illegible notes on my par level/order sheets.
The start time of the second cook becomes pretty negotiable after the first shift, dependent on how efficiently the system is set up and how efficient you have both become at prep. If it’s going to make somebody significantly happier to roll in at six instead of five, that’s fine by me. As soon as they roll in, they start filling MORE POTS WITH WATER to fill the planters dish sinks so that after breakfast, in theory, they can wash their dirty breakfast dishes instead of leaving them crusted in food in the mess tent to attract bears and other unwanted critters to the camp where we, the cooks, spend the day alone, surrounded by food. At ten to six, its time to pour the water that you started boiling at four a.m into the giant coffee carafe and hot water carafe (because they’ve been around for so long that, unfortunately, the plug -in for them doesn’t work anymore and they no longer work as percolators, simply as vessels to keep the hot beverages warm). These have been prepared the night prior with the appropriate amounts of coffee. Stagger them out to the mess tent.
At six a.m its time to find the vehicle with the loudest horn and lean in the window and absolutely haul on it, preferably in the most irritating combination of length and volume possible, to wake up the camp. Occasionally a crew boss who’s tent suffered in the most recent rain/wind/snow storm may pop up from the back seat, heart jackhammering and ears ringing. This six a.m horn means that coffee and tea is out and the lunch table is ready and to get the fuck up, because if you miss breakfast or the best lunch stuff gets creamed out , I don’t really give a god damn. Now its time to plug in to the auxiliary cord of the cobbled together sound system that rests under a protective layer of tarps and bungee cords on folding table in front of the bus and blast some sort of motivational wake up tunes. I’ve been fond of everything from Lords of Acid to Buffy Saint Marie. From now until seven, when the planters depart for the block, the second cook makes attentive rounds of the mess tent, replacing empty platters with full ones, replenishing sugar and milk.
At promptly six twenty five a.m, its time to bring out the first trays of breakfast. Planters figure this out pretty quick, and vets are always in line around twenty after six, heading off those less wise. Hold your cards close and never, ever, ever fucking put out all of what you have at the same time. Half of the portion game is mind-fucking planters and making them think there isn’t anymore. Between budget constraints and other limiting factors, you have to be strict with your portion sizes. Always have enough and more than enough, but don’t let them approach a tray of bacon and load the entire thing into their groddy lunch Tupperware container and leave. Hold some of everything in reserve, particularly for those who fail to heed the next horn- the six thirty a.m horn which means “Breakfast is served!” and that those who have been standing impatiently in line, straining at the scent and steam, can descend upon the food in hungry droves. Don’t forget appropriate cardboard portion signs here, too, and the ‘vegetarian ONLY’ section. The first hard push of the day is almost done, now- its just you and the second cook circling around the mess tent on a regular basis to replenish items as necessary and to enforce the portion sizes, and finally, sitting on the stairs behind the bus with steaming mugs of coffee and cigarettes and hair tied up in bandanas like every hot lesbian vegan working at a trendy café in your hipster hometown.
As the planters depart at seven, wearily shuffling onto the bus and tying their boots, hacking darts and consuming water out of emptied beer bottles, its time to bring in all of the depleted trays from the mess tent and replenish them. My favored approach is to have the second cook jump on dish duty and summit Dish Mountain, then jump in on bringing everything in from the mess tent. It makes more sense to me to replenish the trays right away as you bring them in, keep them at the par level and craft new ones. A good second will be done dishes pretty quick and the two of you will slam out the mess tent clean up and tomorrow’s lunch prep in no time. With a completely clean bus, dishes dried and away and platters neatly replaced in their homes for the circus of the next morning, its time for a civilized tea break and the writing of the day’s prep list.
You have to be prepared when you’re working remotely. Meal plans for the week need to be accurate and your portions sizes are better to be too much than too little. Meeting budget goals while providing variety, utilizing your limited refrigeration and storage space, providing adequate portions sizes and meeting nutritional needs while accommodating for allergies and preferences is at best, complex. A week should have a ‘big ticket’ meal and be rounded out with less expensive ones. Ideally once every other shift there’ll be a big leftover bonanza. Sometimes hotdog night with pasta salad, potato salad and Caesar salad is a fucking awesome option. If Treeplant Friday’s an in camp, you don’t want to be slaving away until nine p.m so you want to throw out something easy so you can join in the festivities. Over more coffee and more darts, a prep list comes together with initials beside each item, delegating it to one of the two cooks.
From seven thirty or eight onward, we bake and we prep. I am a pastry pro and fan, and baking in large quantities can be tricky, so depending on who I’m working with I’ll do the majority of the baking, getting the second cook to weigh out all of the ingredients into Cambros and deli containers. This is the time to measure out pasta, measure out rice, chop vegetables, cook off huge amounts of meat, do any necessary breakfast prep for the next day, and generally make a hard push until all that has to happen when the planters come home is warming up an almost completely prepared meal. With confidence and success, some of this prep can be held off until after the mid day break. I hear stories of companies with huge trailers converted into walk in refrigeration space, but I haven’t worked for them (yet) making prep a logistical challenge unrivalled by any other kitchen I’ve worked in. You can’t get ahead because there’s nowhere to store anything thawed or cooked, nowhere to keep vats of salad dressing and mayo and dressings or prepped veg- just a dark, cool (ish) trailer that you keep the animals out of with a 2x4 jammed in the door. Before break there’s a thorough clean and scrub down of the bus, including a mopping that seems futile in the face of the rain and mud, and after finalizing a Sysco order list, I climb on top of the bus with the sat phone to phone it in.
Yet another logistics challenge- Sysco only delivers to Hearst two days a week and with limited storage opportunities, one has to be creative with rotating fresh produce and meats in and out quickly. Frozen vegetable medleys are a lifesaver both budgetary and logistically, as are any tinned, preserved or cured items. Beets, peppers, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, onions, zucchini and eggplant are popular items that don’t go bad quickly or require refrigeration. As eggs arrive, most are cracked into Cambros for storage, leaving just a few flats for baking. A giant order pre-season stocks up all flours, sugars, spices, cereals, canned goods and other non-perishables, to be topped up only as necessary throughout the season, although this huge order means careful budget balancing throughout the remainder of the season to make sure it all ends up kosher. The top of the bus ranges from slippery as hell in blinding rain to covered in wasps to scalding hot in the heatwave Boreal sun, but its the only place the sat phone gets service, most of the time, so its up there I stand with my arm extended toward the heavens, clutching my notepad in one hand and shouting pleasantries into the sat phone. Calls typically get dropped after six minutes or so and it can take several phone calls to complete an order. Shout out to Sean, my amazing North Western Ontario Sysco rep, who had my back and always double checked my orders for items we usually got and helped me get the best prices on all possible items. Alternately, Sysco orders are placed from town on the day off, shaking and hungover and addled, sometimes completely unsure of the order of things and more concerned with the meaning of life and imminent death than the current price of the veg medley you usually like to get. Shit, you’ve forgotten eggs and it’s too late to add them to the order- a quick run to the Independent to browse around for specials like watermelon, off-brand Nutella, on sale chicken thighs and mini multi colored marshmallows will solve that problem, anyway. Ta! Off to a hangover breakfast at the local diner with the bottomless coffee.
The mid day break is the holy grail of treeplant cooking, a stretch of hours in the middle of the day to sleep. The four a.m. rise for the duration of the season is exhausting, especially when days often don’t end until eight or nine p.m. If there’s a river of a beach nearby, swimming and suntanning are a popular option, swatting at deerflies and skinnydipping with your second cook who’d better be your best friend in the entire world. It might be time for a beer, too, as you’re the only one in camp with access to the magical ice box that keeps them warmer than piss and drinkable, even the shit brands prevalent in the small towns. PBR, king of beers, I’ll fucking take it if it’s ice cold. Or even warm, really. This is a weird, unreal time of day, of unholy exhaustion on the verge of hallucination paired with the absolutely weird isolation of a camp in which the two cooks are the sole living humans. This is the time of day where strange ideas begin to percolate, especially as the season drags on and the bush crazy sets in. This is when we plan proms and parties and make customizable banners for Boozemas Eve or Tartinable Prom. We transform the mess tent into a dancehall with our camp boss, draping it with flagger tape and pushing the tables to the side. We make hundreds of liters of Jello to fill a kiddie pool for wrestling, make flagger tape corsages with friends at home in camp nursing tendonitis, read. Naps are necessary but never satisfying, filled with strange and vivid fever dreams and the soothing, unyielding hum of the diesel genny. The bugs can be intolerable, from the time you rise until the time you sleep. Mosquitoes in lunatic droves in the early morning turn into blackflies in the heat and deerflies in the afternoon glare.
We’ll usually return around two or three, although this is widely varied. Some mornings are so exhausting and energy sucking that as soon as the lunch trays are brought in and replenished we go on early break and return around noon instead. But as a rule, the afternoons are easier, having slugged away at the majority of the hard prep in the morning, fueled by coffee and sheer willpower. This is when the buckets of chopped veg and cooked meat and TVP/seitan/tofu turn into simmering curries, when the proofing dough is transformed into fresh, hot dinner rolls (served with margarine, of course- butter ain’t in the budget, baby), when pasta salads are created and all sorts of sides spring forth. The meal prep for the next day might begin, or we might get ahead on baking and freeze it, or we might do something special and call the crew bosses on the radio to come and gather up the Freezies bought in town in anticipation of the heatwave and distribute them amongst the planters. If it’s raining or cold we’ll put on a soup and a hot bevvie, a morale boost of hot chocolate or hot stock to warm up frozen, rain drenched innards. This is tying up loose ends and being ready, to, as soon as the planters roll in from the block, get dinner hot and ready to go within fifteen minutes of their return. I’ve had fuck ups, but I’ve heard horror stories of planters waiting hours after their return from the block for dinner, of elaborate ethnic cuisine themed nights, of beautifully designed chalkboard menus and meals utterly lacking in substance, of vegans and vegetarians forgotten and of cooks who didn’t know how to cook meat (vegans…) who simply chopped up cooked hotdogs and threw them into every carnivore meal.
Sometimes food deliveries are late. Sometimes they forget to send something. Sometimes people don’t follow the portion sizes and you run out of na’an bread. Sometimes people complain no matter what you do. Sometimes there are issues, and there will be, that you will never be able to foresee, like the water pump you and a crew boss so diligently spent your hungover morning off scouring town for three hundred feet of 1”PVC tubing for going AWOL and having to carry stock pots of water up from the river, one at a time, to boil for use. Sometimes people don’t get up, or have breakdowns, sometimes there’s personal drama and the entire camp will be waiting to leave to go to the block while you’re lying on the floor getting screamed at by a friend you did something shitty to. Sometimes you only get to sleep for forty five minutes between party night off, serving breakfast and then packing up the entire camp for a camp move. Sometimes the bus won’t start, sometimes you’ll forget to take cases of eggs out of the fridge before driving down the bouncing, pot holed logging roads. Sometimes you won’t get accurate directions and you’ll have to three point turn the bus, towing the water trailer, on the Trans Canada highway to go back to the logging road you were supposed to take. Sometimes a rogue dog will eat the entire lunch meat platters and blow a large part of your budget, sometimes you’ll be so tired and so sore and so grumpy that you’re just not going to want to do it anymore. But sometimes you’ll make homemade pizza on the last night of a shift and planters will actually cry tears of joy, and sometimes you’ll serve fresh made donuts and get hugs and sometimes, it’ll be fun.