My parents started sending me to overnight camp when I was eight or nine years old.
Hoofbeat Ridge was an all-girls horse-back riding camp set on more than 100 acres of clover fields. Buttressing the entrance to camp were two massive hills joined together by a sharp valley. The hills were covered with cross country jumps. My favorite was the tire ledge built into the hill on the far north side of the course. A crowd of overhanging brush from a family of giant oak trees surrounded the jump, which made me feel like I was launching myself through a portal into a mystical jungle every time I took my horse through it. Plus, we had to sprint up the hill to get to the jump, which only intensified the thrill.
I went to Hoofbeat every summer for more than a decade, first as a camper, than as a counselor-in-training, then a counselor, and eventually, as one of the programming directors. Some of my happiest memories are from the summers I spent shoveling horse shit and braiding other kids’ hair. Living in rural spaciousness filled me with a sense of hope and possibility, something that eluded me back at home.
Gabby was the camp cook, and she ending up being one of my favorite parts of camp. At first, however, she scared the shit out of me
“Whaddya want, kid?” she’d yell at me through the kitchen window. “Hamburger or hot dog?”
Gabby was nearly 6 feet tall and had giant breasts that hung low and poked through the sides of her wafer-thin cotton aprons, which were always conspicuously stained with something or other. Everything about her was loud and boisterous. When she sang along to the oldies music playing on the radio that sat perched above the stove, you could hear her baritone vibrato from outside the mess hall.
Her smile was wide and maniacal, and she smiled often, especially on Fridays when she was hours away from a weekend of bass fishing with her husband. Her smile reminded me of Jack Nicholson’s Joker. As a new camper, I tried to scoop my food quickly and hustle off to the salad bar to avoid standing in her line of sight for too long, as if she were radioactive.
As the summers wore on, Gabby’s intensity grew on me and we developed a sincere friendship largely spurred by my voracious appetite. On Taco Wednesdays, I’d regularly devour three giant tacos without incident. Once everyone had passed through the line, I’d sidle up to the window for seconds. While MoTown played in the background, Gabby’s singing voice reverberated throughout the kitchen as she simultaneously shook her hips and scooped ground beef into cheap hard-shell tacos.
She called me “kiddo” and “girlie”. Once I became a counselor, she’d save me the corner slices of carrot cake and let me covertly boil water to make coffee in a camping mug so that I could survive three hours of teaching horseback riding in the blazing July sun. On one afternoon, I stopped in the kitchen to chat with her as she mixed yellow cake batter. When I told her about my pants splitting in the middle of demoing how to properly mount and dismount, she cackled so loud and hard she had to abandon her wooden mixing spoon so she could sit down on a nearby stool and collect herself.
Aside from Taco Wednesdays and her cakes, her food was unremarkable, and sometimes dreadful. I remember one night when I was a young camper, I approached the window with trepidation to peak under the lid of a pot she had staged in the kitchen window.
“What’s this?” I asked
I smiled meekly to try and mimic her enthusiasm. Her stew was a pile of brownish slop that bound together chunks of unidentifiable meat protein, which tasted like burnt leather. I ate as little as I could without seeming rude. Later, once I was curled up in my sleeping bag, I snacked on Swedish fish and baked Cheetos.
Even though her cooking was mostly terrible, Gabby’s attitude was infectious. Unbeknownst to me, she would serve as one of my earliest culinary mentors. She taught me a cardinal rule in cooking: Serve it like you mean it. I never once heard her apologize for anything she made. If anything, she crowed about her cooking to anyone who would listen. During the school year, she cooked for a sorority in Madison and would often tell me how much all the girls “loved her food.” I would stare down at the strange mass of canned coagulated vegetables on my plate and puzzle over her pronouncements. Her confidence convinced me that I was the one who was missing something.
I’ve been working on this piece for three weeks now and still can’t find the right way to end it. I don’t know how to sum up a woman who modeled confidence and panache despite the fact that what she had to serve was mostly not so great. All I know is, she made me a better cook, and I can’t eat a taco without hearing her giant baritone voice belting out Sugar Pie, Honey Bun.