Everyone should have the opportunity to drop out of their life for a little while. Drop out of their life and into someone else’s. And I don’t mean like a vacation, which is essentially just taking your own life on the road. I mean the total immersion into a working life that doesn’t belong to you. It’s not something I saw coming, but when it happened it was rejuvenating, enlightening and fun. And it’s why I haven’t been posting in this space for a while: it overwhelmed me. I want to tell you about that.
My friend Shelley, who is also a world renowned expert -- not to mention PhD -- in the art of typography, runs an annual camp on Galiano in the Gulf Islands, off the coast of Western Canada. Type Camp: an intensive week of study and contemplation on… well… type in a retreat setting.
I love to cook. It’s like my big hobby. And I love to cook for people; the more the better. We have big dinner parties fairly frequently. And, since our main residence is on an island, accessible only by ferry and private boat, sometimes those dinner parties stretch over whole weekends -- even longer -- when our big house begins to feel like a tiny, cheery, resort hotel: dinners late into the night, long brunches on our sunny deck, walks in the forest with backpacks filled with snacks. Friendship and fun, a lot of it centered around lovely food.
Last fall, sitting around our table at one of our big dinner parties, Shelley said that my rustic, whole food approach would be just the thing for her Type campers. Would I be interested in doing that the following year? I’ve never logged even a moment in the hospitality industry and -- within a few bottles of wine of her asking -- I’d blithely agreed.
As the big day -- big week! -- approached, the reality of cooking three meals a day -- plus snacks -- for 16 adult campers on retreat as well as a smattering of instructors began to catch up with me. How much milk would be needed? And of that, how much should be moo and how much soy? If you’re doing roast chicken, how many should you roast? If making hand-cut slaw, how many cabbages should go under the knife?
Beyond sheer volume was the practicality of doing all this stuff. The style of cooking I enjoy is fairly labor intensive. No bags of salad. No store bought breads or muffins or scones. I generally make my own stocks and mother sauces as well as soups and dressings.
And since the task I’d set myself -- the challenge, if you will -- was to create a sort of week-long dinner party, it meant the actual cooking would start a few weeks ahead of camp, while I began to make and freeze stocks and other staples of my larder in quantity and tuck them into the freezer for use when necessary. I had thought to let breads proof overnight and to bake them off at camp, but the oven there proved too ancient for the task -- it couldn’t get really hot -- so I’d do my bread baking after I got home at night, often after 10 o’clock.
My partner, David, got pressed into service. It was actually his knife that hand-cut that slaw – coleslaw is one of his specialties. And he helped out with other tasks during the week, from our kitchen. Jerk sauce for pork and tofu. Sacher torte. Other things that fall more into his realm of cooking than mine -- we cook together easily and well. On the last night, he came up to camp and played sous chef for a special final meal: pan-seared salmon with lavender mash and glazed carrots that we plated to applause. Wonderful.
Through the five days of camp, I never got more than four hours sleep in a row and, when it was done I was exhausted: mentally, physically you name it. But, in a very real way, it felt as though I had been on retreat. Trying on something completely different: wearing a new hat. Someone else’s life.
And now I’m home and back to my own life: the wonderful life I’ve helped to craft and that I enjoy. I’ve always known that, given the option, I would not trade it. I know that better now. But to spend nearly a week away, playing at working -- complete with co-workers and labor that was intense -- was a gift, in way. It helps you see a complete picture with clarity, I guess. What I saw there filled my heart.