A Twist
by Adam Kibbe

To cook, or not to cook, that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous insults,
Or to take arms against a sea of gullets,
And by opposing, fill them. To cook, to eat --
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heartburn and the thousand caloric shocks
That flesh is heir to; ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To cook, to eat--
To belch, perchance to do dishes -- ay, there’s the rub,
For in that pile of dishes what drudge may come,
When we have pushed off from the messy table,
Must give us pause;

(My apologies to the Bard, and to his Danish prince -- what’s rotten tis I)

We cook for many reasons -- praise, of course, is one. With guys, there’s always some form of competition, much as we might avow an aversion to the same. “Best meal of the trip” is no longer an official award (it never actually was, though we’ve come close). Still, you want to know where you rank. Enough so that there is positioning that takes place even before the trip, like race car drivers posting up.

The assignment of the meal schedule is arguably the most rigorous planning that goes into our Maine culinary excursions. Strategy is involved. The first dinner has a romantic appeal, and the likelihood of appreciative diners with an appetite high -- the last dinner finds torpid elephant seals, cranky from overeating, hard to score points with. Breakfasts require a certain courageous constitution on the cook’s part, though again, the appreciation level is high, and amplified by points for toughness. Lunches are simply tough.

There are also practicalities -- someone’s meal may involve dangerous perishables, and despite the season, natural deep freeze is not assured, ice melts, and no one wants to eat 5-day old unrefrigerated chicken. But a sequence is always agreed upon, and all cooks share the same background desire to please, and to be appreciated.

A certain amount of hubris is involved, sure. Showmanship has fully entered into the game, with real crystal and linen napkins placed beside Sierra cups for effect. Mushroom soup without sherry and sour cream and chive garnis would not pass muster (we’d eat it, but oh, the comments.....). This facet of presentation began innocently enough one year when Michael, in characteristic, deeply creative thoughtfulness, brought new cut crystal glasses from which to sip Scotch in memoriam of a recently deceased friend. Thoughtful. Elegant. And the delight in the incongruity stuck with us.

Other writings on these trips have used the phrase “pack canoe”. With no explanation, as if it were a natural accessory. In reality, it is obscene and unprecedented (save for Lewis and Clark, who had valid reason), and it is this addiction to meals of distinction more than anything else that has swollen our gear pile (and our waistlines) to the point of necessitating the deep, long canoes we use. And even a pack canoe.

One year five of us mustered seven coolers. That’s what we took out there after consolidation in Dan’s driveway. To be sure, four of them were small, even minis, with just a six pack or so, but even the most decadent among us blushed some at the spectacle. That’s what it takes, though, to get these four-star seven-course meals into the backwoods.

Those who have never shared our sylvan table cannot dispute the stars I bestow upon these heroic epicurean feats. And lest you challenge the scope, let me stop you -- I did mean seven.

First, there are cocktails, accompanied by some sort of nibbles. Not appetizers, just saliva inducers -- nuts, cheese, something. Our drinks tend towards Dark-n-Stormies with Gosling’s Black Seal and Barrett’s ginger beer (Goya when we can get it), or Vodka tonics with Skyy and a lime wedge. Last Lobster, a martini with a twist, in a real blown-glass martini glass with a thumb-dimple. Sometimes “cocktail hour” becomes full-fledged wine-tasting, with 2 to 4 bottles out for comparison. And while the group drinks heavily (probably to dull the pain of the reality that they’re about to have to eat again and make like they love it), the cook makes (or maybe just heats) the real appetizers -- sushi, quesadillas, jalapeno poppers, perhaps a fancier cheese array.

That’s two.

Sometimes there are salads. Might be veggies, often fruit, sometimes both -- I once made pear salad on Boston lettuce with sharp cheddar and Catalina dressing, a traditional family favorite. But you’ve gotta be careful not to repeat yourself (exception made for sushi).

Then there is the first true course (but by my count serving number 4), which is never sedate -- enchiladas, eggplant calzones, mushroom stew, all with sides of something, perhaps only accompanying sauce or garnish if the cook is merciful. Dense stuff. But always good.

And then a break. The diners (those that can walk) stagger away from the table to go and burden the outhouse, or merely to seek respite from the carnage. But there is always dessert -- they’ll be back. Crepes cajetas, brownies with raspberry sauce, peaches in red wine, even apple crisp, follow in the cook’s demented trajectory. Duty calls. Someone’s got to do it.

After that is cocktail hour number two -- nips, usually, upwards of five kinds. Perhaps more wine, occasionally chocolates. Some psycho raids The Green Bag for candy. Hungry?

And later, quite some time later over dying embers (okay, I admit stretching the definition), there is tea, cocoa, likely, Scotch. Surfeit, and a nighty-night to all. Seven. No wonder most of us pee several times before dawn.

Did I mention dishes?

Though the technology would seem incongruous with the elevated artfulness of the food itself, the means for preparing it are no less well thought out. Years ago, Bill Lewis brought linguini with shrimp sauce fra diavolo in double boil-in bags, heated it in a pot of boiling water whilst garlic bread roasted in its foil wrapper, and when he was done, he had no dishes to do. Jaws recently busy devouring the contents hung open at the sheer genius of his foresight. Since then, edible wrappers, lots of foil, humble imitation of Bill’s technique, and other tricks have all contributed to the cook’s reputation for both culinary and technical magic.

Not that we shirk the right means for any particular specialty. Michael’s famous French toast must, of course, fry in butter while the maple syrup heats in water being boiled for later dish duty. My enchiladas will leave a brutalized pan, but I’m likely to wrap it back in its original foil and save it for civilization. There’s dodging, and then there’s dodging.

All of this is, of course, quite beside the point. One would get the impression we cook to inflict harm on each other, or that we are driven to excess, crazed by a competitive streak gone bad. That our meal could be measured in cubic yards would seem a purpose in and of itself. But it’s just love. Spilling out abundantly.

When the first one up (usually Michael) starts the coffee, it is an act of giving of the purest form, free of ulterior motive, and of vanity. When the lunch cook plans a hot meal, knowing full well it’ll likely be on a bushwhack and thus require lugging a stove, it’s the thought of the resultant smiles that keeps the smile on their own face. And when not one, but three types of hot sauce are packed to accompany the jalapeno poppers, or when various fresh fruits are sliced into sangria, or when organic prunes and raisins bump shoulders amidst brown sugar, Drambuie and cream to raise a breakfast of Irish oatmeal to giddy heights, it’s in an effort to invoke Valhalla for these warriors of the Vale of Tears whom you love so well.

We cook to honor each other. To reward our brethren for their efforts and humor, and to repay them for the honor they do you by counting yourself among their rarified company. How could we not strive for memorable excellence with such a table to serve?

Of late, teamwork has blurred the roles, or perhaps become a quiet form of applause. Where once we were all content to bask, whale-like, before the fire, while the author of that night’s tale of gluttony shuffled off into the dark to do the dishes that heralded the end of their duties and the beginning of their own cycle of appreciation, now we often volunteer to help the weary cook, or even to relieve them of the responsibility. No system has of yet declared itself, but the shift from compartmentalized acts of contribution and acts of acceptance to a more egalitarian brotherhood of sous chefs is profound. Shared meals are even planned into the schedule, originally just for the fairness of the apportionment of duties, but increasingy appreciated for the opportunities to play at the complementing of one another’s efforts.

Not that we disliked the rotating, full-service, zero-payment experience -- talk of Valhalla! But our appreciation for one another has grown over the years into something which needs action to be expressed. And the cooperative nature of these dinnertime partnerships has actually toned down the excess some. Perhaps because each of the chefs knows what one goes through and wishes to spare their partner, where they might have been merciless upon themself alone. Or maybe just because we’re older and can no longer eat a horse. And the wagon train. Which is to say, the entire contents of Jan’s Spinach Soup -- it took us three days just to make a dent!

Regardless, it’s our own nouvelle cuisine, and it’s about time. One could even say it’s restored an appreciation for the meals in the palates of these jaded voyagers.

We left Henderson Cabin cleaner than it had probably been in years. Maybe since it was built. The mice were left to their paper towel-lined drawer, but the one with all the utensils, that they’d despoiled with their bodily excretions over years of foraging, was taken outside, disassembled, cleaned and disinfected, reassembled more securely, and everything in it washed in very hot water. Incredible objects were unearthed from a firepit choked by years of throwing damn anything in there -- broken window glass, unrecognizable metal objects, the inevitable cans and bottles, mountains of ashes. The cabin was swept under the beds, the beds made, and the shelves full of years of leftovers arranged meaningfully. Just before the plane arrived, tulip bulbs were planted in carefully chosen spots, a well-preserved and stunning surprise to all there, but for the most gracious soul, who brought them.

There is that in all of us worthy of praise. More worthy, perhaps, when one does not seek that praise, even wishes their acts unnoticed. But it is the nature of these men on these trips to be aware of the hearts of our companions, and praise them in their way. Maybe not by name and in words, though I find myself writing more and more as the import of these years rises from the depths of my subconsciousness into awareness. There are other means at our disposal.

One of them is the way we conduct ourselves in all that we do, the surprises and gifts we bring to spring on the rest, the tales we share around the groaning table. And one of them is the cooking of a meal for the assembled group, taken to a level commensurate with the characters of those who sip their cocktails awaiting your revelation. No trivial bowl of calories can express the esteem in which you hold these men. And so you strive for something unexpected, something memorable. Something that, for a few forkfulls, will be to their mouths and eyes what their companionship is to you.

Dinner’s ready -- bring it on!