Tuesday, September 05, 2006

soot-coated skillet

I’m finding pieces I’ve written and “set aside” in my files. This is a report from a camping trip in mid-July, long past and fondly remembered, now that the threat of biting flies is long gone.

The humidity has broken, and I find myself listing the chores I couldn’t possibly tolerate, even yesterday. I pull the skillet and the griddle down from the rack. Though each pan journeyed through the dishwasher at least half a dozen times, the sticky campfire soot remains on the bottom. Just a week ago, this griddle sauted a mountain of red peppers for fajitas, topped by a mountain of sauted onions. The skillet bubbled the following night with Liz’ homemade red sauce, augmented by the leftover roasted peppers, onions, summer squash, and meatballs. One of my new favorite Boy Scout campers informed me that I ought to coat the pan bottoms with a bar of soap before cooking, so the soot would wash right off. But I was in a hurry, the bar of soap was far away in the toiletries bag, in another lean-to. His pans washed off beautifully, the first time.

“How did you DO that?” I asked.

“Just the way I told you,” replied the Boy Scout alumni. I blinked several times in a row at him, and I did not yell at him that he was such a smartass, the way I would yell at my brothers as a kid, when bested at a simple task. It takes me longer to scrub, now, than it would have taken to run to the other lean-to, and dig through my things to procure the bar of soap.

For much of my adult life, I have been The Competent One, regarding household anything. The Technological Guru (funny, given how little I actually know), The Cook, The Organizer of Everything. I’m the person who knows cleaning techniques, the contents of the pantry, and the person with a hundred kid-craft activities up her sleeve. I don’t often work in the garden, but I do know how. I am the person in charge of Where Things Go, Making Clothes Match, repairs to every kind of object.

So it’s a bit disconcerting to be out-competenced. At the end of our camping trip, I stood in a blazing hot flatbed of a truck to place each piece of equipment, jigsaw-like, into a good fit. I arrived back at the same spot fifteen minutes later to find that every single item had been moved to the opposite side of the truck. Why did I stand in the blazing sun, then, was my first unspoken question. So this is what that feels like, the next unspoken statement. This is what it feels like to have my own effort undone in the cause of someone else’s vision. “The Guys” moved everything, it turns out, to fit the canoe our group brought, and they did a perfect job.

It’s just a strange role for me, to be outdone, re-done, a little undone. The feeling amuses me, which is good, because I could name a dozen such instances over the course of three days of camping. Because I don’t often compete for anything, I had the luxury of thinking that I’m not really competitive, but now there are people in my league of problem-solving, and I need to bow in admiration. It’s fun to learn new tricks. And it’s weird to hear, “Let me show you another way of doing that.”

Both new friend Boy Scouts built me the perfect cooking fire for my dinner, the first night out, while involving children in the building of it. One Boy Scout assembled appetizers: water crackers topped with brie and pepper jelly. The other Boy Scout—and I am not kidding about this—pulled out a hatchet and a pile of huge nails, found a long flat plank and assembled a fireside cooking counter for my cutting boards and utensils! My favorite non-Boy Scout Man chopped vegetables like a professional, half a dozen peppers, the same number of onions, to grill for fajitas. I hauled two huge steaks and a few chicken breasts from the grill and sliced them, on the new plank counter in front of the fire, placing the slices onto warm tortillas, to be topped with salsa and lettuce and sour cream and cheese. I was very popular, but I was supported by a cast of five parents and a tribe of hungry, sweaty children with a taste for adventure—and fajitas. I just cooked it, that’s all. I wrapped up my fajita, full of steak, and the appetizer Boy Scout handed me a glass of wine. I like camping!

I actually like the two Boy Scout husbands of my two friends, also, and not just for their skills or the wine. They are such good people, and I suppose, when it gets right down to it, that I have a lot to learn from them. I have hiked four or five 14,000 foot peaks, can cook tasty meals on an open fire, and can assemble a tent I’ve never seen in ten minutes flat. But I’ve never been a Boy Scout, and if they know secrets about skillets, soot, and soap-- and they pack the wine and the appetizers-- they are invited on my camping trip, any day.

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