I was a Boy Scout for twelve years. Later, I served as a Scoutmaster for four different troops, accumulating ten more years in the Scouting program. The BSA used to train boys how to grow up to be honorable, trustworthy men. This is something I think is severely lacking in today’s society. None the less, when I lived in California, I worked in a computer group doing research and development for Pacific Gas & Electric. My supervisor was a great guy, with a deliberately gruff exterior. He walked up and threw a piece of paper on my desk. Then he snarled, “Sign this!”, which I did immediately. Then he said, “Great. Now you’re my Assistant Scoutmaster.” We both pretended that he had coerced me into the position.
We had forty boys in our Troop divided into six patrols of six or seven boys each. The boys adopt a name for their patrol, like Eagle, Tiger, or Badger. If you name yourself after an aggressive animal, you’re less inclined to cry for your mother when the going gets tough. Scout meetings were every Tuesday night at a large shelter built at the back of the VFW parking lot. On the Tuesday before a camping trip, the boys were required to plan for their weekend away from home. Although it would be easier and more efficient for the adults to do the cooking for all the boys, that it not the purpose of Scouting. The boys are required to develop a menu, purchase the groceries prior to the weekend, and cook for themselves over an open fire when the time comes. It can be very satisfying when you know how. It tends to be more of an experiment when you’re ten years old.
As the boys were calculating how many Pop-Tarts and hot dogs it would take to survive a three-day weekend, I was keeping a low profile at the back of the room. In the military, the drill instructor will demand that volunteers take one step forward. Anyone who isn’t smart enough to quickly take one step backward has unwittingly “volunteered” to perform a very unpleasant task for the rest of the day. Scouting can be a little bit like that. Suddenly my supervisor shouted, “BADNARIK!” I snapped to attention the same way I did at work, and rushed to his side. “We voted!’, he said. I hadn’t remembered an election taking place, but he said, “We elected you Grubmaster for the adults!” I made an overt show of complaint, but I didn’t push it too hard because I knew that I could suddenly “volunteer” for a much more difficult task.
This troop was supported by very enthusiastic parents. There were six fathers joining us on the campout, which means I was cooking for eight adult men. I grabbed a clipboard and made an outline of the meals I would have to prepare for our outdoor excursion. Lunch and dinner on Friday. Breakfast, lunch and dinner on Saturday. Breakfast and lunch on Sunday. One of the fathers came and looked over my shoulder. I clutched the clipboard to my chest and told him he had no need to know. As the dads stood in the corner talking, one said, “Don’t worry about me, Michael. I eat almost anything.” I responded, “You’re darn right you do.” There was a growing sense of uneasiness among the fathers. They didn’t realize it, but Grubmaster translates into Food Czar in Russian.
Based on my years of experience, I know that preparation at home is much easier than preparation in the field. Anything that needed to be sliced, chopped, or prepped was done in my kitchen at home. When I was finished I had one cooler of perishable foods on ice, and another cooler of canned and dry goods that did not require ice.
The Troop had purchased a used U-Haul trailer and painted it with the Boy Scout emblem. Instead of the boys loading their tents, sleeping bags, and other equipment into the parents’ cars, everyone simply piled their stuff in the trailer, that one of the fathers would pull behind their SUV. I arrived early and place my two coolers in the corner of the trailer, knowing that they would soon be buried under a pile of camping equipment. As we waited for all of the boys to arrive Friday morning, I started asking the dads what kind of peanut butter they liked. Smooth or crunchy? I also said things like, “Macaroni and cheese is delicious, isn’t it?” Before we loaded into the cars, the dads were already worried they would spend three days being hungry in the woods.
I love cooking in a Dutch oven. (See below.) Most people are surprised at how well the food turns out. Moments after we arrived, I built a fire for the adults, and it took me exactly two minutes to fill the Dutch oven with a Ziploc bag of diced ham and another bag of diced potatoes. A little bit of cream and no one is even aware that I’m cooking. As the sun reaches its zenith, and the boys are warming hot dogs and munching on potato chips, I open the Dutch oven and the smell of my casserole wafts through the forest. Naturally, the fathers were pleasantly surprised to be eating a “real meal”. There were no leftovers.
On Saturday I am surprised to learn that we are going on an extended hike, and that I will be required to cook lunch for the adults far from the two coolers that are my base of operations. The Marines are trained to “improvise, adapt, and overcome”. I found menu items I could shove in my backpack along with a large frying pan. Cooking on a hike is easy if you’re cooking for yourself. Cooking for eight adults is slightly more difficult. When we finally stopped for lunch, I was able to build a fire in minutes, and was able to saute’ onions and bell peppers in the frying pan, and grill Italian sausage links over the fire. I also carried hoagie buns large enough to hold a sausage and a large portion of onions and peppers. And… the food was hot. The fathers looked at me as if I was Mary Poppins who had just pulled a kitchen stove out of her magic satchel.
Saturday night was my pièce de résistance. The dads were lined up with their plates even before I opened my coolers. They didn’t know what I was going to cook, but they wanted to be first in line for whatever it was. I prepared an extravagant spaghetti dinner, complete with garlic bread, salad, four types of salad dressing, and my mother’s famous spaghetti sauce. The picnic table was covered in a red and white checked tablecloth, and I had a candle in a Chianti bottle as a centerpiece. It looked like a restaurant in Milan. I even served “Boy Scout approved wine” in plastic wine glasses It was really just grape juice, but it helped to complete the picture. The boys were astonished. “You guys get to eat all the good stuff!” they whined. I explained to them that they just needed to plan something better than peanut butter sandwiches and granola bars.
At the next Tuesday meeting my supervisor informed me that, “We voted. You’re the permanent Grubmaster.” I responded, “No, no, no! Homey don’t play ‘dat game! My job is to SET the standard. It’s everyone else’s job to try to meet that standard.” Every camping trip after that saw a different father claiming the title of Grubmaster, and doing his best to impress us with his outdoor culinary skills. I had helped to establish a culture of exceeding expectations among the boys AND the adults. In this case, a little healthy competition is a good thing. It helps each of us strive to be better than we already are.
After the meeting was over, I waited outside for parents to arrive to pick up their miniature woodsmen. Some of the mothers came up to me and uttered some very unflattering expletives. I had no idea why I should warrant such hostile affronts. I soon learned that these women had been married for five, ten, maybe fifteen years. Not once during that time had their husbands ever complimented their cooking. But spend three days in the woods with Michael, and all they did for two weeks was brag about my cooking. I laughed. I didn’t realize I would be creating friction in other people’s relationships.
All my life I have been trained to aim for, and occasionally achieve, perfection. Some people are “fussy”. Other people are considered anal-retentive, demonstrating an extreme sense of cleanliness and orderliness. A more extreme form of this is called OCD – obsessive compulsive disorder – characterized as a mental illness that involves repeating actions or thinking about certain things too much. (How can you think about things too much?) My doctor has diagnose me with CDO. This is just like OCD, except the letters are in alphabetical order the way they’re supposed to be!
I’m only exaggerating slightly. I recently took a computerized test. When I was shown my results I muttered, “Son of a B—-!” My fellow students asked, “What’s wrong?” I told them, “I only scored 34 out of 35.” They said, “That’s great!” I said, “No. That’s one less than I was expecting.” There are two ways to look at this. Most people will assume that I am causing myself unnecessary stress by striving for an unattainable ideal. The other way to look at this is that you’ll never exceed expectations if you never make the effort. We admire people who win Olympic medals for perfection in their sport. Two of the biggest events in America are the Super Bowl and the World Series, assumed to be the definition of perfection in football and baseball. Unfortunately, most of us are content to be spectators, and rarely if ever approach perfection ourselves. I find it sad that mediocrity is considered to be good enough for so many.
Contrary to popular opinion, perfection is possible. What skill would you like to perfect? Would you like to learn how to exceed expectations on a regular basis? Schedule a fifteen-minute conference with me. I may be able to coach you to a more improved version of yourself.
A Dutch oven is a thick-walled cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid. Dutch ovens are usually made of seasoned cast iron, and they been used as cooking vessels for hundreds of years. They can be suspended over a fire, but I prefer to put one on top of hot coals, and place additional coals on top. It is my belief that you can control the cooking temperature better this way.