Whenever I say that my extended family camps together in the summer—living in tents, cooking over the fire, and bathing in the river—someone will ask, “And you all get along? For a whole week?”
Sure, I say.
Of course, I’m lying.
My family includes my seventy-something father who loses his temper if he doesn’t get an afternoon nap, my sister Carroll who just stops talking at the first sign of trouble, my sister Laurie who has been known to threaten family members with a sharp knife while making fruit salad, my brother Kevin who refused to come to family events for eight years of his first marriage, and my youngest sister Colleen who moved to the city and became a New Yorker. Plus, ten grandchildren. I’m the middle child, so you’d think I’d be a peacemaker, but my father and I get into arguments so often that we aren’t allowed to sit at the same picnic table at lunch time.
Our family camp, a peninsula of oak trees tucked into a marsh on the St. Lawrence River, throws us all together every summer. When we get sunny weather, we play bocce, go swimming, and gather around the fire pit to tell stories. But when it rains all week and the tents fill with wet sneakers, it’s not just the family dogs who have been known to snap and snarl at each other.
It was my niece Erin, middle child of three sisters, who organized a family contest she called Islands Chef. The contest was modeled after a television show I’ve never seen, but I grasped the concept right away: a cooking contest in which a strict time limit forces pairs of contestants (a chef and a sous chef) to prepare food at a stressful pace highly entertaining to anyone not competing. Erin announced the competition several weeks before our annual July vacation, leading to a surge of trash talking and intense speculation as to which two family members would win.
The trash talking was all in good fun, of course, but it did make me wonder if a competition was the best way to promote family harmony. Time would tell.
Luckily, the sun shone the day of the contest, since all cooking would take place outside. My mother and I had just returned from a morning canoe trip amidst the water lilies when we noticed the family gathering near the fire pit. The contest was about to begin! I pulled my camera from my dry bag. Erin had given me the job of official photographer.
Erin is a preschool teacher, so she has the skills necessary to deal with a large family who all talk at once. Her silky red hair shining in the sun, she stood patiently, guarding a tray covered with a beach towel. This would be the big reveal: the secret ingredient that all contestants would be required to use.
There were four pairs of contestants:
The husband-and-wife pair in the competition were my brother Kevin and his second wife Peg, still newlyweds. The youngest of ten kids, Peg knew how to cook for a big family. I had less faith in Kevin’s culinary talents, but he excelled at the trash talking.
“I’ve been honing my cooking skills since I was a child,” Kevin bragged.
“Name one thing you ever made,” my sister Laurie challenged.
“I was the first person to stir hard ice cream around in a bowl as it melted,” he said. “I invented soft ice cream.”
My sister Carroll and I exchanged looks of scorn. Kevin had an ego larger than the biggest island in the river. But my son Devin gave him a high five. My teenage sons adored Kevin. The crazier his stories got, the more delighted they were.
Kevin turned to Colleen, the youngest of my siblings.
“We all know what Colleen will make,” he said mockingly. “Some kind of curry.”
He was right. Not taking any chances with the north country grocery store, my youngest sister Colleen brought her own curry with her, made from ingredients bought at a Thai store near her tiny New York City apartment. She loved gourmet food and could spend thirty minutes debating which bottle of wine to buy. A journalist, she once had the plum assignment of traveling to Thailand to take cooking lessons.
Colleen had exchanged her usual urban black for the flowing pink fabric she’d brought back with her from Thailand. Her sous chef Sara, sitting on her lap in a matching outfit, was the youngest of the grandchildren. They’d both pulled their hair into buns, which made the aunt-and-niece pair look very much alike.
The fourth chef, my brother-in-law Larry, grew up on Long Island. Eating at restaurants in New York City had given him a sophisticated palate, but I’d never actually seen him cook. Dressed in purple pants and a tie-dye shirt, he stood confidently and he’d brought his own knife. His young son Eric was dressed informally, with bits of pine sap clinging to his shirt, but he had come prepared. Eric pulled out a bandana to tie his hair back, explaining that he was following the state health code, a move he hoped would gain him some bonus points, although to be honest, it mostly just made him look like a skateboarder.
My brother-in-law Jimmy and his daughter Jaime were early favorites. Jaime, a schoolteacher with lots of cheerful energy, is the oldest of the grandchildren. In preparation for the contest, she and Jimmy had taken his boat out to the river and anchored near Whiskey Island for a swim. Their straight blond hair was newly washed, pushed back by sunglasses above their tanned faces. They’d saved fresh shirts and shorts for the contest, but piece de resistance was matching Iron Chef aprons, brand new.
“I ordered them online,” Jimmy said proudly.
Jimmy, the son of a chef, often does the cooking at camp, but I suspected that his easy-going nature would be a handicap. Neither Jimmy or Jaime had a bloodthirsty drive to win. They’d both be helping other contestants and making sure everyone had a good time. That’s no way to win a contest.
My mother, who cooked the most often at camp, wasn’t one of the contestants.
“We couldn’t let Grandma enter the contest because everyone would vote for her,” my daughter Shannon observed. “It wouldn’t be a contest.”
“Yeah,” agreed Sean. “She would dominate.”
My husband, my four kids, and I were the largest voting bloc. Peg glanced at my teenage sons, and whispered to my brother: “We better double the recipe.”
Colleen gave the covered tray an anxious look. The sheet of paper she clutched was a carefully planned recipe, and a bizarre ingredient could ruin the whole thing.
“Doesn’t matter to me what it is,” Jimmy bragged. His voice still held a hint of the southern drawl he’d had before moving to upstate New York. “Avocado, steak, seafood. I can do it all.” He winked at the other contestants.
“I doubt she bought us steak,” Larry muttered. “This is a pretty low budget operation.”
Erin gave him her pre-school teacher glare, and he lapsed into silence. Jimmy grinned.
“You have to prepare two dishes,” Erin repeated her rules. “One of them has to be vegetarian.” She looked pointedly at Larry, who often scoffed at the vegetarians in the family.
She paused for effect. “And you MUST incorporate the secret ingredient.”
She lifted the towel dramatically.
Larry’s assessment was correct. Erin hadn’t spent any money at all. The tray held tomatoes from my parents’ garden. We’d been eating tomato sandwiches all week, and I couldn’t imagine that anyone was excited to see them.
But I was wrong. Colleen screamed “Yes!” and leaped into the air in triumph. She and Sara hugged each other with excitement.
“You have fifteen minutes to plan,” Erin said. “Starting now.”
Colleen and Sara ran to claim the hammock, where they could keep watch for spies as they enjoyed the shade of the oak trees. Jimmy and Jaime began whispering to each other. Kevin and Peg walked over to their car, which began a rumor that they had hidden something in their trunk. Larry began making some afternoon cocktails, perhaps to sway the judges. Eric climbed the pine tree near the fire pit, oblivious to all the planning.
I’d just finished taking photos of each pair when Erin made another dramatic announcement. “To the grocery store! You’ll have exactly thirty minutes to buy your groceries!”
In a mad scramble, family members dropped whatever they were doing and ran to climb into cars, slamming doors in their hurry.
“Are we ALL going?” I asked.
“You’re the official photographer!” Erin said.
Right. I got in the nearest car.
“You’re one of the judges?” said Larry, from the driver’s seat. He reached under the seat, and handed me a small chocolate bar. The bribes had begun.
The little north country grocery store was a relaxed place where summer tourists in flip-flops strolled through aisles stocked with hamburger buns and suntan lotion. After an organized cheer in the parking lot, we burst through the doors, Erin holding a stopwatch.
I ran through the store with my camera. It wasn’t hard to find the Islands Chef competitors. They were the frantic, obsessed shoppers racing up and down the aisles, muttering to each other as they tossed items into their carts. Other customers—that is, the people not part of my crazy family—looked at my camera curiously.
In the produce section, Larry lamented the lack of fresh basil while Eric piled peppers into the cart. The father-son team raced over to the deli, the wheels of the cart rattling against the linoleum.
“Do you have fresh mozzarella?” Larry asked. A lifetime in the New York City area gave him an unrealistic view of what a small north country store might carry. The woman behind the counter laughed.
“Oh, honey,” she said.
Eric had a tighter grasp on reality. “I saw some packages near the milk,” he said and sprinted off to find them.
From the frozen foods aisle came an ominous announcement from Erin: “Twenty minutes left.”
“If we don’t find the soy sauce, we’re doomed!” Colleen said dramatically. Sara scanned the grocery shelves.
“I’ll go ask at the register,” she said breathlessly.
“Do you think they’d let me use the PA system?” Erin asked. She strode off importantly.
The little grocery store has never seen such excitement. Workers and customers alike kept asking us questions. When Kevin came through the checkout line, the cashier shook his hand and said, “Good luck. I hope you win,” and posed for a photo with him.
Out in parking lot, Erin continue to shout orders. “Back to camp!” she called. Trunks slammed shut, and motors revved.
Under the oak trees, two picnic tables were pushed together near the grill and fire pit. The teams piled their sacks of food on the tables and waited for Erin’s next instructions.
“I’m going to run to the outhouse,” said Peg nervously. “I won’t have time once we start cooking. Stall her until I get back!”
Family members milled about, peering into the bags hungrily. Jimmy kept holding up items to brag—he was clearly planning a seafood dish—but Eric and Larry kept their bags tightly closed, guarding their secret.
“Anyone who didn’t enter the contest is a judge,” Erin said. “We have twelve judges.”
“I’m watching to make sure no one cheats,” teenage Devin said importantly.
My niece Chelsea held up a pen and a white paper plate. “I’m taking notes,” she said.
“The contestants have exactly one hour,” said Erin.
She raised her arm. “Go!”
Unlike the television show, the chefs didn’t have a full kitchen. In fact, they had no kitchen at all. They had to share the grill and couple of propane burners set up near the fire pit. So the contest began with loud arguments over who was going to use which burner.
Peg walked over to the trunk of her car and opened it with a flourish. Inside was a card table and a camp stove. She and Kevin set up their own cooking station near their tent, a good forty feet away from the fire pit where the other contestants were fighting over space.
“Smart move,” said my niece Emily, the teenage judge with the blonde ponytail. Peg and Kevin had taken an early lead.
“It was my condition for entering the contest,” said Peg. “I’m not crazy.”
Cooking for twenty-one people means a whole lot of chopping. Knives flashed through onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Despite stern warnings from Erin, there was a high degree of cooperation amongst the chefs. At the grill, Jimmy seemed to be watching over everyone’s pots—and he grilled the chicken for Colleen’s curry dish. He alone seemed relaxed and happy, wielding his spatula amidst the chaos.
My mother, who had been told that she’d get a day off from cooking, spent the hour rushing about to help as frantic requests came from the chefs: “Do you have a can opener? A sharp knife? A potholder that isn’t filthy?”
“It’s a lot of activity,” my father said. He’d thrown a wrinkled flannel shirt over his bright blue undershirt and his white hair stuck up straight as he made the rounds, peering into pots and generally getting into everyone’s way.
Teams were clearly catering to individual judges. The Italian sausage that Larry had bought to add to his pasta dish was an obvious effort to get my father’s vote. Jimmy secured my mother’s vote as soon as he began unpacking the mussels and shrimp. Kevin and Peg went for the teenage vote with a huge vat of chicken chili. Colleen appealed to the vegetarian voting bloc with a curry dish that included spinach, black-eyed peas, and tomatoes.
About halfway through the hour, I heard a cry of horror from Jaime. I rushed to the grill, worried she had burned herself.
“My wine!” she yelled. “Who drank my wine?”
The bottle she’d bought to serve with her meal was empty. It had been drunk by several of the judges, who had mistaken it for a bribe.
“You better vote for me now,” she said, glaring at them. Thankfully, Jaime is one of the easy-going members of the family, and the incident didn’t lead to bloodshed.
As the tantalizing smells began drifting through the trees, the judges circled hungrily. “I could taste test that chili for you,” Sean offered to Kevin and Peg as he approached their little folding table.
His cousin Erin pounced on him. “No tasting ahead of time!” she scolded.
“Fine,” said Sean. He held up a frisbee and looked over to Devin. “Want to throw?” Within seconds, the frisbee was gliding through the air, right over the heads of several of the chefs. Sean and Devin were fanatic Ultimate Frisbee players, so their aim was good as the disc whizzed past Kevin and Peg, narrowing missing them. My brother found it amusing, but I could tell from Peg’s nervous glances that she did not.
Their folding table seemed to be getting smaller. The campstove with its heavy pot of chili had been pushed to the edge, crowded by bottles of spices, a jar of oil, and bowls of food, while Kevin and Peg chopped fruit furiously on precariously balanced cutting boards.
“Don’t come near,” Kevin said dramatically. “This whole thing could collapse at any moment.”
Over at the picnic table, I could see my sister Colleen pacing frantically, anxious about her curry dish while Sara chopped garlic. “Look up and smile,” I heard Colleen whisper as I approached. They both looked up and Colleen smiled as if she was utterly relaxed.
“It’s like running a marathon,” Colleen said. “Always know where the cameras are.” She wasn’t kidding. I’ve seen photos of Colleen at the end of a marathon. No matter how grueling the distance or the heat, she throws her arms up and smiles at the camera.
As the clock wound down, Erin walked from chef to chef, yelling: “Five minutes! You’ve got five minutes left!”
Jimmy and Jaime were still at the grill, working furiously. Their seafood dish was bubbling hot, ready to be served over pasta, but their second dish, a pizza cleverly cooked over the grill, needed just a few more minutes.
Sara added garnish to two curry dishes—one chicken and one vegetarian—while Colleen adjusted the lovely scarves they were wearing. “I bought these scarves in Thailand,” Colleen said. “When I was there taking COOKING classes.” It’s true that she does know how to make a good curry. But she prefers complicated recipes that would be difficult to achieve on a camp stove, so I was reserving judgment on her dish until I tasted it.
Eric and Larry put the finishing touches on their side dish: wedges of tomatoes covered with thick slices of mozzarella, with fresh pesto layered on top. To accompany their pasta dishes, they’d brought fresh Italian bread, which Eric hurriedly sliced as the clock ran down.
“Each chef has to present their dishes,” Erin decreed, and we gathered near the picnic table eagerly.
My brother went first. “Our chicken chili is accompanied by Whiskey Island Mango Salad,” he said. He’d named the dish after an island we’d all swum at for years, which was clever. And I had to admit that the mango salad, spooned into scooped-out red tomatoes, was the most colorful dish on the table.
I heard Jimmy whisper to Jaime, “Quick! We need to make up names for our stuff.”
Colleen’s experience as a broadcast journalist was evident as she took her turn. Her anxiety seemed to magically disappear. Smiling at us all, she explained the history of the spices in her dish, and talked about how it’s important to try recipes from other cultures. “I’m hoping to diversify food options at camp,” she said grandly. Sara held out the dish, making arm gestures as if she were on a game show, and smiled to the non-existent cameras.
“Not corny at all,” Kevin muttered.
Then came a frenzy of eating.
Never at camp have we had so many choices. Even we vegetarians were soon sated. I ate Colleen’s curry, a big helping of mango salad, pasta with fresh bread, a slice of pizza, and then another helping of curry. Around me, family members dove into seafood and chomped through grilled sausage. Each team of chefs had made enough food for everyone, which meant that we had four times as much food as we needed. My teenage sons tackled this challenge with gusto, taking second helpings, then thirds and fourths.
“This is the best meal we’ve ever had at camp,” said Shannon.
My mother sighed with contentment as she looked down at her empty plate. “As my Aunt Mae used to say, I’m as full as a pinkeen.”
“What’s a pinkeen?” asked Sara.
“I don’t even want to know,” said Sean, grinning.
“It’s a little fish,” said Colleen. “I looked it up once.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t make any sense. Just a weird Irish saying.”
We ate until we could eat no more.
Then Erin held up little slips of paper. “You each get a ballot. You may enter the cabin one at a time.” She turned and marched into my parents’ tiny cabin.
My sister Carroll was first in line. I pushed through the door to take a photo of her voting. “ONE AT TIME!” Erin yelled.
“But I’m the photographer,” I protested. “You told me to take pictures of everything.”
“Not the voting,” she said.
The screen door slammed behind me as I stepped back outside and my journalist sister Colleen, standing patiently in line, gave me a sympathetic look. “Next time, bring a press pass. People respect the pass.”
I built a fire while we waited for the results. Already, the sun slanted at the cabin with that orange light that meant we weren’t far from sunset. Laurie produced mosquito spray and began spraying people’s ankles, whether they wanted it or not, which caused some momentary arguments, but mostly, everyone was content, filled with good food. I escaped the spray by slipping off to my tent and changing into jeans.
The teenagers pulled the lawn chairs from the field where we’d played bocce earlier. “If you set up a circle of chairs, people will sit there,” Sean always said. It was true. Within minutes, we were gathered at the fire pit.
Sara sat on Colleen’s lap. Peg and Kevin huddled together on the picnic bench. Jimmy and Jaime washed dishes and scraped at the grill. Larry finished a last bit of sausage while Eric sat with my youngest son, Bryan, both of them poking at the fire. My father claimed the lawn chair that he’d reserved with a piece of fluorescent orange surveyor’s tape.
Erin came out of the cabin, held up the paper ballots, and dramatically threw them onto the fire, causing a plume of smoke to rise.
Devin leapt to his feet, horrified. “What if we demand a recount? YOU’VE BURNED THE BALLOTS.”
“The results are final,” Erin said. She looked at Colleen and Sara, the aunt and niece team who had taken a risk with two sophisticated curry dishes. “Congratulations!”
We all clapped, except for Peg, who pretended to cry. “I sacrificed two hours of my life for this,” she said dramatically.
The awards ceremony was brief. Erin produced wooden stars, painted gold for the winning team, and silver for everyone else.
“Quick! Photos before it gets dark!” I said, lifting up my camera. Colleen and Sara posed graciously, smiling and waving as if they were royalty.
Afterwards, Colleen held up her gold star and said, “Um, what should I do with this?” She has a strict “no knickknacks” rule for her tiny Manhattan apartment so there’s no way that this prize, as grand as it was, would be going home in her suitcase.
“You could put it up somewhere here,” my father said. I looked at him in surprise. That offer was out of character.
My parents’ policy is that when you leave camp, you take everything home: we pack up the tents, bag up the garbage, and pile the returnables into the vehicle of whichever young person needs the cash. My father has a particular aversion to plastic, so even a child’s swing must go home if it’s made of bright yellow and red plastic. But the stars were wooden, so perhaps that helped pave the way for this unusual exception.
I looked around. The picnic table? But stars would make it bumpy.
“I’ve got it,” said Eric.
He started down the path towards the outhouse, calling out: “Follow me!”
Soon the stars were glued to the walls of the outhouse, a permanent reminder of this delicious event. And then we drifted back to the fire pit, where each contestant gave the dramatic details of their heroic efforts. I looked around at the faces, my parents sitting close, their silver hair shining in the firelight, the teenage cousins piled onto the picnic bench, my brother demonstrating his chopping technique, and my sisters settled into lawn chairs.
Erin had pulled it off. Perhaps that’s what it takes to keep a family together: a place we love, a task to keep us busy, delicious food in our bellies, and a pre-school teacher to keep us in line.
Share this post with your friends.