Taking It on the Road

By BOB ZIMORINO

I graduated from college with an Associates Degree in Food Service Administration. I moved west…to Buffalo. The job that followed was as the head cook in a summer camp for the mentally challenged on Lake Erie a few miles west of Buffalo.

I lived at the camp and, for the ultimate turn around, I was now the cafeteria lady. Well, except I’m a guy. The products that we were given to create food with was institutional garbage. The institutional world had no fresh fruit or veggies. The word “fresh” was banned from their dictionary.

For meat, we were given ground beef with soy protein filler because why not cheapen cheap meat. (Actually, it was probably better for us because soy protein wasn’t thirty percent fat.) The chickens were scrawny and old enough to have voted for JFK. We had Spam as a regular feature – and these were the highlights. Everything else was powdered or canned. They gave us recipes to follow that were as bad as the food.

The sad thing is, that if the kids cared, they weren’t able to convey it. The adults that worked at the camp were another story. They ran the cook that I replaced out of town for making bad food worse. The guy was so bad, I heard he had to go into witness protection and was last seen delivering papers somewhere near Salina, Kansas.

When I first got to the camp, I tried the state of New York’s recipes, which bring to mind the term “recipes for disaster.” Within one week of my arrival, the head honcho called me into his office and offered me a one-way ticket to hell if I didn’t fix the food.

There were a many great things that my Father taught me when I was a kid. As I mentioned before, he was a chef in his own right and had enslaved my brother Mike and I to the galley. It was not a total waste. We absorbed a few things along the way, the most important of which was: “If something doesn’t work, fix it.” And so I did.

I got a local farmer to donate fresh onions and potatoes to us. His brother that lived down the road, kicked in carrots and, later in the season, fresh corn and zucchini. My predecessor was only using about half to two-thirds of what the commissary was sending him so I had left over product that I traded back to them for oats, wheat flour, and baking powder.

Instead of serving hamburgers, I turned the beef/soy burger into meatloaf. We had chicken stew, which was truly the only way to cook these old birds, and made use of the potatoes, onions, and carrots and in the mornings. We had biscuits and gravy using the Spam, with oatmeal on the side.

I found other ways of turning the unpalatable into better-than-average institutional food and the camp loved me for it. I received a commendation as the best camp cook ever at the end of the season.

My friends and I used to sit on a bluff above the shores of Lake Erie at night and watch the fireworks-like display, as Bethlehem Steel poured molten slag into the lake. Maybe it was the dead fish that washed up and lined the shores (no, I didn’t cook them) but at some point people started becoming more and more concerned about the health implications that industrial pollution was causing.

Back in the early 50s, in the Love Canal district of Niagara Falls, New York, the local school board had purchased land on what had been a chemical dump site (over 21,000 tons buried) for Hooker Chemicals. Even though Hooker had disclosed the potential danger in the deed at the time of the sale, the 99th Street School was constructed with a neighborhood soon behind it.

By the time I was sitting there watching the steel plant pour their waste into the lake, 56% of the kids being born in Love Canal had birth defects. Cancer and nerve disorders were rampant.

Public outrage over Love Canal caused people, as well as the government, to start looking at the waste that industry was putting into the air, the water, and the land. The fines levied and the retrofitting of so many industrial complexes to meet newer and constantly being revised standards became incredibly cost-prohibitive. The acronym NIMBY (not in my back yard) came into being and industry was put on notice: Clean up or close up. Many closed or moved to countries where killing people with pollution, was perfectly acceptable.

American industry was on the wane except in one area. While most other industries were moving on, industrial farming was getting larger and larger. The family farm, being forced to compete against the industrial complex was losing big. It was akin to when fast food hit my hometown. The locals just couldn’t compete. The landscape was changing, not only how we ate, but where our food came from and what was being done to it along the way.

Summer ended and I was offered a job at the institution that housed the kids that I had been feeding all summer, so I took it. I shared a motel room with my buddy Mac. Life consisted of drinking beer by the case, shooting flies with rubber bands, and eating chicken wings from the Anchor Bar on Main Street in Buffalo. They were unbelievably good and we would eat them by the dozen until stuffed, and then probably ate some more.

When I was in college, I had told friends that given the opportunity, I was going to move to Montana the first chance I got. I had seen floor to ceiling pictures of Glacier and Yellowstone, as part of a photographic display done by Kodak, when I was in high school.

My friends Billy Ferris and Little John Peters came to my rescue in September of that 1975, when they came by and said (after shooting a few flies and knocking back a couple beers) that they were moving to Montana and asked if I wanted to go. Two weeks later, we were heading west on I-90.

Next up: Jackson Hole and Bru Ha-Ha.  Back to Bob’s “Taste It” homepage

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Bio:  Bob Zimorino is a full-time real estate agent with Lambros/ERA Real Estate, a retired Certified Executive Chef, a Musician with the popular local band Hellgate Rodeo, a dad, and a grandpa. He shares the experiences from his life that helped shape his careers and hobbies. What better place to start his weekly “Taste It” blog than his take on the evolution of food in hislifetime?