The only time I spent in the food industry professionally, I was being paid $125 a week and living in the place where I worked, as a full-time waitress and a part-time counselor at a camp in northern Wisconsin.
It was the summer after my freshman year, a nine-month span I’d spent in Florida, doing crazy things like, instead of studying, taking impromptu trips to away soccer games, sneaking away with girlfriends to the beach and, worse, speeding over 100 miles per hour down a causeway. I still remember the brown-haired boy in the car with me, sticking his head out the sunroof, laughing, hitting his nose against the ledge of my awful magenta car, making the bridge between his eyes bleed when we hit a bump in the road.
By the end of that year, the first I’d spent away from home, I’d been through bedbugs (and the resulting moving, moving again in response), an attempt to give blood (in which I passed out), my first really, really terrible report card and the most terrific case of homesickness you’ve ever seen. Even looking back, I don’t know what prompted me to, instead of returning home, move to Wisconsin, but that’s what I did.
I’d signed up, willing to do anything, and by some act of grace, I wasn’t assigned cleaning duty. Instead, they put me in the kitchen.
Early mornings, before campers and counselors were awake, I’d walk in the almost daylight to the white dining hall, the scent of warm yeast in the air. I pulled trays of puffy doughs and fresh-made eggs off the rolling warmers and set them in the buffet line. I collected dishes from round tables covered in plastic tablecloths. Sometimes, I even got tips: one elderly man told me he wanted to give me little something, as he handed me a $5. I almost cried.
When the weather was nice, the kitchen crew transported things to a picnic area in the woods, complete with an outdoor cooking area and tables lined up for a food line. It was there that I burned myself for the first time, just slightly while I carried a hot plate, causing a small scab to grow over my left forearm.
In a lot of ways, I think it’s good to burn yourself early: it gives you a healthy respect for cooking tools, and you think more carefully when you’re working with them. But in my case, it also gave me an irrational fear, and I have avoided a lot of things since—things like hot oil, bubbling and popping in a pan on the stove, which is something of a problem for a fried-food-lover like myself.
So the recipe that got me to conquer those fears would have to be a pretty special recipe, don’t you think?
Enter homemade tortilla chips.