Tuesday, May 24, 2022
May 24, 2022

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Everybody Has a Story: Glad I didn’t join fish supper

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I was hired the summer of 1977 to work as a staff archaeologist on a project in Dayton, Ohio. We were joined by a couple of others from Dayton, but our crew boss and three other staff members, all male, were from Columbus.

We Columbus people would pile into the work vehicle, an old station wagon, Monday mornings for the drive to Dayton, and reverse the drive on Friday afternoon so we could spend our weekends at home. Our accommodations in Dayton were not luxurious, but we didn’t have to stay in tents. We had bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen and walkable access to restaurants and stores.

Just a note here about the accommodations in historical context. Per our landlord, men and women were not allowed to inhabit the same house, so I had a whole house to myself, next door to the guys. As a member of the women’s liberation movement and an Equal Rights Amendment advocate, I didn’t agree that mixing men and women was outrageous, but we abided by our landlord’s wishes.

Archaeologists working at remote sites don’t often have project budgets that can accommodate buying expensive ingredients for meals, let alone hiring a full-time cook. Chores like developing a weekly menu and cooking meals are shared by all the staff. We tended to be pretty forgiving of personal cooking skills or lack thereof. Everything would be OK as long as everyone participated in cooking and cleaning.

Breakfasts and lunches were up to each individual and yogurts, boxed cereals, lunch meats and bread were provided. Restaurant dining wasn’t really part of our budgets.

I was probably the most experienced cook, but I refused to take on responsibility for all the suppers and would not assist the guys in their supper-making.

Since there were five of us but only four evening meals a week (because of the return to Columbus on Friday) one cook always got a week off. But I agreed to make one supper each week, a concession more about self-preservation than a woman’s liberation thing. It just ensured that at least one meal a week would be edible.

Again, since this was 1977, I felt I had to work pretty hard to combat the expectation that I’d take on the role of house mother to the guys. I was determined to make the men do their fair amount of the chores.

Overall, things didn’t go too badly in the supper-making department. One of the guys knew how to crack open a jar of Ragu, another young man made a decent family-style version of hamburger enchiladas and another guy had burgers and home fries in his repertoire. Fill in the blanks with the occasional hot dogs or sausages and we were all set. I still wouldn’t give them recipes or assist them, except to explain one night that the directions for cooking rice were on the package.

One week the crew boss, Mr. Ragu, decided he needed to be different and wanted to cook fish. I don’t like fish and even though I will eat it from time to time, I don’t generally do so willingly or with good humor. I informed the crew boss that he could make it just for the four of them, and I’d take myself down to the local burger house for the evening.

Fish supper day arrived and I was almost out the door when crew boss asked me how to cook his frozen, rectangular block of fish. (I think it was cod.) I told him, legitimately, that I didn’t have a clue. I watched as he melted some margarine in the bottom of an iron skillet, put raw flour on the frozen block of fish, and placed it in the skillet with a pat of margarine on top. Skillet, fish, flour and margarine were popped into the oven.

Now, everyone was always really appreciative of any efforts in the supper-making department. We routinely praised all efforts, giving each other pats on the back and extolling how great the suppers were. I even had a few marriage proposals. (The guys knew they were safe because I was already married.) But I wasn’t around that evening to hear the “good jobs” and other “atta boys” for the fish supper.

We assembled the next morning at the work site, and everyone was pretty quiet. The crew boss told us he had to meet with the client, and to keep working while he was away from the site.

He wasn’t gone very long before one of the guys lifted his head out of his work pit and said, “That was the worst fish I’ve ever had in my life.”

This started the guys talking about the fish supper, and it wasn’t pretty to hear. They sounded so confused and sad. Me, I just smiled to myself and kept working.


Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.

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