What Michael Rowles taught me about Spaghetti

What Michael Rowles taught me about Spaghetti

Sometimes life-lessons spring from the most unexpected places.  And those lessons are recalled as randomly as they first appeared.  Or sometimes an object triggers the memory.  In this case, spaghetti.  Without fail, when I think of cooking pasta, I quickly recall the many spaghetti dinners cooked while taking campers to hills 1 & 2 for an overnight.  In concert with that culinary memory, I remember what I learned from Michael Rowles when preparing this meal.

 

As much as I liked the ubiquitous (and obligatory) foil-dinners, during the 90s, a new meal tradition was born with the advent of the spaghetti dinner.  This ‘new’ meal simplified things greatly.  The roll of foil, carrots, onions, potatoes, ketchup, mustard, salt and pepper were replaced by one food-service bag of tomato sauce (it resembled a large bag blood), dried parmesan cheese, a bag of dried pasta, one ‘man with beard’ tool, and two pots.  The roll of brown paper towels (same ones used in the bathroom dispensers) was still used.

The overnights became rote, as we did a dry run during staff training.  Then every session, we would repeat this tradition of leaving North Center, canoeing across the lake (much as our camp forefathers did) for dinner and sleep.  For the Long-termers, this was a dry run getting the campers used to pitching camp, as they would do on their way to Mackinac Island.  Typically, Two cabins would stop by the Venture Out building, double-check the manifest, ensuring all supplies were in order, including tents, food, cooking utensils, sundries, and a first aid kit.  Next stop, the path leading out of South Center, past the climbing tree, then hills one & two.  Hill one had a pump, and the fire circle there was used for cooking for both groups.  Hill 2 did not have a pump, but was more open for great nighttime stargazing.  Both campsites provided an ‘out of camp’ experience for the campers as they were no longer in a cabin or going to a dining hall to eat, but ‘out in the wilds’.  As an adult, it’s a pretty controlled environment.  As a camper, it was something unique with a sense of adventure.

 

 

Arriving at the campsite, groups were assigned different duties.  There was a group formed to erect tents and a group in charge of the fire (wood gathering) and a group assigned meal prep.  With the new spaghetti menu, things were streamlined versus the prep needed for foil dinners.  It may seem trivial, but it did make a big difference for the counselors.  Getting through prep was much faster and getting to dinner was faster as well.  Diners didn’t have to herd a dozen foil packets around hot coals, fight about whose dinner is whose, or accidently dumping someone’s meal (no more hot grease packet flipping!).  And hungry campers no longer had to navigate through burnt hamburger, charred onions, raw carrots and potatoes. Or more like, counselors didn’t have to forgo their own perfectly cooked foil dinner for a camper’s whose contents were partially sacrificed to the fire gods.

Spaghetti dinners utilized the same hot coals to boil water.  Beyond that, the meal only required a ‘Man with Beard’ potholder to move the pot. Recipe: Boil water, dump pasta in said boiling water, and warm up sauce. Voila, a hearty dinner, Grazie!  Despite how easy this meal was, I was making things hard for myself.  Little did I know, things could be easier, until Michael shared a little piece of wisdom.

 

As I was his JC, I referred my self as the ‘stable boy’.  And if you knew Michael, he impishly enjoyed calling me that.  He delighted in calling out, “Oh, Stable Boy” in the same tone as a prince would call for his fiddler’s three.  The term was used in jest of course, but was just part of our dynamic and ongoing repartee.  In my naiveté, I proceeded to sully a second pot, filling it with cold sauce in preparation to some fire warming.  Quickly, Michael shook his head and said something like ‘Oh, Stable Boy’ in mock exasperation.  I of course wondered what I was doing wrong as this is how I’ve always done the spaghetti dinners.  As the pasta was cooking, I’d warm up the sauce, what’s the big deal?  Well, he pointed out what we call today, a life-hack.  He pointed out to me what I was doing was fine just as long as I like cleaning two pots back at the VO room the next morning.  I was still puzzled. I always did it ‘This Way’.  He forced me to think about it.  It wasn’t a matter of a ‘right way’ or a ‘wrong way’, but there was a smarter way.  This magic moment was born from a mundane task. He shared with me a different perspective on doing things. (You mean my way isn’t always right?)  It was a good lesson in perspective and being able to creatively problem solve.

 

Jeannie K / Dustin S

Even if its as mundane as making a pasta dinner for campers.  Use one pot, not two (even though we were issued two pots).  Now this lesson does not go in the record books as a major epiphany or even a true game-changer.  But I learned to be open to other people’s way of doing things.  Damn if he wasn’t right.  Boil the water, add pasta, when cooked, drain water, add cold sauce to hot noodles, voila- a one pot feast ready to be served.  It also limited pedantic requests for varying degrees of sauce…everyone was served the same amount.  In fact, I don’t recall complaints of ‘this has too much’ sauce or requests for less. And the next time we did an overnight and had pasta, I was always glad I only had one pot to clean early the next morning, not two.  In subsequent years with different teams, I passed along the Rowles Method of preparing this overnight feast, and without exception, everyone had that ‘oh, duh’ moment of how silly it was to use a second pot.

You maybe thinking ‘that’s not a big deal’ and it is not. However, as I get older, I’ve learned to appreciate the small things more and more.  And to this day, I share this story on perspective.  In daily life, we often get caught in our own rote duties, not taking a moment to stop and think things through and ask, is there a better way to do X, Y or Z.  Or do we only focus on doing A, B, C because that’s the way we’ve always done it.  My small epiphany is offered as food for thought.

 


Note: This isn’t the only thing I learned from Michael!  He was an amazing person and taught me so much.  I’m sad he’s no longer here to share in the laughter years later, but I know he lives in the people who remember him fondly.  He’ll be looking down at the 100th celebrations and we’ll take a moment to remember him.

3 Comments

  1. opus
    Mar 29, 2018

    incredible Michael. wonderful article. thanks, dustin!

  2. Betsy Partoyan
    Mar 30, 2018

    What a tribute, Dustin! Michael and I had a running just-shy-of-bawdy joke about power tools one summer (‘89?) when we taught woodworking together… That memory cracks me up to this day! Now, spaghetti dinners is a whole ‘nother story: I learned the hard way that the water has to be boiling for pasta to cook. One night, I couldn’t get that massive pot to boil, so figured it would just take the pasta longer to cook… 40 minutes later our entire group was engaged in a massive food fight with the spaghetti-turned-glue that was supposed to be our dinner. I could have used some Michael wisdom that night — those poor kids had to make a meal of sauce and Zippy!

    • King Stoney
      Apr 3, 2018

      Michael was always one to have private jokes amongst staff while it went unnoticed by campers. I’ll share another inside joke with you when I see you in June!

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