Other Side of the Line: Proctor Revisited

By Florence Wu

Most of the campus dreams on with a few more hours of sleep to spare at 6 a.m. But in Proctor dining hall, the kitchen is up and running.

Proctor before the first light.

I was told to come in through the backdoor, where Wayne, the truck driver, was busy moving boxes of food supplies. Most staff did not know me but greeted me with a smile and a “good morning” nevertheless.  

Wayne moving in the supplies from his truck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With all dining halls severely short on staff, there is only one chef on duty at a time, making them responsible for cooking breakfast for half of the campus. More than 1200 kids. 

On the first day of class, the same mix of expectation and uncertainty that permeated the student body was also shared by the staff.

Proctor preparing to open at 7a.m..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christina Sheldrick, the cook on duty, carried a practical, down-to-earth attitude. She spoke loudly and was easy to talk to. Born in Middlebury, Christina has been at the college since 2003. She started out as a dish washer and worked her way up.

Christina preparing for breakfast.

When I asked her how the college has changed over the years, she raised her eyebrows and gave me a smirk. “Oh, it changed for sure, but I would rather not talk about that.”

Every morning, at 3 a.m., Christina wakes up and prepares lunch for her two children, aged three and six. She gets them out of the house by 4:30 a.m. and drives them to her mother-in-law, who would then take them to school later on. She comes to Proctor at 5:30 a.m..

“What time do you go to bed?” I asked, as someone who lives by eight hours of sleep per day. 

“10 to 11 p.m.,” she said.

I did a little subtraction: four to five hours. “That’s not a lot of sleep,” I said.

“It’s not,” she agreed. “But you get used to running on little sleep.”

Christina making the vegan breakfast.

On the first day of school, the main breakfast menu had hash browns, french toast, and fried eggs. Christina said the fried eggs are the most labour intensive, because you have to hand-crack thousands of eggs onto the frying pan. When we have scrambled eggs, a machine does the job and pours out liquid eggs.

Christina cracking an egg onto the pan.

“Time to take the fried eggs off the menu,” I half-joked (I like fried eggs).

“Yea but you guys will complain,” she gave me a cheeky grin under her mask.

“Is fine. Keeps my fingers nimble anyway,” she shrugged, sensing my embarrassment.

Then she proceeded to show me how she used to be able to crack two eggs with one hand at once. “That was before the fancy machine though. I can’t do that anymore.”

At 7:30 the students started to come in. While they greeted and thanked the receptionist, most ignored Christina and the other staff. 

Perhaps the plastic cover and physical distance created an unconscious barrier.

 

It reminded me of myself, bolting in and out of Proctor five minutes before the start of class, oblivious to the activities around me. 

Between cooking and bringing out the food, I chatted with Christina behind the kitchen bench. She told me about her vacation to New Hampshire last week, and how it was her first vacation since her kids were born. 

“Zip Lining,” she said. “I am dead scared of heights, and my husband gave me two choices: skydiving, or zip lining. I chose zip lining.”

“I was so scared on the swing bridges,” she said. “But I would absolutely do it again.”

I pictured the early fall of White mountains: the hills gold and green, and Christina, nervous but giggling, flying above the trees and power poles, hanging by a thread of silver wire. 

Downstairs, the preparation for lunch is underway.

Dan making soup with the huge pots.

At the bakeshop, the radio sang the popular hits while Andrew and Peter worked on the desserts. 

 

Peter waved me in and told me to take a picture of the cookie trays. “Guess how many?” He grinned.

Peter pointing to the cookie trays.

“A hundred?”

“125 per tray,”  he looked at me smugly. “The left one goes to Atwater and the right one to Ross. We make over 2000 cookies a day.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In her office, chef manager Tammy Iffland peered at excel sheets through her glasses. In the early 1990s, Tammy, who loved cooking as a child and enrolled in culinary school, where she met her husband. 

It was a male dominated field back then but that only motivated her. “I felt like I had a challenge and I like a challenge,” she said. “When someone says ‘you can’t.’ I always say ‘you don’t know me.’”

“As someone who’s always known what she wanted to do and did it, what advice would you give someone who is in their 20s and starting out?” I asked.

“I also have two kids who are also in their 20s,” she said. “I’d say don’t give up on a dream, even if it feels like it’s not obtainable. Don’t be afraid to put all your energy into this one thing, and think ‘what if it fails?’ So what if it fails? There are so many other options.”

While I sat and pondered that, Jarrod, another staff member, popped in and asked for a bag of yeast.

“Look in the bake shop cooler up on the left hand side or upstairs in the low boy,” she said without a second thought.

I laughed and joked that she’s the mom of the kitchen. Tammy laughed too and told me that some of her old colleagues still call her “mom”.

“There is a camaraderie among the dining staff,” she said. “We spend eight hours a day here – sometimes longer than we spend with our own family. So we fight like family, laugh like family, cry like family.”

A thank-you note pinned on the notice board in the kitchen.

“Thank you Christina,” I said, waving before leaving. 

“All good. Have a good day,” her voice boomed across the kitchen.

Thank you, to all our dining hall staff, for all the hard work on the other side of the line.