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The Kitchen

“Tayler,” my dad looked me in the eye, “You’re not people. You’re staff.”

All I wanted was to take a shortcut through the house to finish setting up the buffet table rather than walking around, in the dirt, the sweltering sun and very near a threatening wasp’s nest. He didn’t say this to me in a snarl or with malice; he simply told me how it was. And he was right. This was our job.

Food has been my family’s source of income for generations. My grandfather worked for his father in a local meat shop in Westby, Montana. He grew up raising animals and turning them into different delicacies enjoyed by the whole town, a whopping 396 people. After he married my grandmother, they moved to the town of Havre, where he spent time working at the local meat shop. After a few years, they stuffed their lives and two babies into a car and moved 500 miles east to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. And so began the legacy of Ekness Meats and Deli.

Over the next 30 years they had three more children, and the business grew into almost a household name. I can’t tell you how many teachers and softball coaches I’ve had say, “Ekness? With the jerky?” I’d just nod my head, smile and say, “That’s the one.” Almost each one of these people has a story about saving a few dollars to buy jerky from the shop on Dalton Avenue. I’d usually get a follow-up question about whether or not we still sold it. I’d tell my dad, and at the next practice I’d show up with a package for the coach and some to share with my teammates.

After my dad’s family sold the shop in town, they converted their barn into what is now a commercial kitchen and wild game processing facility, which we’ve cleverly dubbed ‘the kitchen.’ And it’s conveniently located 200 or so yards from my house. As a baby I took naps in tubs used for sausage making while my dad cured bacon or seasoned jerky. As a young, and extremely curious girl, he’d let me try my hand at whatever he was doing. Or, I’d watch him work and test whatever he was making to ensure it “wasn’t poisonous.” I still use this excuse to sneak a taste of everything he makes, to which he replies, “Great. Now we’re gonna be short.” The older I became, the more responsibility I was allowed to have. Rather than taking vacations every summer, I spent them serving hors d'oeuvres and bussing tables. Or selling homemade sausage at fairs and other summer festivals. You’d probably think that working every summer was every middle schooler’s worst nightmare, but I absolutely loved it, savoring the time I got to spend with my dad. Even when I got my first job outside of our business I was still asked (and expected) to work with my family.

Before every event, we gather in the barn for a conference, as in, we drink a Bud Light and have a rundown of the event and what we should expect. After 30 years, we’ve really seen it all, but my grandmother likes to make sure we’re all prepared, which is what the Bud Light is for. Personally, I have been to everything from weddings to ninetieth birthday parties, but weddings have always been my favorite. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a hopeless romantic or because I just love cake.

One of the most memorable ones I ever worked was on the 4th of July in 2015. This is the year mason jars and “country chic” rose to fame, thanks to Pinterest. The bride wanted a salad bar, which was easy enough, but she also wanted ‘soup and salad shooters.’ Yeah, we weren’t sure what to think either. As it turns out, a soup and salad shooter is a mason jar filled with soup while a skewered sandwich balances in the jar. We made these combos for 400 people in 100 degree weather, and in order to prepare, my dad spent an entire day making grilled cheese sandwiches.

“Tayler,” he put sandwich number 235 on the rack, “I hate Pinterest.”

For as long as I can remember he works his days away at the kitchen, listening to piano music and cultivating flavor. Whenever boredom or hunger strikes my day, I enjoy walking over and spending time watching him work. His knife moves from one cut to the next with the precision of a figure skater. Precisely moving from one task to the next, he barely breathes. The slicing and slishing of his knife dance to the tranquil piano melody in the background. Bowls like stars dot the table’s surface, each filled with a different color, a different aroma. My grandmother sits at the table next to him reviewing her columns of notes, coffee fogging her glasses. The two of them prepare over 1,000 meals every summer, and it always leaves me in awe. Sometimes they’ll have orders for only 10-15 people, and the two of them don’t understand how to make food for fewer than 100 anymore.

In a way, my dad and I bonded over his work. When I was younger and didn’t understand that I was “staff, not people,” we’d dance together at weddings and see how many cupcakes we could steal from the cake table. We spent our evenings watching the Food Network or thumbing through old cookbooks for inspiration. Our two favorite shows were, and still are, Good Eats with Alton Brown and Chopped. His mind raced with every basket, and together we’d come up with the most creative ideas. My brother and I have been trying to convince him to audition for the show for years, but he says he’s in no way a chef.

“I’m just a stupid guy who cooks,” he tolds us. I don’t think the chefs on Chopped could make 500 meals a month plus a couple thousand pounds of sausage every year without a staff of sous-chefs, though. I like to think I have good work ethic, but compared to my dad I’m somewhat of a couch potato. So when I wanted to take a shortcut through someone’s house to finish setting up our buffet table, I wasn’t too offended when my dad told me I wasn’t a person.

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