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 for the day. Coming through the backdoor, Wayne, the truck driver, was busy moving in boxes of food supplies. Most staff did not know who I was or what I was doing there but greeted me with a smile and a “good morning” nevertheless.
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. On the first day of class, the same mix of expectation and uncertainty that permeated the student body was also shared by the dining hall staff.
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 dishwasher and worked her way up.
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, ages three and six. She gets them out of the house by 4:30 a.m. and drives them to her mother-in-law, who takes them to school later. 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.”
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 labor-intensive, because thousands of eggs have to be hand-cracked onto the frying pan. When scrambled eggs are on the menu, a machine just cracks a dozen at once and pours out liquid eggs.
“Time to take the fried eggs off the menu,” I said.
“Yeah, but you guys will complain,” she gave me a cheeky grin under her mask.
“It’s fine. Keeps my fingers nimble anyway,” she shrugged, sensing my embarrassment.
Then she told 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.
Between cooking and bringing out the food, I chatted with Christina behind the kitchen bench. She told me about her vacation in 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 in the 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.
At the bakeshop, the radio played 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.
“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, 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 bakeshop cooler up on the left-hand side or upstairs in the lowboy,” 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.”
“Thank you, Christina,” I said, waving before leaving.
“All good. Have a good day,” her voice boomed across the kitchen.
Florence Wu '22 is the multimedia editor specializing in photojournalism. She enjoys photography as a way of connecting with others, as well as recording special events and moments in her personal life. She is inspired by the works of Robert Frank, Joel Sternfeld, Alec Soth, Teju Cole, and Gregory Halpern. This year, she will be working on a photojournalism project on the lives of workers at the college and town of Middlebury. Feel free to contact her via email for photo, video or podcast ideas.