Cookhouse Lee was fifty-something, a boho from the Beat generation. He was divorced, and pissed as hell at his ex-old lady for taking the kids -- his two beautiful daughters, his babies -- and turning them against him. Lee had a gut (the result of many beers), a goatee, and a wicked sense of humor. He was the circus cook. He made sure the troupers were fed; maybe not well fed, but fed.
He always wore a greasy bandanna tied do-rag style around his head and a once-white apron tied around the widest part of the beer gut. He had a fondness for Jim Beam whiskey and blow jobs, but he wasn't real particular about what he drank or who he screwed.
He was kind.
He chain-smoked Camel cigarettes -- "the real kind, no filter" -- even while he cooked. It was spellbinding to watch him cook with that cigarette dangling from his lower lip. The ash got longer and loner as the cigarette burned down over the grill. Then -- he'd turn away, the ash would fall on the floor, and become yet another spot trampled under his raggedy sandals. I never saw an ash fall on the grill, but then I didn't always watch, either.
Lee had a sweet sideline on the show. In wet counties he stocked up on the cheapest beer he could find and lots of cartons of Camels (also known as "Humps".) In dry counties, or if the lot was in the boonies a far cry from a store, he opened up the beer and cigarette concession. "Al! Beer and a hump!" came the rallying cry from the ranks of the thirsty and craving. Fifty cents for a can of beer, a buck for a pack of Humps. Lee made a nice piece of change off it, when he wasn't drinking the beer and smoking the Humps himself.
As far as the cooking went, he did the best he could with the supplies he was given. Once, the purchasing agent got a great deal on a case of #10 tin cans of red kidney beans, so we had red beans and rice for three weeks straight. Another time the agent got a similar deal on whole white hominy. I can't even look at it now, much less eat it.
The coffee was instant, unless Lee liked you. Then you might get invited into the kitchen for a cup of the real thing, especially if you got to the cookhouse before it officially opened. At breakfast he kept piles of buttered toast on the counter and scrambled eggs on the grill. Lunch was lunchmeat sandwiches; if you didn't like lunchmeat, you could make yourself a PB&J from the biggest jar of peanut butter in existence. It was hard going when the jar started getting empty. As far as the bread, it was white, or it wasn't.
He did treat us every once in a while: on Easter Sunday we had the toughest little steaks known to man. Occasionally, when Lee was trying to impress someone, we had fried chicken and mashed potatoes. And once, he served some kind of strange fish -- whole -- that he'd scored from some fisherman. (Most of us ate at Denny's that night.)
The cookhouse itself was a converted 40-foot trailer, the kind long-haul truckers pull. On either side was a counter with barstools; that's where we ate. The kitchen was at the far end; beyond the kitchen was a tiny living area comprising two bunks and enough room to stand. Lee would walk around to the back, swing open the big doors, and turn on the lights. The cookhouse was open for business.