White-clad, close-cropped and a little bewildered looking, they line up to get their roasts of beef. The raw meat is plopped unceremoniously in their hands, and they carry it back to their counters, gingerly, apprehensively, as if the uncooked roasts might rise out of their wrapping and into in their faces.
The kids stand uneasily along a row of stoves, with their identical roasts, identical pans lined with identical sheets of foil, identical plates with identical little mounds of seasoning, and identical looks of awkwardness.
"When it's out of the oven you let it stand for 20 minutes, and you cut that meat across the grain," Sgt. Eddie Smith is shouting in a near-deafening singsong. "If you cut the meat with the grain, it's going to get stringy and tough . . . And you cut it HOW? Thick or thin?"
"Thin," comes the class response in a feeble, ragged unison.
"Now what do you do first?" he asks, harkening back to the unwrapped roasts.
"Spice it," someone mumbles.
"OUTSTANDING! There ain't no however, whatsoever," comes Smith's formula of approval. "Then what do you do?"
"Brown it," offers another.
"Outstanding!" the sergeant returns. "But, however . . . that's a no-no." A more suitable answer is not forthcoming. "You PRE-HEAT the oven," Smith barks, snapping the temperature control to 325. "Gentlemen, you are on your own. Your roast has got to look better than my roast."
This is the Army cook school, a mixture of boot camp, freshman lab and Julia Child. A place where young men and women, who only weeks before were learning to crawl on their bellies under barbed wire and lunge shrieking with bayonets into enemy lines, discover the little twists and flips that turn a ball of dough into an elegant dinner roll.
Fifty to 75 soldiers, fresh out of basic training, come here every Monday to begin their Army careers, learning the skill they signed up for, or were urged into.Every Wednesday, 50 to 75 others graduate, having completed eight weeks that took them from basic salads to the most elaborate Danish pastries, from individual steaks to full meals for hundreds.
The Army cooks' school - Fort Dix has one of three in the country - runs its students through a tight schedule.
The first two weeks are spent in the "small quantity kitchens," making salads and salad dressings, soups, sauces and gravies, then meats, poultry and seafood, breakfast and some desserts.
Next comes the pastry kitchen, a week of cakes and pies and a week of breads and rolls - quick breads on Monday, basic roll dough and cookies on Tuesday, sweet dough on Wednesday and Danish pastry all day Thursday.
The fifth week takes the students for the first time behind the mess hall scenes where a kind of intership in actual working conditions makes for a good deal of anxiety and unsureness.Here, for the first time, there are worksheets and deadlines, giant pressure cookers loaded with 50 pounds of vegetables, 60-gallon steam vats, 15-gallon coffee urns to keep full, 700 soldiers to feed, and less of the personal attention and guidance the instructors could give them at first.
The sixth week is "field theory," learning the techniques for cooking in combat situations. During the seventh week the students actually spend time out in the field, manning mess trucks, managing the versatile field stoves, and heating barrels full of wash water with gas-fueled "immersion heaters."
There are proficiency tests at the end of almost every week, and, during the eighth week, there is a final battery of exams.
Of the nearly 400 soldiers at various stages of cooks' course at any single time, as many as half might be black, judging by a visit to classes.
Base officials say privately that the cooks' school gets a disproportionate number of blacks because inner city youths, often educationally disadvantaged, score low on Army recruiting aptitude tests and are told they have a choice only between the infantry and the cooks' school.
"Some accept it, because they need it to get off the streets," said Sgt. Lorenza Graves, an instructor in the cooks' school. The alternative, all too often, is unemployment. The Army offers security, even if it means accepting one of the less glamorous jobs in the military.
"A lot of them have negative attitudes about being a cook," said Sgt. Michael Seeney, an instructor in the first two weeks of the course. "They don't like to admit that they're going to enjoy cooking."
Sweeney calls this sigma "the Beetle Bailey cook type of thing . . . The cook is almost always depicted with flies buzzing around him, and he's armpit deep in soup or something.
"They've gotten it into them before they get here that an Army cook is the worst thing you can be," Sweeney said. The attitude begins in basic training, when recruits make it a point of social acceptability to razz cooks and complain about the foot.
"If you compliment a cook, you can get harassed by your buddies," said Sweetney. Deriding cooks is "a popular thing. It's almost a tradition the Army has."
By the end of the third day in garrison mess, the students know their way around the big mess hall kitchen, they see they can handle the pressures, that each day hundreds of soldiers eat what they cook. They're proud of their work and eager for people to taste their food, according to Sgt. Henry Campbell, a mess hall instructor.
"Most of the guys in this company said they didn't want to be cooks," said one of Campbell's students. Only five of 63 enlisted with cooks' school as their first choice for military career training. Now, he said, 50 of 59 want to stay with cooking, and many plan to seek cooking jobs when they leave the Army.
Back in Sgt. Eddie Smith's kitchen, the students are being reminded to get all their ingredients ready beforehand.
"That's what I call working work, and not letting work work me," Smith is shouting. "I'm older than the dirt, and I'm never tired."
It's still an uneasy, mumbling group, standing now beside little piles of pork chops, which are to be deep-fried.
"How are you going to be able to tell when that fat is up to 350 degrees?" Smith demands.
The answer is correct, but only partially so - something about tossing in a cube of bread to see how long it takes to turn golden brown.
"Outstanding!" the shout resounds. In the pause the laughter begins. "BUT, HOWEVER . . . That's a no-no!"