Medley Williams flicks on the overhead fluorescent lights in the commissary kitchen. It’s 3am, his facial features still flattened with sleep. At this time every day, seven days a week, he and his staff of two other men, Charlie Brown and Dalton Gaynor, begin preparing breakfast for the orchard’s 160 men. Medley, a former cruise ship cook, shuffles a deck of daily menus handwritten on sheets of faded construction paper before settling on Friday’s breakfast menu.
Spinach or Cabbage
Boiled and fried eggs
Each man sets about his kitchen task in a well-choreographed, silent routine. Filling deep aluminum pots with water, setting them to boil on the industrial stove, chopping cabbage, filling roasting pans with onions and hot dogs chopped in thirds. Medley is tall with a lithe, athletic build, long arms, large nimble hands. Expression impassive as he assembles the bulk ingredients on the stainless steel prep table in the center of the kitchen. No measuring cups, no cookbooks, the ingredients scooped from large bulk bins on wheels. Porridge and grits are whisked and thickened on the stovetop. By 3:30am, a small coffee klatch of early risers has assembled at long picnic tables in the dining room’s flickering blue television light. At 4:45 Medley readies a palette of six dozen eggs on the counter opposite the stove. For the first time all morning, he pauses to sip a cup of black coffee. Like clockwork, men cluster at the window grabbing colorful trays and barking orders at Charles, who stands ready to dish out breakfast.
At 6am, breakfast service transitions seamlessly into lunch prep. Last season Medley began serving jerk chicken every Wednesday, and it’s everyone’s favorite. “Crews love jerk and fried chicken, but I don’t make it much, it uses too much oil.” The chicken was seasoned the day before and left to marinate overnight in the walk-in cooler. When the massive outdoor grill reaches temp Medley and Charlie heap on rows of chicken legs sticky with Jamaican jerk spices. Fat drips onto the coals, sending flashes of yellow fire up to blacken the chicken above. Turning the meat, stoking the coals, and pouring cans of beer over the chicken to create a savory steam continues at intervals for the next two and a half hours.
In the kitchen, Dalton rolls sweet cornmeal dough into eight-inch long sticks, a traditional accompaniment. He lays them in hot oil, then adds them one by one to the bathtub-sized stock pot to cool. Medley swiftly chops the charred crispy chicken legs into bite-sized pieces and portions them out. Charlie arranges open coolers along the floor for each crew chief and stacks in plastic containers of chicken, paper plates, napkins, utensils, a squeeze bottle of hot sauce, and two six-packs of soda. The crescendo of activity to prepare lunch, perfectly timed, comes to a rapid close as the coolers are slid into the back of Mason and Mac’s idling pickup trucks to distribute to the men at work in the orchard.
Medley parks himself in a chair and takes a beat to sip a can of Busch beer before rising and launching into dinner preparations.