Goat Cheese Poutine: The Promised Land
I still smelled like a deep fryer when I rolled out of bed at 6:00 a.m. that first Saturday in September.
We’d been up late the night before, the last Friday Food Trucks of the season at Springettsbury Park, and we’d been slammed—the line snaking from our window to the other side of the gravel parking lot for a good hour, the deep fryer spitting out droplets of oil like angry hornets every time I dropped in another batch of munkar. Swedish for donuts.
I’d already been in school nearly two weeks by that point, it already sucked, and now, with Saturday’s festival in downtown York the last big one we’d do for the year, I was looking at the endless slog of just school through the fall, winter, and spring.
Senior year. A hundred and seventy-two more days.
“Ready, Gubben?” Farfar called from the kitchen, where he’d just finished packing up the last cooler from the emergency cook-fest the night before. Barely five hours before, really.
Two travel mugs of thick, dark coffee waited for me on the island counter—mine turned light by a healthy pour of heavy cream and sugar, Farfar’s the color of roofing tar.
We thought we’d prepped enough earlier in the week to handle back-to-back events, but we didn’t plan on the Pee-Wee football scrimmage, overlapping with the free concert for that Eagles cover band, wiping out our entire stock of munkar dough. We were lucky we didn’t blow a fuse that night, trying to reload for the festival in the morning.
“Did you get all those extra kebab sauces I packed last night?” I asked, taking a first, cautious sip from my coffee.
“Already took the cooler down to the truck.”
“You shouldn’t be lugging coolers down the stairs, Farfar. Seriously. I told you I’d get them.”
“Eh.” He waved me off. “You spent so much time dolling yourself up in the bathroom, I had no choice.”
I held my arms out, stared down at my ratty clothes. Even after multiple washes, all my Hej Hej! shirts smelled a little like a deep fryer.
Not unpleasantly so, but still.
Farfar hefted another cooler into my arms, which nearly pulled me to the floor.
“There you go, Gubben. You can carry this one down. Spare an old man his aching back.”
Gubben (rhymes with Reuben) is actually Swedish for “old man,” but kind of like you’d call a little kid big guy. It’s what Farfar’s called me since I moved to Gettysburg with him—to this country with him—when I was four.
Koopa laced between Farfar’s legs, meowing and purring aggressively for attention, like she knew we’d be out for the entire day. Whenever Koopa saw the coolers, her separation anxiety kicked in.
On cue, Farfar scooped her up in his arms.
“Min lilla bebis sötnos, ja. Lilla kattkatt.”
His gray ponytail swung over her gray face while he prattled on in his ridiculous Swedish baby talk, Koopa yowling and batting at the end of his hair.
“That’s enough,” I said, straining with the handles of the cooler, loaded down with dough and backup fruit filling. “It’s getting uncomfortable.”
“Aww, Gubben, there is enough love to go around.” The two of them snuggled up close to my face, Farfar babbling Swedish baby talk to both of us now, Koopa purring like an outboard motor, burrowing her gray face into mine.
“That’s nice. Thank you,” I said, blowing cat hair from my lip.
Farfar gave Koopa one last nuzzle with his short-trimmed beard before setting her on the floor, Koopa twisting and yowling incessantly between Farfar’s feet, begging us (him) to stay.
“Okay. Come on, Gubben—to the truck!”
We drove, like always, with the windows down, Farfar’s NPR station cranked, my arm resting out the window, barely conscious for the forty-five-minute ride into downtown York.
This was our third year at the What the Food Trucks Festival, my favorite of our circuit. Short drive, great turnout, cool vendors, live music, York College girls still clinging to summer. Everything. And with our weekly trips to Springettsbury just a few minutes away, we got more customers who knew us, which I loved. It made me think about opening a café someday, maybe, to go with the truck—somewhere regulars stop in, know where they’re going to sit, what they’re going to order. I wondered if Farfar had that—or, I guess, if Amir had that—back in Åland. If that was how they met, where they fell in love.
We had our same spot for the third year in a row, right in the middle of everything. People walking to the park from nearby lots had to come right by us. And I loved hearing passersby sounding out our name—Hedge hedge? Oh, hi hi! Nice! Is that Swedish?—followed by some variation of Is it a meatball truck? or Do they sell fish? Isn’t that what people eat in Sweden? And followed again by audible confusion blending into palpable intrigue over our menu—Rullekebab and munkar? Is that, like, gyros and donuts? Hmm
We must have sold thousands of donuts that weekend.
And yet Farfar still wanted me going to school all day senior year. What a waste.
We got to work as soon as he parked the truck and got us all hooked up, Farfar firing up the spit and prepping vegetables at his station, me rolling out the first batch of dough at mine. I could cut two dozen out of an entire batch, thirty to forty munkhål rolled from the pieces left between the circles, all set on trays to rise again before hitting the deep fryer closer to go time.
I knocked out four batches—I figured around a hundred was good to get us started—before making sure all the day’s fillings were ready to go, waiting in giant piping bags in the mini-fridge.
This was always one of my favorite times, the quiet work early in the day, before any customers showed up. The focus on a job you know you’re good at, and—in a few hours—knowing everyone else is going to know it, too. The truck is always warm, but not the sweltering box it becomes later in the day, when the sun beats down on us, and the deep fryers are cranked, and the spit reflects heat from Farfar’s kebab station, a meat-scented space heater. (Gross or delicious, you decide.)
“I’m going to take a lap,” I said, toweling off my hands when all my prep work was done.
“Be good, Gubben,” Farfar replied, like always, without looking up from the pyramid of cucumbers he was dicing for the day, his wire-rimmed glasses resting on top of his head.
“Two-beer limit. Got it.”
A piece of cucumber bounced off the back of my head as I crawled out through the passenger seat up front.
That morning, I took my lap with a focus.
All three years, Windswept Café’s retrofitted bread truck had been in the same spot, like ours, theirs near the far-end corner of the park. So beelining for their truck let me get a good look at some of the other offerings: Tot to Trot, Uncle Tommy’s Stuffed Pretzels, Three Hogs. Intriguing options, sure, but not what I was really looking for:
Goat cheese poutine.
Fresh-cut fries. Thick, rich beef gravy. Some other secret goodies splashed in. And creamy, tangy goat cheese.
Jösses, the stuff was life-changing.
Carl and Cathy, the husband-and-wife owners I’d cyberstalked, were bickering back and forth inside the truck when I stepped up to their window, both already frantic and sweating with less than an hour before the official start time, Carl with a Phillies hat turned backward and a one-week scruff-beard, Cathy with light-brown frizz in braided pigtails beneath a yellow bandana. Just like in their pics from other events.
I scanned their menu board before deciding whether or not to interrupt them. And sure enough, there it was, at the bottom of the board, listed as an event special with the note While goats and gravy last!!!
“Hey, what can I do for you, boss?” Carl said over his shoulder after I knocked on the frame of their open window. “We don’t open for a little while yet.”
“I know,” I replied. “I just wanted to thank you for bringing the poutine back today. I’ve been thinking about that stuff for two years.” Here I was, fanboying over gravy-cheese fries to complete strangers. But it needed to be said.
“Wait, are you the guy that’s been badgering us on Instagram?” Cathy said, sidling up to the window. I couldn’t tell if her smile was genuine or not—I’d been pretty relentless in my pursuit of goat cheese poutine.
“Yeah,” I said, forcing a laugh. “Sorry about that. It really is the greatest stuff I’ve ever had at a festival, though. Like, ever.”
Carl turned around then, too, stepping closer to the window beside Cathy.
“Hej hej?” he said, wiping his brow on his arm and squinting at my shirt.
“That’s our truck,” I said, pointing vaguely back through the park.
“Wait, are you Erik’s grandson?”
I nodded, and Carl’s face lit up. Cathy leaned into his shoulder, beaming at me now, too. For real this time. All traces of bickering vanished.
They gushed for the next ten minutes, how they’d met Farfar as college students years ago at Gettysburg, where they both got addicted to his rullekebab, and used to stand around chatting with him, sometimes skipping an afternoon class in the process.