Velveeta and Wonder Bread: Cooking at the Pompeii of America

In my 16-year-old mind, the 4-mile trail to Ozette might as well have been the 2500-mile-long Route 66. My thoughts pivoted between the stone-heavy backpack slamming against my hips and the sweat running into my eyes, blinding me with salt and transforming me into a bull’s eye for scores of kamikaze deer flies.

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Finally, I saw the end looming ahead. Soft green light plunged through the spaces between hundreds of tree trunks and shimmering leaves shuddered quietly in the canopy above, recalling the raspy breaths of cooing pigeons. It seemed almost sacrilegious to take yet another step, the sound of my feet beating a harsh crescendo on the packed mud of the path, drowned out by waves crashing on the half-moon shaped beach stretching out before me.

I’d like to be able to say that something mystical drew me through the Olympic National Forest to Ozette. Such as a spiritual connection to Celtic tree gods. Or a quest, inspired by medieval pilgrims hiking 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela. But no, it was an act of God that brought me there as a cook’s helper on an archaeological dig, the site that archaeologists around the world call the Pompeii of America.

On January 26, 1700, an earthquake―probably a 9 on the Richter scale―ambushed the lives and landscape of a Native American tribe of whalers, the Makah who lived near a remote coastal Washington-state beach. The Makah call themselves Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx, meaning “people who live by the rocks and seagulls.” A mudslide devoured the village that day, encasing over 30 long houses in 10 feet of thick, heavy clay. Unlike the real Pompeii, where volcanic ash preserved only impressions of the remains, objects buried under all that mud remained intact. The archaeological evidence squared with the oral history of the still-vibrant Makah culture, centered in nearby Neah Bay, Washington.

A grant from the National Science Foundation enabled archaeologist Richard D. “Doc” Daugherty and geologist Roald Fryxell to start excavating the site, with the help of almost 50 university students accepted for the field school. All these people needed to be fed. Three times a day, every day, for six weeks.

Ozette Coast, Washington State Olympic National Park (Adobe Stock)

And the logistics of cooking in that isolated spot remains one of the most challenging I have ever faced. Fortunately, I acted as a mere dog’s body and gal Friday, to Renée, a blond horse-loving California girl with thickly scarred knees. To her fell the responsibility of cranking out delicious, cheap, and nourishing food, food that would spur the stamina necessary for digging into mud every day of the field school.

Supplies arrived by air, flown first by Coast Guard helicopters, and later weekly via a small plane which landed at low tide on the beach facing the camp. After the students unloaded the boxes of food, toilet paper, and other comforts of civilization, they hauled them to the white canvas cook tent and stacked them high on a raised wooden platform, away from the mud and small rivulets of water that poured through after each rainstorm. We cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily on a gas stove with a grill attached and kept eggs and milk and fresh meat cold in a few refrigerators running on a quirky generator.

Every dark morning, I wormed my way of out of a damp sleeping bag and swung my feet over the side of the old Army cot, one that sagged too much under my lower back. I groped for the footlocker next to the cot and pulled on a sweatshirt and jeans, a pair of tennis shoes, my cooking uniform. If the rain came down hard during the night, I stepped carefully onto the path outside the tent, always slippery despite the grips installed every 12 inches or so to prevent disastrous mishaps. Using my flashlight, I lit my way to the cook tent at the bottom of the hill.

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And so the rhythm of 42 days began. Bacon, eggs, and toast made from square slices of Wonder Bread became the de rigueur early breakfast, except when supplies ran low and corn flakes hogged center stage. Lunch featured canned soups heated to boiling in voluminous aluminum stockpots, sided either with plain or grilled cheese sandwiches oozing with Velveeta or Tillamook on the long-lasting-and-easily-stored Wonder Bread. Day after day, I swabbed bread with mayonnaise and sliced cheese for hours or opened cans with an annoying and temperamental can opener. Served on metal trays usually associated with cafeterias, these meals ended up being carried down to the beach, where everyone squatted on immense logs or other pieces of driftwood and ate with the ferocious appetites stirred by too much mud and the delicate debris of centuries.

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Dinner told another story, at least for us, the cooks. Here, we attempted to shine a bit. Getting spicing right for large quantities of food could be tricky. Take the spaghetti laced with copious amounts of cumin, a real shock, as archaeologist Dr. Paul Gleeson reminded me in an e-mail. Or the time I accidentally knocked half a can of ground black pepper into the chili, a very large can. And the worst of the worst happened the night of the burnt chocolate pudding, which earned us nasty looks from the crew. We tried to make up for that disaster by serving everyone half a roasted chicken the next time the supply plane came in. But that, too, brought us recriminations, when irate accountants reminded us that the food budget was not infinite.

Cooking for the crew never was easy for all these reasons. The need to ration supplies carefully played a role as well, in case bad weather delayed the pilot of the supply plane. He made it crystal clear that he had never taken a chance and never would, in all the 25 years he’d been flying to remote areas in the Northwest. Not even for a crew of starving archaeologists.

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And yet, faunal evidence from the dig should have reassured us that hunger would not stalk us and lay us low. For not 50 feet from where I slept at night lay the vast Pacific Ocean, filled with the fish and other marine life that’d sustained the Makah for thousands of years: porpoise, fur seals, salmon, halibut, clams, mussels, sea urchins, crabs, and lingcod, among others. And whales. At low tide, we sometimes dug clams and baked them in the sand at dusk. Or roasted salmon Makah-style near a blazing fire of driftwood. Magnificent sunsets illuminated Cannonball, the odd island that loomed sentry-like close to the shore, accessed with ease at low tide and cut off at high.

The waves still crash against the driftwood and the seagulls guzzle shellfish there. When I think of my small role that summer, an aura of the mystical still lingers as I reach through the fog of memory, imagining an unchanging lost world, the “Pompeii of America,” frozen forever in a muddy grave.

With the excavations, change came to Ozette. A boardwalk now leads hikers to the beach. A plaque testifies to all that remains of the archaeologists’ subsequent years of work there. Ozette turned out to be the lode stone for many young archaeologists and a major impetus to the emerging discipline of wet-site archaeology.

But one change occurred that could not have been predicted: We would never be able to get away with serving Wonder Bread and Velveeta these days.

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Originally published in Modern Salt.

The Ozette Expedition.

Excavating a Makah Whaling Village, by Ruth Kirk.

The Tribe and the Professor, 1978. Video of the site.