Take two parts graham cracker, two parts chocolate bar; one part large, toasted, gooey marshmallow pressed between the graham crackers; and insert the conglomeration of flavor and mess into the waiting, open mouth of any camper at any camp in the world. What do you have? S’More! The demand heard ’round the world from happy campers is just one, tiny element included in the culinary delights offered at summer camp. All marshmallow-roasting sticks are raised in salute this year to celebrate 150 years of camp, and it is time to open the vault, dust off the photo albums, and prepare to be amazed with the collection of ingredients you’ll find for that favorite dish called nostalgia.
The history of camp food has progressed with a flame-broiled flourish during the last 150 years of organized camping with YMCAs, church camps, Salvation Army camps, Boy Scout and Girl Scout camps, and all other for-profit and nonprofit camps contributing to the rise of culinary expectation and achievement. Pictures and stories from the past have been discovered and lovingly reminisced over this past year, with the anniversaries of organized camp and the American Camp Association spur¬ring former campers and staff to dig deep for treasures set aside but never forgotten. All anyone has to do is ask someone who has ever worked in a camp or conference center food service operation if they remember anything in particular about those years; then, sit back and absorb the memories that come pouring out. While talking to Chickie McIntosh, a now-retired camp food service director with a thirty-year work history under her apron belt, I could actually hear the warm smile on her face. That — compounded with personal-memory chuckles and the sudden “Oh! I’ve thought of something else!” additions — made the quest for food service stories come alive for me, as well.
One of Chickie’s life-long camp memo¬ries centers on a woman named Bernice Rafey, who was a school cafeteria cook from Moorpark, California. “She hadn’t really ever baked before,” recalled Chickie, “but she fell in love with everyone, and everyone fell in love with her.” Bernice’s legendary cinnamon rolls sent delicious aromas weaving through trees and tents alike, bringing in even the most cantankerous and bleary campers to the dining hall for breakfast. The good food they produced drew in other guests, as well, and Chickie recounted the tale of a board member coming into the kitchen after a meal. “I don’t care who you are,” she remembers hearing Bernice say to the individual. “This is my kitchen,” Bernice continued firmly, “and you don’t belong in here.” Chuckling and shaking her head, Chickie says she “can still see Bernice’s fingers firmly gripping the man’s shirt,” while escorting him out of the kitchen.
Chickie began her own food service career in 1966, with her husband Bob and their four rambunctious boys, settling into the YMCA camp life at Camp Oaks in the San Bernardino Mountains near Big Bear. The superbly matched cooking/baking duo of Chickie and Bernice continued when the McIntosh clan moved to a different camp, much to the consternation of the staff and campers left behind. “Where are the cinnamon rolls?” was the much-repeated question after Chickie and Bernice moved on; so much so that the administration called her and confessed, “We are so tired of hearing about those cinnamon rolls!”
Those Valuable Food Service Staff Members
Many camp food service directors over the years have struggled to find good, hard-working employees that can also meld into the social life that is just called “camp.” For those who have lived at camp, with or without roommates, with or without electricity, with or without . . . gasp . . . the Internet, or solid walls and flooring, just know that when one discovers a kindred spirit — not only in the food service realm, but outside in the campfire and cabin life settings as well — one has truly found a life-long friend. The Chickie/Bernice duo stuck together for nearly fifteen years, with Bernice working and living at whatever camp Bob and Chickie worked at.
“One night,” Chickie laughed again, promising that she would only tell me “one more story” about cooking back in the 1960s and 1970s with Bernice. “It was about 11:30 one night,” she continued, “and all of the sudden we realized we had forgotten to crack all the eggs for breakfast. So, up we went, back to the kitchen, at 11:30!” she emphasized. “But we both knew it had to be done and that we might as well go work together and get the job done so we could both go to bed.” Chickie’s voice softened as she concluded her story, “We just had so much fun.”
I was extremely fortunate and blessed to have had a similar food/soul/kitchen mate experience when I was given the op¬portunity to hire a quiet, shy, young man only sixteen years of age to be one of our Camp Ta Ta Pochon dishwashers. Victor didn’t say much at all the first two weeks of camp. He rarely did anything outside of the kitchen, except to watch campfire programs, preferring to hover around the kitchen and dining hall with one of the food service staff. By the end of that first summer I knew that Victor was a “keeper” in staff-hiring speak; we had a T-shirt created for him that permanently etched his moniker, “Speedy-G,” on his back and in our hearts. Now, almost twenty years later, my cherished “Speedy-G” is only a phone call away, with jokes and stories from all those years of cooking together at the ready.
Victor worked at camp every summer during his high school years, and then, “because of camp,” he still says, “something sparked my interest in professional food service.” Victor graduated from the noted culinary program at Pasadena City College, and prompt ly began ful l-time work. Somehow I was able to snatch him before another camp could hire him, and our food partnership was cemented. When the Spain family moved to Arizona, Victor packed up his U-Haul truck and moved his whole kit and caboodle, too. I cannot think of a more important aspect in the world of camp food service than having someone you love and trust working right beside you — especially for those times when I needed to be told “go in the walk-in and cool off ” if need be. Every minute of mentorship, training, and sharing with this individual has paid off 1,000 fold, probably in ways I will never see — and all because of camp.
Another dedicated camp staff person, Amy Bram, cur rent ly with Camp Kingfisher at Chattahoochee Nature Center in Georgia, recalls a real bug juice memory while at the Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute in 1990. She prefaced this story with, “my first camp kitchen experience involved lots of bug juice.”
I was sixteen-years-old, working in the kitchen for no money — just the privilege of living at camp — and we made bug juice in GIANT pots. They were at least three-feet high and a foot-and-a-half across. Not long into the summer — maybe a week or so — I was assigned to make the red bug juice for the camp (over 1,000 people) and we always made it in the big pots. Well, I got started, but could not for the life of me find the extra long spoon to stir the powder collected at the bottom. I was advised to figure it out and make do with what I could find. The easiest thing to find? My arm. I went in all the way and had my armpit resting on the side of the pot stirring the bug juice. Of course, my arm was stained for the day and when asked why my arm was red, I simply replied, “What color was the bug juice today?”
The Camp Food Service Learning Community
Over the past twenty-five years I’ve been privileged to meet, work with, and learn from some great cooks in the camp food service community, especially within the conference learning environment. I remember being desperate for food-service-related sessions at the various regional and national conferences when I started camp cooking in the 1980s, and I would grab on to any training programs I could find, such as the Rich Products training center in Fresno, and even a Wilton’s cake decorating school inside a JCPenney store! My fellow food service partner-in-crime, Susan Lissy, the food service director for Diabetic Youth Services Camp Conrad-Chinook, even buckled under coercion and took a college nutrition class with me.
What we discovered from all of our cross-country treks to conferences was that the camp family network was like a giant online school, providing connections to other people struggling with the same issues: searching for good staff, keeping the menu creative but within a strict budget, and trying to come up with healthy alternatives to hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, not necessarily in that order. The most important lesson we learned about searching for food service training was that we could create our own training environment — invite environmental health inspectors to speak, schedule a food representative demonstration, offer short meat-cutting or knife handling lessons, and offer everyone a chance to share ideas and ask questions within the group. Throw in a few raffle prizes and free giveaways, and you will find a definitive learning environment where none had existed before.
One of the most positive, extraordinary gifts I received following a particularly stressful time in my life was the oppor¬tunity to work with a woman named Carolyn Guerrero. Carolyn is one of those dedicated-to-camp individuals who had gone to camp as a child, then continued the family tradition by bringing her children to camp with her each summer — as a volunteer, no less. “Her” camp, as she lovingly refers to Oakland Feather River Camp, nestled at the top of the Feather River Canyon in Quincy, California, offered me an opportunity in 2010 to consult and work for a week. Within five minutes of arrival at Oakland Camp, I met an extraordinary man: Lloyd Lewis, the legendary eighty-two-year-old caretaker and chef / barbecue master, who was retiring at the end of the summer. Reliving his past and hearing the stories that spanned his thirty-two-year reign ended up being the “gold-mine find” of the summer. Lloyd shared some impor¬tant advice he learned while in the military: Never ask your men to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself.
Lloyd was quick to add that “all the same values and responsibility I learned in the military have served me well, especially here in my work at camp.” Lloyd can be seen doing every level of task in the camp kitchen — even if you’re standing right in front of him, you won’t believe that this dynamo bundle of quick wit and energy is eighty-two years old. An extraordinary teacher, Lloyd can pick up a knife and patiently show a sixteen-year-old food service staff member how to mince onions, and then turn to the shift manager and ask if he needs help cutting up chickens.
Lloyd has become a legendary barbecue master at Oakland Camp and among family and friends, mostly because of his secret barbecue sauce. He recalled a woman at camp asking him how to make the sauce. Lloyd jokingly said, while pointing at a pine tree, “The key is the pine needles.” Lloyd said that the woman reported back after inviting friends over for a barbecue featuring her barbecue sauce made with pine needles. “I thought she knew I was joking,” Lloyd laughed, recalling the woman’s embarrassment over the debacle. “I’ve never told anyone my secret recipe,” he added resolutely.
Part of the magic spice at camp that doesn’t come in a seasoning shaker is the camara¬derie between the staff members, especially fellow “foodies.” That intergalactic connection often jumps national, ethnic, cultural, and even language boundaries, bringing people together. The ability to hire interna¬tional staff has provided a unique learning experience for everyone involved, and often provides a camp’s history to be told with funny and poignant memories. Specific international staff stand out, especially the ones who make a permanent commitment to camp operation in the United States.
Sharon “Shaz” Wyngaard Atwell, the food service director for YMCA Camp Becket in Becket, Massachusetts, was one of those “international keepers” from South Africa, when she brought her international food demonstration and teaching creden¬tials to the camp arena. Shaz feeds 500 boys at Camp Becket — a camp that has been on the map since 1903 — and orchestrates the complex task of hiring and training food service staff for the camp’s diverse food needs. On top of all that, she proffers her skills to the camp professional learning community by co-coordinating the annual Camp Food Service Conference at YMCA Camp Chingachgook each March. The event brings in celebrated experts in the food service industry to present on current topics.
Shaz came to Becket in 2003, and brought health, nutrition, and wellness to the camp food fare and programs. Most of Shaz’s food successes at camp have come from her ability to meld long-held traditions with a new health-minded philosophy, which is essential in preserving camp history while moving it forward on a path to continued camp enrollment. (As of this writing, their camper registration was already sold out for the summer.) Because of Shaz’s com¬mitment to nutrition at camp, she formed a friendship and professional connection with Capitol District (Albany, New York) YMCA Registered Dietician Linda Crowley, who has become a valuable training contributor for not only Camp Becket, but also the Camp Food Service Conference.
Camp Is the Connectivity Piece
So, to tie up this story with a simple little bow, I’ll share “just one more story” of how interwoven our lives are. Recall the food service wizard Chickie McIntosh. At the beginning of the summer of 1975 or so, at YMCA Camp Bluff Lake, Chickie and her camp-manager husband, Bob, hired a scrawny, skinny city teenage boy that tucked in easily with the age grouping of their boys. That summer, with the boys living in the chinked-log cabin, called “the Stage Stop” — in other words, the central dream hub of all teenage boys working, plotting their pranks, spying, and eating their way through summer camp — a fun-loving, hard-working camp family embraced a city kid with mountain tenden¬cies, and the city kid thrived. That kid was named Mike Spain. Interestingly enough, Chickie opened up a newspaper a few years later and saw a camp manager job vacancy near Big Bear Lake, California; she immediately called Mike, he applied, got the job, and he promptly moved to YMCA Camp Ta Ta Pochon and began his camp career. A couple of years later, in an effort to con¬tribute more to the volunteer fire depart¬ment in Angelus Oaks, Mike enrolled in an EMT class. It just so happened that a certain spitfire young woman who, in an effort to secure herself a better place within the National Ski Patrol crew, also enrolled in that EMT class. They met, sparks flew, and the two planned an exquisite, fall-leaf-backdrop outdoor wedding in the camp meadow, with the reception set inside the dining hall for the 200 guests.
“I don’t know how else we would have met,” Mike has said to me a couple of times over the past twenty-five years. “I can’t even imagine what life would have been like if Bob and Chickie hadn’t hired me and then found me a camp job.”
Viki Kappel Spain, M.Ed., author of several camp food service manuals and recipe books in the ACA Bookstore, is a member of ACA, Northern California, a Standards Visitor, consults in camp food service operations, and is a Certified ServSafe food safety course instructor. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org .
Originally published in the July/August 2011 Camping Magazine.