Ramblings of a Grumpy, Old Camp Cook

Edward Ricker
July 2016

With the passing of my 65th birthday, I began reflecting a lot on my life, as I imagine many have done at the passage of this age. Looking back, the many summers I spent as a cook/food service director at camp are the ones of which I am most proud.

I started working at camps in the beautiful White Mountains of New Hampshire way back at the confused age of 16. This is where the culinary arts bug bit me. A few years later I went off to college to learn about the food service industry and went on to work at the University of New Hampshire for 41 years as a cook and baker. This university schedule allowed me to keep working at camp during the summer.

My three children all grew up in the camp system, doing just about every job including camp director. My son arrived at camp when he was just two days old.

So many things have changed over time. The first camp where I worked as a cook for six years only had one person on a special diet. He couldn’t have salt. That same camp today has a dedicated cook who prepares many foods for numerous, different dietary needs. Peanut butter was never a problem in the old days.

The kitchen staff in those days were always in the background and forgotten by most. But I will never forget how hard my dishwashers and pot washers worked with only the reward of knowing they would be doing it all again with the next meal. For many of them it was their first job.

I remember one small, young man who worked in the kitchen as a pot washer. The pile of pots and pans after each meal must have seemed like Mount Everest to him. He worked hard every day that summer and, at times, I felt guilty that I gave him so much to do. After the season ended I did not think I would ever see him again. However, years later, he returned to camp to visit with his wife and young son. He showed them where he had worked in the kitchen and was extremely proud. He told me the summer he worked at camp was a very important part of his life. He is living proof of what the spirit of camp can do — even though we were in the background and did not have the same contact with the campers as some of the other camp employees.

I was at a restaurant last spring and the manager came over to ask me how my meal was. To my surprise, he was once a part of my kitchen crew. He told me the one summer he worked at camp was the best summer job he ever had.

Another crew member relayed that, like me, he had become interested in food service at camp. He later became the manager of Cheers in Boston and then went on to be the food service director for a school system in the Berkshires.

I will always remember the start of the camp season — walking into the kitchen after a winter’s rest and recognizing the smell. It was not a bad smell, but it was one only a camp cook could identify. Within a week the kitchen was running in full swing with three meals daily.

And remembering the excitement of young campers looking for a great time and the wonderful memories they would take with them make me feel proud that I spent all those summers working at camp. Even if there were a few camp directors I wanted to run over with my truck. Just kidding — grumpy camp cook’s prerogative.

Camp has changed over the years. You can no longer put a dozen campers in the back of a truck for a trip and go over the bumpy roads and watch them jump around with glee or tell them ghost stories that would have even kept Stephen King up all night.

What I am happy about is that the spirit and goals of camp remain the same: the development and enrichment of the young child. It is my hope that they all remember fondly the food they ate at camp and that every kitchen staff member takes pride and a feeling of accomplishment from what they have done.

Reflecting back, those camp summers of my life were the stuff great memories are made of.

Edward Ricker still works part time at the University of New Hampshire and is proud to be a member of one of best university dining services in the country. Ed can be reached at rickeredward@yahoo.com.