jude’s culinary journey

Summer camp food

Posted 7/26/23

I went to three different summer camps during my childhood. The second one requested that I don’t return, but that’s another story.

The first was in Bear Mountain, just a short drive …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in
jude’s culinary journey

Summer camp food


I went to three different summer camps during my childhood. The second one requested that I don’t return, but that’s another story.

The first was in Bear Mountain, just a short drive from New York City, but it seemed a world away. Wiquanupek was a YMCA camp bent on turning out “real” campers, meaning the people running the place took their jobs as instructors and mentors seriously.

I was only eight years old my first year at Wiquanupek, and it was a great comfort during my many homesick moments that my older sister Janet was there too.

At Camp Wiquanupek there seemed to be endless rules to follow and techniques to master. After the first two weeks, I could build six types of fires (including “teepee”), make a tri-colored lanyard, clean a latrine, fill and light a kerosene lamp, bathe in the lake with a bar of floating Ivory soap, shoot an arrow into a straw-stuffed target in the archery field, swim various strokes on command and had memorized 18 camp songs. These were sung after meals every day. 

I had no idea at the time that “Gonna jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton” might have been inappropriate and racist, but I’d bet now that the chef, Gene, and camp nurse, Bunny—both Black—did.

Once a week was “postcard” supper, devised to ensure that our parents heard from us at least that often. You could not enter the mess hall if you were not brandishing a stamped postcard or letter. Postcards, stamps and stationery were all available at the canteen, so no excuses were accepted. 

Additionally, if you were late for any meal you had to (literally) sing for your supper. Once or twice a summer an entire cabin of girls would purposely arrive late so they could perform a well-rehearsed original number they had devised for the camp’s entertainment. 

Meals in general were an event. Every day two girls from each cabin were assigned the job of being the waitresses for their table, which was presided over by a counselor. 

We were served family style, so the girls had to go to the front of the mess hall to pick up bowls and platters of the food Gene had prepared. 

Each day of the week a different menu was available, but it did not change from week to week. Eventually, certain days were looked forward to, or not, as we became accustomed to the schedule: meatloaf on Monday, Welsh rarebit on Tuesday, hash on Wednesday, meatballs and spaghetti on Thursday, grilled chicken on Friday, hamburgers on Saturday and franks and beans on Sunday. Even desserts, such as Fudgsicles, Creamsicles, canned fruit or cookies were assigned specific days. 

The beverage at lunch and dinner was called “belly wash,” a much-loved watery Kool-Aid-type drink that was sweet and artificially colored and flavored. It was served in huge metal pitchers that kept the beverage icy cold.

We had to eat everything we were served, which meant everything Gene had prepared, including meat, vegetables and starch. However, each camper could ask for a “no thank-you” portion of one dish per meal. If the counselor at your table was kind-hearted, you might be looking at four peas, but if she was someone who liked to laud her superior position, you were more likely choking down a small mound of limp string beans or worse, beets. 

After the meal, we would be led in the aforementioned camp songs. We had been taught them in full harmony, often in rounds, and I don’t remember anyone grumbling about this part of the meal. It seemed to draw everyone together, regardless of one’s ability to sing.

The third camp I attended was a creative arts camp in the Adirondack Mountains, owned by the conductor of the Queens Symphony. I had a wonderful experience there as a camper and returned to work in the kitchen some years later. It was the first time I worked in a professional kitchen, and though the cook was nothing like the genial Gene I had come to love after my years at Camp Wiquanupek, I learned a great deal about serving a hundred people at a time. 

The food was a bit more sophisticated, and we didn’t have the same menu week after week. Still, I thought back to the structure I needed at the time, as well as the camaraderie at Wiquanupek, and I wondered what that strange concoction of gooey, melted cheese on bread—Welsh rarebit—really was.

bear mountain, ymca, camp wiquanupek,


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here