I usually eat alone. I like it that way. Really. My favorite meal companion is the current copy of the New Yorker magazine. It never talks back, never interrupts me, and not once has it asked me to pass the salt. But the summer months find me surrounded breakfast, lunch and dinner by a hundred or so young campers at Green Pastures and my New Yorker reading must be saved for under my covers after lights out.
It takes some adjustment to switch from the current fiction and reviews of Broadway plays to a fifth-grader staring at me while sticking a hotdog between her lips and doing a rough imitation of a German Shepherd. Since I encourage my camp counselors to mix with the kids at mealtime I fearfully jump into the adolescent fray myself. It’s good therapy for me, I suppose, since I’d forgotten how many pictures you could draw with a celery stick and a glob of mustard.
One little girl would swirl each French fry around her ketchup pool seven times before sticking it in her mouth. I counted. Seven times. By the time she took a bit it looked as if she was eating a severed limb, but I guess when you’re ten years old that’s pretty cool. Often summer camp becomes the place you can do things that your mother won’t allow at home. At the end of last week’s camp a tiny sweetheart asked me if she took take an extra bag of Skittles home with her. I said that would be okay but asked why. She said, “Because my mom won’t let me have them.”
The old stories about terrible camp food don’t apply when I’m camp manager. We have some very generous donors who supply the funds for some great eating. The spaghetti, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, and tacos are prepared on the spot and the salad is so laden with condiments that it’s the most popular stop in the food line. We feed the kids snacks mid afternoon and again before bedtime, sort of like a Carribean cruise without dolphins or drunks. Last week our purchasing agent found a great buy on apples so our blue ribbon panel of volunteer cooks whipped up steaming pans of apple cobbler to top with ice cream for dessert. In fact, the more corpulent among us must put our faith to work in pushing away from the table before the dessert comes out.
In the 36 years of the summer camp’s existence, I have learned a few things about the eating habits of today’s kids. Ranch Dressing has passed up ketchup as the condiment of choice. The variety of food onto which I’ve seen the stuff dumped, globbed, and blobbed is astounding. It would never have occurred to me to put Ranch Dressing on spaghetti. Silly me. And you can push any sort of cookie as long as you add enough chocolate chips. Other assorted observations: purple lettuce scares kids, corn will be consumed in large quantities if enough ketchup is added, a shaker of pepper will grow old and neglected at a table of teens, taco sauce and white t-shirts do not mix well, a surprising number of kids no longer consume sugary soft drinks, pancakes shaped like Mickey Mouse are the first consumed, you can never serve enough cheese, raisins somehow work on pulled pork, cook all the hot breakfast you want and the cereal will be the first to be eaten, you can eat while singing “Arky-Arky,” the sound of slurping spaghetti can be harmonized, who you sit with is more important than what you eat, the sound of singing cooks somehow enriches the taste of the sauce, accordion music during meals frightens kids, it’s hard to sit still for prayer with the smell of nacho cheese in the air, you can get up and dance while eating donuts but a bowl of cereal is a bit more tricky, girls eat more when there are no boys at the table, there has never been a utensil invented to gracefully grab croutons from a bowl, a grape can be tossed into mouth some fifteen feet away over the heads of twenty campers without much damage to the campers or the grape, and if a ten-year-old boy sits by a girl at supper it doesn’t mean he’s in love. . . he wants her French fries.
One encouraging observation: most kids’ food intake is pretty much regulated when at home, and with faced with a take-all-you-want food situation at camp some youngsters go a bit hog wild. The inspiring part of the tale is that after a meal or two of gorging most kids will pull back on their consumption. This generation may have something going for them, and their mothers would be mighty proud to see the way they clean up after themselves when Mom’s not around.
Kids come to camp to learn to worship God with music, dance, puppetry, mime, drama and art. Meanwhile I’m learning how to eat.