What’s cooking at summer camp? A new generation of foodies
MILTON — It’s 9:30 a.m. at New England Base Camp, and Dutch ovens are heating up over charcoals. A cornucopia of ingredients is arrayed on picnic tables and steel carts, as campers knead dough under a soaring canopy of oak and pine trees.
They’ve got an ambitious menu to produce before 3 p.m.: quiche and sauteed vegetables, followed by panini sandwiches featuring tomatoes grown at the camp, capped off by apple crisp pie drizzled with honey produced from the camp’s beehives.
“You want this to be supple, not sticky,” Charlie Clark, 14, advised his fellow campers as they pressed pastry dough into tins.
Forget hot dogs and s’mores: Farm-to-table cooking classes are some of the most popular new offerings at summer camp this year. A generation of foodie kids raised on “Chopped,” “The Great British Bake Off,” and “MasterChef Junior” wants serious cooking lessons, camp directors say. And it’s not just cooking. There’s a growing curiosity among kids to learn where their food comes from, fueled by the resurgence of farmers’ markets, school gardens, and an emphasis on eating local.
So summer camps — from no-frills YMCA and Scout camps to fancier sleepaway varieties — are answering the call.
Many are resurrecting long-dormant vegetable gardens or building alliances with local farms, and expanding their kitchens to accommodate eager young hands.
They’re offering instruction in foraging, beekeeping, braising, and baking. Some campers help grow the food they will learn to cook. New England Base Camp, which is run by the Boy Scouts of America, Spirit of Adventure Council, even has its own local guest celebrity chef on hand.
The Camp Foodie trend is not unique to Massachusetts. Cooking-related camp programs have been popping up around the country, according to the American Camp Association.
“Camps always are looking for new activities, additional things they can add. This one has really been a hit,” said Bette Bussel, executive director of the association’s New England chapter.
Cooking was once a basic skill taught in home economics classes, which were often a requirement in middle or high school. But times have changed, and camp directors say they rarely stumble upon a youngster who learned to cook in an academic setting.
“I don’t think it would even occur to kids that you would participate in those activities in school,” said Kate Levin, membership and marketing director at the YMCA Southcoast, which runs six camps near the Rhode Island border.
Instead, young people are watching competitive cooking shows on the Food Network and instructional videos on YouTube. This, say camp directors, seems to have whet young appetites to experiment at home, but busy parents don’t always have the time or skills to help.
Mix that with growing concerns about the environment and sustainability, and you have the recipe for a back-to-the-earth, hands-on, food-focused experience.
One of the more popular culinary arts camps this summer, program directors say, is the farm-to-table format, where youngsters and teens plant seeds, weed and water, and learn about environmentally sound practices. They harvest vegetables, help raise and collect eggs from chickens, and are taught to cook with the fruits of their labors.
At the Scouts’ New England Base Camp, kids are learning how to forage for food, including blueberries to bake in pies, fiddleheads, and acorns. Foraging for food was phased out years ago but recently resurrected, said Darrin Johnson, director of programs. Campers are taught how to make acorn flour for pancakes — a feat likely to impress culinary-challenged parents, judging by how many stumble over the basics during weekend cooking programs for families that the camp offers.
“The number of times we are teaching parents how to chop onions and how to use the knives is amazing,” Johnson said.
Campers in Milton are also learning about pollination and harvesting honey from a local beekeeper, and then cooking with the honey they produce.
Not to be outdone, the Girl Scouts, who have for years taught girls how to bake with “solar ovens” — fashioned out of cardboard boxes and foil — added a new session at one of their busiest camps, Camp Cedar Hill in Waltham. It’s aimed at nascent cooks who hanker for fresh food but have limited space to grow it, teaching farm-to-table skills retrofitted for the backyard gardener.
At Camp Becket in the Berkshires, a boys’ camp established in 1903 that features century-old traditions, including singing in the dining hall and cabin chats before bedtime, administrators converted the former dining hall into a culinary arts center last year. Surveys revealed that campers were clamoring for a cooking program.
It’s taught in a science-classroom-type setup, with six work stations equipped with induction cookers and hot plates, along with a stove and some ovens. The specialty sessions, which teach kids how to read a recipe, make jam from berries they grow, and saute vegetables, are now fully booked, said Dan Berg, Becket’s assistant director.
“Being a traditional camp, we are not always adding the next new program, so this was probably the first new activity we offered in a number of years,” he said.
Back at the Milton Base Camp, Charlie Clark and his twin brother, Henry, said they signed up because they wanted to learn how to cook more intricate offerings outdoors. The two joined their family for a trip to Paris this summer that included a cooking class where they learned how to make macarons. And they work on their culinary skills at home.
“I usually watch cooking shows for background when I’m baking bread, cakes, or cookies,” said Charlie Clark, inspecting his dough.
After the campers finished their crusts, celebrity chef David Casey, a Brockton native who was a finalist on the Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games,” demonstrated how to chop vegetables without taking off a finger. The trick, he confided, is to keep the hand grasping the vegetable cupped like a bear claw, to keep fingers safely away from the blade.
With the quiche baking in the Dutch ovens, some of the campers moved on to chopping peppers, beans, and garlic for the sauteed vegetables, while the Clark brothers focused on peeling a pile of apples for the crumb pie.
At 11:45 a.m., with the Clarks still elbow-deep in apples, a couple of the quiches were golden and ready for sampling. Ben Belyea, an 11-year-old from Wakefield who had never tasted quiche before, tentatively stuck his fork in, took a bite, paused, then gave it a thumbs up.
Danny Sheehan, a 17-year-old from West Roxbury who was hoping the lessons would improve the quality of his outdoor cooking — earlier attempts, he admits, were inedible — quietly scarfed his quiche. Then he went back for seconds.