Camp food to write about home about
Thanks to increasingly sophisticated palates,
kids now dine on couscous, tofu chili and guacamole
By AMY VERNER
Saturday, July 9, 2005 Posted at 9:56 AM EST
Special to The Globe and Mail
On the shores of South Tea Lake in Ontario's Algonquin Park, Zak Schwartz and Dylan Hurwitz are debating the merits of their dinner.
"I think the chicken burger is one of the better meals at camp," Dylan, 12, says.
Zak, 11, has a different opinion: "I don't like the chicken burger at all." His pink-stained lips, however, are a sure sign that he has consumed his "bug juice" with gusto.
It is the first night of the 2005 season at Camp Tamakwa, and 430 kids and counsellors are getting a taste of what the kitchen will be feeding them for the next eight weeks. In addition to the burgers, each table receives fries, mixed salad, white bread and various condiments. No matter how everyone feels about it, this dinner has become as much a Tamakwa tradition as the cheering competitions that follow dessert.
But the chicken burgers are really a deceiving amuse bouche, as an increasing number of overnight summer camps, including Tamakwa, are diversifying their menus, whether to accommodate requests for healthier alternatives or to meet campers' expanded interest in global fare.
"We're not the Kraft Dinner set any more," says Dave Stringer, Tamakwa's associate director. "When I was a camper, it was hearty food like goulash. And, of course, we've since gotten rid of the weekly liver."
Welcome replacements now include perogies, souvlaki chicken with tzatziki, falafel and tofu chili, thanks to chef Guy Tetrault, who works at the luxury Deerhurst Resort in Muskoka when not at camp. At cookouts, kids can make pizza instead of hot dogs. And whole-wheat bread is back at breakfast for the first time in years.
After seven years, Tetrault -- a long-haired francophone who sometimes wears glasses with no lenses -- says he knows exactly what the kids like. "Once, we tried tuna melts. I made 800 and got 700 back."
"We give him a lot of latitude in terms of what he would like to bring to the table -- literally," co-director Craig Perlmutter says. "He really cares about his food and what everyone thinks of his food."
Indeed, some camp chefs make a big impression, despite working in low-tech kitchens on an institutional scale. "I get phone calls from parents in the fall asking, 'What do you put in your food because my kid is complaining about the food at home,' " says Joanne Kates, The Globe and Mail's restaurant critic who spends her summers as director of Camp Arowhon, also in Algonquin Park.
When she assumed the position in 1989 (her grandmother founded the camp in 1934), she recalls that she not only received a litany of complaints but that she didn't know whether she would survive the season herself.
"Of course, my standards were inflated, but, apparently, everyone else's were as well because there was a universal unhappiness with our food," she says. "A ridiculous proportion of it was deep-fried; when they said mystery meat, they were right -- I don't think it came from an animal. And you know the green peas that look grey? They were from that school."
In what Kates calls a "total 180-degree" change, campers and staff now have the luxury of a daily salad bar at lunch with roughly 30 ingredients such as California organic greens, couscous with dried apricots, guacamole, chickpeas, raw snow peas and tuna salad. She brings up Patak's curry paste from Toronto for vegetarian dishes and her chef, François Gringas, is recognized as a camp hero.
"As a food evangelist, I love that at least once a day I will chat with eight- or nine-year-old kids about which soup is better," Kates says. "I'm finding more kids who know what good food is."
Camp Manitou, near Parry Sound in Northern Ontario, also offers a daily salad bar and options such as soy nut butter and four types of milk (including Lactaid and soy).
Co-director Jeff Wilson, who has lived and breathed camp life for more than 20 years, is astonished by how much menus have changed to cater to fledgling foodies.
"We do more Asian dishes now, and that stuff would not have happened years ago," he says. "Kids definitely have more sophisticated taste buds. Even the salad dressings: In the old days, it was French, now it is oil and vinegar."
Snack time is changing too, with camps providing more sweet options than just sugary tuck shop fare. Manitou has a big bowl of fruit available at all times during the day, and energy bars are for sale alongside the tuck chocolate goodies. Kates says tuck at Arowhon is practically an afterthought: "They like their chocolate, but they know they eat well." At Tamakwa, the tradition of "Tootsi Frootsi" lives on: Campers waiting to greet incoming canoe trips are treated to fresh fruit.
But at Camp Summit in Squamish, B.C., director Jeff Parks has done away with tuck altogether. "I think it was going against a philosophy that we are promoting, which is a healthier lifestyle," he says, adding that fruit and granola bars are now offered at night.
Of course, one crowd-pleasing sweet is a must at camp: cookies. Manitou even posts chocolate chip, oatmeal and "animal cracker" recipes, courtesy of chef Serge Lapointe, on its website.
Tamakwa baker Meghan Storring says the secret to her chewy chocolate-chip cookies served on the first night is the "brown sugar, white sugar and you don't want to know how many pounds of margarine."
The ingredients don't matter much to Zak and Dylan, who have finally found common culinary ground.
"The dessert is really good," Zak exclaims, even before taking his first bite. "They're nice and soft," Dylan adds.
The only complaint comes from Matt Ornstein, 18, and it has nothing to do with the cookies. "There's no milk," he says in disapproval. "Look at how giant these cookies are. How could they not have milk?"
Even when away from home, these kids clearly know what's good for them.