Mention camp food, and the images that jump to mind are the classics: hot dogs, baked beans and s’mores. But it’s the signature dishes that many campers fondly remember. From warm, homemade cinnamon rolls to a grilled-cheese-loving bird that’s cooked over a fire, here are four camps with some memorable dishes.
A tall tale about a big bird
An all-boys camp, Camp Lincoln in Lake Hubert, Minn., offers the Alaskan Hummingbird, a camp tradition for generations that comes with its own legend.
It’s a bird that requires capture using grilled cheese and a frying pan before it’s cooked up over the fire.
Let’s explain: The tradition had its start in the ’50s, said executive director Ruggs Cote. That’s when camp staff member Felix Shular introduced campers to the imu pit, an underground cooking method typically associated with Hawaiian luaus.
Campers take part in keeping watch of a fire in shifts overnight. When the coals are sufficiently heated, meat and vegetables are buried with them in a pit to cook throughout the day.
It was later that the Alaskan Hummingbird was introduced to this tradition. As camp legends go, this one ranks up there with snipe hunting.
According to camp lore, Cote’s grandfather, Brownie Cote, obtained a license to hunt giant hummingbirds in Alaska. The birds are said to weigh 15 to 18 pounds, trimmed. Eventually, camp counselors were assigned to hunt the large birds.
It’s far from a typical hunt. The counselors’ gear includes grilled-cheese sandwiches and a frying pan. Because the birds supposedly love the sandwiches, the food is nailed to a tree until a hummingbird comes along. That’s when the counselors bash it with a frying pan before bringing it back to camp. The birds are then cooked on a spit over the fire.
Campers can compete to come up with the best sauce to be used on the bird. (They don’t have to believe that the birds actually exist to enter the contest, but it does make it more fun). Counselors have their own competition. Each year, they have to come up with a new story about their hunt for the gigantic birds.
Like gramma used to make
For something a little more low-key than a bird hunt in Alaska but that still includes the classic campfire, Tanadoona, a Camp Fire Minnesota property in Excelsior, offers instruction in the use of Tonka Toasters, hinged cast-iron plates on long handles that are used to cook bread with fillings over the fire.
“I just think that you can go back to probably any generation of camper who’s been to Tanadoona and they would recognize Tonka Toaster,” said Camp Fire marketing director Kelly Abraham.
Fillings can include foods like pizza toppings with fresh vegetables from the camp garden, cherry or apple pie fillings, or eggs and sausage. Abraham especially likes the sweeter options, she said. For campers, it’s an opportunity to learn to cook and make their own food.
“They just feel this sense of ownership because it’s such an easy, accessible thing for a camper to make of so many ages,” Abraham said. “And so, they bring that into their families as something about their camp experience at Tanadoona.”
Picky eaters meet their match
Campers at Camp Olson YMCA in Longville, Minn., learn to cook bannock bread over a fire. Developed in Scotland in the mid-1500s, bannock is a flatbread cooked in skillets.
“You can make it really thick or really thin depending on how you like it,” said camp director Lindsey Abrahams. “And then you cook it like a pancake over the fire in a skillet.”
The bread can be made in the campground’s large skillets. Campers can also bring a smaller, backpack skillet with them on outdoor trips. That’s when they can make what’s known as trail pizza, a version of bannock with pizza toppings.
“You put a metal plate over the top of it so it helps the cheese melt … and get everything nice and cooked and hot,” Abrahams said. “And then serve it like that, and it’s delicious. It’s definitely a highlight of camp.”
Even picky eaters tend to like bannock, Abrahams said, which might be the secret to its longevity.
“Our staff talk about it from back in the ’70s and ’80s. So I know it’s been around at least that long,” Abrahams said.
Lesson they get their teeth into
Taking a turn away from the quick, “heat and eat” meals, the all-girls Camp Birchwood in Laporte, Minn., offers fresh and homemade meals, thanks in part to the camp’s own greenhouse. But if campers need something sweet, they can rely on the cinnamon rolls, a Sunday tradition that dates to the 1960s.
“I cannot remember a Sunday where it hasn’t happened,” said owner Rachel Bredemus. “We’re into at least the third or fourth generation of kids where some of our girls, their grandmothers have been to camp and they’re literally doing the same thing their grandparents did at camp on a Sunday.”
Dough is proofed overnight before a team of volunteer campers go into the kitchen in the morning and make hundreds of rolls for Sunday breakfast.
“I’ll have anywhere between four and eight girls helping me do it,” Bredemus said. “They’re just learning how to do it all, how to roll it, how to cut them, and it’s just a ton of fun.”
After making the rolls and helping with cleanup, Bredemus has the girls stand in front of the dining hall and share something they learned. It is like a coming of age for the girls, Bredemus said.
All three of Sunday’s meals are special. Lunch features Thanksgiving staples like turkey and mashed potatoes, and that’s followed by a cookout dinner. Despite all the work the meals require, there are no plans to discontinue them, because campers continue to ask for it, Bredemus said.
“The one thing about summer camp is if you create something cool, you’d better be willing to do it again and again,” she said.
Imani Cruzen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.