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Stories from Camp Read's Past
I Failed Cooking Merit Badge
August 6, 2021
Bill Langham - Rye, NY
I failed Cooking Merit Badge. Somewhere back in the 50s, I was a camper at Curtis S. Read Reservation at Brant Lake in the Adirondacks. Overnight showers brought on a damp, overcast morning with more showers predicted. Our group of aspiring outdoor cooks faced the ultimate challenge: beef stew over an open fire.
I like cooking -- and do it everyday. At our house, I do most of the cooking, lots of it from scratch, and go shopping several times each week to get the staple kitchen items I need and also to track down the specialty items that Melissa Clark of the New York Times often sends me hunting for. My route usually begins at Balducci’s (The Food Lover’s Market) in Rye Ridge for pumpernickel bagels, then on to the Liquor Pantry for wine before heading for COSTCO and the Stop & Shop in Port Chester for commodities like my favorite brand of club soda (Polar Premium Club Soda which seems to have magically replicated Mountain Valley’s formula at $1.29 a bottle versus $2.99 at Whole Foods). I frequently stop at Apple Farm on the Boston Post Road for fruits and vegetables. In the summer, I patronize Mangone’s Garden Center in Mamaroneck as they have the best Columbia County sweet corn delivered several times each week. I digress. This is a story about cooking at camp(s).
Some 40 or 50 years later, I returned to Camp Read as an Adult Leader when my son became a camper, first at Bob Rice’s Webelos Week where I learned to cook eggs in an orange peel and later as Scoutmaster for Troop 2 Rye at Buckskin and Waubeeka. Two things seem worth retelling here: The Pineapple Upside-down Dream Cake with Whipped Cream (Chilled) and Penne Rigate Primavera the year of the Norovirus. Well, maybe three things -- there’s also Buckskin Blackie, a pesky snapping turtle that we cooked and ate at Waubeeka one year.
The Pineapple Upside-down Dream Cake with Whipped Cream (Chilled)
During each session at Buckskin, there’s a Dutch Oven Dessert Cook-off. Scouts without guidance create awful things with as many toppings as will fit on the dessert: gummy-things, sprinkles, chocolate chips, M&Ms, and other sweet novelties from the Trading Post. The kids get to select from a list of ingredients provided by the dining hall that may include the above as well as delicacies like pineapple chunks, canned peaches, and a choice of chocolate, white, or yellow cake mix and the eggs and oil to make it. One year this old scoutmaster (me) suggested that we try something different: rather than junk up our entry with four or five cavity-creators, maybe we could try a simple cake with whipped cream icing and put a cherry on top. I told the guys that we could get the sweet stuff so they could eat it, but just not put it on the cake. A deal was struck.
That afternoon most of the kids went off to Low COPES (Challenging Outdoor Personal Experiences) and left me with a couple of assistants. We built a charcoal fire in the fire ring and started by warming the pineapple chunks in butter in the Dutch oven, pouring the cake batter over them, then covering the Dutch oven and placing it over a few coals, topping it with the requisite 16 - 18 briquettes. Dutch oven cakes will often let you know when they’re ready by the wonderful aromas they emit. The cake was done in about 45 minutes and now the fun part began.
After allowing the cake to cool a while, we wanted to flip it out onto a plate and give those pineapple chunks top billing and make sure the cake was truly ‘upside-down.’ We inverted the cake onto the Dutch oven lid, but not without mishap. The cake broke during transfer, but a little whipped cream, like duct tape, can fix anything. Before we lathered up the cake, we also had to account for the warm July afternoon: entries were due at the Coughlin Pavilion at 5PM. Scouts are nothing if not creative -- a runner was sent to the Dining Hall for ice. The lid from the Fire Warden’s 55-gallon drum was appropriated, covered with foil, a bed of ice laid down, and voilà! We had a vehicle suitable for delivering the Pineapple Upside-down Dream Cake with Whipped Cream (Chilled) to the contest where it was received with delight. I have no doubt that this concoction not only won the day, but helped Troop 2 achieve the week’s BOSS (Best of Scout Skills) award.
Troop 2 Rye's BOSS (Best of Scout Skills) Award
Penne Rigate Primavera
In this time of lockdowns, masks and SARS-CoV-2, it calls to mind when camp was shut down early due to the highly contagious Norovirus. I remember it vividly and if there’s anything to be said about viruses, they can surely wreck things. Like the 2016 Dutch oven Cook-off at Buckskin.
During Week V, I was Scoutmaster (Provisional) for a troop of Hispanic Scouts from Ossining (Troop 67) and Scouts from the White Plains Hispanic Youth Center, Troop 2005. We were camped on Frontier, a long walk uphill from Newton Dining Hall. My Assistant Scoutmaster was Alfredo Friedrich, a Colombian Eagle Scout, bilingual in Spanish and English (mostly Spanish). Several parents were also in camp, all for the first time. Scouts were attending the First Year Camper program, taking a few merit badges, going fishing. We even organized an after-dinner hike up Stevens Mountain. We had campfires each night and Alfredo led daily trips to the showers when the kids weren’t up early for Polar Bear swim(s). In fact, things were progressing quite swimmingly. Through mid-week, at least.
A troop from Santa Monica was in camp at Blackfoot. They were on an eastern adventure, spending several days sightseeing in New York City before heading to the Adirondacks and Curtis Read Reservation. Unfortunately, one of their scouts picked up the Norovirus in NYC. Norovirus is transmitted by personal contact, poor hygiene, and sharing food, and readily infects those caring for the sick person. The scout’s condition was purposely not disclosed on arrival to Camp and he was isolated and quarantined by the troop at Blackfoot. As the week progressed, the buddies who were bringing him food and keeping him company, were dining at Newton Hall with 300 other campers and staff -- and spreading the highly contagious virus. By late Tuesday, campers, not particularly well-known for personal hygiene, were appearing at the Health Lodge with symptoms including projectile vomiting, headache, and fever. Symptoms were short-lived and those afflicted felt fine 24 hours later, but were kept in isolation at the Health Lodge for 72 hours. As cases increased with each passing hour, the Lodge was soon overrun and existing and new cases were moved to an undisclosed location, reputed to be CIT Staff City in Waubeeka which had been evacuated for the purpose. Meals were delivered and the sick scouts remained in isolation.
By Wednesday night, over 60 were sick with the virus, including staff and campers. Noro showed no signs of abating, despite the camp’s efforts of disinfecting everything from the dining hall to the latrines with Clorox and making valiant attempts to clean up after suddenly-ill campers who were sick everywhere. By Thursday, the outbreak was essentially out of control.
Thursday was also the day of the Buckskin Dutch Oven Cook-off, a weekly event that had become pretty competitive among troops and scoutmasters eager to show off their cast-iron chops. Much like the aforementioned Dutch Oven Dessert Contest, entrants could select from a list of ingredients, delivered in a box from the dining hall after lunch on Thursday. Rather than navigate the language barrier, I selected items that would result in a nice pasta primavera pesto; most entries in my experience chose a tomato-based red sauce and a lasagna-style entree. My sauce would be a stock made from steaming the vegetables on a two-burner Coleman camp stove brought to camp to make hot chocolate and morning coffee. We would then boil the water for the penne rigate. When the pasta was ready and the vegetables steamed, we combined them in the requisite Dutch oven, warmed them up and transported the dish down the long path to the Trading Post on a broomstick without burning anybody (or dropping it!).
Scouts from Troop 67 Ossining and White Plains Hispanic Youth Center, Troop 2005, carrying their Dutch Oven Cook-off Entry to be Judged
Competition was fierce. Of six entries, four were red-sauced and one other was similar to my creation which included a “special ingredient,” the name of which has become lost in the fog of history. Judging was led by Johannes, a man of impeccable taste and Camp Buckskin’s Director. Given all that was happening with the viral infection rampaging throughout camp, I can’t really hold it against him when he announced that the winner of the cook-off wouldn’t be posted until the early edition of the Buckskin Gazette the next morning.
The Final Product
Morning never came. We had arranged to get a giant tarp from Commissioner's Supply and Alfredo took the kids up to Pawnee Field to sleep under the stars on a glorious night, with the Milky Way in full splendor. Our site, Frontier, provided housing to a couple of staffers: one in a tent near me and the other sleeping in a supply shed. In the middle of the night, I heard the hideous screams of the shed-guy retching. I will admit that I was relieved when he called for his buddy, and I was off the first-responder hook. One of our boys was also sick during the night and the infection, which we had avoided all week long, finally came home to roost. Alfredo, with his steady trips to the showers, Polar Bear Swims, hand-washing, etc, had saved us from getting sick for so long, but ultimately couldn’t save us.
At 6:00AM, Alfredo got the boys (and the Scoutmaster) up for the final Polar Bear dunking. When we got to Times Square, there was a growing and angry crowd in front of the office. Ed Theetge, the Reservation Director, announced that camp was closed and that everyone should pack up and prepare to leave immediately. This was a problem for our troop. I had driven most of the boys up in my minivan. Camp was to provide transit back to Hawthorne Saturday morning. The parents of most of these kids were working and many didn’t own automobiles -- they couldn’t simply call in sick and head upstate to get their kid. I had plans to remain in the area for the weekend, guiding an old friend into Pharaoh on her quest to swim all the lakes in the Adirondacks.
The dining hall was closed, so no breakfast. We returned to Frontier and began to pack up and wait for the truck to bring all our equipment down to the Parade Field. After loading the truck, we headed down the trail and I began the task, with my interpreter, of calling parents to let them know that their camper was coming home today -- with me. After arranging transportation and notifying parents of the change in plans, I called my friend and let her know what had happened. And when I called home, to let my wife know that I’d be home late that afternoon, she told me that Elliott, our cat, had died. To this day, I still don’t know whether my Pasta Primavera triumphed. What I do know is that a wonderful group of kids had an awesome experience they'll never forget at Camp Read.
Elliott, Rest in Peace
Eating Buckskin Blackie
Dr. Michael Klemens, conservation biologist, has spent more than four decades studying amphibians and reptiles and their responses to human-altered landscapes in the United States, including Camp Read’s Buckskin Lake. Mike was a troop parent. He came up to camp for a few days to be with his son, do a guest-appearance at Ecology & Conservation (ECON) in Waubeeka, and provide what, in looking back, is best described as my most unusual camp cooking experience to date. In the simplest terms, Dr. Klemens caught a turtle and we ate it.
Meal Prep: Buckskin Blackie
Buckskin Blackie, a huge snapping turtle, had been terrorizing swimmers for years in Rogers Lake (now Buckskin Lake). Lurking under the Swimmer’s Float and waterfront docks, the turtle I am sure enjoyed a lively existence eating frogs and minnows and scaring the bejesus out of swimmers in the lake. Dr. Klemens would soon put a stop to BB’s marauding. A turtle trap was set by the outflow dam and the turtle was trapped and taken to Waubeeka, where Troop 2 was camped at Polaris. There was much excitement in camp -- Dr. Klemens wanted to keep the huge shell to display the American Museum of History. Extracting the turtle from its shell required, of course, dispatching the turtle first. Porch, the Waubeeka Commissioner, was summoned and arrived with an axe to do the deed. My son, who witnessed the slaughter, tells the story:
"The execution was so dramatic. Each of the turtle’s 4 legs secured with a rope, people holding it in place on a stump in the middle of the site as the executioner brought the axe down on its neck. The first swing did not do the trick. Perhaps due to accuracy, dullness, stubbornness on the part of the turtle, or likely some combination of all of the above. Severed from its body, the ancient head kept snapping. No one dared offer it a finger. The carcass was hung to bleed out on the pioneered rack ordinarily used for hanging trash and recycling bags."
I don’t know who dressed the beast, but soon I was presented with a Boy Scout Dishwasher tub full of turtle meat, light and dark, to cook.
I have cooked game before - venison, birds and fish - but never a turtle! My first thought was to boil it, hoping to kill any bacteria. The Scouts built a fire in the big grill and I set the meat to boil in a large kettle. The only spice I had was a container of Mrs. Dash’s Seasoned Salt. I liberally sprinkled Mrs Dash proceeded to grill the meat. Everyone, I think, had a taste. Consensus was that the dark meat had more flavor than the white meat. No one got sick. I can’t say that it tasted like chicken and I can only imagine the dinner table discussion when the kids got home and Mom asked, “How was camp? Did you get enough to eat?”
That beef stew never got cooked. Wet tinder, wet wood, and ultimately a dampened spirit combined to set a lifetime challenge for me: to be the best cook I could possibly be. In pursuit of that goal, I have earned a reputation for my dump cakes, produced pork tenderloins wrapped in puff pastry (cooked in a Dutch oven!), made and served “Soup for 300” at a Klondike in the snow, taught Beyond Burgers & Dogs at the University of Scouting, cooked for countless Wood Badge courses, taught the Outdoor Cooking segment at Introduction to Outdoor Leader Skills for new Scoutmasters, and counseled many Scouts along the trail to Eagle with Cooking Merit Badge. That rainy morning at Camp Read has been my inspiration for a lifetime of good cooking, shared with friends, relatives, and even the occasional stranger at chili cook-offs and homeless shelters. Bon Appétit.
For generations, summer after summer, scouts have been making memories at Camp Read. In 2020, the pandemic may have forced regular activities to pause, but campers from years gone by are sharing their stories here in an effort to fill in the gap. Read on to get your fix of Camp Read hijinks until we can safely fill a parade ground once more!
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