My most vivid memory of summer camp food is face custard.
Ah, summer camp meals. You know how they are, right? If not, congratulations! Count yourself lucky. Let me paint a vivid picture for you…
Imagine a greasy canvas smeared with grayish mashed potatoes, scraped from the bottom of the giant pot they were cooked in. In one corner is a large blob of something baby-puke green, likely a spattering of over-boiled peas, or maybe it actually is vomit? Plenty of that flying around after a day of too much sun and trying to spin each other off the merry-go-round. Next to the green mush is a pile of pale yellow corn. You’ll probably see that again sometime tomorrow.
In the middle of the plate, errr.. canvas, we have the focal point, the piece of resistance, you might say [Unless you’re French of course]. Or you would say that if you weren’t choking to death while trying to swallow it down. It’s a fatty lump of brown and white with black bits. Perhaps it’s a chicken leg. Maybe it’s a pork chop? Who really knows. It’s subjective, like art. Don’t ask how the sausage gets made, as the saying goes.
Dessert is occasionally better. If you’re lucky you might get ice cream and fruit salad [Back then at least it actually was ice cream, not oil turned into a frozen dessert confection]. Yum, fresh fruit salad, you say gleefully. Why are you getting your hopes up? Haven’t you been paying attention? This fruit salad comes out of a giant tin can. It’s fruit, so I guess they think it’s meant to be good for you, but it’s fifty percent syrup [or in other words, liquid sugar], so I’m sure it’s less healthy than the actual ice cream.
The worst parts of the fruit salad are the cherries and the so-called grapes. Occasionally, one of your weird friends actually enjoys eating the cherries, and they will happily take them from you [They’re probably addicted to red dye #7 and they’ll have babies with three eyes some day]. But nobody ever eats the grapes.
The list of ingredients on the can says they’re grapes, so I can only assume that’s what they really are, but to be honest it seems pretty unlikely. I think they’re actually sheep eyeballs – or something equally revolting.
The pieces of pear and peach are often unripe and hard as rock, or overripe and soft as mush, but sometimes a few bits are edible. If you have to eat any of the fruit, go for those, but I suggest you just eat the ice cream as quickly as you can, before it melts into the syrup and turns into sickly sweet soup.
The day of the face custard began like a typical summer camp day. We all rolled out of our bunk beds, pulling on shorts and tees, throwing rolled up socks at each other, and sometimes underwear of questionable status.
Breakfast was lumpy oatmeal, somewhat improved by adding far too much sugar on top. A few radical souls added raisins.
Lunch was submarine sandwiches, footlong buns with wilted lettuce and sliced tomato, cheese and deli meat. They were made early in the day and wrapped in cling wrap, so by lunchtime they were reliably soggy and room temperature. The vegetarian kids pulled off the meat and gave it to a friend. The one vegan kid cried as she picked at her soggy bread and lettuce. Now you know why there were so few vegans back in the day.
Finally dinnertime came. We lined up in the dining hall, a little less energetic and rowdy than at breakfast.
The main meal consisted of the following:
Mixed vegetables (frozen peas, carrots and corn), the kind that was served out of a pot of boiling water yet immediately cooled to room temperature.
Mashed potatoes with not nearly enough butter and a little too much water [but still perfectly adequate for construction of one’s gravy volcano].
Roast chicken, a little dry if you were lucky, extremely dry if not, but nothing a boatload of gravy couldn’t fix.
Bread rolls, in case the mashed potatoes weren’t enough carbs.
Gravy, typically lumpy and luke-warm at best.
But dessert was always the part everyone was waiting for. Tonight it was custard. Most of us dug in right away. By some miracle it didn’t have any lumps or burned bits and was still fairly warm.
My friend Jane had been in fine form this evening, telling stories about her teachers and the weird things they did or how they looked. She was going on about Mr. Bird and his extremely long nose, when suddenly she paused and looked at us all with a strange expression on her face. We all stopped eating and looked back at her, waiting to hear what she would say next.
“I wonder what this custard would feel like on my face?” Jane mused.
A few of us grinned as we imagined it, Donna giggled out loud. I pictured Jane rubbing some custard onto her cheeks like face cream. I suggested she try some.
Jane nodded seriously. Before any of us really grasped what she was doing, she whipped off her glasses, bent forward, and planted her face right into her bowl!
There was a collective gasp around the table.
Jane straightened up and sat back. A wonderful layer of thick yellow custard was plastered all over her face! She looked like she’d been hit with a cream pie. Our shocked laughs attracted attention from kids at the nearby tables. Jane calmly wiped some custard from her eyes and popped it into her mouth.
“It feels nice,” she said. “Like I’m at the spa.”
Evan leaned over and licked some custard off Jane’s cheek. This of course drew more laughs and giggles.
Adult supervision soon arrived – just in time to stop Donna from trying to empty her own bowl of custard over her head. Other than comments about wasting food, little was said. By some miracle there wasn’t any mess to deal with, other than all over Jane’s face.
Jane was told to go clean up. Evan and Donna helpfully offered to lick her face clean. This received cheers of approval from the nearby kids, but the suggestion was firmly vetoed by the adults. Jane got up and left, her face still a delightful spackled yellow.
To this day face custard remains my most memorable food from summer camp.