Haute Cuisine, Ten Mile River 1950s Style (Stephen Bergman)
Suanhacky Lodge WWW Chief, 1959-1960
The culture of Ten Mile River Boy Scout Camps in the 1950s was defined by many influences: earning merit badges, attending campfires, participating in songfests, aquatic activities, handicrafts, nature projects, latrine cleaning and more. But no activity was more central to TMR life than the thrice-daily mess hall experience. Of course, three meals a day is ingrained into the broader American culture, but the TMR dining experience had fundamental characteristics foreign to anyone whose expectations had been shaped by mama's kitchen.
To the adolescent male, food is ultra important. Adolescence is defined by change: psychological, social, intellectual, physical. Part of the physical change--the physical growth spurt bridging boyhood and manhood--directly correlates with the intake of food, often in extraordinary quantities. Therein lies a central part of the story of Ten Mile River and its 1950s participants. These observations are based primarily on the writer's memories, albeit almost sixty-five years after the fact, of dining at Camp Man/Camp Lakeside, first as a camper, then as a staff man (Summers 1953-1956) and at Camp Chappegat as a staff man (Summers 1957-1958). Memories of occasional stops at Camp Kernochan and Camp Keowa--and even an unplanned visit to the Camp Aquehonga mess hall after getting hopelessly lost on the Red Dot Trail while satisfying the requirements for Hiking Merit Badge--are consistent with the Lakeside and Chappegat experiences.
The TMR mess hall was a world of its own. The "boss" of the mess hall was a staff man designated "the steward". He was the all-powerful authority of the facility. At Camp Lakeside, one's troop did not dare enter the mess hall proper until the ringmaster of eating authorized the beginning of the thrice-daily activity. Particularly on chilly mornings, waiting to be admitted to breakfast, the Scouts would get antsy and rebel in our own fashion; that is, we would break into song. "Here we sit like birds in the wilderness, birds in the wilderness, birds in the wilderness, Here we sit like birds in the wilderness, waiting to be fed". The same spontaneous eruption of song would accompany our dissatisfaction once inside the building, when the food service was too slow.
Of course, there were the cooks. They generally stayed behind the scenes--presumably for their own protection--but, upon occasion, were called forth by the chant, "We want the cook". Only one cook would usually appear, decked out in "cook's whites" and the Scouts' cheering became intense. The cook would rapidly disappear into the safety of the kitchen, particularly when aware that some of the assembled Scouts had added the word "shot" at the end of the chant.
But, in the heart of every camper, the hero of the kitchen staff was the "pot boy". In the Nineteenth Century British upper class kitchen, the scullery maid held the lowest status. The TMR "pot boy" was the spiritual descendant of the scullery maid and therefore was viewed as a great hero by the democratic minded Scouts. No staff member opted for this lowly position, so it was rotated each camping period with the understanding that no one would have to serve in this capacity for more than two weeks. The candidate served at the pleasure of the camp director, presumably with the approval of the mess hall steward. It was not uncommon for the assembled Scouts to chant, "We want the pot boy to lead us in a song," rather than calling for a staff man serving in a more conventional position.
A particular 1950s "pot boy" comes to mind: Larry Edwards. Despite or perhaps because of his service as "pot boy" while a Camp Lakeside staff man, Larry went on to become Suanhacky Lodge Chief. He was acknowledged to have served in that role with particular distinction, demonstrating mastery both of personnel and administrative issues. He was awarded the Vigil Honor upon completion of his term. Does service as "pot boy" garner profound skills and sage insights? To this day the question is the subject of fierce debate by the great minds of western society. Suffice it to say, "pot boy" Edwards went on to become a New York City high school social studies teacher, a high school assistant principal and finally, Chief of Pupil Personnel Services for the entire New York City Board of Education, a position just a few levels from the Superintendent of Schools. Evidently, Ten Mile River "pot boy" training pays off.
Physically, the Lakeside mess hall was a utilitarian dining area but was made more attractive by the addition, in the 1950s, of murals depicting Scouts in a myriad of activities. These paintings were the product of a talented artist and Scouter, Danny O'Neill, who brought his troop to Camp Lakeside for one camping period each summer and spent his personal time in mess hall beautification.
The floor of the Lakeside mess hall was wooden. On a weekly basis it required deep cleaning. The task was undertaken, involuntarily, by several staff members--to the amusement of the rest of the staff--who were instructed to report in bathing suit and rubbers to perform "Swiss Navy". This process involved mops, squeegees and buckets containing a highly caustic cleaning solution. The floor looked pristine after each such treatment, but the "Swiss Navy" participants needed considerable time to recover from their labors.
The major difference between the Camp Lakeside and the Camp Chappegat mess halls was architectural. The menu was identical as it was in virtually all of the other camps' mess halls, but the Lakeside mess hall was fully enclosed. It even had screen doors to keep the insects from partaking of the haute cuisine. No such comfort at the Chappeget mess hall, which boasted a structure devoid of outer walls, vaguely resembling an immense log cabin. This architectural feature meant that, not only were insects likely to enter, but so was wind, rain and frigid air. The knowledgeable staff men invariably sought a table as far from the outer railing as possible. On a warm day the open air arrangement was tolerable. On a wet or windy day the elements had no place to go but into the mess hall and the occupants had no real refuge from mandatory alfresco dining.
Lakeside Campers, including the writer of this article, experienced the joys of serving as a KP and as a dishwasher. The camp bugler would sound the call, "KPs Report" twenty minutes before the start of each meal. Those fortunate enough to serve in this role on a given day would enter the mess hall, secure the basket of dishes and utensils assigned to their particular table, and set up for the meal according to posted instructions. During the meal it was the task of that very KP to enter the kitchen, but only when instructed to do so, and secure platters of food and pitchers of beverage. That was the relatively pleasant part. The onerous part began once the Scouts were dismissed from the meal. The KP, briefly working with the table's dishwasher, would scrape food particles from the dishes with a rubber squeegee and place this waste in the infamous slops barrel. He would then secure a large sponge and a #10 can of hot soapy water and proceed to clean the table. Then came the non-soapy water to rinse the table, followed by sweeping the floor in the area. These tasks, once completed, would be followed by instigating the check-out procedure wherein one of the steward's minions would run his hand, roughly but systematically, over the purportedly clean table surface. If even an infinitesimal film of grease was detected, the KP was compelled to repeat the entire process. This posed a problem for the slowpoke KP because if he were too delayed in his subsequent checkout attempt, he would be assigned an additional task. Carrying out the slops barrel with the help of another Scout was tolerable, but potentially messy. The nightmare of all nightmares was being assigned to clean out the mess hall slop sink. The tool called for in this process was the human hand. Allow your imagination to picture this scenario.
While the hapless KP was performing his clean up chores in the mess hall proper, the dishwasher was toiling in the "dishwashery" under the stern eye of the staff man who was the steward's second in command. The process involved removing any remaining solid food particles from plates and utensils, washing the plates and utensils in a bin of hot soapy water, rinsing the items, placing all items in a metal carrying basket, and immersing the full, very heavy load into the sterilizer for at least sixty seconds. Upon returning to his workstation with the basket, the dishwasher would request a checkout. If successful, he would run as fast as possible out of the dishwashery, muttering various unprintable comments. If unsuccessful, he would be called upon to repeat the entire process, making him a candidate for a late check out and thus invariably being assigned tasks as onerous or more so than those being performed by the slop sink cleaner in the mess hall. Although those washing dishes would wear rubber aprons, it was common for them to emerge from the dishwashery thoroughly soaked. In addition, scalding from the water in the sterilizer was not uncommon, despite dire warnings from the overseer. Once a week, all the dishwashers would, unexpectedly, draw the dreaded short straw because the plates and utensils needed, as usual, to be soaped and rinsed, and then, additionally, had to be "Palcoed". Palco was a strongly abrasive powdered cleanser. The harsh chemicals in Palco gave new meaning to the phrase "dishpan hands". All of these procedures were done in the name of good health, proper sanitation and food safety.
Everyone loathed serving as KP or dishwasher yet every camper was required to take his turn. Each Scout invariably vowed, once his turn was over, to never again participate in such activities. Unbeknown to us as young Scouts, such skills would serve very well when marriage came into our lives. After all, despite earning Cooking Merit Badge, how many of us were actually called upon to do the cooking later in life? But most of us did do kitchen clean up and did it with the skills, which were involuntarily honed at TMR. No one can calculate how many marriages must have been saved by the husband's willing and skillful participation in such chores. When the wife said, "Take out the garbage," we obediently answered "Yes, dear". Thank you TMR for teaching us to play by the rules.
Finally, and with some trepidation in this remembrance of mess hall culture, one must address the ultimate issue: the nature and quality of the food served at Ten Mile River in the 1950s.
What immediately comes to mind is the name Royal Scarlet Foods. The names of the food brands familiar from our moms' kitchens, such as DelMonte and Campbell, were a given in our society. Royal Scarlet was a different matter altogether. By starting with foodstuff not of the highest quality, even the great chef could go just so far. Suffice it to say, the canned products marketed under the Royal Scarlet label --all manner of vegetables, juices, canned meats, fruit desserts--were of less than superb quality. However, all of these products came in #10 cans, the cans which, once empty, could be fashioned into fire buckets or something called a hobo stove. So, even down to the packaging, we were at the mercy of the Royal Scarlet Foods Company. The wits among us fashioned a song in recognition of the quality of the company's food products. Although the song is remembered well, being a constant source of great laughter, this writer will refrain from reproducing it here, in the name of propriety and good taste. Sadly, Royal Scarlet Foods products did not have good taste!
The most commonly served beverage, known as bug juice, was a mystery drink. It was produced from a powder, which was mixed with water in a large vat with a device resembling a canoe paddle. Those of us taking Canoeing Merit Badge did not fail to see the humor in this likeness. At the time, Cool-Aid, a standard brand was a popular warm weather drink and was considered pretty palatable. Perhaps with TMR bug juice the proportions of powder to water were at fault or it may have been the poor quality of the powder itself. Whatever the explanation, many of us went without beverage at meals.
The quality of chicken, one of the most frequent menu items, was not up to the standards of many a New York City home kitchen, but TMR kitchens were in Narrowsburg, New York and, anyway, the cooks had no input about the raw materials. They dealt with what they were given. As diners in the mess hall, the campers' options were even more limited, so the Scouts did what they did best: burst into song. "The chicken served at Camp Man, they say it's mighty fine, One jumped right off the table, and killed a friend of mine. Oh, I don't want no more of Camp Man Life, Gee ma I want to go home."
Since actual butter was available only on those occasions when the U. S. Government's warehoused food stocks were rotated, and camps such as ours, free of charge, were given the butter which anyway was soon to expire for safe use, we were regularly given apple butter. This was a product which few of us had previously tasted. Whatever the brand--even the despised Royal Scarlet--most of us loved it. Many a meal consisted of two pieces of white bread with apple butter between the slices. This was often the option preferable to the official main course.
There were several dishes which caused a particular reaction-- laughter. Pancakes were a frequent breakfast food. It helped as long as you favored pancakes with a rubbery consistency. Numerous Scouts claimed that the pancakes would actually bounce when dropped onto the floor. Bread pudding was a frequent dessert, covered with a purple sauce. To its credit, it was filling. Those Scouts in the know intoned that if you watched the purple sauce carefully, you would notice that it moved of its own accord.
Coffee was available only to staff men and Scouters. Not that any of the campers were coffee drinkers, but the Scouts intensely believed in equality for all. After watching a line of staff men leave their tables and seek coffee from a central urn, the campers invariably erupted in song...perhaps the precursor of the protest songs of the 1960s. "The coffee for the staff men they say is mighty fine, it smells like citronella and tastes like turpentine. Oh, I don't want no more of Lakeside life, Gee ma I want to go home."
There was one wonderful meal served each week: roast turkey with all the trimmings. It was straight out of a Thanksgiving feast and much anticipated. Turkey was always served as Sunday lunch...that is when the parents were visiting. The aroma wafted out to the place where the parents were eating home packed sandwiches. Needless to say, many a parent was impressed by these wonderful aromas. By Sunday supper, all parents were off the property, so the Sunday evening meal was invariably the least popular meal of the week. Canned hash was frequently served, as was canned stew, as well as something resembling Spam. But it really did not matter to the Scouts whose parents had left them with CARE packages. At the close of World War II, people often sent packages though the agency known as CARE to refugees in Europe. The name stuck. Our homemade CARE packages, more often than not, contained cake and candy. Hence, we regarded the Sunday night mess hall meal as an inconvenience before we ate the good stuff.
Truth be told, food portions were generally small. Invariably, as soon as the Scouts were dismissed from the evening meal, there would be a universal declaration that starvation had set in and, hence; there was a mad rush to the camp canteen. After waiting in a line reflective of the fact that many were feeling the same hunger, we would place our order. It was always the same: beer and a male Hershey bar. Of course, the beer was birch beer, a soda flavor none of us had tasted in New York City. But, we liked calling it beer...it made us feel grown up. Use your imagination why the Hershey bar was male. We were clearly growing into young men, but it was an uneven transition, despite a newfound self-awareness of maturity. The source of our laughter in placing the canteen order was strictly juvenile, because, at the same time we were maturing, we were still kids.
Among 1950s TMR staff men, the invariable topic of conversation was where to go on the day off. To the uninitiated this seems to suggest the staff men's search for sightseeing destinations. No such interest existed. The query contains one strong thrust: where, off the Scout reservation, will we be able to eat and eat well! True, there could have been secondary interests, such as getting a haircut, attending a motion picture or "standing on the corner, watching all the girls go by". But the crux of the issue was eating food of our choosing.
For Lakeside staff men on their day off, there were two plausible destinations: White Lake, New York and Monticello, New York. The White Lake of the 1950s was but a dot on the map, with little to offer staff men on the town. Monticello was the preferred destination, offering, among other things, a good choice of restaurants, none of which, purportedly, using Royal Scarlet Brand. The town even boasted a New York City style deli, with pastrami and corned beef sandwiches piled high and Dr. Brown's cream soda in abundance. The challenge was getting to Monticello and the greater problem was being able to return to camp before taps. The staff man was invariably at the mercy of whoever had a car and was also amenable to visiting Monticello. The other option was the BMT--not the New York City subway line, but, "By My Thumb". That is, hitch hiking. That was usually doable leaving camp, but the return trip was always questionable. So, while we wore "civilian" clothes, we also wore our staff neckerchief in the hope that someone returning from Monticello to the Scout reservation would acknowledge us and take pity. Sometimes this approach yielded only a partial ride followed by a long hike back to Lakeside.
The Chappegat staff member, being at the "Brooklyn" side of the Scout reservation, faced a very different scenario. Staff men could walk, albeit over two miles, from Chappegat, downhill, to the paved state road where there were three attractive destinations.
The most anticipated was an Italian restaurant named The Staten Islander...no need to explain where the owners hailed from. It provided wonderful meals with no hint that the owner had even heard of Royal Scarlet Foods. The hike from camp was well worth it, what with excellent meatball hero sandwiches, availability of beer--not birch beer--and flush toilets. Since we arrived well before the dinner hour, the owners graciously allowed us to linger as long as we wished. There, this staff man ordered the first beer of his life, but only because everyone else ordered beer. The discovery, which has applied life long, is that the taste of beer was not to my liking. On subsequent visits, the choice of drink was soda. Bug Juice was not a menu option, to everyone's relief.
Upon leaving The Staten Islander, the staff men visited Nick Dales' Trading Post which was subsequently sold and became Bob Landers' Trading Post. We perused the Scouting related merchandise and occasionally actually made a purchase. A flush toilet was available.
Next, the staff men walked to The Donut House, which we called The Donut Farm. Even though our stomachs were full from The Staten Islander fare, we believed that at least two donuts and some apple cider were mandatory on each day off. They also had a flush toilet.
The remainder of the day off was literally an uphill climb, once we entered the unpaved road which lead to Chappegat. More often than not we were given a ride part of the way by a passing Scouter or a TMR work truck. On those occasions when we had to hike the entire uphill route, we arrived at Chappegat winded, but very satisfied in the culinary department.
Staff men were not the only ones craving non-mess hall fare. Part of this staff man's job was to organize the buses which transported Scouts at the finish of their camp stay. It was a serious and precise procedure in order to account for everyone who should be aboard. Upon my work as headcounter, I repeatedly overheard one conversation. The Scouts craved what the day off staff men had yearned for: non-mess hall food. So, conversations focused on what to order when the bus made its stop at The Red Apple Rest. The 1950s was a time before The NY State Quickway was constructed so the camp buses traveled Route 17. The cynics aboard the buses never failed to comment that the bus drivers were "paid off" by the restaurant for delivering busloads of ravenous Scouts. But, that observation did not prevent even these cynics from lining up and gorging on what would now be called "fast food". Rather than being "paid off," it is likely that the bus driver himself desperately needed to recover after enduring nonstop singing of that classic bus song, "One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall".
It was diverse activities at Ten Mile River Scout Camps that helped boys become men. The mess hall experiences were viewed with great amusement so perhaps it is partly through those experiences that many of us cultivated a sophisticated sense of humor. And, all of these lifelong benefits became ours for under thirty dollars for a two week stay!