My mom recently came across letters that my brother and I sent home from summer camp when we were kids. Mine was exquisitely detailed – a moment by moment documentary of the week’s events, the highlight of which was a musing that perhaps Highland Runners (the middle school running group I vehemently hated, but that my mom wouldn’t let me quit) had paid off since I was able to catch “the fastest boy at camp” during a game of Capture the Flag. My brother’s letter was a little different: “Dear Mom, Camp is good. I’m having fun. We had hot dogs for lunch.
I miss you. Sincerely, Austin.” If ever there was foreshadowing of which child would write a blog on the side and which would work for the federal government…
Going to camp was the highlight of my summers. Nine summers as a camper followed by the 3 I worked as a counselor built some of my most cherished memories and profoundly shaped who I continue to become. Camp taught me the value of community, the power of kindness and inclusion, the freedom in unstructured time and play, the peace in silence and being still and the importance of conscientious awareness. Camp grounded me in meaningful experiences, relationships and almost obscene amounts of fun, helping to define the kind of adult I wanted to be and the kind of people I wanted to have in my life. Other valuable life lessons were less heart felt, but equally important, such as:
- If you give kids the opportunity to participate in the “Coolie Challenge” (Coolies were similar to Koolaid, but with more sugar and a chemical that burned on the way down that the FDA may have since banned. The challenge was drinking as many as you could in 60 seconds.), they will projectile vomit red. Copiously.
- An entire wardrobe of dolphin T-shirts and Umbros will not preclude you from being asked to the dance the first summer you trial the look, but it will the second.
- One should not allow kids to jump into the pool while holding open packets of Fun Dip powder. One should actually not allow kids to eat Fun Dip at all. Ever.
- Prank wars are no place for mercy and the odor of dead, decomposing fish hidden in ceiling panels will last all summer.
- Any plan to “quietly” jump off a bridge into a lake in the middle of the night will be foiled by the laws of gravity and sound.
- For better or worse, such plans and their subsequent foilings inherently rank very highly on the best of camp memories list. All further descriptions of this lesson will require a pen name.
A few weeks ago, I returned to camp as the camp nurse, a really great deal in which I get to go play in the mountains for a week in between plucking stinging insects from children’s ears, removing splinters and warding off anaphylaxis by carrying EpiPens in every pocket. Twenty years later, the “fastest boy in camp” is finishing up his 5th summer as camp director and remains a wonderful, pick up right where we left off friend. I appreciate that he still has the energy and creativity required to sustain 2 months of camp (it has become abundantly clear to me why you are a camp counselor in your 20s, not your 30s) and supports my decrees that no child, under any circumstance, is allowed to get sick or injured on the night of the dodge ball tournament because I will not miss said game for any reason and he appreciates that I am licensed, calm in sprained ankle emergencies and 60% kidding when I make my “no medical needs allowed” decree. It’s a win-win.
Historically, camp food hasn’t exactly been known for its inspiration potential. During our counselor years, we had our fair share to complain about – used bandaids in a salad, breakfast sausages on a stick dipped in blueberry pancake batter and deep fried, anything with the word “sloppy” in the title. And while the food at camp has improved substantially since the early 2000s, it neither here nor there for me because, to this 30-something, any scenario outside of prison in which someone else shops for, prepares, serves and does the dishes for 3 meals a day for an entire week feels like a luxury vacation. You will hear no complaining from me. There were no breakfast corn dog equivalents to be found this year, but there was a knock out salad bar and…banana pudding.
I wouldn’t say that camp’s mass quantity banana pudding knocked my Chacos off, but it certainly planted a seed. Perhaps I’m just getting a little southern nostalgia in my last few weeks in North Carolina, but y’all…a good banana pudding is hard to beat and, in my professional opinion, good for the soul. With a little patience and stirring commitment, it’s also completely doable. Don’t be fooled by short cuts – mediocre banana pudding is too easy and mediocrity does not belong in dessert. That’s right, you heard me: step away from the boxed pudding mix. Not only will you be thrilled that you’ve made homemade pudding for the recipe’s sake, you will be swept away by “how do I get more of this into my diet” brainstorm that ensues. It is just that good. Banana pudding is classic, a crowd pleaser and every bit as summer-esque as summer camp. So go for it – there’s always Fun Dip as a back-up.
- 4.5 cups whole milk*
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup cornstarch
- 1/2 tsp table salt
- 5 egg yolks, lightly beaten
- 2 tsp vanilla
- 1 box of Nilla Wafers (regular or mini)
- 4-6 bananas, thinly sliced
- In a heavy-bottom saucepan, stir together the first 4 ingredients and bring to a low boil over medium-low heat.
- Whisking constantly, boil until it reaches a pudding consistency, about 15 minutes.
- Remove from the heat and whisk in egg yolks and vanilla. Set aside to cool.
- Line the bottom and sides of your dish (I used a deep dish 4 x 8 inch pan and 3 small mason jars) with Nilla wafers.
- Layer cookies, banana and pudding to the top of the dish, ending with pudding.
- Cover and chill in the fridge at least 2 hours and top with fresh cookies when serving for added crunch.
- *I will admit that I only had 2 cups of milk so substituted 2.5 cups of heavy whipping cream to make up the difference. I know, I know, shame, shame, shame, but WOW.
- I made this batch with recently discovered mini Nilla wafers, which made a trial run of some individual portions inevitable. Regular sized cookies might give you more cookie volume, but I wasn’t at all disappointed by the adorably bite-sized substitution.
- I knew I was going to have this in the fridge for a few days, so I skipped the meringue and wasn’t disappointed that I did, but you’re a purist in the banana pudding department, there are great tips on how to make a mean meringue here.