Suddenly, all signs seemed to point to Freedom, Maine, a tiny town with 719 people. First, former Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin’s Editor’s Letter mentioned her son going to summer camp in Freedom. Next, my parents’ friends told me about the most incredible seasonal restaurant, Lost Kitchen, in Freedom. The return of “Wet Hot American Summer” to Netflix – even though the show starred adults as campers – somehow brought me back to Freedom. Even visiting my Bank of America ATM had me think of Freedom, since a llama appears onscreen as part of their latest ad campaign. My mind flashed back to the late ’80s, when I spent three summers feeding and brushing a spitting, kicking herd of llamas, the surprising mascot for Hidden Valley Camp…at the end of a dirt road…in Freedom, Maine.
To say that I had formative culinary memories at Hidden Valley Camp would be an overstatement, but I did have a lot of fun food moments in between grueling tetherball games, failed attempts to pass my swim test in the lake, and white-knuckle crawls along the camp’s ropes course.
Angelenos don’t seem to understand, but summer camp is big on the East Coast. My family was friends with the Newmans. Peter was about my brother Eric’s age, and his father Jim was either camp director at the time, or very involved with Hidden Valley, which has no connection to the popular salad dressing. When Jim wasn’t making Egg McNewmans, his shameless ripoff of McDonald’s Egg McMuffin, he helped run the show. My brother attended the camp first, and I followed him to Maine a few years later.
Most days, we piled into the barn-like mess hall for pretty standard food, most of which I can’t even remember. Thankfully, they made some exceptions. Once a year, a camp counselor would march us down the dirt road, past Hidden Valley’s entrance, to an ice cream shop called The Apple Squeeze. My brother remembers a four-mile walk through the woods, with an option to arrive on horseback, which feels overly dramatic. What’s next, a route to The Apple Squeeze on Class V rapids that requires a raft with busted oars? Regardless, I remember their house-churned ice cream being some of the best of my youth, rivaled only by Springer’s in Stone Harbor, New Jersey. Maybe it was the effort it took to reach The Apple Squeeze, or the summer heat, but their mint chocolate chip ice cream has become a cone of legend.
Hidden Valley still gathers campers on the soccer field each summer for the candy drop, a mind-bending tradition that involves people tossing heaps of candy out of a Cessna like an airborne piñata. How they get a liability waiver for this ritual is beyond me, but kids scatter across the field hunting for a spare Tootsie Roll, Hershey’s Kiss, or Starburst (yellow Bursts, be damned) while hoping they don’t catch a Snickers with their retina.
The biggest moment was the annual lobster feast, which would take place on each session’s last night. Maine lobster?! This regional delicacy was easily achievable for every camper as long as they could avoid one pitfall: instant gratification. Each summer, we each received an allowance at the snack truck, which I remember being a retooled bus parked by the basketball court. Each camper received a certain number of credits, and if you had enough credits left at the end of camp, you’d get a lobster. One of my great food regrets is never getting to crack the claws of a sweet Maine lobster and dip it into drawn butter. Instead, I burned through my credits on granola bars and soda, like I was the pathetic test subject in some kind of twisted behavioral experiment. Thankfully, in my job as a food writer, I’ve been able to enjoy Maine lobster on many occasions since summer camp, but never at the source. Eating a burger on lobster night has become one of my most shameful food memories, and likely my biggest food regret. Since I’m now way too old to re-enroll, maybe Hidden Valley will hire me as a Counselor-In-Training? Will Work For Lobster.