I settled instead for going to church camp for a week with my normal sister—who was neither my twin, nor long lost. But it was, in its own right, a great time.
I never stopped dreaming though. At age 22, I realized that I still might be able to live out this fantasy, albeit a bit modified: I decided to try my hand as a camp counselor! It wouldn’t be quite the same, but I had to give it a shot. I applied to several summer camps in New England, and landed a gig at an all-girl’s camp in Fayette, Maine. I would be a swim counselor, lifeguarding on the lake during the day and in the cabin in the evenings.
Located at the end of a dirt road, I arrived at the camp and looked around. I fell in love almost immediately. The lake lapped at the edge of the tiny beach and the water sparkled under the June sunshine. There were cabins nestled among the trees all across the perimeter of the green. The rustic dining-hall gave off an undeniably classic “summer camp” feeling. The camp itself was in the middle of nowhere, far from any of the artificial noises or light pollution of cities.
Once the campers arrived, my life fell into the summertime rhythm. My time was scheduled from the moment I woke up to the moment my exhausted body hit my bunk. My day was dictated by a series of bells, signaling everyone to their next activity. Bell to wake up, bell to get the kids to breakfast, bell to go to activities, bell to lunch, bell to rest hour, bell to more activities…you get the picture. For eight weeks, my life was so planned out that I didn’t have much free time when I wasn’t engaged in one of the following:
- Attempting to assure campers that there were no snapping turtles in the lake (there were.)
- Trying to convince them that there was no ghost of a drowned camper haunting the swimming lanes (there wasn’t.)
- Chasing them around with sunscreen while yelling, “You’ll thank me when you’re older!” (For some reason, they all HATED wearing sunscreen.)
In addition to having my days all planned out, camp life also meant that I didn’t do anything like cooking or laundry. Besides our weekly campfire cookout, all of my meals were made by the kitchen staff. There was a fresh salad bar at lunch and dinner, a rotation of meals, and the essential availability of coffee at every meal. The food wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad either. I found myself missing things about home that wasn’t really stemming from homesickness.
I missed going to the farmers market. I missed choosing recipes, and seeking out their ingredients. I missed the feeling of my heavy chef in my hand, rocking satisfyingly over raw vegetables. And sure, I missed the ability to eat what I wanted, but more than that I missed being engaged in the entire process of feeding myself.
One afternoon, I mysteriously found myself with a couple consecutive hours off. I decided to escape to the country store, and sit alone with my journal and some ice cream. I drove up the dirt road to a paved one, rolled down my windows and sped up. Along the road, I drove past a small red building and saw the word “library” out of the corner of my eye. I love old libraries, so I slowed my car to a stop. I turned around and drove back slowly. There were no cars parked around it, so I didn’t have high hopes of it being open. I parked and walked up to the door. I noted the hours—the library was only open two days per week, that day not being one of them. AsI turned to leave, I noticed a small table set up beneath a corner of the library porch. There were several books lying on it, with a hand scribbled note that read: “FREE.” Wedged between the pop-fiction and romance novels was what appeared to be an Italian cookbook. I grabbed it, tossed it in my car, and raced on toward my ice cream.
That night, lying on my bunk, I began flipping through the pages of “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” by Marcella Hazan. The chapters were grouped by theme: Gnocchi, Polenta, Veal, Focaccias and other breads. I paused at the chapter on fundamentals, reading through it more thoroughly. I learned about techniques and ingredients, how to shop, how to flavor match, what to look for when looking for the best olive oil. I drew inspiration, making mental notes of what ingredients I would need, while dog-earing the pages of recipes I wanted to try.
I’d never felt so excited from reading a cookbook. It elicited memories of the backpacking in Italy I’d done a year earlier. Reading through the book felt like having a conversation with the author. Even just in the foreword, she made me feel comfortable attempting to pursue “not novelty, but taste.” I felt encouraged and challenged to try my hand at region specific Italian recipes like “Bolognese Rice Cake” and “Tuscan Peasant Soup.”
Following that night, I ate mediocre camp food along with 300 other people for 3 meals a day, while fantasizing about fresh pastas and cheeses. I would come back to my cabin in the evenings, and try to steal a few minutes of reading about dish after dish. I dreamed about my kitchen at home, with warm light streaming in the windows and a bowl of lemons centered on a light blue tablecloth. I was in the center, chef’s knife in hand, simmering dishes on the stove behind me. In my fantasy, I knew my way around a kitchen, equipped with all the skills Hazan described. All the while, I had no kitchen, no ability to recreate the fantasies that tantalized me on my bunk in the middle of the woods.
I didn’t know then, but what Julia Childs did for French Cooking, Marcella Hazan did for Americans and Italian cuisine. Hazan was Italian born, but married an American and began cooking in her New York City apartment. At first, she shared her knowledge of Italian cuisine through home cooking classes, eventually going on to write her own cookbooks. I had met “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” at a pivotal period in my life, a time when I was separated from an ability to practice cooking. Left to my own devices, it grew into a period of great imagination, dreaming, brainstorming, and planning. I can’t say that when I finally got home that summer that I cooked my way through the book a la “Julie and Julia”—honestly, I’ve only cooked only one or two recipes from the book. But oddly enough, reading through that cookbook gave me a deeper longing to be in a kitchen, to create a meal with intention (and to eat it in any other environment than a camp dining-hall).
Marcella Hazan passed away shortly after camp ended. She was living in Florida with her husband at the time of her death. She is widely recognized for making regional Italian cuisine accessible to home cooks across the United States, setting her apart from the commodified (read: bastardized) versions that most Americans think of when they think of Italian.
Much as she did with a generation of American cooks, she left her mark on me that summer I found her book on the side of the road. Though I still have more of her recipes to work through, I will always appreciate that I have Marcella’s commentary, enthusiasm, and encouragement collected in those pages, even after she has passed. Dish by dish, I may move through the regions of Campania, Liguria, and her home of Emilia-Romagna, but I will never forget the summer we met in rural Maine.