Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Camp Jessica

I've been thinking a lot about summer camp lately.  I had a really good conversation last month with my fiance's uncle about why sending your kids to camp is such a great idea.  On the other hand, my future sister-in-law asked, "Weren't you sad that your parents sent you away all summer?"  The answer is: no way!  I've always gone to some kind of camp, from the time I was two years old.  I went to day camp, arts camp, sports camp, sleepaway camp, even college prep camp at Yale.  When I was in college, I worked as a counselor at a couple of summer camps.  My sister and I were borderline obsessed with camp... she ended up working there for years after she was too old to be a camper and even has a 10 year canoe paddle award to prove it.  I loved camp so much that I turned down a chance to go to Amsterdam with my mom so I could go to camp instead.  (OK, so maybe I'm kicking myself for that one, but it was my Counselor-in-Training year and it ended up being very important to me).  It taught me a lot of life lessons that I feel have shaped me into the person I am today.  I learned how to be away from home for the first time, how to make friends even when I didn't know anyone, how to be somewhat uncomfortable and still have fun, and how to put others before myself.  One of the biggest things I learned at camp was that I could be myself, even if "myself" is a little weird... because everyone's weird and that's OK.  Thanks to facebook, I'm still in touch with most of the people I knew at camp and they feel almost like an extended family -- people I don't see often (or at all), but with whom I share a permanent bond.
I thought I might share some of my favorite camp experiences on the blog today so you can get a sense of the kind of crazy, amazing, challenging, character-building thing that is CAMP.

Weird Traditions
This is probably the most important one.  The traditions give campers the feeling that they're a part of something that the rest of the world wouldn't understand.  This is central to the feeling of belonging that camp can provide for even the most antisocial kids.  We're all in on the pranks, the ceremonies, the specific camp language.  It's like being in a fraternity, except that it builds you up rather than putting you down.
This image is from the climactic Candleboat ceremony at the end of each camp season.  Every camper gets a candle, every cabin group gets a boat, and those boats are then sailed across the canoe pond in the dark, making a gorgeous last image just as everyone's starting to feel really sentimental about leaving their friends for the summer.  This ceremony comes at the end of a campfire performance -- one of many during each camp session -- in which counselors read inspirational stories, give out awards for physical achievements, camp spirit, and strong character, and everyone sings songs together.
There are happy traditions too.  The day camp I used to attend had a Where's Waldo day every summer, in which they hid a life-size Waldo figure somewhere around camp.  Whichever cabin group found the Waldo would get a prize.  They also commemorated each week of camp by the camp director doing a coordinating number of cartwheels.  At sleepaway camp, the boys' and girls' cabins always played pranks on each other: either waking them up at 5am by banging pots and pans and shouting unit cheers, or stealing their unit sign in the middle of the night and putting it in a canoe in the middle of the pond.  These are the things that you kind of "had to be there" for.  These are the things that make campers a part of the group.

Fear- Team-Building Activities
Sometimes in life, you just have to let go of your B.S. and give something a try, even if you're scared or simply don't feel like doing it.  I learned this pretty quickly at camp.  Everyone had to participate in certain activities -- the climbing wall, the trust falls, the high ropes course, the hikes, (or, in my case) the sports.  If anyone got stuck at the top (or not quite the top) and had trouble coming down or continuing, no one would make fun of you.  The rest of your cabin group would be there to cheer you on, tell you that you can do it.  When someone inevitably gave up and had to have a counselor help them down, no one made you feel bad.  You would get a sincere, "good try," and "maybe next time," because there would probably be a next time.
I actually love climbing and high ropes, ziplines, etc.  I love the thrill and the sense of accomplishment.  I would probably never have figured that out if I hadn't gone to camp.  Something else I figured out at camp is that even though I hate playing softball or going to instructional swim, I still had to do it, and it wouldn't kill me to put some effort into the less fun parts of life. 

Survival: literally and socially
When I was a CIT (Counselor-in-Training), we all had to complete a wilderness survival challenge to prove that we were responsible enough to take a group of children on a camping trip.  Each of us was blindfolded and led to a campsite somewhere on the camp property.  We had to build a fire, build a shelter, cook dinner with the ingredients provided to us, and find our way back to main camp in the morning.  It was a rite of passage for all of the camp's oldest attendees that helped us transition from childhood to adulthood... or something like that.  At most, it taught us how to be more self-sufficient.  At the very least, it taught us how to build a fire.  That's a pretty cool thing to know how to do.
(this is the kind of lean-to shelter we had to build, and it looks like the CITs are still doing this)
Maybe more importantly, summer camp is like a crash course in social skills.  When you first arrive, you're thrown into a group of kids who you don't know, but who might know each other from home or previous years.  Suddenly, you have to spend every moment together for at least two weeks.  Some of the other kids might have a lot in common with you, but most of them won't.  The only thing you'll have in common is that you're all in the same figurative boat.  Especially at my sleepaway camp, the kids were from a very diverse variety of backgrounds, so we learned a lot from each other.  Each of us learned that we can't always be the center of attention.  The world doesn't revolve around us.  Campers who went out of their way to think of others before themselves were given a daily "I Am Third" award (the "third" refers to God first, everyone else second, yourself third).  Some people had bigger personalities than others and everyone kind of had to find a place for themselves in the camp microcosm.  Lucky for me, my particular brand of weirdness that maybe didn't work so well for me at school ended up helping me shine at camp.  Being willing to humiliate myself really came in handy for all of those weird traditions and team-building exercises.  
This was my camp family, the CITs of 2001.  That's me in the middle, feeling truly loved and like I belong in a way that I've rarely felt since then.  I don't even talk to a lot of my camp friends anymore, but I will always think about them and care about them.
Going to camp is an adjustment for everyone.  Some kids will enjoy it more than others.  But I strongly believe that even trying it one summer is an important life experience for kids to have.

I've been meaning to write this post for a while, but it's particularly poignant now that I've heard the news that a member of my extended camp family has passed away.  In memory of Little Jimolka.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Thursday Three

Like a "Friday Five," but I didn't feel like coming up with two more things.

Eastern State Penitentiary
We visited this now-closed prison in Philadelphia where we saw Al Capone's cell, an escape tunnel from the 1940s, and an antique operating room.

Boardwalk Arcades
I'm not much of a beach person, sadly, but I do love a good boardwalk.  Ocean City's boardwalk is one of the best, with Kohr Brothers frozen custard and arcades for everyone.

I did get my fortune, but I didn't turn into Tom Hanks from the 1980s

Simpsons pinball

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Mildly Disturbing Minigolf Decor
A lot of boardwalk minigolf is all show and no substance.  This particular course was actually an interesting one to play on, with real obstacles, but some questionable sculptures and paintings.
Like this version of Lucy the Elephant, giving me the side-eye...

...or this horrifying octopus-giraffe hybrid...

... or this pantsless Porky, drunkenly fist-pumping and staring at people's butts while they putt.

My future brother-in-law also let me tag along for parasailing with his mom and girlfriend.  Real pictures to follow.  Now, I will be off the grid for a night or two as we go semi-camping.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Funny Girls

I brought a lot of books down to Ocean City with me for this last little stretch of vacation.  Most of them are some of the more serious books I've been meaning to read for a while.  To balance those out, I also brought along two books of comedy essays that I bought on a whim while on a Barnes and Noble binge.  Of course, I plowed through both of these books right away, finishing both in the first few days of the trip.  It turns out I have some stuff to say about the developing careers of female comedy writers.

The first of the two books was Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling.  Those who know me beyond the blog have probably heard a few of my choice words for Zooey Deschanel.  While my hatred for Zooey Deschanel (and all Manic Pixie Dreamgirls) has mellowed a bit, I find it very refreshing to have Mindy Kaling become so successful in the past few years.  She is the anti-Manic Pixie Dreamgirl.  While the Zooey Deschanels of the world act like they're stuck in adolescence, passing off incompetence for cute, awkward nerdiness, Mindy Kaling proves that you can be feminine and still be an adult.  She doesn't feign modesty about her intelligence or her rise to fame.  She can joke about her body image without being exhaustingly self-deprecating.  She owns it.  And she is funny, without feeling the need to entertain the debate about whether women can be funny.  

Next, I read Alida Nugent's book Don't Worry, It Gets Worse.  Alida authors the Frenemy, a blog that reminds me of the good ol' livejournal days.  She doesn't post recipes or tips for home-making and very rarely posts pictures of herself (when she does, they are purposefully unflattering), which is kind of refreshing in a reality-check kind of way, after browsing unattainable fashion/lifestyle blogs like Cupcakes and Cashmere or The Sartorialist.  The tagline for this book kind of makes me cringe, and there are a lot of things about it that make me want to roll my eyes -- another young woman writing about her food and relationship issues, her inability to find a "real job," white collar problems aplenty.  It's nothing revolutionary.  But she says things that I think all the time and wish I could articulate.  She says them in a way that makes me feel and also makes me laugh.  She's sarcastic, but also really honest.  I'm happy I bought her book because I'm glad to help support her career.  

So, let's talk about funny women.  Like Mindy Kaling, I'm not going to dignify the "women aren't funny" argument with a response.  What I will say is that ever since Tina Fey and Amy Poehler opened up the comedy prospects for our generation, more hilarious women have been popping up and taking the spotlight.  Aside from Kaling and Nugent, I also can't get enough of Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick.  One of the things that's so great about these women is that they also aren't getting famous by being sexy or playing the uptight, nagging wife character.  They're talented and that's enough.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


First, a note on alcohol:
Despite the fact that one of the post tags on this blog is "wine," I should mention that I am not a heavy drinker.  Ironically, my interest in alcohol diminished significantly after I turned 21.  As a foodie, I like to pair drinks with food and test out different flavors or flavor combinations.  For me, beer, wine, and cocktails all have their own time and place (I look forward every Fall and Winter to the seasonal beers, while hot weather makes me crave sangria or a margarita at a beachside bar).  Aside from holidays and special occasions, I typically only have one serving of whatever kind of drink I'm having, always with food, and only when I'm already in a good mood.  This isn't so much a rule that I have as a personal preference... it just never occurs to me to drink more often or in greater quantity than that.  I don't particularly like being drunk, so that's never my goal.  My goal is to enjoy the flavor of a wine, beer, or cocktail and the experience of drinking it.  I strongly believe that a healthy life can include moderate indulgence.  (Now, if only I could be that disciplined about ice cream...)

Disclaimer over... onto the fun part!
Having said all of that, I like trying new liqueurs when they start popping up on artisinal cocktail menus at trendy bars.  Some of you may have heard of St. Germain, or other kinds of elderflower liqueur.  They sponsored the Governor's Island Jazz Age Lawn Party last summer, but I didn't get a chance to try any of their cocktails, so I've been curious to try it ever since.  The company seems to have a 1920s speakeasy vibe and the bottles look like a mix between an art deco skyscraper and a medieval potion bottle.  It tastes sort of like peaches, but with a floral undertone, and goes really well with citrus and white wine.  A lot of recipes suggest pairing it with champagne and/or grapefruit.
I bought a package of pink grapefruit flavored sparkling water and then remembered that I had this little minibar-sized bottle of St. Germain sitting unopened since last Fall.  I thought I might experiment by mixing the two together and it worked really well!  St. Germain is pretty sweet, while the sparkling water wasn't sweet at all, so the combination made a sort of peachy-grapefruit soda type of drink.  I've been calling it a grapefruit-elderflower fizz, but I'm open to ideas for catchier, less clunky titles.  This drink would probably work just as well (if not better) with unflavored sparkling water and a splash of fresh grapefruit juice (nothing with any sugar added to it or it will be too sweet).  Try it at home on the next hot day!

4 ounces grapefruit flavored sparkling water
25 mL (slightly less than one ounce... half of the minibar-sized bottle) St. Germain
4 ounces grapefruit flavored sparkling water
1/2 ounce grapefruit juice
1 ounce St. Germain

This is not a particularly strong cocktail, so if you need something with a bigger kick, Heart of Light posted the recipe for a similar cocktail that skips the sparkling water and includes vodka instead.  As always, drink responsibly, friends.  It's too nice out to drive anyway.  Stay put and enjoy the sunset.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Moveable Feast

My doorstep garden is progressing, slowly but surely.

The tomato plants are definitely taller and thicker than they were before, although the leaves are on the yellow side, so I can never tell whether or not I've killed them.  Hopefully I'll have some tomatoes before the frost comes!

What I thought was basil turned out to be parsley.  I guess that means my basil didn't grow at all.  But that's OK!  There's a lot I can do with parsley (tabbouleh, pesto, soups, etc.)  It looks pretty good to me, but I'm not sure how it's supposed to look when it's finished growing.  Obviously, I am not a very experienced gardener.  These are only the second [and third] plants I've ever successfully grown... and even then, we'll have to wait and see.

I'll be in Ocean City at my boyfriend's fiance's (weird) parents' house for the rest of the summer, so I will be bringing these plants with me so I can keep an eye on them. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Friday Five

Highlights from the week and upcoming weekend, in pictures

the favorite mug I always use at my parents' house
this shirt I bought for S and then stole from him

being able to sit and read on a porch

the last bottle of wine I brought from Italy

getting to snuggle with this furball

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Goop Life

Because I've been eating like I'm on vacation for pretty much the entire summer so far, I figured it was time to give my body a little break.  I'm not really a fan of juice cleanses (a subject for another post), but I like going back to Gwenyth Paltrow's cookbook guidelines when I want to get my diet back on track.  For her, what qualifies as a "detox" means no meat, no dairy, no soy, no corn, no sugar or artificial sweeteners (nothing artificial at all, in fact), no nightshades (tomatoes, white potatoes, eggplant, or peppers), no shellfish, and no gluten.  She also eliminates alcohol and caffeine, but in the words of Seth Rogen from This Is the End, "I'm on a cleanse, I'm not psychotic."  Basically, she eliminates anything that causes most people inflammation, allergic reactions, or digestive problems, which allows for more fresh vegetables and other highly nutritious foods that regulate your digestive system and replenish your overall well-being.  Granted, I was overdoing it while I was traveling, so those weren't my usual eating habits either, but within just a couple of days of using the GP-approved detox, I feel so much better.  Whereas before I would feel tired all day long, now I seem to have unlimited energy.  I've also lost that feeling that I'm a giant water balloon waddling down the street.  Oddly enough, I still haven't made any recipes directly from her book, I've just used it as a general guide.  Here are some of the things I've been eating instead of all of those foods listed above...

Things That Didn't Really Work
Both "oh she glows" and "Heart of Light" posted this creamy avocado pasta recipe with high recommendations, so it's something I've wanted to try for a few months now.  In this recipe, the author uses avocado as the base for a creamy garlic and lemon sauce.  I stirred the sauce into 6 ounces of quinoa spaghetti and some wilted arugula leaves.  It was... OK.  I don't think I'd make it again and I actually ended up throwing away half of it.  It does look in the picture like her pasta has less sauce on it than mine does (even though I used the same amount of pasta and followed the recipe instructions exactly), so maybe that would have helped.  It just reminded me way too much of guacamole.  I love guacamole, but not on spaghetti.  I could see maybe trying this again with one clove of garlic instead of two and a little less lemon juice, but then it's pretty much just salty avocado.  At least the mushroom and yellow squash on top were tasty!

Things That Really Worked
Another recipe I tried from "oh she glows" was the Whole Foods-inspired Detox Salad.  I modified her recipe slightly by using cilantro instead of parsley (because that's what I had) and adding in a little red onion and a few tablespoons of olive oil (since I'm detoxing from processed foods, not fat).  Also, I couldn't find dried currants, so I just stuck with raisins.  She said that she serves hers with a little drizzle of maple syrup to cut the sourness of the lemon juice, but I didn't find the salad too sour at all since I added the olive oil.  Would I rather eat this than a cheeseburger?  Probably not.  Did it taste good?  Yes, definitely.

You really can't go wrong with a basic pesto.  I'm not sure what my reasoning was, but I ended up buying an industrial size container of wild arugula at Whole Foods.  Even if I ate a salad for every meal, there's no way I could go through all of that arugula in a week.  This sounds like a job for pesto!  I put several generous handfuls of arugula into my food processor along with two cloves of garlic, maybe 1/3 cup of fresh basil leaves (or one handful), and a few drizzles of olive oil.  I pureed that mixture until it turned into a liquid, then added in small handfuls of walnut halves and pulsed until it looked like a textured paste.  I tossed the pesto with one box of brown rice spaghetti and some chickpeas for texture, flavor, and added protein/fiber.  It tasted as good as any pesto I've ever eaten, despite the fact that it had no cheese in it.  This made enough pasta to serve four people.

Jury's Still Out
Something else I've been curious to try making is chia seed pudding.  Chia seeds are one of the newest health food trends because they are high in Omega-3s and relatively high in protein and fiber.  As I've mentioned before on this blog, chia seeds absorb liquid and become gelatinous.  This makes it a perfect ingredient for vegan and gluten free puddings.  I looked up a few recipes to get a sense of the best liquid-to-seed ratio and then played around with my own flavor combinations.  I came up with something that tastes great, but I can imagine some people might hate the texture.  It's sort of like tapioca pudding if tapioca was crunchy.  I'd recommend trying it because, hey, why not?  If you don't like it, it's easy to mix them into oatmeal or smoothies.  If you do like it, then you've found a new healthy dessert!
Vanilla Spice Chia Pudding
2 cups of homemade vanilla almond milk (or any kind of milk you like)
1/2 cup chia seeds
1/4 cup maple syrup, plus a little extra to drizzle on top
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 or 5 shakes/pinches* of cinnamon
2 shakes/pinches of nutmeg
1 pinch salt
*I don't measure anything while I'm cooking, so I apologize for my imprecise recipe

Whisk together the almond milk, maple syrup, vanilla extract, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt in a medium bowl (has to hold more than 1 quart of liquid).  Pour in the chia seeds and stir until they have all been submerged in the liquid, being careful to break up any clumps that form.  Cover and leave in your refrigerator for about 15 minutes.  Stir the mixture really well again every 15-20 minutes or so until it reaches desired thickness.  Mine achieved optimal pudding texture after approximately two episodes of Revenge.  :-)  Some of the sweetness becomes diluted after the chia seeds absorb the liquid and expand, so I drizzled another 2 tsp. or so of maple syrup on top of my serving bowl before eating, but it would also be good with another shake of cinnamon or vegan whipped cream if you're not detoxing.  Again, will this replace cupcakes and ice cream forever?  No, probably not (although frozen banana "ice cream" might).  But it cleansed my palate the way dessert is supposed to and gave me the satisfaction of a cool, sweet treat at the end of the day.  Now that I know how to make chia pudding -- about 1/4 cup of seeds for every cup of liquid -- it will be really easy to make all kinds of delicious variations.

I'm probably only eating this way for a week or so because I'm about to go away AGAIN and won't be able to control every little thing that goes into my mouth.  Still, it's nice to refresh my system every once in a while and re-incorporate fresh produce and whole grains into my diet after a period of being rather naughty.  I'm starting to accumulate a good number of go-to meals that fit this type of detox, so it will only get easier and easier each time.