Hungry for better food at Berkeley’s Echo Lake Camp

The panoramic alpine views draw outdoor lovers to the Berkeley-run Echo Lake Camp

As we head into the final long weekend of the season, the proverbial last hurrah of summer, it’s time for reflection on summer vacation (mis)adventures before fall sets in and school gets going in earnest.

Which brings to mind bad camp food. Specifically, the truly awful eats served at the Berkeley-run Echo Lake Camp. It’s shocking, really, that a city known for fine food and charming cheap chow can’t seem to dish up anything vaguely edible not-so-far from home.

The dining hall at Echo Lake Camp

The really woeful food on offer was a source of bonding among the 50 or so campers on the weekend we attended Echo Lake Camp in early August. We’re talking mystery meat, industrial, processed glop, and pathetic produce. Meals as misery.

Here’s the back story: on a whim, this reporter opted for a getaway with a friend and our kids to the lovely Echo Lake, gateway to the vast Desolation Wilderness, in the southern end of the Tahoe Basin region. A cursory check drew rave reviews for the location and family-friendly fun. No one mentioned the food.

During the week, local kids head to this camp for adventures in the wild without parents. On the weekends, the camp is open to families and others drawn to the area’s outdoor activities, including access to stellar Sierra mountain range hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail and Tahoe Rim Trail.

Working up an appetite canoeing at Echo Lake Camp

It’s the low-key alternative to the better-known family camps, Berkeley’s Tuolumne Family Camp and San Francisco’s Camp Mather — both closed to campers at times this year due to outbreaks of gastroenteritis, known as the “Tuolumne trots.”

(More on this, alas, later. Oh, hell, let’s get it over with now: I got sick, acutely ill, in fact, on Day Two at Echo Lake, despite bringing enough hand sanitizer to serve the Armed Forces.)

Back to the matter at hand: Five of us — including a birthday boy — piled into a car late on a Friday afternoon in August (hello traffic jam) for a weekend of swimming, canoeing, and hiking.

With work obligations and day camp schedules, an earlier departure wasn’t possible, so we knew we’d encounter some congestion on the road.

No worries. As savvy Berkeley parents we’d packed accordingly: Summer Kitchen marinara pizza, Kirala vegetarian sushi and Love at First Bite mini cupcakes, in honor of said birthday boy. Unfortunately, both moms hadn’t had time for lunch, the kids were ravenous from running around all day, and the freeway looked like a parking lot for long stretches of the trip. Needless to say, hunger and boredom got the better of us all and pretty much everything was scarfed up before we’d seen a pine tree.

We made it to camp before dark. Dumped our bags in the as-advertised but perfectly acceptable rustic accommodations, and headed to the dining hall in search of food. In fairness, we’d missed the dinner hour, so we were forced to make do with stale garlic bread and chunks of unknown animal matter in a scary-looking sauce. We divided up what we had left over from the car ride — seaweed salad and a couple of cupcakes — got the kids some milk, and called it a night.

On the way to breakfast the next morning this one-time investigative reporter noted the presence of bear boxes (we were under the erroneous impression none existed and there’s no mention of them on the camp website). Bear boxes meant that a bag of groceries and a small cooler of home-cooked food could have come on our travels and saved us some grief. Note to self: don’t make that mistake again.

Breakfast consisted of commercial cereal, sugar-laden yogurt, serviceable eggs, and French toast. The kids consumed the toast, but its odd texture and color put this eater off. We were invited to make our own sandwiches for lunch, and the ingredients included processed meats and cheese, condiments loaded with additives, and ordinary sliced bread — along with bruised apples and out-of-season oranges that were disappointingly dry when peeled by thirsty hikers along the trail.

Everyone tried to make the best of the slim pickings, but hunger really set in by dinner time. Maybe at this meal things would look up? Not likely. The vegetarian enchiladas were simply inedible. This camper was actually forced to discreetly deposit the only mouthful she tried into a napkin bound for the compost bin. The nine-year-old who picked the same dish just wrinkled her nose and didn’t touch a bite. I opted for the frozen vegetable medley, which seemed the safest bet at the time.

Oh dear. By now there was plenty of grumbling among the unhappy campers, not just our crew — and not just my stomach. One dad confessed his vegetarian family of four was having a hard time finding enough to eat. He said earnestly: “At this stage, my kids are pretty committed to never coming back.” Somehow this wording struck me as funny at the time.

A seasoned hiker, part of a group of seniors taking wildflower walks that weekend, lamented the lousy food while mentioning that Camp Tuolumne, where she’d been earlier in the summer, served tastier meals. It’s been a few years, but if memory serves me correctly, I’d have to agree.

Regardless, since I caught a bug, I spent the last day subsisting on Cheerios.

Photos courtesy of Echo Lake Camp site: If only the food looked this good

Here’s what we all decided: it wouldn’t take a lot of tweaking to make the camp food more palatable: homemade granola with plain yogurt for breakfast, served with in-season, local fruit. Hummus and pesto instead of processed cold cuts and industrial relish for lunch. Rice and beans or pasta with made-from-scratch tomato sauce, in a nod to summer’s bounty, for dinner. Fresh corn. Salad greens instead of iceberg lettuce. Nothing fancy, minimal cooking, filling and nourishing nonetheless.

Presumably it’s challenging to find trained kitchen staff for such seasonal work and managing a program from afar, as the city does, may impact campers’ on-site dining experiences. And, of course, cost may be a factor. The camp is as cheap as chips: $50 a night for adults and $30-$42 for kids. But this writer would be willing to wager that Berkeley folks would pay a little extra to get some decent grub. After all, there’s nothing like the great outdoors to work up a hearty appetite.

Come Sunday afternoon we loaded the ravenous brood into the automobile and set out in search of food. Everyone ate an astounding amount at the River Grill in Tahoe City; you could sense the shift in mood as each person got stuck into some satisfying real food.

We devoured vine-ripened tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella with micro-greens and green chard raviolis stuffed with goat cheese and portabello mushrooms. And, as we ate, we adults debated whether or not we were just, you know, Berkeley food snobs raising kids who will have a tough time finding chow to rival what’s on offer in this town, flush as it is with farmers’ markets, global groceries, and organic, unprocessed foods.

What say you readers?

Hat tip: Margaret P, who endured two days of unappetizing eats with this writer and a trio of hungry children. 

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Tuolumne Camp closed for intestinal illness [07.16.11]
Tuolumne Camp closed for weekend due to virus [07.11.11]