I dreamt of going to sleepaway camp as a kid. It only took four decades, and creative pancakes, to make it happen.

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Author with son

When I was young, I believed that I was the only child on Long Island who did not get to go to sleepaway camp. All my friends packed their trunks, boarded buses, and left for eight weeks. I felt abandoned. My mom told me it was a money issue, but I now believe it was because my mom just wanted me around for company.

Last summer, my family and I toured Camp Chipinaw in the Catskills Mountains, the camp my husband attended all the way from his childhood into his college years. He claims "it made him the man he is today." After being wowed by our tour guide, my son, only six at the time, insisted that this was the camp for him. 'He's young for sleepaway,' I thought, 'but perhaps if I was there…' That's when the idea took hold. 

A few years ago, I started designing artistic pancakes for fun and posting them to an Instagram account, @pancakesmakepeoplehappy. The day after our tour, I created a custom pancake of the camp's logo and applied for a position at the camp, pitching myself as the Arts and Crafts director. I figured it was the perfect opportunity to tap into my creativity while also being close to my son. But, that pancake must have sealed the deal, and instead I was hired as the Cooking Specialist.

I'd like to preface this by saying I'm most certainly not a chef (and am often the first one to order from Grubhub), but I was excited to spend the summer with my son, and to fulfill my childhood dream of going to sleepaway camp—FINALLY. 

Author's son

In order to engage the campers, ages seven to 17 that I would be teaching, I would have to step up my cooking game. I decorated my amazing cooking kitchen— 650 square feet filled with modern appliances and a large U-shaped island that seated 16—with printouts of my pancakes, choosing a dozen of my favorites. I was determined to provide the kids with a positive experience and educate them about navigating a kitchen, so I searched for recipes with simple ingredients in hopes that maybe the kids will go home and show their parents they learned to cook, or at least crack an egg!

"Hi, I'm Lori," I told my first blasé class of 14 year-old-girls. "Shhh," I told them, "Don't tell anyone this, but I have a secret—I'd rather order in than cook, but I'm standing in front of you because I have a superpower..." Eye rolls. "Feast your eyes upon the wall of pancakes," I said, pointing at the wall of photos. I loved watching their eyes widen. 

My poster wall was a hit—the older boys admired my pancake tribute to Kobe Bryant, young kids pointed to Yoda, Darth Vader or Hello Kitty and those who deciphered a Marilyn Monroe design were impressed. I wish I printed out more!

"You made those? How? Did you use a mold? A stencil? How do you get the colors different? Did you use a marker?" 

"Nope!" I proudly explained to them. "I just have a tiny squirt bottle and draw the design freehand. Then I cook the design on very high heat, let the pan cool a little bit and pour the batter on top of the design." 

I knew then that I had reeled them in.

The first week was rough, teaching six 50-minute classes to 12-15 kids per class, and I felt absolutely cooked at the end of each day!

I learned there's a lot of trial and error when it comes to cooking and kids. When I asked, "Do you know how to crack an egg?" I got lots of enthusiastic head nods. I quickly determined that many kids were bluffing, claiming they were expert egg crackers, but were, in fact, kitchen newcomers. After having to clean up too many gooey egg messes, I did my best with my egg cracking tutorials.

One day we made my all-time favorite cake, the Nabisco Chocolate Wafer Cake (aka Icebox or Zebra Cake). I told the campers how growing up, my grandmother lived with us and was the family's cook. But, once a year, my mother whipped up one thing for me—a birthday cake. At the time, the log-of-a-cake looked so weird to me, very different from all my friend's birthday cakes, but now as an adult, I've come to embrace it's unique and simple deliciousness. No surprise, the kids loved it! I think they liked hearing how I personalized it; I called it Lori's Birthday Cake.

Chocolate Wafer Cake

I learned recipes can touch people, make them smile and invoke emotion and fond memories. After preparing the Chocolate Wafer Cake, I delivered a slice to the director of the camp, Michael Baer. "This cake reminds me of my grandma," he said wistfully. While showing the class how to make homemade soft pretzel bites, one camper shared that her family has owned a soft pretzel business for generations, and how my recipe was similar! 

The Chirp, the camp's daily newsletter, published pictures of my pancakes featuring positive messages, like Scatter Kindness, Friends Make Life Sweeter, and Be The Light. Hearing one camper shout across the dining hall, "Hey Lori, I loved your pancake! You're like the Chipinaw Pancake Inspirational Guru!" made me feel valued and truly a part of the camp experience.

Looking back over the last eight weeks, I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience camp as an adult. I was able to show off my creative flare, connect with others and hopefully pass on some cooking knowledge along the way. I understand now the allure and importance of camp. It helps you discover who you are by trying new things, meeting new people and making contributions, which, as I can attest, never gets too old.