free to be me
At a camp tucked away in the foothills of Berkshires, kids come to grips with the seductive power of food.
August 2002
Written by Elizabeth Hess
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

Command performace: Kingsmont teens discover the beauty that is born
of confidence.

THERE ARE TWO MAIN RULES at Camp Kingsmont: no sex and no throwing up. The first rule is de rigueur wherever teenagers are on the loose, but the second restriction is particular to Kingsmont, a "weight management" camp, tucked away in the Berkshires, for children between the ages of 7 and 18. In this particular program, the word fat has been excised from the vernacular like a tumor.

"This is not a fat camp," says Michael Ellerin, the camp's co-owner and director. "We don't do before‑and‑after photos." He describes it more as a place to heal the spirit than the body. Kingsmont campers have weight issues. "But don't make assumptions about what that means," says Betsy Gertz, a registered nurse who spent a summer working at the camp. "They end up here because of conditions ranging from Tourette' s syndrome to dyslexia. But for all of them, food is a cushion." Photographer Mary Ellen Mark and I have decided to spend a week at the camp to meet the kids who, for better or worse, are youthful experts on the seductive power of food.

According to Keith Zucker, co‑owner/director and resident guru, the average camper loses 30 pounds in the course of a summer. Zucker arrived at the camp for his first summer at the age of seven. He kept coming back for 16 years, then, in 1991, he bought the place, when he was just 23. Zucker doesn't seem to like the press; he doesn't show up for a scheduled interview‑and keeps his distance the whole week. Ellerin, infinitely more friendly, explains the Kingsmont drill, required for all, which includes workshops on relearning how to eat and on how to use free time, weekly weight and heart rate checks, and using a small waistline monitor, about the size of a watch, that counts individual paces taken, miles walked, and calories burned each day. Every camper's progress is recorded. "The goal is to motivate the kids to change their attitudes and habits," explains Ellerin. "Counting pounds alone won't work. The danger is that kids will drop the weight here and gain it right back when they go home."

In this atmosphere, Snickers bars are strictly black market. There is no comfort food at Kingsmont, but there are other comforts, apparently sufficient to bring campers back year after year. Kingsmont, it turns out, is the one place where these children can leave their troubles behind.

A world unto itself, the camp is located in West Stockbridge, a small yet sophisticated village in the foothills of the mountains. As with most summer camps, coming upon Kingsmont is like discovering a lost settlement. A network of primitive paths snakes up and down hills and through the forest, leading to clusters of wooden buildings on a lake with a small beachfront. The main attraction here is a floating trampoline, which hurls campers into the cold, fresh water.

I watch two very large boys, maybe 12 years old and 20 pounds overweight, climb into a rowboat. One is very frightened; he doesn't know how to swim and needs a lot of encouragement from the peanut gallery onshore just to get into the boat. His companion boasts of expertise. Each boy is stuffed into an orange life jacket up to his neck, his head protruding from his protective shell like a turtle's. In the process, the boys launch the boat, almost accidentally, and the inevitable happens within seconds. Two soggy heads pop out of the lake and squeal in horror as the counselor shouts, "Put your feet down- you can touch!"

I assume they're going to abort this mission altogether. Instead, the boys drag the boat to shore and get right back in, chatting about their combined weight, the balance of the boat, and where they should sit. Then they nervously repeat the entire performance, this time successfully, to the sound of great cheering from the sidelines. Welcome to Camp Kingsmont.

When I first arrived, I wondered if campers would even speak to a reporter from GOURMET, a magazine that puts good food on the shortlist of human necessities. As it turned out, the kids were eager for attention‑from anyone. They lined up to be photographed by Mark and were so open about their feelings that by the end of the week I felt protective of them. In an attempt to put myself in their shoes, I decided to attach a monitor to my own waistline and shed the weight of my preconceptions about Kingsmont. Then I joined the kids on their daily routines.

The occupants of each bunk are given a weekly schedule of activities‑field sports, rope climbing, horseback riding, archery, and weight lifting‑which moves them around the 225 acres of the camp. (Just to get to any activity involves a hike, so kids begin to lose weight right away.) The day begins with breakfast‑pre‑beaten eggs (with or without ham), Cheerios with skim milk, an orange, and a choice of ketchup, margarine, or Smucker's; one condiment is allowed with each meal. Zucker himself is in the kitchen at every meal, personally serving the food and greeting each camper. No seconds are allowed. At lunch and dinner, there is always salad, considered a "free food." The kids, to my amazement, appear blasé about the menus‑a carefully selected 1,500 to 2,000 calories a day, depending on each child's energy needs‑planned by a staff nutritionist and prepared, at the time of my visit, by Hanrow Hartley, a young, enthusiastic chef from New York. "I make every meatball by hand," Hartley tells me. The volume on food is turned way down, transforming meals into something of a ho‑hum, if not bland, occasion.

"The only problem is the raisins," says Cindy, a 14‑year‑old camper, as we eat tuna sandwiches dotted with the wrinkled fruits. "They put them in everything, even the shepherd's pie."

I spend my days trying to soak up the atmosphere and chat with the kids. Water activities rule, either at the lake or in the swimming pool. (The tennis courts are almost always empty.) One morning, we catch a particularly raucous boys' basketball game. The kids, who look to be around ten years old, are stealing the ball from one another, randomly shooting, and generally playing their own version of the game. The counselor in charge is blowing his whistle now and then, offering instruction. "Hey, fat mess!" shouts one boy at a buddy when he fumbles the ball. "Damn, you're fat," he scolds. The other boy, a roly‑poly kid from Texas, just laughs. They all laugh. "Only the fat campers can call each other fat," explains Ellerin, who's observing the game. "It's their privilege."

NOT ALL KINGSMONT CAMPERS appear to be overweight, but many are veteran overeaters. In the cafeteria, the girls casually chat about bulimia and anorexia, eating too much or too little. Everybody is refreshingly frank about their personal struggles. While I watch the basketball game, Andrew, a gregarious 16‑year‑old from Connecticut, comes to check me out. He's a total charmer, with an easy smile, who tells me that he's been coming to Kingsmont for four years and has lost a total of 80 pounds during that time; today, he looks about 20 pounds overweight. I congratulate him. "It changed call "magic in a package"? After all, many of them could have used a little help in this department, especially in the days before electric mixers, reliable ovens, and much‑simplified recipes were widespread. Baking could be a fussy and unpredictable enterprise, and failures were hard to disguise. Yet a mix might not have struck many homemakers as the miraculous solution promised in the ads. In 1951, a study at Michigan State University (MSU) comparing cake‑mix cakes with traditional ones noted that apart from measuring out the ingredients, similar work was required for both kinds of cake. A later MSU study pinpointed the time saved at exactly 13 minutes and 2 seconds. Other studies (these projects were hugely popular in college home‑ec classes) tended to find that cakes baked the old‑fashioned way were more "palatable" than the ones that came from a box.

But a more popular explanation for women's early uncertainty about cake mixes is the egg theory. This idea was developed by Ernest Dichter, whose research in consumer psychology was much in demand by food companies during the 1940s and '5Os. Interviews with homemakers had convinced him that mixes typically made a housewife feel useless, simultaneously devaluing her role and threatening to put her out of a job. If manufacturers would leave dried eggs out of their cake‑mix formulations, thus requiring women to add fresh eggs themselves, the homemaker would feel more personally involved in the making of the cake and be able to serve it proudly as her own work.

There's some truth to the egg theory, although eggs per se may not have played precisely the role Dichter assigned to them. Whatever their relation to women's role confusion, the food industry knew very well that dried eggs gave cakes an unpleasant "eggy" flavor. In the end, boxed mixes from both Pillsbury, which offered the convenience of dried eggs, and General Mills, which featured the better flavor and baker participation provided by fresh eggs, became market leaders.

But Dichter was on the right track‑he just missed an important factor. It was not eggs that proved pivotal to the eventual success of cake mixes, but frosting. And shredded coconut. And extra oil, or vanilla, or baking powder. And miniature circuses complete with tiny hoops for tinnier elephants. Women knew exactly what was missing when the cake they served came out of a box: the cook herself. That's why their instinct was to apologize. "You don't have to feel guilty" became the theme of countless ads, magazine articles, and cookbooks designed to legitimate baking with mixes by making personality part of the recipe. "See how elegant‑and unusual‑you can make a cake‑mix cake!" "With the basic cake as merely step number one, the creative cook can go as far as her imagination will take her." "Now your own personal touch can create 'homemade' perfection in cake‑mix cakes!"

WITH CREATIVITY the new imperative in baking, women built football fields on cakemix chocolate cakes, using green sugar for turf, candy sticks for goalposts, and a piece of apple for a football. They put chocolate petals on gumdrops for flower cakes; they carved and stacked cake layers to look like hearts, Easter bonnets, Christmas trees, and clowns.

Sometimes creativity took a lot more time and attention than homemakers would have needed to bake a cake the traditional way, but creaming butter, adding sugar, and sifting flour were starting to look like awfully pedestrian activities. "No longer plagued by kitchen‑maid chores that have been taken over by the food manufacturers, anyone can become an artist at the stove," wrote Poppy Cannon in 1961 cookbook aimed at beginners. Basic skills began to seem redundant and, finally, intimidating.

These days, it doesn't take much time or talent to make a simple cake from fresh ingredients. But cake‑mix cakes- tall and sweet and golden, perched on the kitchen counter like supermodels‑have altered the whole equation. Sifting, measuring, and mixing aren't easy enough, half an hour in the kitchen is too long, and the honest flavors of butter and vanilla aren't exciting anymore. The work of our own hands has lost the symbolic power that made a slightly lopsided layer cake an acknowledged masterpiece in the art of hospitality, if not of patisserie. And though we've banished the guilt that used to go with shortcut baking, we've replaced it with something that may be far more insidious. As a friend's grandmother used to say, opening a box of cake mix, "Betty Crocker does a much better job than I do."