Nominate your favorite Maine businesses for Best of Maine!

Cait Shibles Is Cooking Up Something New at Camp Susan Curtis

When she took over the kitchen at the Stoneham camp, where kids from disadvantaged backgrounds come for a classic summer experience, she decided to start from scratch.

baking ingredients and tools
Shutterstock
By Joel Crabtree
From our March 2024 issue

Cait Shibles was hired as the food-service manager at Camp Susan Curtis, in 2014, and her first order of business was simple. For years, the quality of what was on the menu had been declining with an outsourced food-service company at the helm. Many campers opted for breakfast cereal or peanut butter and jellies instead of hot meals. Shibles took the eight large cereal dispensers, similar to what you find in a college dining hall, and tossed them in the dumpster. “Technically, they were following the federal school-nutrition program, but not in a way where anybody wanted to eat it,” Shibles says. “We started following it in a way that was more yummy.”

Set on 100 acres along pristine Trout Pond, in the western Maine town of Stoneham, Camp Susan Curtis, offers the quintessential Maine summer experience for kids from economically disadvantaged families. The nonprofit Susan L. Curtis Foundation opened the camp in 1974 — both the organization and the camp are named for former Maine governor Kenneth Curtis’s daughter who died of cystic fibrosis when she was 11. Campers range from fourth graders to high schoolers, and they’re referred by school guidance counselors and social workers. They attend at little to no cost to their families thanks to support from individual donors, businesses, and foundations. The summer is divided into four 10-day sessions, and roughly 400 campers come through each year, swimming, biking, hiking, canoeing, and learning archery. They also work on other skills, like how to write a college essay, fill out a job application, or apply for federal student loans. And of course they eat. A lot.

“When they’re at camp, they’re incredibly active,” says Camp Susan Curtis director Terri Mulks. “Just having that kind of active day, they need a different kind of nutrition than what they’re having at home.”

Campers at Camp Susan Curtis, many of whom have experienced food insecurity, know when and where their next meal is coming from, and Shibles makes sure that just about everything they eat is homemade. On Fridays, she bakes 15 sheet-pan-size pizzas with dough made from scratch. For the salads, dressings are all whipped up in-house. Eating whole, healthy foods and fresh produce is a new concept for many of the campers, Shibles notes. Their diets at home often rely on heavily processed food.

“Say I make barbecue chicken, mashed potatoes, a vegetable, and a salad,” she says. “There’s a good chance more than half of the kids have never eaten chicken that wasn’t a fried tender. They don’t even know what it is sometimes.” Once per session, however, Shibles will whip up some chicken fingers and tater tots for lunch, which usually elicits cheers from the campers. “This is a familiar food and they love it,” she says. “And getting it at camp feels more special and exciting than having it at home.”

In the early 2000s, Shibles spent a couple of summers assisting in the kitchen at Camp Susan Curtis while working the rest of the year as a special-education paraprofessional down the road at Fryeburg Academy. After a stint at another Maine camp, she came back to Camp Susan Curtis for a catering gig, and that’s when she and Mulks started talking about the possibility of her taking the reins of the food-service program.

“I like kitchen work,” says Shibles, who also runs a wedding-catering business. “It doesn’t stress me out. Being able to cook for large groups of people has been something that has come really easily to me my whole life.” Over the years, she’s developed a flattering reputation among campers, who have come to trust her culinary choices, but getting in that groove wasn’t easy. In her first year, one camper asked what Alfredo sauce is. Shibles explained that it’s a bit like macaroni and cheese. The camper countered that cheese is, in fact, supposed to be yellow. Shibles realized that she would be broadening horizons. She accompanies each meal with a green salad and doesn’t mind when kids pick and choose which parts they want to eat, leaving behind, say, some tomatoes. Less familiar fresh fruits — nectarines, for instance — are also often greeted with skepticism too. But many of the campers have a way of coming around.

Not only do they wind up acclimating to new foods but also new ways of eating, since the camp’s meals are all served family-style. Sharing around a table and trusting that you’ll get your fill can be a big deal for some kids. Year after year, the camp sees roughly 70 percent of the campers return, and 40 percent of its staff are former campers. Eating around the tables together gives the older bunch an opportunity to serve as role models for the younger crowd, who often seem keen to take their dietary cues from veteran campers.

Shibles hopes that campers carry their expanded palates back home with them. Sometimes, campers tell her about being excited to return home and share their newfound love of pesto, avocados, or cherries. “A lot of times at camps, the kitchen is separate from the camp experience,” says Mulks. “Cait is very front-and-center, very much a part of everything that goes on in camp. She’s out and about, she knows the kids, and they build that trust. She also has a unique perspective from standing on the other side of the counter.”

For Shibles, her role at Camp Susan Curtis feels like more than a job. She takes the mission to heart, and enjoys opening up a new world of food to the campers. “I think food can provide happiness,” she says, “through both nutrition, so the kids feel good physically, and comfort, so they feel good in their little hearts.”

April 2024, Down East Magazine

Get all of our latest stories delivered straight to your mailbox every month. Subscribe to Down East magazine.