By Haemaru Chung, age 15, New York
It was amazing how much an eight-ounce container of chocolate milk could get you at a sleepaway camp. To be fair, the camp provided three meals a day, albeit horrendous, barely edible food. Apparently, to my starved dorm-mate, the chocolate milk was worth $10. Even in New York City, where prices were off-the-charts expensive, I never imagined such a rip-off. But desperate times called for desperate measures, and I was more than glad to give my friend the chocolate milk after he forked over 10 bucks. Most incredibly, however, even my friend was pleased by the terribly lopsided bargain. Well, for the moment at least. This scenario was particularly memorable to me because, perhaps for the first time in my life, I experienced rudimentary capitalism and the concept of “supply and demand” in action.
The intense music camp in the middle of nowhere in the Adirondacks initially did not excite me for two main reasons. One was the prospect of a minimum of five continuous hours of violin practice per day, except for Saturdays and Sundays, for seven weeks straight. On Saturdays, the practice requirement was four hours, and practice was optional on Sundays. Don’t get me wrong. As a musician and violinist, I like music and even enjoy practicing to a certain degree. Concentrating for such an extended period of time, however, was challenging even for the most committed musicians. I also heard that there were very few sports activities, which was a major disappointment to me. The prospect of all work with neither exercise nor freedom for nearly two months became a big downer. The other reason for my trepidation was the infamous food at the camp. Some camp graduates had previously warned me about the camp’s notorious food. One of them even told me his own camp motto: “You’re always tired, always hungry, and always practicing.” Despite their warnings, I considered myself prepared, for I had my share of bad cafeteria food from my school and previous summer camps. I had never been so wrong.
Although I asked myself, “How bad could it be?” before marching into the dining room, my first meal at the camp crushed my slim hopes of having halfway decent meals for seven weeks. The salsa salmon resembled a pink cardboard with a chunky, red crust topping it. With every bite of the dry, flaky salmon, my thirst for water increased while my appetite decreased. A more accurate title for the wild rice would have been “wild pudding.” The rice grains were practically glued together and tasted like flavorless gelatin in my mouth. The slimy green beans accompanying the main dish were limp and soggy, but they were surprisingly the most edible—or rather, least painful—part of the whole dinner.
After my first experience with the camp’s food, I felt some apprehension for the days to come, finally coming to terms with warnings given by camp alums ranging from 20 years old to 70 years old. As the weeks progressed, the meals were as bad as, if not worse than, my first dinner. The choice of food was mostly the same with some courses switched between lunch and dinner. During the course of seven weeks, I remembered only two good meals. Both of the meals were delivered from a nearby restaurant. In my opinion, the most notorious food at the camp was the mac salad. The lunch staff would serve the mac salad from an ice cream scooper onto your plate. The mac salad would remain in its spherical form until you finished it off. The macaroni in the salad had a rubbery texture, and the mayonnaise tasted synthetic and chemical, as if it were so processed that it eventually lost its organic taste.
After the first few days, I noticed that many older campers brought instant Ramen Cup Noodles to the cafeteria at mealtimes. I also had brought some Ramen Cup Noodles from home but was too shy to bring them to the cafeteria. Although apprehensive at first, I figured out how to get boiling water and ate my Ramen with the cafeteria food. As much as I liked my Ramen, it did not satisfy my hunger. The fact that the Ramen contained absolutely no healthy ingredients was an issue, too. To balance my meals, I brought the Ramen occasionally when I was extremely hungry and always ate the cafeteria food as well. One day, as I lined up to get my food, the cafeteria server saw my instant noodles and refused to serve any food, saying that I already had food. She said this so lightly that at first I thought she was joking until she turned to serve the person behind me. I had to beg until she finally gave me a tiny morsel of chicken. I found it outrageous that I had to practically beg for that horrible food. It is fun to laugh at it now, but at the time, I was quite confused and angry. After that incident, I had to hide my Cup Ramen in my pocket when I lined up for a meal. Not only was it uncomfortable, but the Cup Ramen also constantly slid out of my small pocket.
As a result of the camp’s terrible food, campers furiously fought over any type of junk food in a “survival of the fittest” kind of way. Whenever a bag of chips was left out in the open, it disappeared in a flash. Campers were sometimes allowed to visit a neighboring town or mall to shop for food and drinks. Usually, people returned with their arms filled with Coca Cola, potato chips, and Pringles. While I was not enthused about relying on junk food to fill our perpetually hungry teenage stomachs, I recognized its necessity. Bartering, trading, and even begging for food became regular practices in my dorm. Everybody had a high demand for junk food and soft drinks because of the lack of nourishing meals and the sticky, hot weather. If you possessed more than three items of food in your dorm, people would swarm like a pack of hungry locusts at your door, trying in any way possible to get your junk food. There would always be a sneaky boy who tried to take your food first and pay back later. But he would never pay back, no matter what. Under normal circumstances, this behavior would be considered larceny, but when your meals consist of gloppy, yellowish mushroom cream soup full of hairs and roast beef you cannot chew through, you get very desperate.
One regular afternoon after practice hours, I was reading a book in my room when my friend barged in. We started talking when he noticed my box of chocolate milk, half hidden behind the door. Although he started begging me, I persistently shook my head. Nothing personal, but my supply of milk was low at that moment. He offered me one, two, then five dollars. Surprised at his offer, I hesitated but refused, curious to see if he would up the ante. Sure enough, his next offer was double: $10. When I heard this, I immediately agreed to his terms. After receiving the money, I handed over the chocolate milk. Although I was surprised at this clearly one-sided deal, I was even more astonished that my friend was content. This friend became a regular client of mine. However, our subsequent trades were much fairer than the first one.
By far, the best meal I had at camp was half of a Chinese dumpling that my friend gave me. Yes, you read that right: half a Chinese dumpling. As I mentioned earlier, campers were allowed to make weekend trips to a mall or a supermarket. Nonetheless, only senior campers were allowed to visit real restaurants. One of my dorm-mates had an elder sister who went on a weekend excursion to a Chinese restaurant. She took out some dumplings and gave them to my dorm-mate, who in turn gave one dumpling to me. Although I had to split the dumpling with another friend, my half, which was cold and slimy by the time I ate it, gave me a boost of strength and almost brought tears to my eyes. The tasteless, disgusting food at the camp helped me realize the importance of food in a way that I had never anticipated.
In addition, I learned more about rudimentary capitalism in my seven weeks at the camp than at any other time by witnessing the fundamental principle of “supply and demand” in action. In my dorm, I was the only person who had a quantity of food up for sale, thanks to my overzealous parents, who constantly replenished me with care packages. Even though my parents strongly disliked junk food, they were willing to make an exception that summer, considering the circumstances. Most of my other dorm-mates all had their own stocks of food but steadfastly refused to trade with one another. Because of the lack of edible food, many people came to bargain and trade with me. I accepted most of their offers with reasonable prices, leaving me with a modest profit, as I usually had some extra food that I could give away. The “demand” of my dorm-mates was always high because they were all growing boys desperate for food. As price is a reflection of supply and demand, I set the price based on the rarity and quantity of the food I was selling. Coming back to the example with the chocolate milk, since I had only a few bottles left, I set the price high. When I sold Cup Ramen or a regular bag of chips, I set the price reasonably as I had plenty of stock. Without my knowing, the camp became an interesting way to study basic economics.
Although initially reluctant to go to the camp for various reasons, I soon learned to adapt and make the most out of my experience. While dreadful at first, I became accustomed to the five-hour practice sessions. In order to relieve stress, my friends and I played table tennis whenever we could, and I often played soccer during late afternoons. Despite low quality of food, I learned to survive, using various ways to supplement my diet. Along the way, I learned an important life lesson about the value of food in the world. Many things I had taken for granted before have earned a new place in my heart. But the most memorable lessons of all would be my newfound knowledge of a basic economic principle and also the unexpected discovery that half a cold dumpling could be such a morale booster.