What I Learned During My Weekend At Pizza Camp

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What I Learned During My Weekend At Pizza Camp

I arrive at Bauhaus Brew Labs, an industrial brewery adjacent to freight train tracks in Northeast Minneapolis, at noon on a Saturday. I’m here for Pizza Camp. Described as an, “overnight camp for pizza-loving adults,” Pizza Camp is a not-for-profit camp hosted by the Minneapolis Pizza Club and Grown-Up Club monthly activity group for offbeat adults.

I enter the brewery and am greeted by a balloon shaped like a pizza slice. Paige Guggemos, the founder of the Minneapolis Pizza Club and the camp’s co-director, is handing out manila envelopes filled with Pizza Camp Swag—an official t-shirt, a beer koozie, a limited edition print of two elderly people sharing a slice Lady and the Tramp style, a bingo card, and a name tag.

Campers are gathered at a table in the middle of the brewery, decorating their name tags with markers. A framed photo of actor Kevin James is propped up at the end of the table. He glares over us. No one knows why. We’re asked to create a pizza nickname and include it on our tag. After some deliberation, I decide on “Deep Dish Diva.”

Our bingo cards are used for an icebreaker game. We find campers that match the descriptions on each bingo space. Some descriptions like, “A Pizza Camper who has never been to Pizza Hut” or “A Pizza Camper who has the same favorite topping as you” make sense. Other, like—”A Pizza Camper who is a pretty big Kevin James fan” don’t.

Actor Kevin James is an Unexplainable and Reoccuring Theme of Camp.jpg

As I try to find a camper who’s taller than me and a camper that can do the Cha-Cha Slide, it becomes apparent that pizza is for everyone. Adults in their 20s to late 30s from a variety of backgrounds and places have gathered here today to attend Pizza Camp. There’s an assistant principal from New York City, an attorney from Minneapolis, journalists from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, a group of local PR girls.

After bingo, we break up into groups based on our cabin assignments and have 15 minutes to create a group battle cry and decorate a cabin crest before presenting both to all of Pizza Camp. I’m in cabin 8, the only all-female cabin. There are 8 cabins in total with 8 campers in each one. Camp staff sleeps in tents. They don’t have to participate in this activity.

Time is up. The Pizza Warriors stand in front of a carpeted stage filled with camp gear. They wave their crest and collectively yell their battle cry, “1, 2, 3, 4 we declare a pizza war!” Brewery patrons stare bewildered and slightly alarmed. The winning cabin receives a packet of high-quality gel pens.

The buses are late. We keep eating pizza from Parkway Pizza and drinking beer. After some counselors lead you say pizza I say camp chants, the buses arrive and we split into groups based on our cabin assignments. I board the “Pepperoni” bus with head counselor Tim Lovette aka Kid Sausage. The rest of the campers follow Tyler Baldry aka Square Slice onto “Extra Cheese.”

Bus Ride to Pizza Camp.JPG

On the bus, we learn there’s an official #PizzaCamp2015 hashtag. A group of us immediately take to Instagram and agree it doesn’t get more legitimate than this. I meet Mark, a.k.a. Kram. When asked about his choice of nickname, Mark tells me that Kram is Mark spelled backwards. It also refers to cramming pizza into your mouth.

Tim walks down the bus aisle and hands out Pizza Camp pamphlets that include a Pizza Pledge, a Pizza Oath, a Pizza Mad Lib, and a Camp Itinerary. The Pizza Pledge is a six-stanza poem that asks us to pledge ourselves to pizza (the one true god of taste, whose cheesy skin and doughy guts, it is a sin to waste), while the Pizza Oath is a promise that we will do our best to always eat pizza with our hands and never a fork or knife. During the 35-minute drive to the Baker Near-Wilderness Settlement, we play the Pizza Mad Lib, which asks us to fill in spaces for adjectives and a movie about a mall cop starring Kevin James.

Campers Learning Archery.JPG

At camp, things kick off with an all-camper photo. Then, we gather in the camp lodge. A special guest is listed on the itinerary. We quickly find out that the guest isn’t Kevin James. There’s a collective sigh. We’ve officially begun to drink the Pizza Camp Kool-Aid. Instead of the King of Queens, the campsite staff presents a live raptor and a 20-year old Hawk. During the Q & A, a camper sincerely asks if the hawk has friends. After the bird presentation, we break into three activity groups—canoeing, archery, and wilderness survival skills. At Pizza Camp, I hold a bow and arrow for the first time.

As my group is waiting to step up to the archery range, I ask Kyle Coughlin, a.k.a. Moon Guts, why he thinks people are so obsessed with pizza and not, say, burgers? Kyle’s wearing a t-shirt with a sliver collegiate sports flag across the chest. The flag says pizza. He pauses, thinks for a second before responding. “It’s bread and cheese!” He says this in a tone that says no shit.

Time passes and our archery skills progress. We try to pierce through a stack of red Solo cups while simultaneously hitting the designated target. I ask a quiet, redheaded male—Jens Pinther, a.k.a. Ginger Slice, why he decided to sign up for a $99 Pizza Camp. He, like many other campers I talked to, thought it would be a good way to step out of his comfort zone and meet new people.

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On the way back to the Lodge, we pass the group learning wilderness survival skills. They’re hunched over camp fires, boiling water. They look disinterested and hungry. It’s 6pm. The main event—an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet—is scheduled to begin in an hour.

This year, in an effort to reduce the time it took for campers to make personal pizzas at last year’s inaugural camp, the staff called upon Jim McDaniel. A pizza-making veteran, Jim has been in the industry for 10 years and currently slings pies at Muddy Waters. In an interview published on the camp’s official website, Jim compared his love of pizza to his love of family. Prior to camp, James and the camp’s co-directors met to solidify an impressive pizza menu that consisted of six different pizzas, including a vegan option. Pies ranged from classic favorites like pepperoni and sausage to more intricate options like Korean sweet chili sauce with a mozzarella and parmesan cheese mix, pineapple, poblano peppers, and cottage bacon.

It’s 8pm. There are still no pizzas. Inside the Lodge, campers congregate at a large picnic tables. Bowls that once served pizza-flavored Pringles and Goldfish crackers are now filled with crumbs. Cheese curds coated in pizza seasonings and a variety of salads are picked over at a buffet table near the door. We pass the time playing Jenga and crafting postcards from Pizza Camp.

Campers Playing Jenga.JPG

It’s clear that the plan to serve pizzas in a staggered approach isn’t working as well as the staff had thought. When the pizzas finally come out, each pie sits on a buffet table for less than a minute. Turn your head away from the door that leads from the pizza oven outside and into the Lounge and you’ll miss your chance at grabbing a slice. Taking a picture of the pizzas is out of the question.

Soon after the first pie is brought out, a handful of counselors return to the Lodge with grocery bags of snacks. One camper describes the pizzas as, “small and unassuming.” I’d have to agree. The pizzas themselves aren’t very visually appealing. But the thought and dedication that went into making each pie was an impressive, collaborative effort. And in the end, there were plenty of pizzas to go around. They all tasted great and no campers left hungry.

Campers Show off Their Pizzas.JPG

After dinner, I talk with Ryan Smith, a member of the kitchen staff who works at Pizza Luce, a Minneapolis pizza chain that specializes in non-traditional pies like baked potato and shrimp and pesto. He estimates that they prepared 90 pies. In a follow-up email, Paige informed me that it was closer to 100.

Everything besides the dough, which was prepared at Mesa Pizza that Friday night, was prepared on-site, at camp. Nearly all of the ingredients were sourced locally. Kitchen staff followed Jim’s base recipe for a basic sauce and made it Pizza Camp’s own by adding an undisclosed amount of GRLK—a thick sauce made from fresh garlic, organic lemon juice, non-GMO canola oil, organic sea salt, and water.

Pizza Oven Fired Up.JPG

Two pizza enthusiasts built a wood-fired pizza oven exclusively for Pizza Camp. The oven, which sat outside the Lodge on portable wheels, reached 700 degrees F and cooked three pizzas at a time in roughly 10 minutes.

“I want that in my backyard,” Ryan tells me, marveling at the beauty of the pizza oven.

That night, we sit around the campfire drinking beer. I ask Kyle if he had any recommendations on where to eat pizza in Minneapolis. He calls over to Chris Cloud, the man behind Pizza Camp. “Cloud’s the pizza critic.” Cloud laughs. He says he isn’t a critic. He’s a “pizza connoisseur.”

Cloud is the Kevin Bacon of Pizza Camp. Nearly everyone in attendance knows Cloud personally or is connected to him through various degrees of separation. Cloud spent the majority of camp in the kitchen, wearing a felt beret that mimicked a pizza pie. It was nearing 1am by the time he joined the rest of the campers around the fire. We talk about expanding pizza camp into cities like Chicago and Denver. He tells me that, “Denver has a pizza club, you know?” I didn’t. He lists off an array of local pizzerias I should visits and debates their merits with other campers. Before I head back to the cabin, he gazes over the fire and takes it all in. “It’s surreal,” he says. It is.

On Sunday morning, we clean up and enjoy a hearty pancake breakfast. Cloud stacks his pancakes on top of one another and gives them a pizza-inspired kick by topping them with pineapple, ham, and hot sauce. I still don’t exactly know why people are so obsessed with pizza. I ask camper Kevin Kirsch. He attributes it to the nostalgia factor, the resurgence of the 1990s. Or, maybe it’s the sense of community pizza inherently embodies. We return to Bauhaus and say our goodbyes. Until next year, Pizza Camp.

Erin Nederbo is a Chicago based freelance writer. She is the co-founder of Encyclopizzeria.com, a blog dedicated to pizza history and culture.

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