Theology of Foil Burgers
By Clare Wangard
There are some places that are steeped in tradition. There are churches, towns, and organizations whose traditions have become central to their identity. Camp Ondessonk, my place of work and second home, is no exception to this. For me, just being at Camp is a tradition; I am a second-generation camper, and I have been going to Camp since before I can remember. My dad has taken me there every fall from the time I was two until I was 18. Once I turned eight, I was old enough to start summer camp, and this past year was my 11th summer at Camp and fourth summer on staff.
Throughout my years at Camp, there is one tradition that is central to every week at Ondessonk: the overnight. We hike to a spot farther out in the woods where we eat dinner cooked over a fire, play games, roast marshmallows, tell stories, and sleep out under the stars. On the overnight, we eat what we call foil burgers, another tradition at Camp. In the folds of its foil, the cuts on cooler lids turned cutting boards from overnights past, and the countless stories of overnight successes and epic failures alike, is something to be learned from this 63 year-old tradition about living in community with the earth and each other meaningfully.
Foil burgers have been at Camp since its opening in 1959. Lucia Hodges, Volunteer Coordinator, and a legend in her own right, shared the origins of foil burgers at Camp. Lucia had her first foil burger in July 1960 – the first year she was a camper – and she had her most recent foil burger in July 2022 with “very few missed years in between.” Foil burgers are not a revolutionary concept; Dan King, the Executive Director of Camp Ondessonk, worked at other summer camps across the nation that also prepared foil burgers. He said that at Camp Wyman in Eureka, Mo., they were called “hobo burgers,” and at Camp Classen in Oklahoma, they were called “foil packs.” The name “hobo burgers” alludes to a potential past connection to the Great Depression, a time when sharing meals and collectively sourcing ingredients was a method of survival. The names “hobo burgers” and “foil packs” are reflective of the cobbled nature of foil burgers. Though the foil burger is not particularly nice to look at or the best meal I’ve ever had, every Wednesday night the foil burger is memorable – not so much for how it tastes, but how it was prepared and who it was prepared with.
The process for foil burgers is more complicated than one may think. It begins in the kitchen on Wednesday morning. According to Bishop Sforza, the kitchen manager for Summer 2022, there is a formula to ensure that there will be enough food for everyone in each unit. The kitchen is responsible for assembling packouts, which consist of two coolers of food, one Brute tub of food, and a water cooler. In the Brute, there is everything needed to prepare foil burgers, ensure they are safe to eat, and clean up afterward. In the first food cooler are the vegetables and veggie burgers, and in the second are the meat patties. This entire process is coordinated and double-checked by the kitchen manager, who then loads the packouts onto a truck in the order of each overnight spot they are being delivered. Before the food can even be prepared by unit staff, the kitchen staff execute a carefully coordinated plan to ensure that campers will have food and that all dietary needs are met.
As soon as the unit arrives with the food they carried from the road to the overnight spot, the pressure to get food to the campers is on. If the fire is not already completed by the staff members on fire duty—people who go straight to their overnight spot after lunch to start building a fire before the unit arrives—the campers and some staff join to collect the firewood and finish building. In the meantime, other staff begin chopping potatoes, onions, celery, and carrots, which go onto the burgers. Another staff member begins tearing foil sheets for the burgers. As soon as the vegetables are cut, the fire is lit. Since we cook on coals, it takes time for the fire to burn down; to expedite this process, we take the lid of the Brute cooler and fan the fire. By the end of the summer, all staff have “brute calluses” from their time spent fanning the fire.
In this time, we assemble the foil burgers. For this, we get the campers involved. They don’t make their own burgers, but they do help assemble the food. First, they grab a sheet of foil and give it a high five so that it stays in their hand. Then, they go to a staff member for three potatoes on the foil, which the campers then arrange in the shape of Mickey Mouse. After that, they go to the “patty princess,” a staff member in charge of the meat, to minimize cross-contamination. From there, they get a mixture of celery, carrots, and onion. Then they take the long ends of the foil, bring them together, and roll them up to enclose the burger. From there, they bring the short ends together and fold them in on one another to form a handle. They set it by the fire and repeat this process until all burgers have been made.
Once the fire has burned down to coals, staff begin tossing the burgers on the fire. The key to this is to twist as you throw so they spin to exactly where you want them.
Once the burgers are on the fire, we assemble the kitchen. To do so, we set out bread, condiments, and cheese. Staff also take turns fanning the fire with the brute lid to ensure the coals stay hot. Someone else makes a “grease boat,” which is a piece of foil molded around a water bottle. This is used to drain the hot grease in the foil so that it doesn’t spill onto campers’ sleeping bags or burn them. After about 20 minutes, we begin pulling burgers off the fire and checking the temperature. Once a burger has reached 165º, it is de-greased and then set aside.
After this process is done, we begin calling the campers up one cabin at a time, explaining that each of them gets two slices of bread, one condiment, a respectable pinch of chips, and of course, the much-anticipated foil burger. After all the kids have eaten, staff sit beside the fire and begin to eat—a moment of rest after hours of hard work.
Lucia’s description of foil burgers when she was a camper and counselor, had very little deviation from what the foil burgers look like today with exception to some of the practices. Campers carried their own vegetables and burger meat in milk crates to the overnight site, cut their own vegetables, and formed their own patties. Lucia said that forming the patties directly was “much tastier” than using preformed patties like we do today. She also said that potatoes went on top and bottom of the foil burger, and that they folded their foil in a “drug store wrap,” which was done by folding the edges over themselves.
When Dan was a camper, a few campers and staff members would do all the prep work for the foil burgers, and everyone else would work on collecting firewood and building the fire—similar to how we currently run overnights. From there campers would assemble and watch over their own burgers on the fire.
Though the foil burger is unassuming by nature, the history and tradition it contains offer applicable insight to everyday life on living well and living intentionally. There is a joke amongst the staff that one of the main ingredients of foil burgers is hunger. There is truth to this; by the time foil burgers have cooked, the entire staff has been working non-stop for about four hours, and the campers have been collecting firewood. In light of this, I would argue that one of the main ingredients of foil burgers is not hunger, but rather meaningful work, or good work.
There are easier meals we could cook over a fire; Lucia references “one awful year when we changed to hotdogs.” Evidently, it is a change that did not go over well, but it was certainly less labor intensive. Despite the effort that foil burgers require, it is a well-loved practice. In his essay “The Whole Horse” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, Berry talks about doing work that is good. He defines good work as work focused on where it is occurring and how it is practiced to best serve the land and the people on it directly. I believe that making foil burgers is good work. It is work that is singularly focused on making sure everyone has a meal; there are no questions of what anyone’s labor is worth or what will be easiest.
As I have expressed thus far, making foil burgers is an art form that has been honed and developed over the course of 63 years. This form has been personalized by every staff member and camper that has ever wrapped a burger in foil. The beauty of foil burgers is in the collaboration and the ideas we bring together in our community. Instead of seeking convenience, we are seeking fulfillment in this meal. Everyone eating their foil burger knows the amount of work that went into preparing the meal, and they know that it is good work.
In her chapter “The Gift of Strawberries,” Robin Wall Kimmerer describes a dream she has where she is in a market where everything is gifted to her. Instead of taking advantage of the vendors’ generosity, she only takes what she needs and practices gratitude for what she is given. Similarly, the kitchen ensures that there will be enough food for everyone, but that there will not be an excess. This is partially because we do not want to waste food, much for the same reason we make what we call a “veggie pack” when we have leftover vegetables. It is also why we follow Leave No Trace at Camp Ondessonk; it is the bare minimum to take care of the Earth, but the goal of leaving no trace is to leave the places you explore and occupy better than how you found them. Leave No Trace is a foundation for the policies we enact on the overnight. Leave No Trace makes the reciprocal nature of the relationship we should have with the earth tangible. It is why we spend the next morning searching for any stray onion slivers, and why I have become very accustomed to looking for trash even after the unit has left because the sky is green and we estimate that we have five minutes before the heavens open to release a torrential downpour. It is a humble gift, and arguably the very least we can offer, but it is also an intentional act that is as central to making foil burgers as building the fire.
The foil burger is truly a communal dish. Though each burger is wrapped in foil individually, every single person in a unit is involved in the meal in some way. Whether you built the fire, collected wood, chopped vegetables, or assembled the burger, you had some role in ensuring the food was prepared and that everyone has a meal. Part of the joy of eating foil burgers is to eat with the people you prepared it with.
All week, we file into a dining hall with all of Camp. These meals are rambunctious, loud, and at times overwhelming. On Wednesday night, there aren’t droves of campers streaming in through the front doors, or tables set up as close together as possible to ensure everyone fits. There is you, a crackling fire, a warm packet of foil, and a few people you’ve spent the past week living with. Sharing a meal outside with a small group of people you have come to love and trust as the sun sets is one of the simplest pleasures I have experienced in my life.
Like the market Kimmerer describes in her dream, there is “a shared celebration of abundance for all we’d been given[.” This applies to the food we were given to prepare, but it also applies to the place we are eating and its beauty. This applies to the firewood we used to build a fire, and the pine needles that helped us turn a flame into a bed of coals we could cook on. Foil burgers are a celebration of the food we have been given, the time we gave, and what the earth gave to allow us to eat in the first place.
Hidden in the humble name and appearance of foil burgers is a deep history that teaches right relationship with the earth and each other and an emphasis on doing work in and for our communities. Though the process of making foil burgers is labor intensive and taxing in time and energy, it is a process that strengthens the bonds of those you prepare it with. Through good work, simple ingredients are transformed into a delicious meal to feed many people. They exemplify taking only what is needed and practicing gratitude for what you have been given. The process of making foil burgers does not end after we are full; it is an ongoing reciprocal relationship with the earth that gave us a place to prepare a meal and wood to cook with by cleaning up after ourselves and ensuring we do not leave evidence of our meal behind. They are a celebration of community and the attention we give to each other. Foil burgers illustrate that living well is to work meaningfully, which is done in collaboration and with attention to where we are and where we will go.
Recipe for Foil Burgers
3-5 White onions, diced
3-6 Carrots, diced
3-5 Celery stalks, chopped
4-8 Potatoes, thinly sliced
50-60 sheets of foil
50-60 Premade patties, beef
However many vegetarian patties you need, and any other necessary accommodations
3 bags of white sandwich bread, two slices per person
3 bags of ruffle chips, one respectable pinch per individual
American cheese, starred (corners alternated to make it easier to grab)
1 condiment (two if you steal one and put it in the pocket of your Aloha shirt)
A campfire, roughly upper chest-shoulder height
A “fire stick” (long stick that can be used to adjust burgers and keep the fire in the fire pit)
- Build a teepee-style fire (Figure 1) to roughly chest-shoulder height. You should not be able to see through it; if you can see through it, stuff it with twigs and pine needles to ensure that it will burn faster.
- While the fire is being built, begin chopping your vegetables. This can be done anywhere, but it is generally done on cutting boards and cooler lids with an assortment of the dullest knife you’ve ever used and pocketknives.
- Combine the celery, carrots, and onions into one large pile.
- After vegetables are chopped, begin assembling foil packs. To do so, first high-five the foil so you have a template to work from. Place three potato slice on the foil in a “Mickey Mouse” shape. Next, have someone wearing gloves place a meat patty on top of the potatoes. Put a pinch of the vegetable mixture on top of the patty, being careful not to touch the raw meat. Next, bring the long ends of the foil together and roll them until there is no gap between the burger and the foil. Take the wide ends and fold the ends on themselves, making a handle (Figure 2). Repeat this process until all burgers are prepped. For vegetarian burgers, place a stick in the handle to differentiate it from the meat burgers.
- Once the fire has burned down to coals, begin tossing burgers on the fire, giving them a spin so they land more accurately. If a burger lands upside-down or sideways, use the firestick to adjust it. Likewise, use the firestick to adjust the fire so it stays inside the fire ring.
- Let the foil burgers cook on the fire for 15-20 minutes. If the fire is starting to burn out, fan the flames with the cooler lids and the Brute tub lid that the food arrived in. If you don’t have these things, good luck. While the burgers cook, begin setting up the bread, cheese, condiments, and chips.
- After 20 minutes, begin pulling burgers off the fire. Have two people available to check the temperatures of the burgers. All burgers should be at a temperature of at least 165º to ensure it is safe to eat. After checking the temperature, use a knife to make a hole in the foil and pour the grease from the foil burger pack into a “grease boat,” which is a piece of foil that has been shaped around a water bottle.
- Once the burgers are cooked, take two slices of sandwich bread, a respectable pinch of chips, and one condiment (if you have a shirt with pockets you can usually smuggle an extra condiment). How you eat the burger is up to your discretion. My preference is to put my chips on the burger and leave all the vegetables. I like mayonnaise best on veggie burgers.
Berry, Wendell. The Art of the Commonplace. Berkley: Counterpoint, 2002.
Hodges, Lucia. Email to the author, November 26, 2022.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. Canada: Milkweed Editions, 2013.
King, Daniel. Email to the author, November 28, 2022.
MacGregor, Jeff. “The Last of the Great American Hobos,” Smithsonian Magazine (Spring 2019)