One of my earliest camping memories involves me sitting in the front seat of Dad’s old tan Jeep Cherokee, munching on a packet of oatmeal cookies (the soft chewy kind with lots of molasses) as Mom and Dad got the tent pitched. (At three and a half years old, I was a bit too small to do much of anything with tent pitching, but I was big enough to lift up one of the aluminum tent poles.)
But like Proust with his madeleine (makes you wonder what Maman Proust put in her baking), I got to thinking about some of the other foods we’ve dined on around the campfire over the years.
Some people seem to think that being out on a camping trip means being deprived of real food and eating freeze-dried this and powdered that. Granted, yes, my dad, being an Air Force guy, had accumulated a ton of MREs over the years. And thankfully for our health (and stomachs), the MREs stayed packed away in the attic, where they belonged. (Dad’s always joking that not even refugees in famine-plagued countries would go near MREs.)
But our various treks have always involved real food. Fruits and vegetables. Eggs. Meat. From-scratch pancakes. (Yes, it can be done.)
Now, we’ve done some of the usual stuff. We’ve roasted a fair number of hot dogs over campfires – and when I was seven, I discovered that it takes a certain knack to keep your hot dog from slipping off the toasting fork and into the fire. We (or at least, my brother and I) consumed plenty of marshmallows, too. But I was a grown woman before I ate my first s’more. (See also: my previous exegesis about s’mores on this blog.)
The bulk of the cooking on our camping trips involved a two-burner, gunmetal-green Coleman stove, the kind that weighs a ton and runs on bottles of kerosene. For our needs, we need something that has enough juice to boil water for coffee (people can be really testy if they don’t have at least one cup of coffee in the morning) and fry something in a pan.
Other times, at some of the places we camped we’d have access to a charcoal grill, so we’d sometime do steaks and stuff early on in the trip. That’s the general rule of thumb for camping and backpacking food – get the perishables cooked and eaten early on before they have a chance to spoil. Especially if it’s something capable of causing food poisoning.
There are supposedly some books out there that show you how to forage for food – wild mushrooms and stuff like that – out in the wild. We didn’t go quite that far. But it still would have been fun to do.
Now, it goes without saying that you’ve got to keep the food secured when you’re out camping, lest the local wildlife (especially bears) come along with a case of the munchies. Maybe it’s because we secured the food, but I don’t remember us ever having any problems with bears coming along. (And that’s the kind of thing you remember.)
About charcoal grills: There is a quote from my mother that I have permission to use, based on her observations on a campout in Big Sky, Montana: “Charcoal always burns the hottest after you no longer need it.”
Most of my clearer memories of camp food are from when we spent a couple of summers camping up near Acadia National Park in Maine, when I was about nine or ten. There were five of us in the group – me, my brother, our parents and our grandmother.
It was getting dark by the time we arrived at the campground up in Bucksport and pitched the tents. Our first meal, as I remember, was spaghetti – boiled the pasta on the camp stove, and we had packed some homemade sauce into the cooler. After that, it was right into the tents and lights out – it had been a long drive.
The perishable stuff (kept on ice in the cooler) included lots of stuff like baby carrots and pre-sliced vegetables. Being out in the wild (or some semblance of it) is no excuse for contracting scurvy, according to my parents.
Breakfast on our campouts has generally been, since I can remember, eggs in some form (usually scrambled) and bacon. So our gear always included one of those yellow egg carriers made out of heavy-duty plastic.
One morning, as a treat (not to mention a break from usual bacon and eggs) we made blueberry pancakes on the camp stove. Mom had pre-mixed and packed a few portions of flour, sugar and baking powder and put them in with our supplies. So all we needed to do was mix in the milk, eggs and vegetable oil. And the berries.
I also remember – this being Maine – that we had lobster for dinner at one point on the trip. I confirmed this with my mother, who remembers how she and the other grownups in the party had lobster rolls for lunch the next day. I’d passed – at that age, I’d been a little picky about anything containing mayonnaise or dill pickle bits. Maybe I’d be a little more game to try lobster rolls now. Who knows?
But one of my strongest culinary memories from the Maine trips involves a day trip we took over to Stonington. There was an ice cream stand there that sold – and I am not exaggerating here – the best black raspberry ice cream I have ever tasted. It was perfect – the right creamy texture, and it actually tasted like it had real fruit in it.
Since then, I’ve been hopelessly spoiled when it comes to black raspberry ice cream. Most of the varieties I’ve tried at ice cream places over the years haven’t been as good as what I tasted in Maine. But the black raspberry I had at one place on Martha’s Vineyard came awfully close.
Why do people have such strong memories of what they eat on campouts?
Who knows – maybe it’s just the sense of eating out under the trees and the open sky instead of around a dinner table. Maybe it’s because the smell of wood smoke coming from the campfire has a way of making you hungry. And perhaps it’s just the feeling of sitting around the fire with your camping buddies, swapping ghost stories and urban legends over your meal (and secretly plotting to send some poor fool out on an after-dinner snipe hunt).
Either way, there’s just something about being outdoors that makes eating feel really special. Even if it’s just a packet of chewy oatmeal cookies.