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Volume 15, Issue 14 ~ April 5 - April 11, 2007

Camp Cooking from Scratch

Almost everything tastes better when it’s cooked on a wood fire

Ughhh, this tastes like pasture pie! But it’s good, though. Awful good!

In hunting and fishing camp, or any kind of camping among men, not infrequently one is chosen by drawing the short straw to serve as camp cook. It’s a thankless chore.

It means losing several hours a day of fishing, hunting, bird watching, hiking or whatever — in addition to rising earlier than the others to ensure the coffee is hot and breakfast on the fire when the others rise. But, as they say someone’s got to do it.

Once stuck with the job, tradition holds that the unlucky outdoorsman remains so for the remainder of the junket; relief comes only if another member of the party complains of the table fare. Then and only then does someone else take over.

That someone else is the fellow from whose mouth the gripe comes. The food might not be as one desires, but there are few complaints to be heard around the campfire.

The above “pasture pie” comment is the punch line of one of the oldest jokes in hunting and fishing camp. It involves a guy who drew the short straw and, quickly tiring of his chuck wagon chores, schemes to free himself of his duty.

He concocts the worst possible collection of ingredients, adds five times as much cayenne pepper as would be palatable for the number expected for chow, cooks it all until it’s dry as a bone, then lets it cool well below warm. This will surely get a complaint, he says to himself as he dishes out supper. I’ll be relieved from this job, and I can sleep longer in the morning.

He stands by and watches. From the mouth of the first one to bite into his concoction comes the pasture pie comment. Whether the it’s good though. Awful good allows the quick-thinking speaker out of taking over cooking chores is left to conjecture.

My Primitive Camp Menu

Camping and camp cooking has changed much the past 50 years or so; today with most on the camping trail it’s tins of side dishes and beans, meat and fowl to be barbecued, marshmallows to be toasted over the fire — and more time to do other things. Many use paper plates and cups, so only the pot is left to scrub.

In November of 1951, I met the legendary L.L. Bean at his already renowned hunting, fishing and camping shop that was then a huge old barn on the main drag of Freeport, Maine. Up came talk of the camping side of deer and fishing camps, primitive camping at its best, eating in the wilderness. No driving to the nearest town for a bite.

Compared to L.L., I was as primitive a camper as TV’s popular Survivor. Frank Howe and I wanted to be atop the mountain at first light of day of deer season. So we hiked up the afternoon before, there to stay for two full days. The city folks would come in the morning, and as they headed up the mountain they’d drive the deer to us.

We toted up canvas to keep us dry in the event of snow. We packed a sack of potatoes, another of onions, several cans of sardines and a loaf of bread, two pounds of bacon, a small, lightweight frying pan and a few candy bars. Nothing else but two rifles, a 16-gauge shotgun and shells.

The bacon fat fried sliced potatoes with sliced onion mixed in. Sometimes the light shotgun would add a rabbit or squirrel. The bread made sardine sandwiches for lunch, and candy bars provided a bolt of energy in late afternoon.

For fishing in the wilderness when weather is warmer, the two-person rations were much the same: onions, potatoes and bacon in which the fish would be fried. A sack of flour made a palatable bread when made into dough by adding water and some wild berries, then rolled around a stick and baked by a campfire. We not only survived, we thrived. Or so I had thought.

L.L. Bean’s Sumptuous Menu

Until L.L. handed me a copy of his 1942, 96-page book Hunting, Fishing and Camping and directed me to page 64 (I know because I still have a copy of that 1942 edition).

“If you are going hunting, fishing or camping and want to do as little cooking as possible, the following grub list will serve your purpose for two for six or seven days,” read L.L.’s introduction to camp cooking.

On that list for two men were: four loaves, bread; two cans, baked beans; two cans, corned beef hash; one pound, coffee; one-quarter pound, tea; two pounds, sugar; one bottle pancake syrup. Two packages, prepared pancake flour; three cans, evaporated milk; two pounds, bacon; one pound, oatmeal; one dozen, eggs; one can, corn; one can tomatoes, one pound cornmeal.

Also, four ounces, salt; four ounces, baking soda; two pounds, salt pork; eight pounds, potatoes; one can, peaches; one pound, butter; one small can, pepper; one small bottle, vinegar; one small jar, mustard; one dozen doughnuts; one pound cookies, apples and oranges.

With Maryland’s wild turkey season coming up, trout fishing already underway and recreational camping just beginning, L.L. had some ideas for making do if you want to try the old-fashioned way in camp:

Camp Potatoes

Fry 1⁄4 pound salt pork until crisp. Remove pork; dice 4 onions; fry until soft. Dice 8 potatoes; mix with onions; cover pan and cook until potatoes are done; remove cover and brown. Add salt pork after chopping very fine. Do not stir. Turn when brown on the bottom. Salt and pepper to taste. Serves four.

Venison Cutlets

Cut small slices of meat from the loin about 11⁄4 inches thick. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and brush with melted butter. Roll in bread crumbs and fry in butter.

Camp Style Bean Soup

Soak 1 cup beans overnight; drain and add 2 cups water. Dice 2 medium potatoes and 1 medium onion; add to pot. Chop fine 1⁄4 pound salt pork and fry until brown; then add to pot. Salt and pepper lightly, boil for an hour.

Camp Dessert

Mix 1⁄2 cup powdered sugar, 1 cup butter; add 2 cups sifted flour. Roll quite thin, cut in squares and bake. (L.L. suggested trying this at home).

Old and simple recipes taste as good if not better than the prepared, powdered and freeze-dried dishes most campers cart from the supermarket. They bring traditional camp cooking back into camping. The only problem: No one’s going to bring up pasture pie. You’ll have to keep on cooking.

Enough said.

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