Dining in the Great Outdoors

I did not grow up in what could be even remotely considered an outdoorsy household. Yes, of course we went outdoors, but generally only to get ourselves to some other indoor venue.

Sure, we’d go to the mountains, but we’d stay inside our cabin, unless we needed to go and get more jiffy pop or Sarah Lee Butter Streusel Cake. Our cabin, Molar Manor (go ahead and make fun of the name, we all do) was very near some great skiing, but none of us skied. My father once signed me up for lessons, but when it was learned that my cousin Celeste injured herself at the sport, my lessons were traded in for a bowling ball. At least it was monogrammed.

We’d spend summer weekends at Catalina, but generally under a canopy, complete with folding table and chairs, so my father and his friends could play bridge or pinochle or whatever it was he played with the other adults on the beach at Avalon while they drank beer or gin and tonics. Or whatever it was he drank with the other adults. I was too busy protecting myself from the sharks in the water and the sand creatures lurking underneath my beach towel to notice.

We’d go to the desert, but I was pretty much relegated to the air-conditioned comfort of my aunt’s too, too white-and-blue home in Palm Springs while the adults played golf and my brother and sister refused to go outside in the baking heat to supervise my diving for Fischer-Price people in the pool. Wherever we went, there was always a television to distract us from nature and a hair dryer to combat the effects of outdoor mussing and damage. We really were not a fussy family by general standards. We just didn’t care to endure what others might rightly call “roughing it.”

Imagine my surprise when, at the tender age of thirty-four, I discovered I liked camping. In a tent. On the hard ground.

I have fallen into a group of fellows who, for better or for worse, love to go camping. And now, so do I.

I find a certain pleasure in curling up in my own sleeping bag; in being lulled to sleep by the sound of the surf, or night birds, or even the sound of my snoring fellow campers. I rather like smelling like cold-smoked salmon from huddling around a campfire for three days. And, lacking mirrors, I am comforted by the fact that I can see myself solely through the eyes of my companions. Even when one of them has to tell me I have somethng unpleasant dangling from the end of my nose. I find I can endure many hardships while camping that might surprise my family members. But there is one thing I cannot bear, even in the wilderness…

Bad camping food.

Though admittedly the biggest food geek in our camping set, I am relieve to report that no one among my camping set would ever subject his fellow survivors to stale buns or canned meats. For this, I am truly grateful.

Gary, the most organized human I’ve ever met, typically breaks down our days away into meals– which ones we shall eat together and who will prepare them. We divide the work as evenly as we can. Last weekend, I got to make Saturday dinner.

The bar was set high the previous evening with a marvelously successful turkey chili with lime, scallions and baked-that-morning corn bread to crumble on top made by our resident New Mexican, Bill. And my friend Dan fortified us properly for our dead marine life hike on Manresa Beach with piles of hot challah french toast with fresh berries and syrup Saturday morning.

The pressure, felt by no one but myself, was on.

I’ve been known to blow my food budget on camp dinners before. I was determined to provide something great with a minimum amout of effort and cost. When I say minimum amount, I am speaking in purely relative terms. To myself, I mean.

I decided to prepare fish, in the spirit of my friend Adam’s “[I’m]Keeping with chicken and fish these days” memo. I saw some beautiful wild salmon at my local Whole Foods, but balked at the $90.00 it would cost to the feed six of us. I managed to spy some butterflied trout while still reeling from the salmon sticker shock and opted for that instead.

The trout would be easy enough to prepare. I knew I’d have to keep it nice and cold, since I was purchasing fish on Thursday to prepare some 54-odd hours later. That wouldn’t be much of a problem– I’d just store them flat on a bag of ice in my cooler. But what if the fish wound up smelling, um, fishy? I took the fish home, washed them well and kept them soaking in buttermilk, which prevented that problem while giving the trout’s flavor some subtle, yet flattering backlighting. Now what to stuff them with?

I didn’t want to make this too complicated. Trying too hard is embarrassing and makes one the subject of (internal) ridicule. I decided to caramelize onions with a little olive oil and finish them of with a splash of apple cider vinegar and be done with it. Apart from giving a bit of sweetness to the dish, the somewhat slimy characteristic of the onions, I thought, would add a wonderfully morbid touch to the dish, being somewhat reminiscent of the trout’s now-discarded viscera. A little salt and pepper and some well-soaked skewers to keep the fish together and prevent the mock entrails from seeping and they were all ready for grilling.

Except for one, minor thing. The grate over the campfire was small, deformed by what I imagined to be years of abuse and rather disgusting. I shudder to think what sort of cheap food stuffs has carbonized over that metal. We drove to (it’s cheating, I know) a KOA camp store (Before you ask, we were not staying there. Remind me to tell you about my one and only stay at a KOA campground some other time which involved a rather amusing lesbian stripper.) where we purchase a grilling grate, throat lozenges, aluminum foil and facial tissue, not all of which were used in the preparation of dinner. Problem solved.

To accompany my fresh water friends, I cut some smallish organic red potatoes in half, coated them in olive oil, salt and pepper and wrapped them very well in aluminum foil. I then buried the potatoes in the ash of the campfire and pretended as though I knew how to make campfire potatoes. While I waited for the fire to do its share of the work, I broke open the three liter box of Jean-Marc Brocard Bourgogne Blanc I brought along for the dinner, sat back on a folding camp chair and tried to look relaxed.

When I randomly pulled the potatoes from the fire to find them thoroughly cooked and crispy around the edges, I tossed them with some peppery watercress, olive oil and lemon dressing, buttermilk bleu cheese and crumbled bacon while the fish grilled very quickly over the newly purchased grate. I prayed that the fish were uncontaminated and that my friend Gary, who was ill, would not be made sicker by a bad trout. I was grateful that this campsite had flush toilets close by, just in case.

The dinner, I am happy to say, was a success. At least, no one sniggered or became violently ill. I am sorry to report that I did not have the presence of mind to photograph a well-plated and uneaten version of my camp supper. It was only after we had finished and my friend Bill began piling up the fish heads on my plate that I felt I had something photo-worthy.

For dessert, my plan was a simple one. Fresh, chilled organic Bing cherries (everyone, it seems, decided to bring cherries. We had approximately one pound of the fruit per person), chocolate truffles and candied, toasted walnuts to nibble on while playing a rousing game or two of Uno. Only we didn’t play Uno. We had a rather lengthy discussion about the female reproductive system as we sat around the campfire instead. We might as well have been talking about aliens.

I had purchase a rather fascinating (to me) loaf of chocolate cherry bread to consume with dessert but, upon returning from cataloging the decaying wildlife on the beach earlier in the day, returned to discover that I had not stored it safely away. I found its bag on the ground near my tent, but the bread itself was gone. Taken by either a racoon, a bear or, more likely, the brazen little girl from the campsite next to ours who decided to use our water spigot as her personal bidet. In front of us. In broad daylight.

I very much look forward to the next time I head off into the Great Outdoors with my friends. If anyone has a line on where to find collapsible camping martini glasses, drop me a line. Please.

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