Life is denied by lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece.Nadia Boulanger
Younger hikers. . .and even younger old hikers. . .may be surprised to learn that there was a time when convenient packets of oatmeal and cocoa and other staples of the hiking diet were not available at the supermarket, nor was there freeze dried food. My first experience with anything dried were the prunes my mother always had along on each trip and something called powdered eggs. . .neither one of them at all palatable to my childhood taste. I could have lived on a steady diet of peanuts and M&M’s on the trail, but fortunately there was always something wonderful for dinner. Fresh trout fried in butter reminds me that we always had a cast iron skillet along on each trip, which seems hard to believe in this time of ultra-lite hiking. It hung on the back of my dad’s pack, along with a small grill, which would be placed over the fire after it had burned down to cooking coals. We never cooked with a stove. I am not certain that backpacking stoves even existed in the 1950’s. It would have seemed silly. There was always plenty of firewood. Why carry the extra weight of a stove? And there were no restrictions on fires. Even in the high country we managed to find enough sticks and twigs to produce the flame that would cook our dinner every night and Mom and Dad’s coffee in the morning.
Fresh trout was not on the menu every night. Sometimes the meal was no more fancy than wieners roasted on a stick, a can of pork-and-beans to complement this fare. Yes, I used the word can. If that sounds too heavy for a backpacking trip, it is worth remembering that there were not other options, and we were obviously not alone in bringing canned food into the backcountry, for at every place where we camped there would be a garbage pit into which backpackers discarded empty cans. It was usually about six feet deep. There would always be a layer of empties in the bottom of the hole or higher, and it would be buzzing with flies and bees. I am certain it must have been a destination for bears at night, but no one seemed to mind, including the Park Service. At the end of the season, workers would come along and bury the summer’s deposits, then dig a new pit the following spring.
On a recent hike in the Olympics I visited a place where I had camped as a child and found myself wondering if the ground beneath my feet contained the rusted shards of the pork-and-beans can that was discarded there by my family sixty years earlier. It was an odd thing to feel nostalgic about, but there it was. . .fond memories of the days of tin cans.
Dinner in camp was always followed by dessert, and here is where my mother’s skill as a camp cook shone. Included in our cooking gear was a collapsible reflector oven. The once shiny metal by this time was blackened and tarnished, but she would line it with aluminum foil, and the oven never let us down: muffins, biscuits, even a lemon meringue pie, all made from just-add-water mixes but wonderful nonetheless. She would sometimes mix up pudding in a saucepan, which would then be placed in the river or stream to chill, weighted down with rocks so that it did not go floating down the river. Even a cheesecake was made in this manner, complete with a graham cracker crust.
But the piece de resistance was huckleberry dumplings, made from a recipe handed down by my grandma, who was as much at home cooking over a campfire as she ever was over a stove in the kitchen. It was simple enough. A compote of huckleberries with sugar and cornstarch was heated to boiling, then dollops of dumpling batter added to the mix. There they would simmer in the delectable stew, floating predictably to the top and absorbing the wonderful flavors of the sun and the meadow. Mountain huckleberries with their plump dark sweetness were the best, but if only lower elevation blueberries were available they would do. It is the only one of my mother’s camping recipes that was actually written down, and I have made it often over the stove in my kitchen, using whatever fruit I have in the freezer and topping it with vanilla ice cream, which adds yet another layer of wonder to the hot dessert.
When I became a young woman and started backpacking alone for the first few years I tried to duplicate those wonderful meals in camp that I had enjoyed as a child. I certainly did not carry a cast iron skillet but had a cook set that included a frying pan with a collapsible handle. It was time consuming and never quite the same, lacking the wonder of childhood to enhance the flavor. When freeze dried meals became available at REI I welcomed the simplicity and ease of preparation, as well as the way they lightened my load.
It has been many years since I prepared a meal in the backcountry without using a stove. Campfires are now restricted, and for good reason, as forest fires become an increasing risk and the forest floor is scoured clean by eager campers. Certainly the disappearance of garbage pits is nothing to lament, and now every scrap of aluminum and plastic that I carry into the wilderness is carried out, as well as whatever trash I may find along the way.
Still, as I write this post I am surprised by the feelings that creep up, the tear that forms at the corner of my eye. There was simplicity in those meals that is lacking in almost every aspect of life these days, even in camp on a mountain trail. I long for the smell of frying fish and campfire smoke, even the salty pungence of Spam fried up with canned pineapple slices like the Easter ham. We did not worry about saturated fat and sodium in those days, words that would have been foreign to our culinary vocabulary.
Now here is a confession, and I make it in all humility. Spam sometimes appears on our table, and though the sodium and fat content have been decreased in response to modern trends, it is hardly a health food, and thus we eat it only about once a year, usually sautéed with potatoes and veggies. The veggies with their vitamins make up for the salt and fat, right? And I have learned that if I slice it thin and fry it up on high, it is crisp, not mushy. I made if for my granddaughters once, and they thought it was great. . .another example of Grandma’s fine home cooking.
Here is another confession. It tastes really good. I do not want a steady diet of it. Once a year is enough. Sometimes I just need the sound of something sizzling in a skillet to feel okay about the world.