Thursday, August 18, 2011


From way back when I was still scuff-kneed and covered in dirt, still casting a Zebco 202 (when it actually worked), until I eventually moved away to college, my parents would come home from working vacations, and delight us with highlights of their trips.  While I'm sure other kids heard about the standard tourist attractions of City X, or gazed mesmerized upon slides of Alcatraz and the Grand Canyon, we heard, almost without fail, about the food.  It was always about the meals.  Sometimes these gauzy tales of culinary Nirvana concerned restaurants known far and wide.  Other times the stories were of magical little taverns or supper clubs discovered by random chance.  Often, they were about feasts conjured at the hands of my father, armed only with local ingredients, an old Boy Scout mess kit, and a state park hibachi grill.  Maybe some aluminum foil and a bottle of wine.

"Did you take a tour of the Gateway Arch, Dad?"

"Nah, we heard about this rib place we had to check out.  You shoulda seen this place..." 

Since then, I've been blessed enough to have engaged in serious gluttony in Paris, dined gleefully in New York City, and supped until sated in L.A.  And a lot of points in between.

Still, the greatest kitchen I've ever eaten from or cooked in, the one closest to my heart, is often found by the side of a country highway, or at the dead end down by the old washed out bridge.  Sometimes it's in the cathedral formed by a canopy of gaudy autumn oaks and maples, or along the banks of a hidden farm country trout stream.  This oasis of laughs and warmth, sustenance and fuel, is located on the tailgate of my pickup truck.  I'm sure Dad, with his calloused mechanic's hands and do it yourself attitude, occasionally looks down on us hoisting fork to mouth in the woods, and is pretty damn proud about that.

Lunchtime in grouse season: lamb stew and a dry change of boots.

Seldom will you find a slow reduction or delicate emulsion out here.  There are no piping bags or sauce painting or stacking the food a mile high.  Consistent knife work and classic technique aren't necessary.  Chimichurri?  Chimiwhatthehell?

None of which is to say that we have to eat like heathens in the woods.  Or like insulin resistant eighth-graders bum rushing a convenience store candy aisle, for that matter.  There is no reason we cannot or should not stick to our culinary guns while dining al fresco in mud-caked waders.

First if all, it doesn't have to be "fancy."  We're talking about a midday meal here, designed to both refuel and satisfy.  I don't expect to be served multiple courses on grandma's china, nor will I cook that way in the field, but I do get offended by stale chips with bologna and white bread roulade de la poche (that's jacket pocket, not parchment).  If we're out here already, why not enjoy what we have already earned.  Venison Italian sausage steamed in a little white wine?  Hell yes.  Trout with asparagus and morels?  Are you kidding me?  I think you know where you can shove your Pringles can.

There are days when you can't or won't cook lunch on your tailgate.  Rain, work schedules, and family obligations often prevent the leisurely enjoyment of lunch afield with the boys.  Hell, maybe you already limited, and you want to get home to the missus and the game.  Or a hot shower and some aspirin.  I'm not talking about those days.  If you need to roll down the road or keep hunting, no time for lunch, there may be a call for energy bars and those petrifying sandwiches served up in plastic yellow pyramids.  But that ain't food, and you know it.  I hope.

Like I said, we aren't going for Michelin stars here.  We don't have to.  We already have two of the cook's biggest allies in our back pocket.  Guns to bring to the knife fight.  Any cook or eater worth his weight in Swiss chard will tell you these two secret weapons are unstoppable.

You arrive late morning back at the truck.  Maybe you've got a handful of ducks in the bag, maybe not.  A few things are sure: You are cold, you are tired, you are hungry.  This condition is the single biggest gun in the camp cook's arsenal.  You would eat your $50 Gore-Tex hat right now.  So we don't need six burners and 90 minutes to prepare a mighty feast.  Take a container of that cream of mushroom and grouse soup you rescued from the dark recesses of the freezer this morning, and chuck it in a pan.  When it's hot, dunk some nice crusty artisan country bread in there, and bang, you are ready to get after it again.  It's as simple as pie.  Simpler, actually.  As simple as turning on a burner.

If hunger is the greatest sauce, the howitzer in the cook's armory, then the next factor is the S&W .500 hand cannon.  It's your friends... your crew, the buddies, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band... whatever you call them.  Often, a passable meal can be raised to a much higher level simply by the power of the company, and an outstanding meal can be vaulted right up to phenomenal.  The experiences you've shared throughout your time together solidify your bond.  You know all the stories.  You remember the greatest trips with a serene smile, and grin ruefully at the ones that were wet, cold, and miserable.  Just by breaking bread together, you establish, once again, that you treasure each other's presence.  Let's not sully that with radioactive beef jerky sticks and neon plastic sugar cakes.

Go get yourself a little camp stove.  They range from miniscule backpacking models to the venerable old Coleman two-burner, up to truly chef worthy propane-driven monstrosities from there.  Cook a little at home beforehand, and warm it up along with some coffee in a freezing drizzle behind the truck.  Your hunting and fishing buddies will thank you, as will your waistline.  It's entirely worth the effort.

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