Saturday, February 16, 2008

Food

Eating while camping is a much more profound experience than a meal at the kitchen table. The desire to travel light and eat only survivalist essentials – granola, coffee – conflicts with a more powerful urge to indulge in anything that can be cooked over a fire as long as it is reasonably easy to bring along.

When my like-minded sister accompanies me on camping trips, we are known to plan everything we do around the kind of food we want to eat and the best time to eat it. On a recent trip to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the first morning began with a serious brainstorming session revolving around the rations we brought with us, the meals we intended to make, and how we could schedule any activity away from camp in such a way that no opportunity to eat would go unexploited. Would the day hikes we wanted to experience cut into our food schedule? Would there be time to come back for lunch between activities, or would we have to settle for only breakfast and dinner? We wanted to explore the area, but fresh air tends to make a person peckish and we had a lot of cuisine to enjoy.

For Day 1 it was decided that we would make cheese and salsa quesadillas for breakfast and pack extras to take with us for lunch (along with a few token power bars). This would enable us to take a long hike along the North Country Trail near Grand Portal Point and spend as much time as we wanted obsessing over the sandstone cliffs and clear blue-green water. We should be able to return before dark and start a fire to make brats and corn on the cob just as the sun sets over Lake Superior and the temperature instantly becomes chilly. Day 2 called for rain so we figured that would be a more appropriate time to laze around the campsite and enjoy as many meals as we felt like while reading and watching the lake from under our propped-up rain tarp. Day 3 was a wild card that might involve a visit to a local town to gorge ourselves on pasties and local pub fare, so we made an allowance in the schedule for a conservative bit of culinary spontaneity.

In actuality, we returned on Day 1 just before sunset from what ended up being a 13-mile day hike and were so tired that we immediately collapsed inside the tent and fell asleep (gasp) sans dinner. This would mean a long, carefully planned day of nourishment ahead of us starting the following morning if we were to make up for the lack of brats the night before.

It was hard work but we managed to eat our way to success starting with oatmeal and summer sausage. Oatmeal for breakfast is perfect because it is just so outdoorsy. Throw in a few Michigan-grown berries and I can practically feel John Denver smiling down at me in macrobiotic approval.

Summer sausage, on the other hand, is not something any health-conscious person should ever eat under any circumstance. It is also one of the most erotic, groan-inducing foods one can eat around a campfire. The grease drips sizzling onto the coals as the outside is cooked to a crispy, even-better-when-burned shell of mouth-watering salty perfection. I am lucky enough to have relatives in my native Wisconsin who smuggle forbidden meats like summer sausage and brats from their neighborhood butcher to us, their deprived family members across the vast reaches of Lake Michigan. There are certain things you just can’t buy from a grocery store once you’ve had the real thing.

For lunch we ate a huge pile of redskin potatoes with rosemary and a couple of smores for good measure. A park ranger stopped by to conduct an interpretive lesson about the area but we were too full to participate. It never actually rained more than a brief drizzle but the persistently overcast sky and gloom over unpredictable Lake Superior provided sufficient excuse and the perfect setting for a full day of napping and eating.

I had a strange food awakening many years ago after an unsuccessful foray into vegetarianism. In an attempt to be healthy and assuage guilt over animal cruelty (something I still struggle with and try to make up for by doing things like adopting neurotic dogs and experiencing periodic and pathetically brief stints of swearing off certain foods when I have a crisis of conscience), I spontaneously stopped eating meat and went five years without so much as a bay scallop. Then I was plagued by an unforseen bout of insomnia that slowly gnawed its way through my brain. During those sleepless nights I would lie awake and inexplicably fantasize about chicken. I have no idea why but chicken suddenly became an irresistible temptation that haunted my sleep-deprived senses. I was no match for it. Eventually my resolve crumbled and a secret, hastily executed rendezvous with a chicken sandwich opened the door to a previously unappreciated world of meats and it was suddenly inconceivable how I’d managed without them.

My appreciation for the brat is a result of this awakening. Although I am from Wisconsin (the land of beer, meat, and appropriately corresponding obesity), the brat never appealed to me when I was younger. I think the clammy-looking gray skin turned me off so I traditionally rejected them in favor of their skinny, more attractive and swarthy cousin the hot dog. For some mystifying reason, when I emerged (ashamed yet eager) from my failed attempt at healthy guilt-free living, I needed a brat. I couldn't recall ever having tasted one but I knew that we were meant for each other.

Once it was time for dinner the fire refused to cooperate and there was difficulty in getting the brats positioned over the best spot. It is bad form to cause their casings to rupture and juice to escape so it shouldn’t be too hot. The fact that I forgot to pack tongs also didn't help matters. It took so long to resolve these issues that darkness had fallen by the time we hunkered down to eat and we were dangerously hungry. Any animals that might have been tempted to investigate our food were undoubtedly scared away by the inhuman sounds of our ravenous grunting and snarling as we tore into our brats and corn on the cob with unseemly enthusiasm.