Camp Cuisine

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Personal / Stories / pk by Age / Art Publisher /
@ K. 2001 06 28

Little Paul Knatz was a skinny kid, but by age twenty the young adult pk had learned to love to eat. If young Paul and his sister didn’t cook, little Paul and his sister often went unfed as mom was picked up by her boss and her boss sometimes didn’t deliver her back till 10 PM. That averaged from twelve to sixteen motherless hours a day. So I’d always cooked, but it wasn’t till college that my gourmet talents became famous. (See Bake Sale.) I’ve cooked pasta carbonara that made the girl cry out in ecstasy. My red sauces made men crowd the table. But I say that some of my best performances have been on the mountainside where a hard climb and a day skiing avalanche chutes provide the best sauce. I here tell of an unlikely extreme.

Mid-1970s. My son and I were planning a camping trip. His grandmother owned thirty acres of mountain side in the Catskills that his mother and I had camped on for years before he was born and that’s where we headed. My son and I make a great team in many situations, but this trip took place before that was the case. Everything took at least twice as long as it should have and dusk was on us before we’d even driven up the meadow to the stone wall where we’d park and begin hauling our equipment and water the rest of the way up the mountain by hand.

Had we dined en route we could have just pitched the tent and slept right there in the meadow by the car, taking our time moving up the mountain in the morning. But if we wanted dinner (and to be in position for breakfast on arising, then we had to reach an alpine meadow. The one I had in mind had a beautiful “table” of glacier-smoothed rock where we could build a magnificent but safe fire. Otherwise we’d have a hungry time trying to sleep till dawn.

Good cooking requires a mature fire — one with a deep bed of glowing embers. Building any kind of fire requires dry wood. I could assemble the tent by feel and I suppose we could have gathered all the damp and rotten wood we wanted also by feel, but to break good fire wood off dead tree branches in quantity sufficient for the night, we had to do it before dusk turned to murk. In another few minutes we wouldn’t even be able to find that alpine meadow without poking our eyes out on the ugly lower pine branches that lined what in day light might pass for a trail.

I sprinted Brian up the mountain carrying nothing but gear for dinner. I’d get the tent and sleeping bags later, endangering only myself in the dark. We arrived at not quite pitch dark. This was not the time to teach a stubborn kid about which kind of branch to choose, but despite the additional loss of a few quarrelsome seconds, we soon had enough wood for an hour or two of fire. We had a lot of twigs, a few medium branches, and no logs. There would be no embers to speak of, but neither had we time for the luxury. This meal would be short order, not gourmet.

I’d brought a back packers grill to hold with the help of piles of stones my big cast iron skillet but it was still down in the trunk of the car. I can go for long periods between meals, but it wasn’t right to starve a ten year old boy. Somehow the rocks alone would have to do. I got a small fire started and build the rock grill as I built the fire. Whoops, didn’t bring the cutting board either. By the flicker of leaping young flames I laid the chicken out on the lichen covered rock-table and hacked it into truly “butchered” pieces. I poured a glup-glup of olive oil into the skillet. The hungry fire drove me back, unable to place the skillet with any care. My grill collapsed. I put the skillet straight into the fire. I then butchered an onion and threw it at the skillet. Whoosh! The onion pieces blackened before landing in whatever was left of the half-spilled oil. I used sticks to try to position the skillet, making matters only worse. So I threw the chicken into the fire. Butchered my green pepper and threw the hunks. Took a handful and salt and threw that.

The flames rose around the skillet to my own standing height. Squinting and blinking I tried to view the contents. Horrid. I’d lost all my oil. I took my olive oil bottle and danced around the fire, trying to pour olive oil between the wind-ragged flames. Whoosh! The oil burned in mid-air right back to the bottle. I don’t know if any reached the food. Now the recently new bottle was half empty: and in danger of exploding in my hand. “Well, Brian. We’ll see if we can eat any of it. If not, maybe you’d like to try a raw egg. Oh, yes, there’s bread. We could always eat bread. In the morning we can drive into Lexington and look for a restaurant. We’ll certainly find one in Hunter if there’s none closer.”

I like to sear chicken over high heat and then cook it slowly. I could hardly read my watch and hadn’t checked the starting time anyway. Time is different in the mountains. I wouldn’t know whether to trust my watch if I could see it. I’d never tried cooking in a bonfire before. It had to shorten the cooking time. Perhaps after a few minutes in there there was no food left anyway. I speared the hole in the skillet handle with the point of a stick and dragged it sideways out of the fire, destroying what remained of my stone “grill” on that side. If the food was somehow still raw, I saw no way I could get the skillet back into the flames and also keep my hands and arms. “Sorry, Brian. We’ll start having fun tomorrow.”

We settled onto the rock. I raked charred gop onto our tin plates, handing Brian his, and was poking in the grocery bag for paper towels to offer as napkins when I heard Brian gasp. I darted my eyes toward him. What could be wrong? he’s well away from the flames. There’s only the one sharp knife and I put that away. … I looked at him. He looked at me. He didn’t look to be in pain. He was sitting upright. His face inscrutable: like the Buddha. “Brian, what’s wrong?”

“It’s … delicious.”

What? Enthusiasm for food from a Knatz-Fleming combine? The Knatzs are the food mavens. Brian’s mother is English. Scots-Austrian English. Kippers and wretched oatmeal English. Once, just once, out of decades, and then only in the greatest restaurant in the whole world (the Sey Eng Look on East Broadway in the 1970s), I heard her say that the food was “good.” Brian does not share his mother’s contempt for things distaff. Neither does he cartwheel and caterwaul in ecstasy like his father. Brian resumed eating. “Mmm … Mmm … Mmm.”

My mouth was open, my jaw slack. What? This rubbish? Table ware or no, I eat chicken with my fingers. I reached my charcoaled hands into the black mess on my plate. “Oh, sweet Jesus.”

“This is the best chicken I’ve ever eaten,” opined Brian.

In the morning I saw that I’d assembled the tent adequately by feel to shelter us, but the fly was inside out. Easily fixed. Understandably, I hadn’t placed it for our ideal comfort. Neither had I staked it down tight. Also fixable. We brought the rest of our stuff and adequate water up to the site. (I can camp there for a week and still have enough water left in a five gallon container to give myself a shower with.) For breakfast, we gathered more wood and made a good fire, a fire that was still burning when we doused it to break camp a couple of days later. The rest of our meals enjoyed mature coals in the cooking.

Ever since, bk and I have make a great team: in camping and in other cooperations. That time started badly but turned out very well indeed.

Hunger, Taste … Pickles & Ice Cream

But I want to comment further on the food. The first thing I’ll address is a point already widely appreciated: hunger is the best sauce. No gourmet with his fancy chef and his thousand dollar wine dines as well as the mountain climber warming dehydrated fare over a spirit lamp. But Brian and I hadn’t climbed Everest. We weren’t clinging to rock half way up El Capitain. Certainly we were hungry. Very hungry. We would have been very hungry that hour had we still been down in the valley.

My writing this piece was sparked while reading Wilbur Smith’s Monsoon. Captain Courtney and his crew reach the Cape of Good Hope. His Seraph has twenty-six cases of scurvy aboard after the long Atlantic voyage. Bum boats bring out fresh produce and the sailors agree to the gouging prices as they wolf down potatoes raw. Potatoes had sailed beyond South America hundreds of years ago. There is no “potato industry.” Citrus farming is recent and the orange men grabbed the whole of the Vitamin C bandwagon for themselves. But potatoes have vastly more Vitamin C than do oranges. Green peppers have vastly more Vitamin C than does any citrus fruit. The English learned to sail with limes aboard (hence limey) because limes last at sea better than green peppers. (Knowledge of respective Vitamin C contents is also relatively recent.) Neither Captain Hal nor his sailors had ever heard of Vitamin C: but the men’s bodies knew what the men’s bodies needed.

The Dauphin in Paris has never tasted anything like what Hal’s men experienced gnawing on raw potatoes. If you’re dying of thirst, ditch water will be ambrosia. The pregnant woman wants pickles and ice cream? Get out of her way and don’t argue. What her body is screaming for is not in your knowledge. Neither is it in your competence no matter what medical school you’ve attended (something some of the medical schools have learned). Neither is it your business. Cooperate with her or get out of her way.

So: what was in the charred chicken that we so needed? Or have I hinted at an irrelevant hypothesis? Sure we were hungry. Any thing edible would have been welcome. But so scrumptious that I recall it with emotion two and a half decades later? No. I suspect that the dish was good in itself. That is to say, had we gotten some into the mouth of a gourmet in Paris, he too would have pronouned it excellent. (Of course, we would somehow have to have bypassed his vision. Had I offered that mess in a restaurant, I’d have been arrested.)

I don’t know. It was dark. It was chaos. Chaos and fine cuisine are not normally closely associated. But here’s one idea. I butchered the chicken on a lichen covered rock: lichen that had just had onion chopped on it. That’s a marinade not normally tried to my knowledge. The pepper was chopped on the same, now onioned and chicken-greased surface. Civilized man lives with such a limited diet. Our ancestors ate everything they didn’t recognize to be poisonous. The combinations of flavors and ingredients would have been endless, nigh infinite. You grab a beetle from under the leaf litter. You stick it in your mouth. Some leaf litter comes with it. You eat a leaf: and maybe an aphid too. You eat some berries. Some moose may have just pissed on them.

I had another dining adventure on that same rock, building my fire in the same place, a decade or so later (1983 or ’84). That’s the land I wrote on from Memorial Day to Labor Day as I reworked the early chapters of By the Hair of the Comet. Once a week I’d drive to the market in Tannersville. (Anything I forget to get was a misfortune that would have to wait a week for correction. My gasoline, like my groceries, were strictly budgeted. I’d collected $700 from a sale, and it had to last until galleries resumed their business as normal in September. Until then I couldn’t have relied on making a sale no matter how desperate I was. Neither could I have found a prospect without driving well more than a hundred miles.) I had a yearning for my beloved linguini with white clam sauce. I bought the clams. I bought the linguini. I had my big macaroni pot. I had my little sauce pan. I had a regular BBQ size grill snug on my stones. I had my olive oil, my garlic. Oh, no! I forgot the Italian parsley. Not that Tannersville would likely have had it. I had forgotten any kind of parsley at all! Not to worry. My bare feet nestled amid thyme, clover, wild strawberries … I don’t know what all native Catskill vegetation. I plucked almost at random a variety of whatever grew on my alpine meadow and threw it amid the simmer of my garlicy-oiled clam juice. Wunderbar. Who needs parsley?

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About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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