NO. YOU CAN’T have that,” I admonish in the market as my son looks up hopefully from the breakfast food that he’s tragically clutching. The garishly colored box holds the kind of white-sugar high-spike cereal that gives pediatricians nightmares.
“That’s for camping.”
No, I tell myself later, as I linger with an unfortunate erotic desire over the triple crème at the cheese counter, smoothing the little French triangle voluptuously through the supple plastic: That’s for camping.
That’s-for-camping because when we’re outdoors cuz there’s no indoors, even the most determined Jack Sprat wants to eat with boundless hunger. It’s got to be all that fresh air and sunshine. Fog and rain. Thunder and lightning. Small earthquakes.
It’s the vigor gleaned from setting up a tent whose commitment to the gravitational pull of the earth is stronger than your own. It’s the aerobic exercise gained from shouting unheeded warnings about poison oak patches. It’s the muscle-building repetitions occasioned by deep knee-bending for a midnight pee among sharp-clawed and curious nocturnal animals.
And all this pain and gain is caused by sissie old car camping, not the 50-pound-pack kind of camping that requires speaking of distance in foot-miles while carrying equipment termed “ultralight.” When it comes to food, car campers eschew to chew anything that fluffs up whenever mere water is added. Make it wine–hell, make it gravy. Car campers are notorious for gravy.
After all, one reasons, with so much damn exercise it’s got to be all right to power down a few (OK, tons of) treats, too.
But first you’ve got to plan, purchase, and prepare the stuff. And so back I am at the market, now sadly agreeing to every that’s-for-camping item promised since the early days of the Nixon administration.
DUE TO JOIN friends south of Big Sur for three days of yelling at other people’s kids and hand-washing dishes outside in the dirt, I waver over the meat.
“Just bring yourselves and some lettuce,” my host had advised. Yeah, right. What if we did arrive with a just few limp bunches from the garden? Imagine the gastronomic joy others will feel when I further reveal that I have also remembered to bring napkins.
I am full of resolve: There must be meat.
After all, there will be fires and men. (One of whom was to jump happily from his family’s tent before 8 a.m. on Sunday morning to shout “It’s a four-sport day!”) It’d be rude to arrive without meat, as though someone would then be obliged to club me and drag me off by my hair to a cave. I settle on a tri-tip steak, an oddly whittled cut of beef that looks as though it could spin on a coffee table.
On the Central Coast, where I learned to camp, the tri-tip is revered as a kind of roastable deity, with special equipment–the Santa Maria barbecue–having been created just to cradle it. Hewn from the halves of a well-scrubbed (one hopes, one hopes) oil drum, the Santa Maria boasts a special levering grill able to bring the cut flirtatiously up or down over hot coals. Not only can you cook your meat; you can control it.
But a tri-tip needs a little help. Plainly said, it can be like chewing a street hood from an old motorcycle movie: tough at first, then really kind of bland. Marinade is the answer, and this diamond-shaped griller got stashed in a bag with a little red wine, extra-virgin olive oil, chopped fresh ginger and garlic, a dash of soy, salt, and a grind of pepper.
Well sealed–and you do want to seal it well (think of oily marinade and watery ice in an ugly marriage at the bottom of your cooler)–this will soak happily for up to three days. When you’re ready to roast, just sacrifice this baby onto the grill provided at the campsite. It will blacken, but don’t panic. My mother has always said that the charcoal-burn crust is good for your teeth, although my dentist made a great show of laughing his head off at this news.
With the children briefly sedated by a premature foray into a box of that’s-for-camping cookies, we sidle back over to mon amour, the cheeses. In addition to lettuce, my friends require that I bring my own particular desecration: Brieg.
Delicately put, Brieg is the contraction of the words Brie and goo. Go ahead and scoff–although it’s difficult to do with a mouth full of Brieg–it tastes infinitely better than it sounds. (But so does hot Tang, and that’s not saying much.) Brieg is a concoction of peeled, cubed ripe Brie, diced fresh tomatoes (seeds and skin and all), a half of a bunch of chopped fresh basil, and three to five pressed garlic cloves, all tossed with extra-virgin olive oil, a bit of balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper.
In addition to its outrageously proud calorie count, Brieg is versatile. Really pretty gorgeously super spread naked on bread, Brieg also drapes itself all over hot pasta. Fresh mozzarella makes a healthier alternative to the Brie, and if you discount the cheese altogether, the resulting fresh tomato sauce is outstanding over just-drained tortellini. Sprinkle on some grated Parmesan or Asagio, and this is an elegant, satisfying pasta dish that keeps well for tomorrow’s cold lunch.
So I have the start: meat and cheese (or pasta). But I’m going to want corn, and the word “shuck” has always had a certain coarseness to it (unless one is talking oysters, and then shuck becomes backwards-East-Coast-elegant, like “dungarees”). While camping, I don’t shuck the suckers, but just throw them triumphantly into the coals, silk and all. Roasted until they are turning black but not yet actually on fire, they are then thrown into a big paper bag, sealed, and left to steam.
Red peppers can be roasted alongside the meat. Not surprisingly–a theme is emerging–they too are done when they are black, and should be steamed in a paper bag until they’re cool enough to handle. Skinned and sliced, the peppers are babied in a salad of chopped garlic and shallots, with the ubiquitous extra-virgin, balsamic, s&p dressing.
Like some annoying Martha Stewart of the KOA, I bring my lettuce already washed, spun, bagged, and ready to be torn and dressed. One of the Darwinian joys of living outside for the weekend is that even the most sophisticated camper gets the indulgence of using savage verbs to reconnect oneself and one’s dinner with mankind’s humble beginnings.
Bread, tortillas, and corks also go into the fire–though I hope you don’t mean to retrieve the corks–and flour products are happiest protected in foil. Dessert slides easily from the Tupperware surprise of a cake brought forth hot from the trunk to my preferred fireside pleasure of a shared bar of chocolate and a measure of good port drunk from a plastic cup.
And then there’s that lone pear that the children have overlooked.
(In case no one has ever told you since you became an adult, s’mores are a nightmare of stick and stuck and unhappy faces as wet drooping marshmallows plop into the dirt. The chocolate is never shared to the satisfaction of fraction-vigilant children and the graham crackers crumble helplessly at the first bite. Avoid this happy memory with your life.)
One friend counts among his favorite camping memories the impromtu tuna-couscous casserole, replete with packaged Mediterranean sauce mix, that his wife whipped up during a night’s outdoor stay on the frigid Humboldt coast. While you may not wish to ever–in any way–taste such a thing yourself, it just goes to show that it’s not what you eat as much as where, and with whom, you eat it.
From the July 3-10, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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