Written by guest blogger, Alison Spencer
Pulling into the Highland Recreation Center, patches of snow still dotted the ground. Just past a baseball backstop stretched a large park, its grass soggy from the wet winter. I scanned the parking lot, my eyes coming to rest on a dark green vehicle with the words “Canoemobile” scrawled across the side. Moving toward the Wilderness Inquiry van, I caught sight of a plume of smoke rising into the still light sky. I knew following it to the source would lead me directly to my first of three outdoor cooking classes.
Entering the room, three tables sat in a u-shape, facing one on which sat every piece of camp cookware imaginable. A dutch oven, camp stove, cutting boards, knives, utensils, plates, bowls, tin foil, and much more. People of all ages, most with family members, filled the chairs, eagerly introducing themselves and sharing stories about favorite outdoor meals or cooking traditions. One woman explained her family’s creative method of cooking hamburgers by wrapping them around sticks. A young girl, sporting a princess costume, shared that she “roasted marshmallows at grandma’s house.” Some had ample experience with outdoor cooking, whereas others were self-proclaimed novices; but both parties, regardless of exposure, were excited to learn.
Today’s lesson centered on campfire cooking. Given an onion and cutting board, we practiced holding ingredients with a claw grip, ensuring the safety of our fingers while using a knife. I’d cut onions hundreds of times but never, it would seem, in the safest or most efficient manner. Based on onion size, knives were shared back and forth, turning a usually independent activity into something more communal. From there, with our sliced onions as a base, we built makeshift bowls from tin foil, and piled in additional vegetables. From potatoes to snap peas, each foil packet quickly grew into a mountain of food, on top of which we drizzled ample teriyaki sauce. To keep heat in and sauce from spilling out, we learned to folded down the top and then sides of our foil to create a pouch ready to be placed into the fire.
Hands tucked securely into well worn oven mitts, our instructors, with assistance from a few interested students, continuously rotated the packets. Deftly lifting, switching and maneuvering the meals, each pouch had the time and space to cook sufficiently. The shifting winds blew smoke in all directions, leaving us to also move around the campfire, in an attempt to shield our eyes. But no matter where we stood, the smell of campfire saturated our clothing, promising we’d remember this experience for days to come. Those interested also set about assembling our dessert of apples and cinnamon butter. Scooping out a small tunnel, we filled each fruit with the peanut butter like paste, then wrapped it in foil, a second opportunity to practice the ideal folding technique.
By the time our apples were prepared, our now slightly blackened pouches had been removed from the fire. Knowing of the well-heated contents within, we carefully opened the foil packets, hoping to avoid a rush of steam. Unwrapping one side and then the other, vegetables poured onto plates, filling the room with a mouth-watering scent. Rice, additional sauce, and chicken, also cooked on the fire, were added as desired, creating an end product worthy of any food blog.
As is true of any outdoor cooking, the meal tasted exceptional, far better than any stir fry I may have created from my apartment. The fresh ingredients and use of fire, combined with the company I kept, transformed this meal into that of restaurant quality. It left me not only pleasantly full but excited for the next two classes, in which I’d learn to use a camp stove and dutch oven.
Of course this hour and a half session had been about experiencing the different means of outdoor cooking, about learning to make dishes that I could replicate on the trail. The skills I learned would certainly allow me to not only be self-sufficient but also healthy while hiking or camping. But the class was also about something much larger, about food’s ability to bring people together.
A meal after a long day’s work can boost morale, generating happiness amidst even the most challenging environments. The act of cooking together can create community, be it strengthening the existing bonds within a family or forging new friendships between strangers. And that’s what Wilderness Inquiry is really all about, teaching skills but also, and perhaps more importantly, fostering relationships between people from all walks of life, who, together can enjoy the outdoors and each other’s company.
In order to continue fostering this community and help develop skills, Wilderness Inquiry is offering class series every month. April focuses on hiking, providing participants with information about bird identification and nature photography. It’s a great opportunity to explore our local parks, learn something new and build connections.