Camping Special, April 1997
The first consideration is heat, as in, where will it come from? A camp stove is the most ecological choice, and its flame is hotter than that of a campfire. But a well-prepared cooking fire with bona fide hardwood coals will do more than merely satisfy your inner caveman. It both provides a challenge and leaves the chef with the ability to heat multiple pots simultaneously, which is especially helpful if you're traveling by car or canoe and thus can afford to pack a 40-gallon cooler with chicken, fresh vegetables, and the makings for a sublime marinade.
If you do opt for the real thing, a "mound fire" is the way to go, assuming that you've already checked to make sure that fires are allowed in the area and obtained the requisite permits. Spread a flame-resistant tarp on the ground, and then build a foundation with several shovelfuls of mineral soil--both sand from a riverbank and the grainy dirt near the trunks of big trees work well. Next, using only dead and down wood, build a small blaze on top of the soil. When you're finished with s'mores and all six verses of "Kumbayah," douse the fire thoroughly with water, crush the coals to powder and scatter the ashes widely, return the mineral soil to where you found it, and fold up the tarp.
Of course, even with a healthy fire, a chef is only as good as his tools. In addition to the obvious pots, pans, and utensils, there are more than a few don't-forget items: an aluminum grill for the trout you catch; long-handled barbecue tongs for turning them; a pot marked with volume measurements; pot grips; aluminum foil for covering steaming pans and wrapping up leftovers; an insulated plastic cup, both for drinking and for keeping soups and beverages hot; a can opener or knife with same; a wooden spoon; and a bandanna for use as a miniature table cloth, dish towel, or hot pad. Also, to repair impending culinary disasters, pack small plastic bottles with your favorite spices, oils, and hot sauces.
Now for the meal, beginning with the appetizer. Potential salads surround you in virtually every backcountry environment. Take advantage of such free and delectable produce as chickweed leaves, Indian cucumbers, calamus shoots, and field garlic greens, topped with balsamic vinegar and a dash of olive oil. (Of course, a reliable guide to edible plants, such as Euell Gibbons's Stalking the Wild Asparagus, is a must if you hope to avoid severe intestinal consequences, or worse.) As for the main course, the key to happy--and gastronomically satisfied--campers can be summed up in two words: heat management. Whether you're cooking trout amandine or macaroni and cheese, you inevitably need one pot on high and another on low. The solution is to build a sort of backwoods heat lamp by placing a couple of large, flat rocks at the edge of the fire and then setting your sauces and whatnot on top to simmer. But if you're camping by a lake or river, you'll need to rely on the adjustable flame of a stove: Moisture stored in stones will expand when heated, which can--if you're really unlucky--cause them to explode and send shards ripping through the otherwise tranquil evening like shrapnel from a pipe bomb.
Indeed, camping can very easily become an environmental meltdown, so it's prudent to keep the following tips in mind. If pasta was on the menu, use the leftover water as a base for soup, since pouring the starchy solution onto plant life suddenly makes it very tasty to all kinds of critters. Lick the rest of your pots and pans as if they were bowls of brownie batter and then pour hot water into them and rub industriously with a natural scrubber such as sand, forest duff, or pinecones. When the pan seems clean, sprinkle the dirty water over a wide area and then sterilize the pan by bringing fresh water to a boil. Finally, as odd as it may seem, take a few moments to root around for fallen crumbs; our friends at NOLS say they're insidious little objects that alter the ecological balance of your campsite, attracting all manner of woodland creatures and giving them a taste for less-than-natural foodstuffs.