Chasing the Dirtbag Culinary Dream in 3 Cookbooks
One writer finds equal doses aspiration and inspiration in a stylish new crop of recipe collections
On a recent summer evening, I sat cross-legged under a stand of pines in a quiet corner of Sequoia National Park, feeling a bit like a carb-stuffed tick after a late-afternoon cookie raid. Still, I forged ahead preparing a calorie-bomb dinner: ramen noodles dressed with a salty slurry of soy sauce and peanut butter. I forced down two spoonfuls before offering it to a friend with a jackrabbit metabolism. He wolfed it down before licking the pot clean, and I beamed with pride. That is, until he handed it back and remarked, “That was kind of like eating peanut butter glue.”
Despite a camping résumé that dates back to the late 1980s and a decade of backpacking on trails of all lengths, I am a terrible outdoor cook. I once destroyed a pricey titanium pan by permanently searing Spam residue on it. I sacrificed an entire skillet of migas to the cold, hard ground after trying to impress a campmate with my scrambling skills. I created a “quesadilla” by folding a Kraft cheese slice, a few hunks of canned chicken, and a hearty dose of Tapatío into a tortilla before letting the whole mess congeal in the midday sun.
This has historically not bothered me, because my backpacking palate is, shall we say, less than refined. I have an emotional attachment to dehydrated refried beans, and I have breakfasted upon PayDay candy bars and shotgunned Starbucks Via packets.
Still, I was intrigued by a new crop of outdoor cookbooks that are utterly removed from the gorp-hawking, pemmican-stuffed, strictly utilitarian campfire manuals of yore. These gourmet guides feel more like analog Instagram feeds, creating a fantasy of stylish, outdoorsy effortlessness that feels just as important as the food itself. Would I feel a newfound sense of satiety (and dignity) if I learned to cook well in the outdoors? I cracked open a few of these sexy new foodie bibles to find out.
The first, Sarah Glover’s massive Wild: Adventure Cookbook ($50; Prestel), arrived at my doorstep with an ominous thud. I heaved it open to somewhere around the middle and promptly spilled my whiskey across an impossibly beautiful photo of an impossibly beautiful woman frolicking on the beach. Sorry, lady.
I downed the rest of my drink as I read about Glover, a Tasmanian chef (and a popular one, if her 37,000-plus Instagram following is any indication) who prefers the rustic bliss of cooking en plein air. I also gleaned that she is a surfer, caterer, cookie entrepreneur, knife-wielding abalone diver, and a woman who enjoys tossing whole pumpkins onto an open fire before bashing them open with a shovel and slathering them with delicious herbed oils.
The book’s 333 ridiculously gorgeous pages resemble an Anthropologie catalog dedicated to the carnal allure of fire-cooked meats. I imagined frothy surf lapping at the gauzy hem of my sundress as I roasted oysters with my husband, who looked suspiciously like Jason Momoa. A soft moan escaped my lips, quickly followed by a stifled sob. I could never achieve this life.
Most of Glover’s recipes don’t require many ingredients, but the execution feels slightly unrealistic and aspirational, the food equivalent of Instagram’s You Did Not Sleep There. Seaside fires are stoked with driftwood; foodstuffs are nailed to tree stumps, dangled from twine, and skewered by twigs; cast-iron skillets are overflowing with ingredients like abalone, bone marrow, and kangaroo (no, really). Skipping past impossible-sounding dishes like “Wagyu Salami Sea Pizza via the Kombi” and “Truffle Lard Snags on the BBQ,” I relaxed upon discovering titles like “Chicken with the Most Epic View,” “Warm Rice and Other Stuff,” and inexplicably, “Corn.” (It’s grilled.)
My inferiority complex told me, “Make ‘Corn’!” but my heart told me, “Try harder!” I settled on “Seaside Halloumi and Kalettes,” which I slyly converted to “In My Friend Kam’s Kitchen Halloumi and Brussels Sprouts.” I tossed some garlic, sprouts, and cheese into a cast-iron pan, then cracked a few eggs on top and waited for it all to cook. Sure, I burned a few slices of garlic and scrambled the eggs, but it tasted amazing. My inbox is now open for invites to beachfront glamping trips.
While Wild represents the more extravagant side of outdoor cooking, other books playfully straddle the line between dirtbag and gourmand. One such offering is Feast by Firelight (Ten Speed Press; $22) by Emma Frisch, a former backcountry guide and Food Network Star alumna. She decided to create an aesthetically pleasing yet accessible collection of outdoor recipes after launching Firelight Camps, a “glamping hotel” in Ithaca, New York, with her husband, Bobby, in 2014. Firelight invokes the outdoors-with-a-tidy-bow spirit of glamping. It’s pretty but not absurdly so, it leans heavily toward frontcountry usage, and there’s a familiarity to the recipes that nods toward summer camp, albeit the kind where you might bookend your roasted marshmallows with velvety squares of Godiva.
Firelight’s culinary style sits somewhere between elevated and attainable. The opening section offers instructional tidbits on basics like packing a cooler and choosing camp cookware; the final section outlines meal plans for a variety of outdoor adventures. In between are easy-to-follow recipes for every meal of the day, plus swank additional courses like happy-hour fare and after-dinner sweets.
I successfully catered a birthday lunch with Firelight’s “Lemon and Parsley Potato Salad with Honey Mustard Dressing,” “Lemony French Lentil Salad with Feta,” and “Summer Squash ‘Pappardelle’ with Basil-Sunflower Seed Pesto.” The recipes were delicious but are definitely more suited to such picnic table occasions than the backcountry.
Enter Dirty Gourmet (Mountaineers Books; $25), a cheerful, softcover translation of Mai-Yan Kwan, Aimee Trudeau, and Emily Nielson’s popular blog and outdoor catering service. Considering their whole enterprise was borne of a cross-country bikepacking trip where Kwan and Trudeau had to get creative around mealtime (think: gas station resupplies), it’s no surprise that their book is the most practical of the bunch. It even has a dedicated backpacking section.
In Dirty Gourmet, recipe origin stories and photos reflect the often imperfect act of preparing food outdoors—nachos smashed crookedly into crinkled tinfoil, a charred tortilla balanced on a regulation-issue canister stove. Thanks to the authors’ intentional approachability, I laughed through my many, many screwups instead of weeping into a cast-iron skillet. So what if my “Shiitake Rice Balls” fell apart with the first bite? Or that I forgot to pack every single seasoning for “Noodles with Spicy Peanut Sauce?” Or that I was beset with a wicked bout of flatulence upon consuming nearly an entire batch of “Spiced Nuts with Shallots” in one ill-advised sitting?
Any problems I encountered while testing all three books were, honestly, user error: forgotten ingredients, sheer laziness, drinking too much wine and forgetting to check the stove. But no one was actually judging me except me. I realized that these cookbooks weren’t meant to be line-by-line prescriptions but open-ended invitations to explore outdoor cooking—and have a little fun in the process.
Early one morning, I shrugged on my daypack and wandered up to a cluster of spindly pines in Griffith Park. Perched above Los Angeles, I set up my backpacking stove in the dirt and began assembling Dirty Gourmet’s “Backcountry Skillet Enchiladas,” a simple riff on the Mexican classic. Naturally, it was only when the cheese began to bubble that I realized I’d forgotten to include the called-for chicken, so I hucked a few chunks into the pot, sprinkled more cheese on top, and watched as my foundation of week-old gluten-free tortillas crumbled under the weight. The result was cheesy red mush, improved a bit visually with the addition of sliced jalapeños.
But, how did it taste? Divine.
As I sat high above the morning commuters, red sauce dribbling down my chin, I thought about something Kwan said about the beautiful realism of eating outdoors. “Maybe it’s not ‘gourmet’ in the traditional sense of fine dining, but it is ‘gourmet’ in the sense of enjoyment, pleasure, and flavors.” Sure, I screwed up the recipe once again, but wasn’t this a certain form of bliss: sitting outside and eating homemade enchiladas for breakfast? Maybe the point of outdoor cooking wasn’t to chase perfection but to find inspiration in the possibilities. And here, on this beautiful, cheese-filled morning, I surely had.