What’s For Dinner?

I don’t believe that anything tastes better than something cooked in the great outdoors or indoors over wood.  There is some sort of magic that can be found when a wood fire applies heat to a pot, pan or skillet preferably, but not exclusively , in the setting of the great outdoors.  The items being cooked are almost irrelevant.  When the meal is set and ready to be consumed it is one of the most heavenly sensations one can imagine.  In fact, I believe that meals in heaven will be cooked on wood burning stoves in cabins in some celestial woods, but that’s just my opinion.

I began my romance with outdoor cooking when I was a very small boy.  When my father was not somewhere in the world on a Navy ship we would frequently pack up our 1950 Studebaker and drive to a campground in the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in the mountains east of San Diego.  We would leave early in the morning, usually well before the sun would come up, and drive about an hour and a half to the favorite family spot.  Many times we were able to get our very favorite camping space; number 36, I think it was.

Time of year was of no consequence.  My brother Brad and I loved running wild in the rocks and fields and canyons and brush-covered hillsides during the summer, but we equally loved the frozen, ice and snow covered winter landscape as well.  In fact, winter was my favorite as far as food went for a couple of reasons.

First, I loved to make the fire that my mother would use to cook over.  I was a little pyromaniac anyway,  and loved to burn pine needles and dried weeds and junk lumber that my father always seemed to restock in our back yard.  Dad taught me how big a fire ought to be and where it should be placed, and then let me burn all that I wanted.  This scared the crap out of our neurotic neighbor, who once called the fire department on me when I was sitting in front of a small fire one afternoon.  I heard the sirens and thought to myself “Man, that’s close.”  Then I heard the “clump clump clump” of heavy boots on our concrete driveway.  Then, what looked to my twelve year old eyes to be a small army of firemen poured through the gap between our house and garage into the back yard.

“Where’s the fire?”  they demanded.  “This is the only one that I know about” I said, pointing to my little camp-style fire.  The firemen looked at each other with a look that I didn’t recognize then, but as I think back on it I now know all too well that it said “We’ve been punked”.  But there they were.  They were firemen, and I did have a fire going.  So they pulled their big hose with the heavy bronze nozzle into my back yard and blew the hell out of my fire.  I was completely dumbfounded by the whole thing, but my mother put two and two together quickly enough.  I really liked the Mr. who lived next door, but I never had much time for the Mrs. after that.

Anyway, I liked to start fires, so my father would give me one match when we went to the campground and it was my duty to get the fire going so that Mom could get the breakfast started.  During the summer that was a small challenge at best.  In winter however, the pressure was definitely on.  Mom would cook on the big steel and stone camp stoves built by the CCC workers during the Great Depression, and in winter they might be covered three or four inches deep with snow and ice.  Dad would give me wood, a hatchet, a knife, and one paper match and tell me to get the job done.

Challenge accepted!  I would chop away as much ice and snow as I could in order to clear the grill and release the steel door which folded down to give me access to the roughly twelve inch wide by ten inch high by two or three feet deep firebox, where I was tasked with producing a cooking fire thick with glowing hot coals that Mom would use to create a king’s feast.  Using the knife I whittled shavings in increasingly larger size until I had a pile of them.  Next I produced small sticks, again of increasing size, until I had a pile of graded pieces of wood at the foot of the stove.  I carefully arranged my shavings and small sticks in the firebox without the assistance of any paper as a fire starter.  Only wimps used paper to start a fire!

Finally all was prepared and I would strike the one precious match on an emory surface and it would flare with its ignition.  I was patient, allowing that initial flare to settle down into an even flame before I advanced the match into the shavings.  Smoke would curl up through the pile of shavings and chips, and then a tiny flame would be established in the filamentous fuel.

At this point I would drop the match and begin to tend my small and fragile fire.  Bit would be added to bit, slightly larger as the fire gained a foothold in my pile of tinder, and in short order I knew that the fire would be a success.  Sticks were added, and then bigger sticks, until larger chunks of wood were added to make a roaring fire before which numb hands could be warmed, coffee could be brewed, and finally a full breakfast of eggs and bacon, potatoes and ham and grits and whatever one could possibly want could be created by the culinary genius that was my mother.

A glorious outdoor breakfast did not have to be a complicated affair however.  One of my favorite meals ever consumed at that campground was as simple as a meal could possibly be.  When I was very young I tried to win prizes by selling Christmas cards to my neighbors.  A company somewhere produced a catalogue of prizes that could be earned by selling certain amounts of cards, and I signed up and set out to push those little-more-than-average cards on as many neighbors as I could con into buying them.

By hook and by crook I peddled one full shipment of those cards and was given several choices of what prize I could acquire from the catalogue.  I chose a collapsable camp oven.  This thing would fold until it was nearly flat, but when unfolded it formed a metal cube that could be set over a camp fire or a Coleman stove and could be used just like a real oven.  It even had a thermometer on the front that told you the temperature within.

So one early morning my father took me and my best friend Wes to do some fishing on the stream which ran through the campground where we always preferred to go.  The state people stocked trout in that stream and I caught one every now and then, but not on this day.  After freezing our little butts off for an hour or so we returned to the campsite and Dad fired up the Coleman stove.  We were going to have pork and beans for breakfast but Dad had forgotten to bring a can opener, so there we were with a big can of pork and beans and no way to get at them.

My father was nothing if not resourceful.  He knew right away that the beans were a lost cause.  We had canned biscuits however, and so the oven was assembled and the biscuits opened up, lined up in a greased pan, and placed in the oven.  In no time at all the biscuits were withdrawn from the oven and placed on top of that cube in all of their golden brown glory.  Dad then squeezed honey out of a bottle onto the top of the uncooperative bean can and we took turns sopping up honey with our warm biscuits and slamming them down the old hatch.

I believe that our breakfast of biscuits and honey a-la bean can was as good as any meal that I have ever eaten.  I can close my eyes and go right back to that picnic site under the oak trees just off of the parking lot at Green Valley Falls and taste the honeyed sweetness of the soft, warm biscuits that we ate that morning.  My father was a Jekyll and Hyde sort of character; sometimes I hated and feared him and sometimes I loved him. I loved him that morning.  I wish that I could tell him that I love him again.  Perhaps I will sometime.

I will conclude this topic with one more tale of a wood cooked meal, but this one was not cooked out of doors.  One Thanksgiving or Christmas, I’m not sure which one it was, in the year 1974 or 75, again I’m not sure which one, my wife at the time and I drove north from Sonoma County California to Eugene Oregon to share the holiday meal with her friends from high school.  Clarice stayed in touch with her friend Kaye and Kaye’s fiance Carl, and we were invited to do the meal with them that year.

Kaye and Carl lived in a huge victorian house with three or four other couples.  It was a sort of urban commune; a thing rather popular in those days.  Kaye was going to college at the University of Oregon and Carl was a hippy, occasionally working at replanting hillsides where loggers had clear-cut the forest, frequently playing a guitar rather badly, and always ready to roll and share a joint with anybody who was ready to party.  When you are the son of a doctor, life can be easy like that.

Clarice and I left our apartment early in the morning and drove straight through to eugene.  I was raised by me father to drive like an automaton when great distances needed to be covered, so we would have stopped to get gas and pee and buy me another quart of beer and that was about all, so by the time that we arrived at the big victorian house we were both pretty well tied in knots.  We walked the wet and grey streets of Eugene with our friends for a while and then, after a meal of something-or-other and a goodly amount of alcohol and marijuana we turned in for the night.

We slept in quite late the next morning, and when we finally did crawl out of bed the activity in the kitchen was already hot and heavy.  Bert, one of the other residents of the house, was in charge of the stove while his wife Evelyn was in charge of what got cooked on/in the stove.  Evie was cooking a turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, yams, rolls, and an assortment of other items on a huge iron wood burning stove in the kitchen.  Breakfast was long past so Clarice and I ate some sandwiches and snacks that we still had in our cooler while we waited for the main event.

Only slightly less impressive than the meal was the process by which it was cooked.  At one point “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” came on the television and we all got appropriately psychedelic to watch it by.  While Willie Wonka was sailing chocolate rivers and Charlie Bucket and Grandpa Jo were floating dangerously close to the huge ventilator fans, saved from being sliced and diced only by releasing their lighter-than-air gas load by frequent belches, we were all drifting between Mars and the asteroid belt, sharing joints and mushrooms and feeling very much a part of the movie.

But every so often some sort of alarm would go off in Bert’s psychedelicized brain and he would arise and go stuff a measured amount of wood into the fire chamber on the side of the oven which housed the turkey that we would soon be devouring.  It was truly uncanny, the way that Bert just knew when another load of wood was needed.  Too much wood and the oven temperatures would spike, and too little would result in the temperature falling below the proper cooking level.  A nice, constant temperature is what was needed, and that temperature was provided by one of the most impressive of stoned slackers that I have even had the privilege to meet.

At last the movie reached its stirring conclusion with Willy and Charlie and Grandpa flying over the city in some sort of cross between an elevator and a telephone booth (younger readers will at least know what an elevator is), and the dinner bell was rung.  Bert and Evie first brought out the turkey, followed by all of the other awesome delicacies that they had cooked and kept warm on shelves over or adjacent to the stove.

Bert carved the bird and we all ate until just before we got sick.  I have to say that it was one of the finest meals I have ever eaten, and even though it was not cooked outside, well, it has to be among the most special of meals because of the 19th century wood stove manner of it’s cooking.  As long as God grants me the blessing of memory, I will never forget those wonderful meals that I have described in this story.  Heaven, for me, will almost certainly contain meals such as these.

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