The Mountains by Stewart Edward White
XIV. On Camp Cookery
One morning I awoke a little before the others, and lay on my back staring up through the trees. It was not my day to cook. We were camped at the time only about sixty-five hundred feet high, and the weather was warm. Every sort of green thing grew very lush all about us, but our own little space was held dry and clear for us by the needles of two enormous red cedars some four feet in diameter. A variety of thoughts sifted through my mind as it followed lazily the shimmering filaments of loose spider- web streaming through space. The last thought stuck. It was that that day was a holiday. Therefore I un- limbered my six-shooter, and turned her loose, each shot being accompanied by a meritorious yell.
The outfit boiled out of its blankets. I explained the situation, and after they had had some breakfast they agreed with me that a celebration was in order. Unanimously we decided to make it gastronomic.
"We will ride till we get to good feed," we concluded, "and then we'll cook all the afternoon. And nobody must eat anything until the whole business is prepared and served."
It was agreed. We rode until we were very hungry, which was eleven o'clock. Then we rode some more. By and by we came to a log cabin in a wide fair lawn below a high mountain with a ducal coronet on its top, and around that cabin was a fence, and inside the fence a man chopping wood. Him we hailed. He came to the fence and grinned at us from the elevation of high-heeled boots. By this token we knew him for a cow-puncher.
"How are you?" said we.
"Howdy, boys," he roared. Roared is the accurate expression. He was not a large man, and his hair was sandy, and his eye mild blue. But undoubtedly his kinsmen were dumb and he had as birthright the voice for the entire family. It had been subsequently developed in the shouting after the wild cattle of the hills. Now his ordinary conversational tone was that of the announcer at a circus. But his heart was good.
"Can we camp here?" we inquired.
"Sure thing," he bellowed. "Turn your horses into the meadow. Camp right here."
But with the vision of a rounded wooded knoll a few hundred yards distant we said we'd just get out of his way a little. We crossed a creek, mounted an easy slope to the top of the knoll, and were delighted to observe just below its summit the peculiar fresh green hump which indicates a spring. The Tenderfoot, however, knew nothing of springs, for shortly he trudged a weary way back to the creek, and so returned bearing kettles of water. This performance hugely astonished the cowboy, who subsequently wanted to know if a "critter had died in the spring."
Wes departed to borrow a big Dutch oven of the man and to invite him to come across when we raised the long yell. Then we began operations.
Now camp cooks are of two sorts. Anybody can with a little practice fry bacon, steak, or flapjacks, and boil coffee. The reduction of the raw material to its most obvious cooked result is within the reach of all but the most hopeless tenderfoot who never knows the salt-sack from the sugar-sack. But your true artist at the business is he who can from six ingredients, by permutation, combination, and the genius that is in him turn out a full score of dishes. For simple example: GIVEN, rice, oatmeal, and raisins. Your expert accomplishes the following:
ITEM--Rice boiled until soft, then stiffened by the addition of quarter as much oatmeal.
ITEM--Oatmeal in which is boiled almost to the dissolving point a third as much rice.
These latter two dishes taste entirely unlike each other or their separate ingredients. They are moreover great in nutrition.
ITEM--Boiled rice and raisins.
ITEM--Dish number three with raisins.
ITEM--Rice boiled with raisins, sugar sprinkled on top, and then baked.
ITEM--Ditto with dish number three.
All these are good--and different.
Some people like to cook and have a natural knack for it. Others hate it. If you are one of the former, select a propitious moment to suggest that you will cook, if the rest will wash the dishes and supply the wood and water. Thus you will get first crack at the fire in the chill of morning; and at night you can squat on your heels doing light labor while the others rustle.
In a mountain trip small stout bags for the provisions are necessary. They should be big enough to contain, say, five pounds of corn-meal, and should tie firmly at the top. It will be absolutely labor lost for you to mark them on the outside, as the outside soon will become uniform in color with your marking. Tags might do, if occasionally renewed. But if you have the instinct, you will soon come to recognize the appearance of the different bags as you recognize the features of your family. They should contain small quantities for immediate use of the provisions the main stock of which is carried on another pack- animal. One tin plate apiece and "one to grow on"; the same of tin cups; half a dozen spoons; four knives and forks; a big spoon; two frying-pans; a broiler; a coffee-pot; a Dutch oven; and three light sheet-iron pails to nest in one another was what we carried on this trip. You see, we had horses. Of course in the woods that outfit would be materially reduced.
For the same reason, since we had our carrying done for us, we took along two flat iron bars about twenty-four inches in length. These, laid across two stones between which the fire had been built, we used to support our cooking-utensils stove-wise. I should never carry a stove. This arrangement is quite as effective, and possesses the added advantage that wood does not have to be cut for it of any definite length. Again, in the woods these iron bars would be a senseless burden. But early you will learn that while it is foolish to carry a single ounce more than will pay in comfort or convenience for its own transportation, it is equally foolish to refuse the comforts or conveniences that modified circumstance will permit you. To carry only a forest equipment with pack-animals would be as silly as to carry only a pack-animal outfit on a Pullman car. Only look out that you do not reverse it.
Even if you do not intend to wash dishes, bring along some "Gold Dust." It is much simpler in getting at odd corners of obstinate kettles than any soap. All you have to do is to boil some of it in that kettle, and the utensil is tamed at once.
That's about all you, as expert cook, are going to need in the way of equipment. Now as to your fire.
There are a number of ways of building a cooking fire, but they share one first requisite: it should be small. A blaze will burn everything, including your hands and your temper. Two logs laid side by side and slanted towards each other so that small things can go on the narrow end and big things on the wide end; flat rocks arranged in the same manner; a narrow trench in which the fire is built; and the flat irons just described--these are the best- known methods. Use dry wood. Arrange to do your boiling first--in the flame; and your frying and broiling last--after the flames have died to coals.
So much in general. You must remember that open-air cooking is in many things quite different from indoor cooking. You have different utensils, are exposed to varying temperatures, are limited in resources, and pursued by a necessity of haste. Pre- conceived notions must go by the board. You are after results; and if you get them, do not mind the feminines of your household lifting the hands of horror over the unorthodox means. Mighty few women I have ever seen were good camp-fire cooks; not because camp-fire cookery is especially difficult, but because they are temperamentally incapable of ridding themselves of the notion that certain things should be done in a certain way, and because if an ingredient lacks, they cannot bring themselves to substitute an approximation. They would rather abandon the dish than do violence to the sacred art.
Most camp-cookery advice is quite useless for the same reason. I have seen many a recipe begin with the words: "Take the yolks of four eggs, half a cup of butter, and a cup of fresh milk--" As if any one really camping in the wilderness ever had eggs, butter, and milk!
Now here is something I cooked for this particular celebration. Every woman to whom I have ever described it has informed me vehemently that it is not cake, and must be "horrid." Perhaps it is not cake, but it looks yellow and light, and tastes like cake.
First I took two cups of flour, and a half cup of corn-meal to make it look yellow. In this I mixed a lot of baking-powder,--about twice what one should use for bread,--and topped off with a cup of sugar. The whole I mixed with water into a light dough. Into the dough went raisins that had previously been boiled to swell them up. Thus was the cake mixed. Now I poured half the dough into the Dutch oven, sprinkled it with a good layer of sugar, cinnamon, and unboiled raisins; poured in the rest of the dough; repeated the layer of sugar, cinnamon, and raisins; and baked in the Dutch oven. It was gorgeous, and we ate it at one fell swoop.
While we are about it, we may as well work backwards on this particular orgy by describing the rest of our dessert. In addition to the cake and some stewed apricots, I, as cook of the day, constructed also a pudding.
The basis was flour--two cups of it. Into this I dumped a handful of raisins, a tablespoonful of baking- powder, two of sugar, and about a pound of fat salt pork cut into little cubes. This I mixed up into a mess by means of a cup or so of water and a quantity of larrupy-dope. Then I dipped a flour- sack in hot water, wrung it out, sprinkled it with dry flour, and half filled it with my pudding mixture. The whole outfit I boiled for two hours in a kettle. It, too, was good to the palate, and was even better sliced and fried the following morning.
This brings us to the suspension of kettles. There are two ways. If you are in a hurry, cut a springy pole, sharpen one end, and stick it perpendicular in the ground. Bend it down towards your fire. Hang your kettle on the end of it. If you have jabbed it far enough into the ground in the first place, it will balance nicely by its own spring and the elasticity of the turf. The other method is to plant two forked sticks on either side your fire over which a strong cross-piece is laid. The kettles are hung on hooks cut from forked branches. The forked branches are attached to the cross-piece by means of thongs or withes.
On this occasion we had deer, grouse, and ducks in the larder. The best way to treat them is as follows. You may be sure we adopted the best way.
When your deer is fresh, you will enjoy greatly a dish of liver and bacon. Only the liver you will discover to be a great deal tenderer and more delicate than any calf's liver you ever ate. There is this difference: a deer's liver should be parboiled in order to get rid of a green bitter scum that will rise to the surface and which you must skim off.
Next in order is the "back strap" and tenderloin, which is always tender, even when fresh. The hams should be kept at least five days. Deer-steak, to my notion, is best broiled, though occasionally it is pleasant by way of variety to fry it. In that case a brown gravy is made by thoroughly heating flour in the grease, and then stirring in water. Deer-steak threaded on switches and "barbecued" over the coals is delicious. The outside will be a little blackened, but all the juices will be retained. To enjoy this to the utmost you should take it in your fingers and GNAW. The only permissible implement is your hunting- knife. Do not forget to peel and char slightly the switches on which you thread the meat, otherwise they will impart their fresh-wood taste.
By this time the ribs are in condition. Cut little slits between them, and through the slits thread in and out long strips of bacon. Cut other little gashes, and fill these gashes with onions chopped very fine. Suspend the ribs across two stones between which you have allowed a fire to die down to coals.
There remain now the hams, shoulders, and heart. The two former furnish steaks. The latter you will make into a "bouillon." Here inserts itself quite naturally the philosophy of boiling meat. It may be stated in a paragraph.
If you want boiled meat, put it in hot water. That sets the juices. If you want soup, put it in cold water and bring to a boil. That sets free the juices. Remember this.
Now you start your bouillon cold. Into a kettle of water put your deer hearts, or your fish, a chunk of pork, and some salt. Bring to a boil. Next drop in quartered potatoes, several small whole onions, a half cupful of rice, a can of tomatoes--if you have any. Boil slowly for an hour or so--until things pierce easily under the fork. Add several chunks of bread and a little flour for thickening. Boil down to about a chowder consistency, and serve hot. It is all you will need for that meal; and you will eat of it until there is no more.
I am supposing throughout that you know enough to use salt and pepper when needed.
So much for your deer. The grouse you can split and fry, in which case the brown gravy described for the fried deer-steak is just the thing. Or you can boil him. If you do that, put him into hot water, boil slowly, skim frequently, and add dumplings mixed of flour, baking-powder, and a little lard. Or you can roast him in your Dutch oven with your ducks.
Perhaps it might be well here to explain the Dutch oven. It is a heavy iron kettle with little legs and an iron cover. The theory of it is that coals go among the little legs and on top of the iron cover. This heats the inside, and so cooking results. That, you will observe, is the theory.
In practice you will have to remember a good many things. In the first place, while other affairs are preparing, lay the cover on the fire to heat it through; but not on too hot a place nor too long, lest it warp and so fit loosely. Also the oven itself is to be heated through, and well greased. Your first baking will undoubtedly be burned on the bottom. It is almost impossible without many trials to understand just how little heat suffices underneath. Sometimes it seems that the warmed earth where the fire has been is enough. And on top you do not want a bonfire. A nice even heat, and patience, are the proper ingredients. Nor drop into the error of letting your bread chill, and so fall to unpalatable heaviness. Probably for some time you will alternate between the extremes of heavy crusts with doughy insides, and white weighty boiler-plate with no distinguishable crusts at all. Above all, do not lift the lid too often for the sake of taking a look. Have faith.
There are other ways of baking bread. In the North Country forests, where you carry everything on your back, you will do it in the frying-pan. The mixture should be a rather thick batter or a rather thin dough. It is turned into the frying-pan and baked first on one side, then on the other, the pan being propped on edge facing the fire. The whole secret of success is first to set your pan horizontal and about three feet from the fire in order that the mixture may be thoroughly warmed--not heated--before the pan is propped on edge. Still another way of baking is in a reflector oven of tin. This is highly satisfactory, provided the oven is built on the scientific angles to throw the heat evenly on all parts of the bread-pan and equally on top and bottom. It is not so easy as you might imagine to get a good one made. These reflectors are all right for a permanent camp, but too fragile for transportation on pack-animals.
As for bread, try it unleavened once in a while by way of change. It is really very good,--just salt, water, flour, and a very little sugar. For those who like their bread "all crust," it is especially toothsome. The usual camp bread that I have found the most successful has been in the proportion of two cups of flour to a teaspoonful of salt, one of sugar, and three of baking-powder. Sugar or cinnamon sprinkled on top is sometimes pleasant. Test by thrusting a splinter into the loaf. If dough adheres to the wood, the bread is not done. Biscuits are made by using twice as much baking-powder and about two tablespoonfuls of lard for shortening. They bake much more quickly than the bread. Johnny-cake you mix of corn-meal three cups, flour one cup, sugar four spoonfuls, salt one spoonful, baking-powder four spoonfuls, and lard twice as much as for biscuits. It also is good, very good.
The flapjack is first cousin to bread, very palatable, and extremely indigestible when made of flour, as is ordinarily done. However, the self-raising buckwheat flour makes an excellent flapjack, which is likewise good for your insides. The batter is rather thin, is poured into the piping hot greased pan, "flipped" when brown on one side, and eaten with larrupy-dope or brown gravy.
When you come to consider potatoes and beans and onions and such matters, remember one thing: that in the higher altitudes water boils at a low temperature, and that therefore you must not expect your boiled food to cook very rapidly. In fact, you'd better leave beans at home. We did. Potatoes you can sometimes tease along by quartering them.
Rolled oats are better than oatmeal. Put them in plenty of water and boil down to the desired consistency. In lack of cream you will probably want it rather soft.
Put your coffee into cold water, bring to a boil, let boil for about two minutes, and immediately set off. Settle by letting a half cup of cold water flow slowly into the pot from the height of a foot or so. If your utensils are clean, you will surely have good coffee by this simple method. Of course you will never boil your tea.
The sun was nearly down when we raised our long yell. The cow-puncher promptly responded. We ate. Then we smoked. Then we basely left all our dishes until the morrow, and followed our cow-puncher to his log cabin, where we were to spend the evening.
By now it was dark, and a bitter cold swooped down from the mountains. We built a fire in a huge stone fireplace and sat around in the flickering light telling ghost-stories to one another. The place was rudely furnished, with only a hard earthen floor, and chairs hewn by the axe. Rifles, spurs, bits, revolvers, branding-irons in turn caught the light and vanished in the shadow. The skin of a bear looked at us from hollow eye-sockets in which there were no eyes. We talked of the Long Trail. Outside the wind, rising, howled through the shakes of the roof.