Food always tastes better in the outdoors. Ask anyone who hikes, camps, or spends enough time in the woods to warrant a snack or meal and they’ll confirm this statement. There is no doubt food keeps us running and good food makes us smile. When we travel solo, we concern ourselves more with what we eat rather than how we eat it. For the same reason we likely don’t garnish a single dinner plate at home and eat right from the pot, we also likely don’t go the extra mile in the great outdoors to add an element of flair to our food. That all changes when we travel with those we care about and those who we want to have a great experience. In these circumstances, we pull out all the stops, assume the role of the only cook in the kitchen, and make sure the food we plate up is as attractive as it is delicious.
I recently read children tend to eat with their eyes and adults with their minds. Think about the appeal of certain foods and how they eat them. Cold Lunchable pizza, really? An adult wouldn’t consider this a viable food option but a kid would. In the great outdoors, people expect food to look a certain way. They eat the way a child does. They expect hotdogs on sticks or freeze-dried pouches of mush.
When we assume the role of the only cook in the kitchen, we can control how food is delivered. That bag of chilli mac and beef might not be appealing in a foil bag but when placed in a bowl and topped with some fresh onion and a stable hard cheese like cheddar, it starts to look more like a food we’d find at home. When we are able to drizzle sauces on grilled fish or freshly harvest foul, we take the visually food game to whole new level. The same goes for adding an all-spice to grilled fish or a bag of fish fry to dredge your catch in before throwin’ it in some oil.
Anytime I’ve ever taken a friend into the woods and took responsibility for all the camp chores, I’ve splurged on food. Many of these friends have commented on the quality of the food, have come on repeat trips and even snapped pictures of it. Make your food look good and people will react in a favorable manner.
Bannock mix is a staple in the bushcraft community. It’s only three ingredients, flour, salt and baking powder. Ok, maybe 4 ingredients if you count water. If you don’t want to go through the trouble of mixing your own, carry Bisquick mix. When you bake bread in a camp, you exceed the expectations of those you take out who would never believe fresh baked bread as a possibility.
Bread is enjoyed by our noses as much as our mouths. There is nothing that smells quite like it and whether you make ash cakes, twist bread on a stick, dropped fry bread or bread in a dutch oven, you’ll have everyone on high alert when you get it going in camp. Just remember, it’s bad luck to cut bread with a knife and it should be broken between friends. Think of how fresh bread makes bacon better. Think of how it makes hot soup better. Think of how it tastes with some sugar added. Learn to make bread and not only will you be the only cook in the kitchen but you’ll be the best cook around, at least until the bread runs out.
You know how to make an old salt smile? Drop him in the Alaskan Arctic on a sheep hunt and tell him after hiking around the high country you found some Halloween-sized candies in your pack. I can’t vouch for all outdoorsmen but this is what happened when my buddy, Mark Knapp of Mark Knapp Custom Knives, said he had a surprise for me. We were deep in the backcountry and that sweet chocolate was a great morale booster far from our base camp. Later in that trip, Mark’s lovely wife, Angel, packed us some homemade jelly we covered backwoods bread in. Hard candies can hold over hungry campers before dinner. Chocolate can be mixed with peanut butter packets for make-shift peanut butter cups. Chocolate can also be added to the aforementioned bread to make a dessert treat in camp to enjoy right before bread.
Chocolate gives us instant energy from the sugar and sustained energy from the fat it contains. Lately, my chocolate of choice comes from Willy Pete’s, a veteran-owned company that isn’t afraid to incorporate real bacon into some of the flavors. Chocolate doesn’t weigh much and you can’t make s’mores without it. Chocolate, sugary candies, hot cocoa, all of these will boost the morale of campers. I swear, aside from alcohol and tobacco, candy is something grown men will fight for.
Whenever someone comes over your house, you offer them a drink. It’s simple courtesy to ask what someone wants to drink when they’re your guest. The same applies in the great outdoors and the being able to offer someone more than chemically-treated water can boost morale and the overall outlook of a camping situation. Powdered instant coffee or cowboy coffee are options to get folks moving in the morning. Tea is good anytime of day whether is is packed in as bags or harvested off the land like white pine needle tea, willow tea or St. John’s Wort. Powdered energy drinks are lightweight and take the funky smell out of water. Alcohol, carried in a small flask, is something that helps bond a group more than intoxicate it. I said, small flask right? Alcohol can be medicinal and fits the multi-use requirement of equipment and provisions carried if that is a concern.
Drinks, whether hot or cold, have a way of improving group morale. Unlike a more choice cut of meat and unfair selection of who gets what, drinks are all the same and you can’t differentiate one guy’s glass from the next. Hot drinks warm the body, cool drinks offer refreshment, bushcraft teas allow you to show off your skills in plant ID. If you’re making hot drinks for a big group, invest in a real coffee pot and don’t mess around making a single cup at a time with a smaller container. Learn to be the type of cook in the kitchen that offers his guests a good drink while they wait for the food to show up in their plate/bowl.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Just as we pride ourselves in our ability to keep our firearms and knives clean, our vehicles polished and tuned and our clothes free of mustard and ketchup stains, we should keep our kitchen clean. Do you recall the last time you walked into a disgusting restaurant and expected to eat something with an unknown number of suspect curly hairs in it? I don’t recall one time I saw flies landing on my food on the hot plate where I didn’t question how clean that back kitchen was. We have a habit of associating how clean a restaurant is with how good the food will be.
In the backcountry, you don’t have large stainless-steel restaurant surfaces clean. You don’t have a sink or dishwasher to drop dirty dishes in. You have to work with what you have. The good news, this will require less elbow grease and you don’t have much to clean. The bad news, you don’t have the luxuries of home to make your job easier. Without a scouring sponge, stubborn stuck-on food can be scrubbed off with sand. Without a lot of running water, a collapsible bucket can be filled with soapy water and dishes can soak. If you have a campfire, you can wash plates with untreated river water and dry them off near the fire. Don’t worry, waterborne parasites can’t live on dry surfaces. Take care of your kitchen kit as it will make your cooking experience much more enjoyable than working with pots, pans, and utensils with leftover food on them from whenever the last time was you used them. If you’re the only cook in the kitchen, you have no one else to blame for dirty dishes than yourself. Maybe you can strike a deal with those you’re cooking for. You cook, they clean.
Whenever we go into the woods, our minds track the experiences we have. You likely can’t recall the specifics of conversations from your last trip but I bet you remember if you enjoyed the weather. You might not recall how much money you had in your pocket or how many miles you hiked but I bet you know if you were well-fed. Taste and scent are senses so closely connected and these are both so closely tied to our memory. Make great memories for those you take outdoors by giving them an experiences that hits all of their senses. As the only cook in the kitchen, you have incredible power and responsibility. Follow these tips and you’ll be just as memorable as the food you serve.