- Honestly, Dara -

Awake in the Wild

Can outdoor cooking reinvigorate our screen-numbed senses?

Illustration family having picnic and leaf

As a toddler, my son was very interested in my flip phone. So he inherited it (sans SIM card, of course) when I bought an iPhone, not too long after those boxes of miracles and troubles debuted in 2007. He gnawed on that flip phone and tossed it about until it eventually made its way to the bottom of a toy bin.

It was recently unearthed by my 10-year-old daughter. She thought it was the funniest device imaginable and rushed around the neighborhood to show her friends. “This is what phones looked like in the olden days!” she cried, unsheathing the antenna and waving it around like the world’s most useless sword. All the girls collapsed into heaps of helpless giggles. A phone without Google and the ability to text emoji? Why didn’t you just carry around two small birch sticks to tap out codes, silly olden-days people!

Coincidentally, I recently bought my son, now 13, his first smartphone. This was sooner than I’d planned, but he was participating in an after-school program on a university campus that is perpetually under construction and this was the best way to reliably find him.

Watching this evolution was jarring. One week he was playing with magnets and markers; the next he was slack-jawed and immobile staring at a glass-and-metal rectangle.

A similar thing has, of course, happened to me over the past decade — just more gradually. And I’m not alone. The last big Nielsen survey of how Americans use their time discovered that we’re spending more than nine hours a day staring at screens. Add in eight hours for sleep and when exactly aren’t we staring at screens — in the shower, perhaps?

An “Indoor Generation”

We’re certainly not staring at the woods. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that we spend approximately 90 percent of our time indoors. Some experts have labeled kids grow­ing up in this digital-and-screen world the “­Indoor Generation,” which is depressing.

I’d like to get out into the woods with my kids, but I’m at least the fourth generation in my family to have never owned a tent, a canoe, a kayak, climbing ropes, or any outdoors stuff. How do I help my kids avoid the mental- and physical-health pitfalls of the Indoor Generation when I don’t even know how to pitch a tent or cook over a campfire?

Luckily, I know people. Emma Frisch lives in that exact space where people who want to camp but don’t have the gear or knowledge reside. She and her husband, Bobby, own and run Firelight Camps, a glamping resort in Ithaca, N.Y. I first met Emma when her cookbook, Feast by Firelight: Simple Recipes for Camping, Cabins, and the Great Outdoors, came out last year, and I immediately connected with her core message: Get outside; you can do it.

Guests at Firelight Camps sleep on real mattresses inside tents made of waterproof fabric pitched on raised platforms, so they can hear the birds chirping and stick their heads outside to see the stars.

And if this isn’t exactly roughing it, Frisch’s glamping experience does offer her visitors a taste of the unplugged wild at mealtime, when campfires blaze. It’s an opportunity to engage with food “not just with taste, but also with sight, scent, sound, and touch,” she writes.

Cooking outdoors is an opportunity to fine-tune our senses, a practice easily lost when we judge grilled chicken from an image in a book or on a screen,” she adds. “A Dutch oven and timer are helpful, but it’s the smell of toasted, sweet kernels that slaps me in the face, telling me the cornbread is ready. We’re built with tools equally important as pots and pans, and there’s hardly a better time to use these gifts than when we’re in nature.”

Unlike me, Frisch grew up in a family that loved the outdoors. Her mother was a firm believer in the health benefits of fresh food and fresh air.

“I was only 2 years old when I had my first foraging adventure with my twin sister, Dimity. Wearing our undies and red Wellington boots, we set off into our backyard vegetable patch to pluck tomatoes from the vines,” she writes. “When we outgrew the backyard, weekends and family holidays were spent exploring state parks, and, inevitably, Mamma brought a picnic basket.”

I called Frisch for some advice, and I was surprised to find that a working mom who can go camping and cook outdoors whenever she wants also wrestles with the creeping-screen-time dilemma. “I’m taking a one-month social-media fast; it’s been heaven,” she announced.

“It turns into such a fixed part of your life that you stop noticing how your boundaries changed. This fast has been good for me to reevaluate how I want to use social media.

“I realized I was doing things like sitting by a glorious waterfall and instead of experiencing it, I was creating an Instagram about it. I don’t want to experience life as a content-generation opportunity. I knew it was time to take a step back.”

Breaking the Spell

I think that’s true for a lot of us with our phones at this moment. One second we’re talking on a flip phone; the next our lives have subtly grown into an 11-hours-a-day-indoors screen habit of perpetual unmindful content consumption and generation. Getting outdoors — and especially cooking outdoors — can help break the spell.

When she stepped back, Frisch told me, she found her social-media fast was like giving up gluten, or fast food, or any of the things people give up in order to see what their life is like without it. And she rediscovered the magic of the campfire meal.

“For me, cooking outside and eating outside — that’s the core of everything,” she said. “Can I do it without social media? I think the answer is obviously yes!”

I might never own a tent, but I can make dinner over an open flame without my phone. The kids can help build the fire in our Weber Kettle grill, combing the ground for kindling. I’ll pull out every fancy grilling basket I hardly ever use and fill them with veggies from the farmers’ market.

I’ll introduce the kids to the miracle of foil packs. You take a stalk of rhubarb from the garden, wrap it in foil with butter and a spoonful of strawberry jam, heat it over the fire, then tumble it out onto a piece of grilled bread. Feast by Firelight will teach you how to make s’mores, but it offers more ambitious recipes, too, including a marinated flank steak.

We’ll leave our phones inside and hover around the grill, pulling off sweet corn, as the neighborhood kids dash in and out through the back gate. “This is what cooking looked like in the olden days,” my daughter will tell them, waving the flies away from the fire-blistered green beans. People just ate, without screens, like kings and queens.

is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer.

Illustration by: Claudi Kessels

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