Roughing it doesn’t have to mean you’re stuck with bad food.
Hunting for wild edible plants in metropolitan areas has become a thing among a subset of adventurous cityfolk looking for nutritious, sustainable, and (best of all, for some) free food sources. I admire this urban foraging movement, mostly for its call to seek out wilderness in unlikely places.
This doesn’t mean I am a forager myself. I occasionally receive well-intentioned invitations to accompany people on the quest for dandelion greens and mushrooms. I always claim I’m busy, but my real reason, which I’m too polite to admit, is: Egad, don’t you know that urban dandelion greens are in constant contact with urban schnauzers?
I’m all for discovering nature in the city, but I’m even more for discovering nature in nature. My old New York City friends might be surprised to learn that I keep my state-park permit current and visit wild areas whenever I can.
In particular, I love day hikes, tramping along secluded trails and taking in all kinds of flora and fauna you just don’t find in the city. I once stood for several minutes admiring an enormous pileated woodpecker hammering away at a mossy log lying in a swampy green hollow. Another time, I listened reverently as two barred owls hooted and purred at one another from nearby trees. Some of the most magical moments of my life — moments touched by wonder and gratitude — have occurred on these getaways.
I really should leave the city more often, I tell myself, convinced that no one loves nature more than I do. And then I remember that the city is where all the really good espresso is. And I’m paralyzed. Lush, soul-filling green majesty . . . or decent coffee? This is not a choice I’m well equipped to make.
A Natural Compromise
Is my love for fine coffee and fancy food at odds with my need to be more in touch with my wild side?
Not necessarily. I’m finding hope in The Campout Cookbook: Inspired Recipes for Cooking Around the Fire and Under the Stars, a new book by Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson. The authors have dedicated it to “survivalists with standards,” which I like to think includes me.
I’m sort of unbearable without good coffee (the standards part), yet I’ve managed to make it this far without irritating people so much that they push me off a cliff (the survival part). And I really would like to see another transcendent owl or two. So I call up the authors.
“You need to start camping!” they tell me in unison over the speakerphone.
“Camping brings everything down to the simplest elements,” explains Hanel. “You get to turn off your laptop, put down your phone, and spend time with people you care about. Camping is about boiling experience down to its essentials, and there’s no other way to do that as well.”
Stevenson, a lifelong camper, chimes in with stories about getting a big group together — the kids, the dogs, everyone — and settling into a campsite for the weekend. She talks of screen-liberated children frolicking in meadow streams, and super-relaxed adults lying on blankets and gazing at the stars. “Picture it,” she says. “You’re done with dinner, you’re around a campfire, all together . . . there’s no experience like that.”
“But what about that dinner?” I whine. “What about my high and probably immovable standards? And what about my lack of camping expertise?”
I was once part of a New York City Brownie troop with so few practical skills that we earned our sewing badges by gluing together pieces of vinyl. Our one camping trip involved sitting on sleeping bags in a church basement for a few hours, watching cartoons and eating pizza.
Hanel assures me that she didn’t grow up camping with her family either. Her mother was so urbane that she led Hanel’s Girl Scout troop on a cookie-money-funded limousine ride through suburban Milwaukee — no campfire required.
Still, she grew to love camping. “It’s like getting a summer house without the price tag — or the walls,” she says.
The Culinary Campsite
Hanel and Stevenson insist that my so-called standards are no problem either. To assuage my fears, they offer their two-word secret for dining well outdoors: Pack heavy.
Bring some festive oilcloth and transform any picnic table into a clean and cute banquet setting. Fill a tackle box with little jars containing all the ingredients you need for a traveling pantry: salt and pepper, olive oil and vinegar, maple syrup and honey. (They offer a comprehensive list in their book.) Invest in enameled metal plates and cups, a good Dutch oven, and maybe even a tripod to suspend said Dutch oven over a campfire.
Store all your gear in a bin and, when the mood strikes, pop it in the car. What was once a half-day’s food prep is now a grab-and-go experience.
Other outside-dining strategies from The Campout Cookbook include: Make compound butter, flavored with your favorite herbs and spices, at home, and then tumble it into a pot filled with new potatoes (which you also prep ahead). Bring a big rib-eye for your whole group and cook it over a wood-fired grill. Offer everyone hot chocolate at night, with a shot of rum for the grownups who prefer something a bit stronger.
For breakfast? You can make eggs en cocotte by cracking an egg or two into an enameled cup and floating it in a water bath in that Dutch oven. For coffee, grind the beans before you leave home, and bring along a stainless-steel pour-over coffee filter that rests on top of a cup. It’s really not that hard to elevate camp food.
Even if Hanel and Stevenson hadn’t been so convincing about camping’s culinary opportunities, they sold me on the possibility of spending more quality time with friends and family amid the trees and rivers and woodland creatures.
“Do you remember when it used to be such an indulgence to get on an airplane, because you could turn off your cell phone and no one could reach you for four hours?” asks Hanel. “It’s getting harder to unplug. And it’s also somehow more difficult to see friends. All of that is what makes camping more appealing than ever. More necessary.”
Good friends, good coffee, and the possibility of owls. I’ll start preparing my traveling pantry now.
This originally appeared as “Happy Camper” in the June 2018 print issue of Experience Life.