KEVIN TATE: Joy of cooking always magnified outside

KEVIN TATE

KEVIN TATE

The Old Man watched the small fire grow as three green sweet gum branches fell one after another to the short blade of his pocket knife. Bark peeled away in long, even strips and, in no time, the shiny white wood was bare except for a handle’s-worth at the back. A chiseled point marked the opposite end.

He passed one each to my brother, my cousin and me, saying “Y’all be careful with those,” as we immediately began to practice our sword fighting techniques, then added, “Don’t jam them into the ground,” as two of us jammed ours into the ground.

We’d just finished a campfire-building lesson and were following it up with an outdoor cooking lesson, the first for all of us, I’m sure.

Next he used the knife blade to unzip a pack of hot dogs and we fell upon them like the make-believe savages we were, impaling one on each stick and thrusting them deep into the bowels of the growing blaze.

“Here, hold them up over the fire!” he said, but we were hungry and ready to eat, and so anticipated the advent of the kitchen microwave by a decade or so. The Old Man sat back in a green and white metal lawn chair of a type they don’t make anymore and let us go. As long as we weren’t putting each other into the fire, he probably reasoned he was ahead of the game. The results of our efforts were charred and dusted with ash outside, still refrigerator-cold in the middle. At least two were seasoned with a pinch of dirt. During their cooking all three, at one point or another, had been covered in flames to a state professional firemen term “fully involved.” The buns we ate them on had all been dropped on the ground at least twice, and part of the bag they’d come from bore the imprint of a tennis shoe’s tread, giving each an unusual shape. Anyone who served them on a plate to school children would have been immediately jailed. They were so good we ate them with gusto and loud smacking and chased them with the rest of the pack in no time.

A chief portion of the fun in any camp is cooking and eating. If the weather is bad or game is scarce, sometimes it’s more than just a portion. Over the years I’ve met a handful of professional camp cooks who thrive on surprising their guests with the quality of the grub. Generally the rougher the camp, the greater the surprise. Two of these in particular stand out because they worked for an outfitter who set up his camps on the high plains of New Mexico, far from any convenience at all, modern or otherwise. One used charcoal and a spread of dutch ovens. The other traveled with a small generator and cooked in the sad remains of an electric stove. Both produced fare worthy of fine table cloths and snooty introductions.

What these two cooks had found, though, was an appreciative audience seated far from pretension, each member of which, I’m confident, had at some point eaten burned, cold ash hotdogs with a smile.

Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.