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The New York Times


Upscale food... bring campsite cooking out of the wild

June 26, 2017 - Source

Barbara Hodgin, who was once president of the Pacific Crest Trail Association, is old enough to remember a time when, if you asked a backpacker what was for dinner, the standard answer was either “brown in a cup” or “green in a cup.” A clever hack for trail pad thai was an envelope of unsweetened lime Kool-Aid.

Now, distance backpackers pour French-press coffee into $60 double-walled titanium cups and make beer on the trail from concentrate fizzed up with citric acid and potassium bicarbonate. Car campers tuck chorizo, kale and sweet potatoes into custom hobo packs, and simmer cumin-scented breakfast shakshuka in camp kitchens that come assembled with sinks and paper-towel holders.

And if your phone dies while you are enjoying the wilderness, a tiny stove fed with twigs can convert that heat to electricity and charge it.

With visits to national parks setting records for three years in a row, and the rise of both culinary skills and the drive to document every meal on social media, the nation’s campsite cooking has taken a quantum leap.

Ms. Peng and Mr. Griffiths tending to the vegetables.

Ms. Peng and Mr. Griffiths tending to the vegetables.Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times

“Why not make the food every bit as good as the views you are seeing?” asked Elaine Johnson, the senior food editor and resident camping expert at Sunset magazine, which first took on the subject of camp cooking in 1901 with a report from the High Sierra on how to make grouse stew and hash balls from canned corned beef and potato flakes.

“We’re in a golden age of camp cooking, with food that’s fresh, inventive and a cut above, both in flavor and in style,” said Ms. Johnson, a veteran camper who is newly enamored of camp cafés au lait made with a battery-powered milk frother.

Instagram, Pinterest and the unexpected popularity of the van-life movement have raised expectations, so camp food has become better, she said. Gear is prettier, too. “All the different choices you can get now make cooking outdoors a lot easier as well as more beautiful,” she said.

Hyper-cold coolers that can cost more than $300 and are so efficient that river rafters can enjoy fresh chicken 10 days into a trip are hot sellers in the $19 billion outdoor and camping market, according to a study by the global information company NPD Group.

At REI, the Seattle-based outdoor-gear retailer, sales of cast-iron skillets are up 57 percent in the last year. Mini-skillets big enough to cook only one egg or a personal brownie are particularly popular, said Megan Behrbaum, a company spokeswoman.

The number of camp cooks is growing, too. A million more American households have headed into the woods every year since 2014, according to a survey by the research company Nielsen Scarborough, and an estimated 13 million plan to camp more often in 2017 than they did last year.

Many of them are sophisticated eaters looking to nail a great meal in a remote setting.

“People who are part of the foodie movement want to carry that onto the trail,” said Inga Aksamit, a distance backpacker who lives in Sonoma County, Calif., and wrote the new book “The Hungry Spork: A Long Distance Hiker’s Guide to Meal Planning.

She is one of more than 10 million Americans who backpack, many of them relying on spreadsheets, grids and calorie charts to plan a trip’s worth of meals light enough to carry on their backs but nutritionally dense enough to provide sufficient fuel to keep hiking.

The classic hard-core ultralight backpacker may chop off the handle of a spoon to save a few grams, or eat instant coffee instead of wasting time and fuel boiling water. But for others who carry supper on their backs, food quality outweighs ounce-counting.

“I see a lot of hikers who are very reluctant to give up good food as they go into the outdoors,” Ms. Aksamit said.

One of them is Leslie Peng, 35, who brings the same approach to her backpacking menu that she does to her job as the chef de cuisine at the Slanted Door in San Francisco. She and her husband, John Griffiths, 38, who is also a chef, both car-camp and backpack. The culinary approach to each is different.

During a recent overnight car trip to a campsite not far from Lake Tahoe, they brought a bottle of Bandol rosé, two flatiron steaks, some English peas, farro and maitake mushrooms. Just to keep warm, they tucked in a flask of plum brandy a friend’s uncle had made.

Their menu for backpacking trips, like the one they are about to take outside Nagano, Japan, is built on resealable silicone bags filled with dried food they will reconstitute with boiling water from a small, fuel-efficient stove.

The base of their one-bag supper might be rice noodles or broken jasmine rice seasoned with custom spice blends and maybe some Happy Chicken Chinese bouillon, whose taste reminds Ms. Peng of her childhood. They’ll add bits of salami or nori or some crunchy dried Japanese snacks, like the sweet, salty dried shrimp she has been partial to lately.

When it’s time to eat, they pour in the boiling water, seal the bag, then tuck it into a coat or a beanie to keep things hot.

“The key is to really break things up into the smallest pieces as you can,” she said. “You can’t hope to have perfect long noodles backpacking. The best you can hope for is a close approximation at the end.”