How one camping disaster taught me the value of simplifying.
—Illustration by Christina Ung
In my family, “love” is spelled “f-o-o-d”—at least that’s what my mother told me growing up. Now, I’ve embraced the mantra in my own home. The more complicated the process, the more I’m showing my affection; for me, an extensive recipe is a long love letter to my family and friends. As a result, I’ve become a notoriously overambitious home cook, making many of my silliest life decisions at the grocery store. To wit: I’ve been known to head to the supermarket to buy 30 ingredients for a made-from-scratch dish an hour before guests are set to arrive.
Overreaching at home is one thing; overextending your culinary abilities in the outdoors is quite another, a lesson I learned shortly after my husband, Chris, and I moved to Colorado from New York City. In preparation for our weekend camping trip near Silverton, I contemplated supper options at King Soopers. A smart outdoorswoman would have eyed the dried salamis; I was salivating over fat-marbled buffalo steak medallions.
It all made sense in my head. We’d pitch the tent as we had on dozens of trips before in the Dakotas (where we’d both grown up). I’d set up the chairs and mix rum and Cokes while Chris crumpled newspaper and built a perfect triangular form out of logs. We’d settle in for a game of pinochle while the fire built up enough intensity to sear our feast.
Several hours later, we were 10,500 feet above sea level somewhere in the San Juan Mountains, and we set the plan in motion. The tent was standing, the chairs were out, the steaks were marinating on the picnic table, and our cocktails were chilling in Solo cups. We just needed the main ingredient: fire. Technically, you can build a fire at elevation, but let me assure you: It’s damn hard. When we drove across the Continental Divide that day, the standard barometric pressure fell, so there were fewer oxygen molecules for us—and the fire—to breathe than in Denver. We lit match after match, but coaxing the crumpled up newspaper to ignite, let alone the logs, was futile. As I watched our medallions sponge up more marinade, my belly registered a complaint.
I’m not proud of what we did next. We unearthed an ancient bottle of lighter fluid from our camping supplies and dumped what was left of it on the fire pit. The flames leapt up and singed Chris’ jeans. The raging fire burned a hole in the oven mitt I was wearing. A nearby plastic plate melted immediately. We quickly adjusted the logs—and our dinner expectations. Instead of gourmet steak, we bit into dry granola bars. We chewed in disappointed silence for the duration of our meal (three whole minutes).
A mother duck broke the stillness. Lounging with Chris after our snack-size dinner, we laughed as she taught her little one to swim in a pond next to our campsite. We watched the sun set over a western ridge. We talked about life and the future in the way you only can with the person you love. This, I realized, is why we escape the city: for the bonding and conversations that happen in the quiet of the forest, where urban worries and stress don’t follow. Not for buffalo medallions.
And there in the fading embers of our ill-gotten inferno, I found my own kind of phoenix: These are the rare moments I miss out on when I’m preoccupied making complicated meals at the stove or campfire. My family doesn’t care if we’re eating boeuf bourguignon or build-your-own tacos. The point is spending time together.
I still spell “love” “f-o-o-d” sometimes, and I still make mistakes at the grocery store on occasion. But those buffalo steaks—and singed jeans—remind me that what goes into making a meal isn’t as important as sharing it. So when it comes to camping trips, I now direct my cart down the granola aisle.
5280.com Exclusive: Camping tips from senior editor Natasha Gardner.
Let’s get this out the way: I’m a car camper, so bringing along a cooler of food and finicky ingredients like fresh cilantro isn’t a problem when your campsite is only feet from the trunk. (Sorry, backpackers!)
So, here are a few failsafe approaches to cooking al fresco. Bonus: Check out my Pinterest board for camp-friendly recipes.
1. Be foiled: If you’ve got a fire, you don’t need pots and pans. Wrap your goodies—salmon with asparagus, carrots with butter, apples with cinnamon—in tinfoil and steam your dinner in a makeshift, one-pot meal.
2. Love leftovers: Going camping this weekend? Toss the leftovers from Thursday’s dinner in the cooler for a simple meal as you set up camp.
3. Go cold: You’re probably thinking about gazpacho now, but that seems a little complicated for a woods-y dinner setting. Instead, stop by the store on your way to the campsite and pick up cotija cheese, a still-warm rotisserie chicken, tortillas, salsa, and avocados. You can create a taco bar next to the campfire.
4. Think classical: I don’t think I’ve ever been camping without hotdogs and S’mores; both are mandatory. (Make sure to buy extra marshmallows, because running out of these sugary treats would just be sad.)
5. Freeze it: Your cooler has to work hard to keep your food cold. Give it a little help by stocking it with frozen soup or meals. The frigid items will help keep the rest of your food cool, and will be thawed in time for a meal on the second day.