RALEIGH, North Carolina ― Grown-ups and kids, all clad in swimsuits, all holding paper plates, queue up before the dinner buffet: beef brisket, pork ribs, pasta salad, hash brown casserole, tossed salad, rolls, vegetables and dip, pita chips and dip, watermelon and lemon bars.
The spread is even more impressive given the location: a campsite at Falls Lake State Recreation Area north of Raleigh. These four families, like thousands of others in campgrounds across the state, are enjoying the summer ritual of campfires and cooking.
Nora McNabb, 8, left, and Rachel Laskowski, 9, eat dinner near the campfire during an annual multiple family camping trip at Falls Lake Shinleaf Campground, June 10, in Raleigh, NorthCarolina. (Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)
Fans of the great outdoors, like Brooks Shepherd Jr. of Charlotte, understand why these campers focus so much energy on what’s for dinner.
“To me, there are two reasons you go out in the outdoors: one is to appreciate nature and the other is to eat. Food just naturally tastes better in the outdoors,” says Shepherd, a longtime camper and former Boy Scout leader. He has written three cookbooks, available at culinarycuisines.com, for car campers, those who use Dutch ovens and backpackers.
For campers, food becomes the reward after a long day of boating, hiking or swimming. Cooking can provide entertainment in what’s usually an unplugged setting. And Shepherd is right: Camping often produces the best grilled steak, the best baked potato plucked from the fire’s coals and the best flame-licked batch of s’mores ever eaten.
Campers and their cooking methods can be as varied as styles of tents.
The Izzo, Laskowski, McNabb and Cronin families load up trucks and minivans for their annual four-day Falls Lake camping trip. They even take a generator, which powers the electric knife to carve the brisket and blenders to churn out smoothies at the beachside tiki bar.
The fathers, who sleep in tents at the campsite each night with their sons, plan the main courses, from brisket to ribeye. The mothers, who spend the nights at their North Raleigh homes with their daughters, plan side dishes and desserts.
The annual excursion gives Mike Cronin an excuse to tackle his “never-ending quest to cook the perfect brisket.”
And for the dads, all the work, from planning to hauling, setting up to cooking, is worth it for their children. “They talk about it for months beforehand,” John Izzo says.
The Clinton family of Greenville, S.C., who took their RV to McDowell Nature Preserve, 30 minutes from downtown Charlotte, eat much the way they do at home: steaks on the grill, hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. But, Gary Clinton notes, they opt for freeze-dried meals when they go backpacking in the spring and fall. “I’ve been doing it since I was a kid,” he says. “I learned to cook in the Boy Scouts.”
On the easier end of the camping-food spectrum is the Bross family of North Raleigh. “We really got it down to a minimalist attitude when it comes to camping,” Guy Bross says. “It’s more fun and less hassle.”
Each family member has a spork, a pocket knife and a ceramic mug and uses a Frisbee lined with foil as a plate or bowl. (One of the family’s favorite pastimes is Frisbee.) Bross’ cooking equipment is limited to a Coleman one-burner stove, a French press coffee pot, a 2-quart pot and aluminum foil.
In trying to re-create dishes from home, campers will get ingenious. Jimmy Beck once rigged up a foil-lined, metal-framed box fueled by charcoal to roast a whole turkey. Missy Mangum plans to teach a Girl Scout troop how to cook a chicken in a coffee can. And Karl Moss wrapped a paper box with foil to create an oven to bake breads and pizzas for a Boy Scout troop trip to Pilot Mountain.
● Easy camping recipes
Breakfast scramble: Crack two eggs into a resealable plastic bag, then close bag and mash up eggs to mix. Add cooked sausage, bacon, ham, shredded cheese, mushrooms or other diced vegetables. Close bag and mash again to blend. Add closed plastic bags to boiling water and cook a few minutes. Do not overcrowd the pan with bags. When done, serve on plates. Use hot water to clean dishes.
Bacon-onion cheeseburgers: Fry half a pound of bacon until crisp. Drain and crumble. Place in bowl. Saute one large yellow onion, diced, in the bacon fat. Add the onion and 2 pounds ground beef to the bowl. Mix together by hand. Add shredded cheese to taste. Mix together again. Form into patties. Wrap in parchment paper and freeze. Note: Some campfire cooks add fajita seasoning and green peppers for a Mexican flair.
Banana splits: Tear back one strip of the banana peel but do not remove. Scoop out a little bit of banana. Place chocolate chips and mini marshmallows inside, then cover with peel. Wrap banana in foil and place atop smoldering coals. When heated through, remove from fire, open foil packets, remove strip of peel and top with a little whipped cream. Enjoy immediately.
By Andrea Weigl, McClatchy Newspapers
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)