Camp Cookery—How It Is Usually Done, With A Few Simple Hints On Plain Cooking—Cooking Fire And Outdoor Range

THE way in which an average party of summer outers will contrive to manage—or mismanage—the camp and campfire so as to get the greatest amount of smoke and discontent at the least outlay of time and force, is something past all understanding and somewhat aggravating to an old woodsman who knows some better. But it is just as good fun as the cynical O.W. Old Woodsman. can ask, to see a party of three or four enthusiastic youngsters organize the camp on the first day in, and proceed to cook the first meal. Of course, every man is boss, and every one is bound to build the fire, which every one proceeds to do. There are no back logs, no fore sticks, and no arrangement for level solid bases on which to place frying pans, coffee pots, etc. But, there is a sufficiency of knots, dry sticks, bark and chunks, with some kindling at the bottom, and a heavy volume of smoke working its way through the awkward-looking pile. Presently thin tongues of blue flame begin to shoot up through the interstices, and four brand new coffee pots are wriggled into level positions at as many different points on the bonfire. Four hungry youngsters commence slicing ham and pork, four frying pans are brought out from as many hinged and lidded soap boxes—when one man yells out hurriedly, "Look out, Joe, there's your coffee pot handle coming off." And he drops his frying pan to save his coffee pot, which he does, minus the spout and handle. Then it is seen that the flames have increased rapidly, and all the pots are in danger. A short, sharp skirmish rescues them, at the expense of some burned fingers, and culinary operations are the order of the hour.

Coffee and tea are brewed with the loss of a handle or two, and the frying pans succeed in scorching the pork and ham to an unwholesome black mess. The potato kettle does better. It is not easy to spoil potatoes by cooking them in plenty of boiling water; and, as there is plenty of bread with fresh butter, not to mention canned goods, the hungry party feed sufficiently, but not satisfactorily. Everything seems pervaded with smoke. The meat is scorched bitter, and the tea is of the sort described by Charles Dudley Warner, in his humorous description of "camping out": "The sort of tea that takes hold, lifts the hair, and disposes the drinker to hilariousness. There is no deception about it, it tastes of tannin, and spruce, and creosote." Of the cooking he says: "Everything has been cooked in a tin pail and a skillet—potatoes, tea, pork, mutton, slapjacks. You wonder how everything would have been prepared in so few utensils. When you eat, the wonder ceases, everything might have been cooked in one pail. It is a noble meal…The slapjacks are a solid job of work, made to last, and not go to pieces in a person's stomach like a trivial bun."

I have before me a copy of Forest and Stream, in which the canoe editor, under the heading of "The Galley Fire," has some remarks well worth quoting. He says: "The question of camp cookery is one of the greatest importance to all readers of Forest and Stream, but most of all to the canoeists. From ignorance of what to carry the canoeist falls back on canned goods, never healthy as a steady diet, Brunswick soup and eggs…The misery of that first campfire, who has forgotten it? Tired, hungry, perhaps cold and wet, the smoke everywhere, the coffee pot melted down, the can of soup upset in the fire, the fiendish conduct of frying pan and kettle, the final surrender of the exhausted victim, sliding off to sleep with a piece of hardtack in one hand and a slice of canned beef in the other, only to dream of mother's hot biscuits, juicy steaks, etc., etc." It is very well put, and so true to the life. And again: "Frying, baking, making coffee, stews, plain biscuits, the neat and speedy preparation of a healthy 'square meal' can be easily learned." Aye, and should be learned by every man who goes to the woods with or without a canoe.

But I was describing a first day's camping out, the party being four young men and one old woodsman, the latter going along in a double character of invited guest and amateur guide. When the boys are through with their late dinner, they hustle the greasy frying pans and demoralized tinware into a corner of the shanty, and get out their rods for an evening's fishing. They do it hurriedly, almost feverishly, as youngsters are apt to do at the start. The O.W. has taken no part in the dinner, and has said nothing save in response to direct questions, nor has he done anything to keep up his reputation as a woodsman, except to see that the shelter roof is properly put up and fastened. Having seen to this, he reverts to his favorite pastime, sitting on a log and smoking navy plug. Long experience has taught him that it is best to let the boys effervesce a little. They will slop over a trifle at first, but twenty-four hours will settle them. When they are fairly out of hearing, he takes the old knapsack from the clipped limb where it has been hung, cuts a slice of ham, butters a slice of bread, spreads the live coals and embers, makes a pot of strong green tea, broils the ham on a three-pronged birch fork, and has a clean, well cooked plain dinner. Then he takes the sharp three-pound camp axe, and fells a dozen small birch and ash trees, cutting them into proper lengths and leaving them for the boys to tote into camp. Next, a bushy, heavy-topped hemlock is felled, and the O.W. proceeds leisurely to pick a heap of fine hemlock browse. A few handfuls suffice to stuff the muslin pillow bag, and the rest is carefully spread on the port side of the shanty for a bed. The pillow is placed at the head, and the old Mackinac blanket-bag is spread neatly over all, as a token of ownership and possession. If the youngsters want beds of fine, elastic browse, let 'em make their own beds.

No campfire should be without poker and tongs. The poker is a beech stick four feet long by two inches thick, flattened at one end, with a notch cut in it for lifting kettles, etc. To make the tongs, take a tough beech or hickory stick, one inch thick by two feet in length, shave it down nearly one-half for a foot in the center, thrust this part into hot embers until it bends freely, bring the ends together and whittle them smoothly to a fit on the inside, cross checking them also to give them a grip; finish off by chamfering the ends neatly from the outside. They will be found exceedingly handy in rescuing a bit of tinware, a slice of steak or ham, or any small article that happens to get dropped in a hot fire.

And don't neglect the camp broom. It is made by laying bushy hemlock twigs around a light handle, winding them firmly with strong twine or moose wood bark, and chopping off the ends of the twigs evenly. It can be made in ten minutes. Use it to brush any leaves, sticks, and any litter from about the camp or fire. Neatness is quite as pleasant and wholesome around the forest camp as in the home kitchen. These little details may seem trivial to the reader. But remember, if there is a spot on earth where trifles make up the sum of human enjoyment, it is to be found in a woodland camp. All of which the O.W. fully appreciates, as he finishes the above little jobs; after which he proceeds to spread the fire to a broad level bed of glowing embers, nearly covering the same with small pieces of hemlock bark, that the boys may have a decent cooking fire on their return.

About sundown they come straggling in, not jubilant and hilarious, footsore rather and a little cross. The effervescence is subsiding, and the noise is pretty well knocked out of them. They have caught and dressed some three score of small brook trout, which they deposit beside the shanty, and proceed at once to move on the fire, with evident intent of raising a conflagration, but are checked by the O.W., who calls their attention to the fact that for all culinary purposes, the fire is about as near the right thing as they are likely to get it. Better defer the bonfire until after supper. Listening to the voice of enlightened woodcraft, they manage to fry trout and make tea without scorch or creosote, and the supper is a decided improvement on the dinner. But the dishes are piled away as before, without washing.

Then follows an hour of busy work, bringing wood to camp and packing browse. The wood is sufficient; but the browse is picked, or cut, all too coarse, and there is only enough of it to make the camp look green and pleasant—not enough to rest weary shoulders and backs. But, they are sound on the bonfire. They pile on the wood in the usual way, criss-cross and haphazard. It makes a grand fire, and lights up the forest for fifty yards around, and the tired youngsters turn in. Having the advantage of driving a team to the camping ground, they are well supplied with blankets and robes. They ought to sleep soundly, but they don't. The usual drawbacks of a first night in camp are soon manifested in uneasy twistings and turnings, grumbling at stubs, nots, and sticks, that utterly ignore conformity with the angles of the human frame. But at last, tired nature asserts her supremcy, and they sleep. Sleep soundly, for a couple of hours; when the bonfire, having reached the point of disintegration, suddenly collapses with a sputtering and crackling that brings them to their head's antipodes, and four dazed, sleepy faces look out with a bewildered air, to see what has caused the rumpus. All take a hand in putting the brands together and rearranging the fire, which burns better than at first; some sleepy talk, one or two feeble attempts at a smoke, and they turn in again. But, there is not an hour during the remainder of the night in which some one is not pottering about the fire.

The O.W., who has abided by his blanket-bag all night quietly taking in the fun—rouses out the party at 4 A.M. For two of them are to fish Asaph Run with bait, and the other two are to try the riffles of Marsh Creek with the fly. As the wood is all burned to cinders and glowing coals, there is no chance for a smoky fire; and, substituting coffee for tea, the breakfast is a repetition of the supper.

By sunrise the boys are off, and the O.W. has the camp to himself. He takes it leisurely, gets up a neat breakfast of trout, bread, butter, and coffee, cleans and puts away his dishes, has a smoke, and picks up the camp axe. Selecting a bushy hemlock fifteen inches across, he lets it down in as many minutes, trims it to the very tip, piles the limbs in a heap, and cuts three lengths of six feet each from the butt. This insures browse and back logs for some time ahead. Two strong stakes are cut and sharpened.

Four small logs, two of eight and two of nine feet in length, are prepared, plenty of night wood is made ready, a supply of bright, dry hemlock bark is carried to camp, and the O.W. rests from his labors, resuming his favorite pastime of sitting on a log and smoking navy plug.

Finally it occurs to him that he is there partly as guide and mentor to the younger men, and that they need a lesson on cleanliness. He brings out the frying pans and finds a filthy looking mess of grease in each one, wherein ants, flies, and other insects have contrived to get mixed. Does he heat some water, and clean and scour the pans? Not if he knows himself. If he did it once he might keep on doing it. He is cautious about establishing precedents, and he has a taste for entomology. He places the pans in the sun where the grease will soften and goes skirmishing for ants and doodle bugs. They are not far to seek, and he soon has a score of large black ants, with a few bugs and spiders, pretty equally distributed among the frying pans. To give the thing a plausible look a few flies are added, and the two largest pans are finished off, one with a large earwig, the other with a thousand-legged worm. The pans are replaced in the shanty, the embers are leveled and nearly covered with bits of dry hemlock bark, and the O.W. resumes his pipe and log

With such a face of Christian satisfaction, as good men wear, who have done a virtuous action.

Before noon the boys are all in, and as the catch is twice as numerous and twice as large as on the previous evening, and as the weather is all that could be asked of the longest days in June, they are in excellent spirits. The boxes are brought out, pork is sliced, a can of Indian meal comes to the front, and they go for the frying pans.

"Holy Moses! Look here. Just see the ants and bugs."

Second Man.—"Well, I should say! I can see your ants and bugs, and go you an earwig better."

Third Man (inverting his pan spitefully over the fire).—"Damn 'em. I'll roast the beggars."

Bush D. (who is something of a cook and woodsman) "Boys, I'll take the pot. I've got a thousand-legged worm at the head of a pismire flush, and it serves us right, for a lot of slovens. Dishes should be cleaned as often as they are used. Now let's scour our pans and commence right."

Hot water, ashes, and soap soon restore the pans to pristine brightness; three frying pans are filled with trout well rolled in meal; a fourth is used for cooking a can of tomatoes; the coffee is strong, and everything comes out without being smoked or scorched. The trout are browned to a turn, and even the O.W. admits that the dinner is a success. When it is over and the dishes are cleaned and put away, and the camp slicked up, there comes the usual two hours of lounging, smoking, and story telling, so dear to the hearts of those who love to go a-fishing and camping. At length there is a lull in the conversation, and Bush D. turns to the old woodsman with, "I thought, Uncle Mart, you were going to show us fellows such a lot of kinks about camping out, campfires, cooking, and all that sort of thing, isn't it about time to begin? Strikes me you have spent most of the last twenty-four hours holding down that log." "Except cutting some night wood and tending the fire," adds number two.

The old woodsman, who has been rather silent up to this time, knocks the ashes leisurely from his pipe, and gets on his feet for a few remarks. He says, "Boys, a bumblebee is biggest when it's first born. You've learned more than you think in the last twenty-four hours."

"Well, as how? Explain yourself," says Bush D.

O.W.—"In the first place, you have learned better than to stick your cooking-kit into a tumbled down heap of knots, mulch and wet bark, only to upset and melt down the pots, and scorch or smoke everything in the pans, until a starving hound wouldn't eat the mess. And you have found that it doesn't take a log heap to boil a pot of coffee or fry a pan of trout. Also, that a level bed of live coals makes an excellent cooking fire, though I will show you a better. Yesterday you cooked the worst meal I ever saw in the woods. Today you get up a really good, plain dinner; you have learned that much in one day. Oh, you improve some. And I think you have taken a lesson in cleanliness today."

"Yes; but we learned that of the ant—and bug," says number two.

O.W.—"Just so. And did you think all the ants and doodle-bugs blundered into that grease in one morning? I put 'em in myself—to give you a 'kink.'"

Bush D. (disgusted).—"You blasted, dirty old sinner."

Second Man.—"Oh, you miserable old swamp savage; I shan't get over that earwig in a month."

Third Man (plaintively).—"This life in the woods isn't what it's cracked up to be; I don't relish bugs and spiders. I wish I were home. I'm all bitten up with punkies, and—"

Fourth Man (savagely).—"Dashed old woods-loafer; let's tie his hands and fire him in the creek."

O.W. (placidly).—"Exactly, boys. Your remarks are terse, and to the point. Only, as I am going to show you a trick or two on woodcraft this afternoon, you can afford to wait a little. Now, quit smoking, and get out your hatchets; we'll go to work."

Three hatchets are brought to light; one of them a two-pound clumsy hand-axe, the others of an old time, Mt. Vernon, G.W. pattern. "And now," says good-natured Bush, "you give directions and we'll do the work."

G.W. Hatchet

Under directions, the coarse browse of the previous night is placed outside the shanty; three active youngsters, on hands and knees, feel out and cut off every offending stub and root inside the shanty, until it is smooth as a floor. The four small logs are brought to camp; the two longest are laid at the sides and staked in place; the others are placed, one at the head, the other at the foot, also staked; and the camp has acquired definite outlines, and a measurable size of eight by nine feet. Three hemlock logs and two sharpened stakes are toted to camp; the stakes driven firmly, and the logs laid against them, one above the other. Fire-dogs, forestick, etc., complete the arrangement, and the campfire is in shape for the coming night, precisely as shown in the engraving.

"And now," says the O.W., "if three of you will go down to the flat and pick the browse clean from the two hemlock tops, Bush and I will fix a cooking-range."

"A—what?" asks one.

"Going to start a boarding-house?" says another.

"Notion of going into the hardware business?" suggests a third.

"Never mind, sonny; just 'tend to that browse, and when you see a smoke raising on the flat by the spring, come over and see the range." And the boys, taking a couple of blankets in which to carry the browse, saunter away to the flat below.

A very leisurely aesthetic, fragrant occupation is this picking browse. It should never be cut, but pulled, stripped or broken. I have seen a Senator, ex-Governor, and a wealthy banker enjoying themselves hugely at it, varying the occupation by hacking small timber with their G.W. hatchets, like so many boys let loose from school. It may have looked a trifle undignified, but I dare say they found their account in it. Newport or Long Branch would have been more expensive, and much less healthful.

For an hour and a half tongues and fingers are busy around the hemlock tops; then a thin, long volume of blue smoke rises near the spring, and the boys walk over to inspect the range. They find it made as follows: Two logs six feet long and eight inches thick are laid parallel, but seven inches apart at one end and only four at the other. They are bedded firmly and flattened a little on the inside. On the upper sides the logs are carefully hewed and leveled until pots, pans and kettles will sit firmly and evenly on them. A strong forked stake is driven at each end of the space, and a cross-pole, two or three inches thick, laid on, for hanging kettles. This completes the range; simple, but effective. (See illustration.) The broad end of the space is for frying pans, and the potato kettle. The narrow end, for coffee pots and utensils of lesser diameter. From six to eight dishes can be cooked at the same time. Soups, stews, and beans are to be cooked in closely covered kettles hung from the cross-pole, the bottoms of the kettles reaching within some two inches of the logs. With a moderate fire they may be left to simmer for hours without care or attention.

cooking range

The fire is of the first importance. Start it with fine kindling and clean, dry, hemlock bark. When you have a bright, even fire from end to end of the space, keep it up with small fagots of the sweetest and most wholesome woods in the forest. These are, in the order named, black birch, hickory, sugar maple, yellow birch, and red beech. The sticks should be short, and not over two inches across. Split wood is better than round. The outdoor range can be made by one man in little more than an hour, and the camper-out, who once tries it, will never wish to see a "portable camp-stove" again.

When the sun leaves the valley in the shade of Asaph Mountain, the boys have a fragrant bed of elastic browse a foot deep in the shanty, with pillows improvised from stuffed boot legs, cotton handkerchiefs, etc. They cook their suppers on the range, and vote it perfect, no melting or heating handles too hot for use, and no smoking of dishes, or faces.

Just at dark—which means 9 P.M. in the last week of June—the fire is carefully made and chinked. An hour later it is throwing its grateful warmth and light directly into camp, and nowhere else. The camp turns in. Not to wriggle and quarrel with obdurate stubs, but to sleep. And sleep they do. The sound, deep, restful sleep of healthy young manhood, inhaling pure mountain air on the healthiest bed yet known to man.

When it is past midnight, and the fire burns low, and the chill night breeze drifts into camp, they still do not rouse up, but only spoon closer, and sleep right on. Only the O.W. turns out sleepily, at two bells in the middle watch, after the manner of hunters, trappers, and sailors, the world over. He quietly rebuilds the fire, reduces a bit of navy plug to its lowest denomination, and takes a solitary smoke—still holding down his favorite log. Quizzically and quietly he regards the sleeping youngsters, and wonders if among them all there is one who will do as he has done, i.e., relinquish all of what the world reckons as success, for the love of nature and a free forest life. He hopes not. And yet, as he glances at the calm yellow moon overhead, and listens to the low murmur of the little waterfall below the spring, he has a faint notion that it is not all loss and dross.

Knocking the ashes from his pipe he prepares to turn in, murmuring to himself, half sadly, half humorously, "I have been young, and now I am old; yet have I never seen the true woodsman forsaken, or his seed begging bread—or anything else, so to speak—unless it might be a little tobacco or a nip of whisky." And he creeps into his blanket-bag, backs softly out to the outside man, and joins the snorers.

It is broad daylight when he again turns out, leaving the rest still sleeping soundly. He starts a lively fire in the range, treats two coffee pots to a double handful of coffee and three pints of water each, sets on the potato kettle, washes the potatoes, then sticks his head into the camp, and rouses the party with a regular second mate's hail. "Star-a-ar-bo'lin's aho-o-o-y. Turn out, you beggars. Come on deck and see it rain." And the boys do turn out. Not with wakeful alacrity, but in a dazed, dreamy, sleepy way. They open wide eyes, when they see that the sun is turning the sombre tops of pines and hemlocks to a soft orange yellow.

"I'd have sworn," says one, "that I hadn't slept over fifteen minutes by the watch."

"And I," says another, "was just watching the fire, when I dropped off in a doze. In about five minutes I opened my eyes, and I'll be shot if it wasn't sunrise."

"As for me," says a third, "I don't know as I've slept at all. I remember seeing somebody poking the fire last night. Next thing I knew, some lunatic was yelling around camp about 'starbolin's,' and 'turning out.' Guess I'll lay down and have my nap out."

"Yes," says the O.W., "I would. If I was a healthy youngster, and couldn't get along with seven hours and a half of solid sleep, I'd take the next forenoon for it. Just at present, I want to remark that I've got the coffee and potato business underway, and I'll attend to them. If you want anything else for breakfast, you'll have to cook it."

And the boys, rising to the occasion, go about the breakfast with willing hands. It is noticeable, however, that only one pan of trout is cooked, two of the youngsters preferring to fall back on broiled ham, remarking that brook trout is too rich and cloying for a steady diet. Which is true. The appetite for trout has very sensibly subsided, and the boyish eagerness for trout fishing has fallen off immensely. Only two of the party show any interest in the riffles. They stroll down stream leisurely, to try their flies for an hour or two. The others elect to amuse themselves about the camp, cutting small timber with their little hatchets, picking fresh browse, or skirmishing the mountain side for wintergreen berries and sassafras. The fishermen return in a couple of hours, with a score of fair-sized trout. They remark apologetically that it is blazing hot—and there are plenty of trout ahead. Then they lean their rods against the shanty, and lounge on the blankets, and smoke and doze.

It is less than forty-eight hours since the cross-pole was laid; and, using a little common sense woodcraft, the camp has already attained to a systematic no-system of rest, freedom and idleness. Every man is free to "loaf, and invite his soul." There is good trouting within an hour's walk for those who choose, and there is some interest, with a little exercise, in cooking and cutting night wood, slicking up, etc. But the whole party is stricken with "camp-fever," "Indian laziness," the dolce far niente Italian: "It's sweet doing nothing.". It is over and around every man, enveloping him as with a roseate blanket from the Castle of Indolence. It is the perfect summer camp.

And it is no myth; but a literal resumé of a five days' outing at Poplar Spring, on Marsh Creek, in Pennsylvania. Alas, for the beautiful valley, that once afforded the finest camping grounds I have ever known.

Never any more
    Can it be
    Unto me (or anybody else)
As before.

A huge tannery, six miles above Poplar Spring, poisons and blackens the stream with chemicals, bark and ooze. The land has been brought into market, and every acre eagerly bought up by actual settlers. The once fine covers and thickets are converted into fields thickly dotted with blackened stumps. And, to crown the desolation, heavy laden trains of "The Pine Creek and Jersey Shore R.R." go thundering almost hourly over the very spot where stood our camp by Poplar Spring.

Of course, this is progress; but, whether backward or forward, had better be decided sixty years hence. And, just what has happened to the obscure valley of Marsh Creek, is happening today, on a larger scale, all over the land. It is the same old story of grab and greed. Let us go on the "make" today, and "whack up" tomorrow; cheating each other as villainously as we may, and posterity be damned. "What's all the w-u-u-rld to a man when his wife is a widdy?"

This is the moral: From Maine to Montana; from the Adirondacks to Alaska; from the Yosemite to the Yellowstone, the trout-hog, the deer-wolf, the netter, the skin-hunter, each and all have it their own way; and the law is a farce—only to be enforced where the game has vanished forever. Perhaps the man-child is born who will live to write the moral of all this—when it is too late.