Hot Off the Griddle

Let’s see if I can reconstruct the fantasy I was operating under. It starts with a friend of mine, Philip Burns (landscape architect, retired Cal professor, Harvard Ph.D.), and a book he praised, Up and Down California in 1860–1864; The Journal of William H. Brewer, originally published in 1930.

Granted, not a grabber of a title. Brewer was teaching chemistry at a Pennsylvania college when he took a job working for Josiah Whitney, California’s first state geologist. The California legislature had authorized Whitney “…to make an accurate and complete Geological Survey of the State, and to furnish maps and diagrams thereof, with a full and scientific description of the rocks, fossils, soils, and minerals, and of its botanical and zoological productions, together with specimens of the same.”

The journal opens in New York City as Brewer prepares to board the North Star. It’s October 21, 1860, James Buchanan is president, the Union is whole.

Brewer spent the following four years walking up and down California, a 14,000-mile outing. Since he stayed with families or camped out almost every day while on the trail, readers enjoy an unfiltered look at the people and the land as they were 150 years ago.

For Philip, the journal was an inspiration. He and a friend hiked the High Sierra, retracing Brewer’s route and camping at his campsites. Philip has been hiking in the woods for decades. Over time, his hikes got longer and more companions joined in. Lately, its pack mules, riding six days in from a trailhead, or climbing to 12,000 feet, frolicking with blizzards, altitude sickness, the whole deal. He usually goes for two weeks in the fall and two weeks in the spring. “I have to have this.”

Philip is camp cook when he’s hiking with cohorts. He says he cooks in self-defense because he’s unable to abide his friends’ gruel. Since I have lunch at Philip’s house most Thursdays, I can testify that he has a genius for making uncomplicated meals that taste impossibly delicious.

So, back to the fantasy I was operating under. We have inspirational Brewer journal, a serious wilderness hiker/camp cook, and your servant who’s been eating Philip lunches for years. What could be more logical, then, for me to take a backcountry cooking class from REI? Nothing, that’s what.

“In this hands-on field course, REI Outdoor School instructors will teach you how to build a camp kitchen, design a menu, and prepare tasty, nutritious meals. All stoves, kitchen materials, and food ingredients are provided (with options for both vegetarians and meat eaters).”

It’s $40 for members, $60 for the multitude. I’m an REI member. I register. Now, the thing about fantasy is that when it’s working on you, you’re not fully aware of it; it’s just a soft buzz around your ears. You experience an urge to do something. You don’t ask why. I go into class with camp cooking skills of peanut butter sandwich, cheese sandwich, and peanut butter and cheese sandwich. I expect to leave as a high-strung, gourmet campfire cook, prepared to shock and awe Philip at our next lunch.

There are only three people in class today. I shake hands with an REI employee I’ll call Jim. He’s tall, slender, mid-30s, wiry athletic build, and brown hair. We four head toward a stout wooden picnic table loaded with cooking gear and bags of food. The class runs four hours. This is what I learned:

I learned that food that would ordinarily be left out on the curb for homeless people probably tastes great in camp. It’s buy a bag of dehydrated or freeze-dried sludge at Albertsons, boil water, pour boiling water into plastic pouch of sludge, wait a few minutes and…bon appetit! Most of the dehydrated/freeze-dried food on our picnic table was not made for backpacking but for mom and the family at home, which is disturbing, learning that people are eating this and going to work the next day.

I learn there are three different kinds of tiny stoves. The tiny canister stove, the tiny liquid-fuel stove, and I forget what the third tiny stove was.

We three students prepare a meal using the three different types of tiny stoves. I select the Pesto Salmon Pasta with the tiny canister stove. I successfully boil water, pour it into the Pesto Salmon Pasta plastic pouch, and seal. Jim goes with the Betty Crocker Blueberry Muffin Mix/Simply Add Water.

Everything tasted goopy and sugary, but it was warm. I should say, the hands-down favorite of the afternoon was the always reliable stick of salami and hard cheese. That was gobbled down in a flash.

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How fun is that, to have a standing Thursday lunch date with an old friend? It sounds muy simpatico. Eating reconstituted freeze-dried mush heated on a tiny stove sounds much less lovely, however, but one could opt for instant oatmeal with brown sugar, raisins and almonds -- a common practice of every Catholic child confronted with fish for Friday dinner at the family table.

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