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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Listening to the lists

From the list to reality
A well-executed list will improve just about any experience, your next summer camping trip in particular.

By Professor Wes Eaton

I often assemble both mental and written lists as a way to order and prioritize my experience. Some of my favorite lists this time of year include what I want to buy at the farm market (blueberries and strawberries are high here right now). My annual list for maple syruping is fairly well established; despite this I write it down and check things off as we pack the car. I list the songs I want the band to play at the next show. I write down all the things I want to read each week, and what to plant in my small garden. I’ve written down all the different beers I’ve tried—and the beers I’ve brewed—although these prattling lists have become less important with time. Right now I’m assembling another one of my favorite lists: what to pack for camping.

Lists are funny creatures. They seem to take on an identity of their own. They perform a task which in turn leaves the mind at ease, opening a space for thinking about other more specific things. At times lists become indelible. In other words, without our lists, we can break down, fret, and, ultimately, forget. But lists play other roles also. I find inspiration in my lists. What I see is more of an assemblage of potential possibilities than precise demands. Take, for example, these important camping list items: dinner, breakfast, and drinks. Under these headings are endless possibilities. What I’d like to do here then is share some of my list-building experiences by taking the case of camping along the Great Lakes on the shores of Michigan.

Let’s start with dinner. Camping does not mean that you have to eat thirty dollars worth of rehydrated meals, ramen noodles, soup from the can, or Smores. Instead, cooking outside can be both freeing and delicious. My list includes both gear and food items to make this happen. Essential here is tin foil and the cast iron Dutch oven, and the two meals I want to share are the foil dinner and the pulled pork, both starting with coals from a hot fire.

The foil dinner is a long tradition in some circles and the essential idea is to bury your dinner, wrapped in foil, deep in the smolders, and to then be patient. The list of ingredients includes ground game meat (or Buffalo if game is not handy), sliced potatoes, onions, carrots, and steak sauce. This, of course, is just inspiration. While there is no hard and fast ideal foil-dinner list of ingredients, I highly recommend the game meat. Vegetarians, however, will have to leave this out, possibly substituting yams (keep the steak sauce). Form the meat into a patty, about a half pound per dinner, surround with veggies, season, wrap, and nestle alongside the others deep under the coals. Cooking time, even in impossibly hot fires, is at least half an hour, despite the itchy feeling you’ll get in your shovel hand.

The Dutch oven too will go directly in the fire, or close by. First, however, devise your list. My list is supported by memories of reheating pulled pork sandwiches along Superior’s Great Sand Bay, pulled off along Sand Dune Drive, taking in a swim and some lunch on the way back south from Fort Wilkins State Park. Start with onions, sliced thick, stacked along the bottom. Add one 3-4 pound boneless pork loin, cloves of garlic, peeled, thin sliced carrots, powdered mustard, brown sugar, paprika, cayenne. Now, open your cooler and add your favorite beer -- and do this often! While the lid of the oven acts much like a slow cooker, retaining and pooling the juices, the beer will both evaporate and be absorbed. Best to keep someone at the fire that day, for both stoking and basting purposes.

Both of these meals get you away from conventional camp cooking (the ubiquitous dual stove) and bring your food, heat source, and physical and mental presence tightly back together. Both also take time. They become the thing you are doing. You are no longer cooking a meal so you can simply eat it. Rather, you are cooking food because that is what it is you are doing. These are forgiving practices. Despite what your list might say, remember, your list is a starting place. You may add Jalapenos mentally, and then physically, for instance, decide against it. These dinners also solve another item on your list, lunch. There’s just no way you can eat that much in one sitting. Wrap and place on ice and put back in the Dutch oven tomorrow, sometime soon after breakfast.

Essential for breakfast lists are both the cast iron skillets and eggs. On your way north, when looking for firewood, keep an eye out for local eggs. Likely their yolk will congeal better in your pan—that and the chickens are happier. Now I do move to the dual stove, the third item on my general list, in fact. I choose liquid gas for a more consistent heat source. But why the fixation on cast iron? While claims here are varied, cast iron essentially offers a sensitivity more sophisticated technologies cannot afford. Watch the flame you put against your pan. Notice the time it takes to heat, as well as cool down. Hold your hand over the pan and take note of the steadily rising radiation. Remember what this feels like and keep note. When cooking eggs, I often heat the skillet briskly, then back things off, using the cooking oil, butter, or bacon fat as an indicator of the temperature range. Lift the pan with a heavy leather glove and watch the way the oils move across the surface. I am no master—as often as not my pan is too hot, and my eggs take notice. I personally crack two brown jumbos from Rakowski’s into brushed-on olive oil over a medium flame, immediately break the yolks, crack on some pepper, sprinkle on both salt and paprika, and cover with another cast iron skillet until the whites ripple gently like flags. I then turn the eggs, remove from heat and replace the skillet with a plate for warming. Stoke the coals for dinner if there’s extra time between.

To drink? My list here is broad, so I’d like to share some specific lessons. First, most all people like to try new things, especially out of doors. Bring something you want to share, and maybe something you yourself made. Another thing on my beverage list is to buy my drinks near to the places I like to visit. Instead of stocking up in town, patronize the shops along the non-beaten paths you choose to explore this summer. Tell them what it is they are missing if that indeed is the case.

To close, I’d like to suggest a practice: keep all your lists together, bound under the same cover. Plan and survey them to prepare, their primary use of course, but then look back and add in the things you encountered and engaged with organically. Look across activities and try to capture themes. Listen to your lists. Why is it your top items are your top items? What is it you always leave behind? What do you always bring, but never set down in your list?

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