No Grill, No Problem: Cooking Over a Camp Fire

I am at this very moment sitting on an airplane on my way to Oregon, where I plan to catch Pacific salmon until prescription strength 800-mg ibuprofen no longer masks the pain of hoisting silver after silver over the boat gunwales. Then, I plan to cook them on a black pot balanced over an open fire. I’m pretty sure that’s how Meriwether Lewis did it. I don't think he bought a pre-cut $8 cedar plank at Williams Sonoma.

I’m all for the current rage of haute outdoor cuisine. I’m as intrigued by home-cured duck prosciutto as the next guy. But I’m hoping we don’t lose our ability to cook a simple, decent off-the-grid meal in all the cooing over sporting charcuterie. Like searing meat in a black pot licked by flames that come from real wood.

It’s easy to build a simple cooking fire designed to hold a pot over the flames. Scrape out a firering and place a pair of 3- or 4-foot-long logs so they are parallel to any prevailing breeze. If there’s a downside to this cooking fire, it’s that the supporting logs are flat on the ground and can stymie the flow of fire-feeding oxygen. Build a fire on the downwind end of the logs and burn it down to coals. Now scrape most of the coals to the other end of the logs, which will serve as supports for a fry pan, Dutch oven, coffee pot or, if you’re a real throwback, a sharp stick threaded through meat. Any prevailing breeze will help fan the flames of the cooking fire, and you can build up a heat- and light-giving blaze on the coals of the first fire.

One of the most memorable outdoor meals I’ve ever had was a duck cooked on an open fire. No spices. No seasonings. And squat for sanitation. My Athabasca Chipewayn guide butterflied plucked ducks with a rusted Old Hickory knife, skewered each one one on a willow stick, and jammed the stick into a bank of coals built up inside a corrugated tin fire ring that also served as the camp trash-burning receptacle. The ducks basted amid simmering beer cans, cigarette packs, and a pair of worn out and half-burned blue jeans. Maybe I would have balked if there had been boxer shorts in the coals, but I didn’t, and those were some seriously good gnawings.

I’m sure I’m not the only one with a great way to cook fish and game over an open fire. Let’s hear it.