FS Classics: Advice to Cooks
Our legendary field editor serves up his experiences as a camp chef
To celebrate the 125th anniversary of Field & Stream, we’re going to share some of our favorite stories from the history of the magazine. Every day for the rest of the year, we’ll republish a new F&S Classic on the website. Today’s entry, “Advice for Cooks” by Ted Trueblood, was published in November 1963. You can find the complete F&S Classics series here.
Pity the poor cook. Always the first man up, usually the last to bed, busiest during the hour before dinner while the other hunters loll around and lie and exert themselves only to reach for the Old Stump Blower, the cook’s lot is indeed a hard one.
I’m not concerned here with professional cooks, or with bottle washers who pretend to be cooks, or with any other paid help who may be present in the hunting camp for the specific purpose of cooking, washing dishes, and doing other chores, and who don’t expect to hunt. But my heart bleeds for poor old Joe, one of the regular gang, who volunteers to do the cooking on the annual deer hunt.
Of course, the word volunteer must not be construed too literally. Sometimes Joe just sort of gets to be cook, and nobody, least of all Joe, can explain exactly how. This has happened to me. I was once a guest of Leon Martuch and Clare Harris at The Shack, their deer-trout camp in Michigan, and I was awakened early the first morning by a heated argument.
“I tell you,” I heard Clare say, “if we put those grouse in the oven and build a big fire, they’ll be ready to eat when we get back.”
“They’ll be cinders!” Leon retorted. “The only way to cook pats is to fry ‘em. Margaret always fries ‘em.”
“Do you know how?”
“Well, she uses a skillet.”
Clare thought a minute. “I don’t think we ought to risk it,” he finally said. “Besides, I think it takes a long time. Let’s put ‘em in a pot with a bunch of vegetables and things and make a stew.”
I groaned under the covers. There is no finer eating than ruffed grouse properly prepared, but these hoodlums would certainly ruin them. I restrained myself, however, and kept still.
“I’ll tell you what,” Leon said with the voice of a man who has given birth to a great idea, “let’s parboil ‘em! We’ll just put ‘em in a pot with some water and let ‘em go. It’s as simple as poaching an egg.”
Clare agreed with enthusiasm. The thought was too much. I sat up in bed and said, “Let me cook the grouse!”
You could have heard a pin drop—for about one-tenth of a second. Then, in unison, they happily said, “Okay.” Actually, they said it too happily, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I cooked the grouse. I cooked everything else that was cooked during my three-day stay. I also swept the floor and washed the dishes after I discovered that my hosts were incapable of seeing dirt and could cheerfully sit down to eat off thrice-used plates with thrice-used knives and forks, drinking their coffee from thrice-used cups.
Just before we left they had me autograph a leftover pancake (that I had cooked) and then Leon hung it on the wall with a nail. “This will be a souvenir of your visit,” they said.
Only then did I realize how thoroughly I had been had. The withered pancake would be a souvenir, all right, but not nearly so much in the memory of poor old Ted as in commemoration of the great Martuch-Harris swindle. Undoubtedly the argument over how to cook the grouse had been a put-up job. Their professed ignorance of the culinary art was phony. Their laziness when it came to sweeping and washing dishes was no doubt authentic, but it could have been overcome. I was a boob.
Well, that was the last time. I have since organized the Amalgamated Brotherhood of Independent Camp Cooks, of which I am the president, secretary, and sole member. Its rules, which are free for adoption by any long-suffering pot-walloper, are as follows:
The cook will cook. Period. He will not chop or carry wood, or fetch water, or wash dish one. He won’t do any camp chores except cook. He will have meals ready at the time previously agreed upon, and if a member of the party is not present, that member can shift for himself—and clean up his dishes when he’s through.
Brothers of the griddle, try this system. There will be howls, groans, and mutterings when you announce the rules. Revolt may threaten. Stand firm. Your buddies will test you by “forgetting to keep wood and water at hand. Don’t get it yourself; make out with crackers and cheese and let the potlickers go hungry. One meal missed will cure them.
Actually, they’ll still be carrying the light end of the stick. Even though the cook does nothing else, he always puts in longer hours than any of the others. Assuming he can have breakfast on the table an hour after he rolls out, lets everybody fix his own lunch, and has dinner ready an hour and a half after he gets to camp in the afternoon, he works two and a half hours a day. If the other members of the party divide the chores, none of them need ever spend more than an hour.
I enjoy cooking. I like to put a good meal on the table and watch my companions wade into it. But I also enjoy hunting. Consequently, as I’ve learned timesaving methods that still turn out good food, I’ve been quick to adopt them.
There is little doubt in my mind that the camp cook’s best friend is the Dutch oven. I discussed its use in the August 1960 issue of Field & Stream, so I’ll only suggest a couple of hunting-camp possibilities here. The first is pot roast.
When I start the breakfast fire I also start a fire in a pit—dug the evening before, of course, by one of the noncooking members of the party. This hole should be at least 20 inches wide and 20 deep for a 12-inch Dutch oven; making it a little bigger won’t hurt a bit. As the pit fire gets going I pile in more wood—heap it up, in fact—until I have a regular conflagration. Its purpose is to make coals and to hear the sides and bottom of the pit.
By the time breakfast is over, this fire is pretty well burned down. Suspended from a pole or set on a grill over the hole, the Dutch oven will now reach the proper temperature to sear the meat. While it is browning on both sides I prepare onions, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, turnips, or whatever vegetables are at hand. Then I pack them into the oven, over and around the meat, but not so high as to touch the lid, which would scorch those in contact with it. A half teaspoonful of pepper and a tablespoonful of salt are sprinkled on (no water is added) and the lid is put in place.
As soon as the fire has burned down to coals, with no flame remaining, I shovel out most of them, leaving a layer about 3 inches thick in the bottom of the pit. I set the Dutch oven on it and hold the bail erect while I shovel the others back in, surrounding and completely covering the oven. A few inches of dirt over the coals completes the job.
When I get to camp about 20 minutes before the appointed mealtime, the pot roast is done. I have only to make the coffee, fix a salad—if the ingredients are available—and open a can of fruit for dessert. I dig up the Dutch oven last thing, clean off the ashes, and set it on the table, where its contents will keep hot until the last morsel is eaten.
A Dutch-oven stew is prepared in much the same way except that the meat should not be braised. Instead, cut it into 2-inch cubes, put them into a quart of cold water with seasoning, and set the oven over the fire. Let the meat boil while you finish breakfast and prepare the vegetables; then put them in, bury the oven in the fire pit, and go on about your hunting.
Another boon to the camp cook is aluminum foil. Potatoes, onions, turnips, apples, or medium-sized heads of cabbage—any vegetables, in fact—double-wrapped in regular-weight foil, can be safely cooked in about an hour. When I use foil, I build a big fire as soon as I get to camp, then wrap the vegetables individually and line them up around it. A dab of butter or bacon grease with each one is a good idea. I core the apples and fill the holes with anything good available, preferably butter, sugar, and cinnamon.
I turn each little bundle occasionally to expose another side to the heat and keep moving them closer to the fire as it burns down. They eventually wind up in the coals. Meanwhile I go on about my business—make the coffee and salad, fix the dessert in case I don’t foil-bake apples, and prepare the meat. By the time the fire has burned down to coals suitable for broiling, the vegetables are done. I roll them to one side where they’ll stay hot, set the grill over the coals, and broil my steaks or venison chops. This, to paraphrase Walton, is a meal too good for any but hunters or very honest men.
Tin cans have been a boon to camp cooks for many years. But some cooks, alas, have taken advantage of a good thing and become lazy. I don’t consider it cooking to dump the contents of a can into a pot, warm them up, and put them on the table. Any canned food can be improved by a little judicious preparation—and easily, too. For example:
Dice a big onion and six strips of bacon and brown them in a skillet. You can do other things while this is taking place; in fact, the whole knack of quickly preparing good meals lies in keeping several dishes going at once. When bacon and onion chunks are browned—but before they get really crisp—stir in a tablespoonful of sugar, a scant teaspoonful of salt, a fourth as much pepper, and a teaspoonful of vinegar, if you have it. Immediately dump in the contents of a large (No. 2 1/2) can of pork and beans. Stir thoroughly from time to time and set back to keep warm as soon as persistent bubbling indicates the beans are hot through.
According to the world’s best chefs, no cook should ever be caught without an adequate supply of cooking wine. Personally, I can’t see it. I think cooking whiskey is better. Just recently my mother gave me two bottles of cooking wine and told me the sherry was for fish and the Burgundy was for red meat. Both of them gave me awful headaches. Very likely the French and Italians, invariably great cooks, accept headaches as a matter of course and blame them on leaning over the hot stove. This is not correct; good Scotch or bourbon won’t give you a headache no matter how intently you cook.
I will freely admit, however, that I’m still puzzled by the attitude of otherwise well-informed people on this matter. Pete Barrett and I were camped at Wade Lake in Montana. I was in the tent cooking trout and he was outside doing something and we were out of whiskey. He happened to come in just as I was taking a long, searching look at the roof with the bottle of sherry he had thoughtfully provided.
He gave me a startled look and said excitedly, “My God, you’re drinking the cooking wine!”
I replied, quite logically, “Well, I’m cooking.”
Pete groaned, hit himself on the head, forgot what he’d come into the tent for, and stumbled out. Now what do you suppose was the matter with him? I still wonder.