by Will Sutton
Blackened hot dogs; roasted peppers; flame-toasted bagels and burgers cooked unevenly. When I look back on the camping trips of my youth, it’s the food that I remember most vividly. There’s something about cooking on an open flame that is undeniably attractive. Even when the meal comes out less-than-perfect, it’s always a pleasure to eat.
There are a couple of reasons why camp meals cooked over open flames are so romantic. Perhaps the most obvious is the collaboration inherent to campfire cooking: everyone gathering around the flames, admiring one another’s culinary efforts. I have fond memories of toasting bagels on grey mornings in the New Hampshire wilderness, sitting around the freshly made fire with my brothers. My older brother, ever-patient, would slowly rotate his until it was perfect; hoping for a shortcut, my younger brother and I usually plunged ours into the fire, scorching them. We didn’t care; the fun of it was in being together, and the act of toasting.
Which brings me to a second reason why I love camp food: the act of cooking itself. There’s an immediacy to food prep over an open flame, a joy in the directness of it. In a time when most of our food system is industrialized and globalized, and when pre-packaged, microwavable foods are widespread, the act of cooking over a fire is enticingly simple. Preparing food in this pleasingly uncomplicated way is a nice break. The watchfulness required to not overcook your meal over the variable heat source is an opportunity to practice patience and be present. It’s just you, your meal, and whomever you’re sharing the fire with.
As my brothers and I have grown, my family has seen our camping trips taper off. Pulled in various directions every summer by internships, sleepaway camps, relationships and schoolwork, we haven’t been able to find time that all of us can get away, much less one that works for the various family friends we’d like to have join us. Consequently, there’s been an unfortunate dearth of campfire meals in my diet in the past few years. But if there’s a silver lining to the COVID-19 lockdown, it’s been keeping our family under one roof. With a fire pit in the backyard, we’ve been able to gather around a fire for the first time in years. And even though we’ve mostly just cooked marshmallows, I’ve been reminded of the joy of gathering together to cook over an open flame. Maybe one of these days my brothers and I can try toasting bagels again. For old time’s sake.