On Wednesdays, our overworked camp cook received the day off, to rest up, and perhaps take a refresher course on preparing meals I was adamantly unwilling to eat – that’s actually what they called it, “The ‘Earl Hates It’ Recipe Regimen – Today’s Specialty – Grilled Liver.”
With no cook to prepare the evening meal, and not wanting to leave us spending the dinner hour sitting in the Mess Hall looking at each other, every Wednesday, the powers that be scheduled a weekly series of camp-wide cookouts.
Wednesday afternoons, each cabin’s counselor would appear at the “Trippers’ Cabin”, where they were issued large, brown paper bags filled with provisions – hotdogs (which for some reason came, not in a package, but connected end-to-end along a strong but greasy string), hotdog buns, cans of creamed corn, large tins of Donald Duck orange juice, a bag of marshmallows and a package of Peek Freans, a type of buttery biscuit that elicited a distinct granular component when you bit down on it, suggesting that one of its ingredients might possibly be sand. I always liked Peek Freans.
Also included were condiments and utensils –mustard, ketchup, paper plates and cups, metal cutlery, a can opener. After dividing the load – everybody carried something – off we went. The order of the day: A short hike, followed by a meal cooked over an open fire at a nearby campsite.
Here’s something I never understood, and still don’t to this very day. In total, our camp included a compliment of twenty-six cabins, thirteen boys’ cabins, and thirteen girls’ cabins. Somehow, though it seems unimaginable to me, there were, apparently, within a mile or so of our camp, twenty-six, individual campsites. What’s even more unimaginable, and I mean a lot more, was that, without any scheduling or pre-arrangement of any kind, every cabin was readily able, on their own, to find a different campsite.
How did we do that? I mean, it wasn’t like somebody in charge said, “You’re get “Campsite Eight.” You get “Campsite Twelve.” Every cabin left camp, separately and around the time, and, with no prior communication whatsoever, was miraculously, it seems to me, able to locate an available campsite.
Is that really possible? Who knows, maybe there were hundreds of nearby campsites, and finding twenty-six different ones wasn’t such big deal. Or maybe, there was some organized arrangement, and being a camper, nobody told me about it. Except that, when I was counselor, and would rightly have been informed of some pre-arranged plan, nobody told me about it then either. Is it possible everyone else knew about it, and they deliberately kept me out of the loop?
You know, there are nights when I can’t fall asleep. Sometimes, it’s because I’m still thinking about that.
Of all the available cookout spots, my favorite was the one located near, what we called, “The Rapids.” The location was just a short walk up the road – not more than half of a mile – a right turn past the camp laundry, a quick left up a small embankment, and there you were. You knew were there, because you heard the roaring waters of the rapids seconds before you arrived.
We’re not talking big rapids here. There was no whitewater rafting down these rapids. The water was way to shallow – you could see the bottom of it from the top. But the din from these, albeit, mini-rapids, was still deafening. You had to holler to be heard. Just that, somehow, made it exciting. That, and flipping sticks into the turbulent frothiness, and tracking them, as they ricocheted down the rocky riverbed towards a placid and awaiting Lake Vernon.
The first order of cookout business was to scavenge the area for firewood. Here’s your first tip of the day. Are you taking notes? I would.
In order for wood to burn, it has to be dead wood, meaning it’s not on the trees anymore. The place to find firewood is on the ground. Which for me, at least, seemed always to be a problem. Wood is brown. The ground is brown. With my eyesight, that brown all blended together. Throw in the fact that it’s kinda dark in the forest, and it made the wood I was sent to bring back difficult to see.
Invariably, I’d return to the campsite empty-handed. “Where’s the wood?” “I couldn’t find any.” The response to this failure, after the incredulous eye rolling, was invariably the same: “No firewood, no food.” Frustrated, but wanting to eat, I would reluctantly return to the forest, to take another crack at it. Suddenly, to my utter amazement, I saw firewood lying all over the place. I could not believe I had not noticed it there before.
Hot dogs take little time to roast – less than a minute – so the cooking process started with the creamed corn. This process involved the counselor pulling out their hunting knife, and punching a couple of triangular holes in the top of each tin. The holes would relieve the pressure inside the tins – which were placed in but on the less furnace periphery of the campfire – so as to avoid the tins’ exploding, and spraying the cookout participants with flying niblets of molten corn. Preventing scarring, and embarrassing questioning in later life.
“What happened to your face?”
“A childhood corn accident.”
The corn was done, when the shiny aluminum exterior of the tin turned a fire-scorched black. (The signature label had been removed earlier, to keep the Jolly Green Giant from burning to a crisp, a problem for some of the more squeamish cookout attendees.)
In all my years as a person who eats food, I can honestly attest to the fact that no creamed corn tastes better than cookout creamed corn. (Or canoe trip creamed corn, a canoe trip being a multi-day cookout, with paddling.) I’m not certain why that’s true. But my suspicion is that it has something to do with the added ingredients you find in cookout (and canoe trip) creamed corn that you do not find at home, or in even the finest restaurants, those added ingredients being
Small twigs and dirt.
Experience tells me these ingredients legitimately enhance the flavor of the corn dish. Though I cannot prove that for a fact.
Our narrative has now reached the most crucial element in the entire cookout process – the proper selection of the hotdog stick.
Which I shall happily educate you about tomorrow.
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