Lady, Stay ’way From My Fire
Woman’s place is in the kitchen and it takes a man to cook outdoors. Here’s the mouth-watering evidence
WE WERE trapped in a gingerbread hostel run by pirates who operated on the principle that lavish scenery compensates for a limping cuisine. After a dinner of macaroni and warmed-up potatoes we drifted into talk of real eating, of feasts devoured in a happier past, and acts of gluttony we would commit when once more within reach of the fleshpots.
Into this male conversation, one of the lady guests poked a pert nose.
“Here’s something you must try if you’re ever on a canoe trip,” she told us brightly. “First you take a marshmallow and toast it. Next you put the marshmallow on a cracker. Then you pour melted chocolate over it and . . . yum-yum!” For some minutes after the lady had whisked off to make a fourth at bridge, nobody said atiything. Then one of the stags, a large and rugged character who looked as if he did well by his groceries, took his pipe from his mouth. He remarked softly and bitterly, “Yum-yum.”
That was all, but it was enough. We knew what he meant. He was giving cryptic expression to a truism of the outdoors: namely, that however excellent a cook a woman may be in her own kitchen, she fails to shine where th¿> wild duck quacks and the trout swims free and boots are tied with a loggers’ knot.
There are exceptions, of course.* But, as a general thing, the wild lands offer few sights more pathetic than that of a woman with a shiny aluminum saucepan in her hand, looking around vainly for a gas burner or electric plate on which to plunk it.
When it comes to cooking, I repeat, woman’s place is in the home. As a cabin and campfire cook, she lacks the by-guess-and-by-God dash which lends a piquant Je ne sais quoi to the triumphs of the male culinarist’s art. Also, any hint of the unorthodox is likely to send her into a tizzy.
A group of church ladies up near the B. C.Alaska border once decided it was time the bachelor woodsmen of the district stopped ruining their innards with a frying-pan diet, and to this end they undertook a book of simple recipes. As a come-along for the boys, they announced that contributions would be welcomed. When the cookbook was about ready for the printers, one old bush rat tramped in with his formula for a stew, mulligan or slumgullion of fabulous potency and staying power. The church ladies gave his scrawl a hasty vetting, then rushed their manual to press. Publication was complete, and distribution about to begin, when a frantic recall order went out from the chairman of the committee. She’d discovered that the bearded gent’s instructions wound up thus:
“Stick the pot on the fire and boil to beat hell!”
A man, of course, would see nothing untoward in such a directive. He would realize that it was literal and precise. A proper mulligan, into which may go anything from a chunk of leftover moose meat to the hindquarters of a porcupine, must be boiled to beat hell.
Perhaps because of this shrinking from crudity, women as a sex aren’t able to give a steak the stern and even brutal treatment it requires. Bear, deer or good red beef, it’s all the same. They lack the firm hand.
The best steak I ever atef never knew a woman’s touch. It was cooked for me by a little Chinese, a devout Buddhist, for whom I’d done some picayune favor.
“You sit down,” Hip Sing commanded me. “You wait. Plett.y soon be ready.”
He fed the mammoth range of his sawmill kitchen an armful of slabs, then from his icebox he brought a steak which would have overflowed any ordinary skillet. While the fire roared, he rubbed the steak lightly with garlic, peppered it, and finished off with a sprinkle of salt. Then he dropped it direct on a stove top, which by this time was cherry-red.
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Seconds later, he slid his turner beneath it and flipped it over. More smoke, a near-deafening sizzle, then Hip Sing scooted the steak onto a platter ready on his warmer.
“Hokay,” he told me with the blandest of smiles. “Now you eat.”
There were no vegetables, no bread, no ketchup. Just that mighty steak, crisped almost black on the outside, pink within, its rich juices sealed away till knife and fang should release them, not squandered in the flour-thickened gravy which women love.
That meal was long ago and I suspect Hip Sing is safe in the heart of the undying lotus by now. I hope so. He deserved nirvana for his way with a sirloin if for nothing else.
I hate to keep on chipping at the women like this, but when it comes to the rite of coffeemaking, they are with one known exception* lost without their dripolators. 1 don’t know why this should be, but then it’s also a mystery to me why an open fire which will remain docile while a man squats beside it, unfailingly pours its smoke into a woman cook’s face.
I just know the best outdoors coffee ever to scorch its way down my gullet was made by men.
The coffeemaker on Side Four, a wood-burning donkey engine bigger than three elephants and capable of outpulling several dozen, was a happy little Norwegian fireman who smiled even in his sleep. Promptly at twenty past eleven—ten minutes before the noon whistle was due to blow—Eric would lift his coffee bucket down from the top of the water tank. Ina succession of movements swiftly graceful as a squirrel’s, he would jet the bucket three-quarters full of scalding water from the donkey boiler, dump in a pound of cookhouse coffee, hang the bucket on a poker and yank open his firebox door.
The blast of heat would blister any lesser man’s hide, but Eric was a human chameleon. He would crouch with face twisted into a wild snarl,
"You know who.
holding the bucket in the roaring heart of the firebox for ten seconds, no more, no less, then withdraw it and kick the door shut.
When the whistle boomed and the loggers trotted in, the bucket sat steaming on the donkey deck. By this time a few twigs would have found their way into it, along with fragments of charcoal, fir needles and the miscellaneous small litter of a logging operation. A woman would have skimmed off this patina. Eric let it stay, to enrich the flavor of a brew black as the heart of a side push and fragrant as Olympian nectar.
The drinking was no less a ceremony than the making. From a box in the lee of the donkey', each man would take a half-pound tobacco can fitted with a wire handle. He would waft the surface scum aside and dip. Someone would spike a can of milk and pass it around. Sugar would follow.
Cans in hand, we would roost on skeleton-car bunks or on the logs of the landing or on stumps in the slash. Nobody talked much. We ate and we drank—one can, then a second, often three. Some of the boys were still quaffing when the whistle cut loose for starting time.
Side Four won and held the company loading record that year, an achievement which l credit directly to the inspiration of Eric’s coffee.
Thar She Blows!
It was coffee which precipitated my own gravest culinary crisis. We were clearing a site for a new camp and as coffeeman I was turned loose with half an hour to start a fire and boil her up. The time was ample. With 12 minutes in hand, I hooked a crotched stick under the pail handle. The fork split and a gallon of coffee cascaded over my fire.
I galloped another pail of water from the creek. Ten minutes left. Kindled a new blaze with hastily scrabbled chips. Eight minutes—I wasn’t going to make it. It would take a can of saw oil to jump the water to a boil and there was no oil within a mile. But there was something else. Half a dozen sticks of blasting powder, abandoned by grade builders in the casual woods’ fashion.
With six minutes to go, I stood back from my sickly fire and tossed in a
fistful of damp, crumbled powder. It caught with a sizzle and sputter, the flames leaped six feet high, and when the boys mooched in across the rainy flat I was lifting off a second brewing.
Mind now, I’m not passing that one on as a hint to householders or a trick of woodcraft for Boy Scouts. Dynamite is unchancy stuff. That particular dollop of powder burned—the next might have blown fire and pail to kingdom come. And, incidentally, me.
My point is that a she-cook wouldn’t have thought of that stunt. Not much! She’d have sat down for a good cry. There are times when outdoor cookery calls for the Nelson touch and the ladies, with respect, just haven’t got it.
Outdoorsmen who will agree on even such contested points as whether a pheasant should be hung by the head or feet will argue correct coffee-boiling procedure till the cows come home. Here’s my own method:
First, a bucket of water boiling to beat . . . Well, boiling heartily. Then into it as much coarse-ground coffee as you can hold in your two fists. When the pail has boiled over, ease it back on the fire and let it bubble while you count “one-monkey, two-monkey,” and so on up to “thirty-monkey,” then lift off and dash in a mug of cold water to settle the grounds.
Decant, season and drink.
Let us now, reluctantly, turn to women’s worst descent from grace when catering to outdoor appetites. I refer to her way with a trout.
You give it to her, daintily cleaned, its flesh pink and firm, cool from its nest of foliage in your creel. When she serves it to you, it could be just another slab of finnan haddie.
The desecration that any woman* will work on a fresh-caught trout puzzled me for years. When the answer finally offered itself, it was, like the solution to so many of life’s riddles, appallingly simple. To the female cook, a trout is not a trout. It is a fish and it says in the book you treat a fish thus and so. The book, most likely, decrees that fish be served with sauce.
1 have indicated that a trout is not a fish in the ordinary sense of the word. Anglers will know perfectly what I mean and an attempt at explanation would be lost on others. “A rose is a rose is a rose,” wrote the late Miss Gertrude Stein; and to filch a seeming redundancy from her locker, a trout is a trout is a trout. As such it calls for special handling.
Even in its preparation for the skillet, it rates respect. First with a sharp knife unseam it from the nave to the chaps—that, by the way, is a lift from another poet. Trout and poetry are all but inseparable. Then sever the neck behind the ears and tear off the head. The interbubbles will come away with it, leaving only the air sac and a dark accumulation of blood against the backbone. Scrape this out with your thumbnail, not breaking the delicately arched ribs with a knife point as women do. Dry trout.
He is now almost ready for the pan, in which you will have bacon grease scorching hot. Salt your trout’s body cavity lightly, score his sides if he’s over sixteen inches long, and roll him in corn meal.
Then into the pan with him, to crisp and sizzle first on one side then the other, till the dark-brown skin breaks away from the pink meat and his curled-up tail offers a handle to your fingers.
Here again, women lack the firm
hand. They consistently undercook trout. And, as we already know, they will, if not watched, serve trout with
When a woman wishes to cast aspersions on the quality of male cookery— to intimate that men dining afield are grown-up boys scrabbling in a bonfire for burned potatoes — she usually comes through with the canard that only hunger and conceit enable her husband to face the messes he or his guide concoct on a bush trip. Hunger is an excellent sauce it is true; but the libel droops and withers when one considers the tables set by such a topflight outdoorsman as Dan Croteau.
A courtly Frenchman, Croteau brought with him to the Forbidden Plateau of Vancouver Island the kitchen wisdom of his race. When he set out to pioneer a resort amid the rolling heather and parklike cypress clumps, every ounce of gear and supplies came from sea-level to 4,500-foot elevation on the backs of unen or packhorses. But he was a born chef and no obstacles could stand between him and the practice of his art.
The memory of my first meal with Dan Croteau shines no less bright than the recollection of Hip Sing’s supersteak. We trailed in at dusk, boneweary. Croteau met us in the doorway of his mess tent as we shed our packboards.
“You are arrive in time,” he said. “Gentlemen, dinner she’s served!”
Of that meal, I remember in detail only Croteau’s clam chowder. It went down like marine ambrosia, it stuck to the ribs and yelled for more. We ate of it till nothing but the imminent danger of bloating restrained us, then we talked about it till the fires burned low.
Here is an approximation of the Croteau recipe. I can’t, of course, pass on the exquisite little touches, the ultimate refinements that made it what it was. Just the stripped skeleton, to make dance for your delight some day when the women of your house go gadding, with the suggestion that beans will be found in the cupboard and a can opener in the usual place.
First, clams, fresh or tinned. Tiny butter clams preferably, minced clams if those aren’t available.
Four potatoes, peeled and cubed to the size of poker dice.
Two carrots, scraped and chopped into rings.
One large or two small onions, peeled with a circular motion around the nub and shredded into the pot.
One small piece of Swede turnip, cubed.
One wedge of cabbage, taken apart and washed for slugs, then shredded.
One fragment of bay leaf, half the size of your fingernail.
A quarter pound of salt pork. Back bacon will do in a pinch, but leaves something to be desired.
No flour and no tomatoes. Your wife would add those and the chowder would lose its éclat.
Cover your vegetables with water, add a nip of salt, and boil the way the bush rat boiled his mulligan.
Put your clams to simmer in their juice on the back of the stove. Cube your t fit pork and set it on to fry. You can now take time out to clean up the mess on the drain board.
When the vegetables are done, drain most of the water, dump in the clams and clam nectar, add the pork, and stir vigorously while the pot simmers ror ten minutes, or till you can no longer keep out of it.
One virtue of this chowder is that it improves with age. On the second day it will be tastier than at the first
sampling. By the third, it can’t be done justice in mere words.
Thus far I have presupposed an abundant supply of raw materials. But there are times of short rations— days and perhaps weeks when inchthick steaks and chowder au Croteau must remain a nostalgic dream. Men living out of their packsaeks are forced to dispense with the luxury of a wellstocked larder. They reconcile themselves to being always hungry and make up for it with a gastronomicsplurge when they hit town. Also, as they labor over the blowdowns and across ¿he rock slides, they look to the land for such edibilities as it may afford.
Under these conditions, a grouse squatting on a stump isn’t a game bird but a potential meal. You get as close as you can without flushing it, then blow its head off with your rifle or knock it over with a rock.
Pluck it and remove the innards, taking cafe not to burst the gall bladder. If your notions of woodcraft run to the romantic, you may now skewer it on a green sapling and broil it over a bed of coals. I don’t recommend this treatment, because if the spit doesn’t burn through, your fowl will almost certainly taste strongly of green wood. The chances are, too, that it will be charred on the outside, raw within and tough as all get out.
Much better if, having disrobed and drawn your bird, you hack it up with axe or knife and toss the fragments into your tea billy. Parboil, then transfer to your blackened skillet for a quick fry. Or you may simply let the boiling continue until you have a stew, which you will thicken with crumbled biscuit or whatever other bread substitute your pack holds.
Chances are the stew won’t be very tasty and for all your boiling the drumsticks will remain rubbery. But it’s a change and you can always comfort yourself with the thought that, if hungry enough, you’d eat raw grouse and enjoy it.
While we’re on the subject of fowl, one other hint that you won’t find in your wife’s cookbook: if you come on a brood of yearling horned owls, pot ’em. They eat good !
All this talk of food has made me hungry but, since I’ve just been told that if I want to eat I can go broil myself a quail in the furnace, I’ll munch on a cracker while we regale ourselves with one more man-cooked repast.
I won’t tell you the name of this lonely West Coast bay where nature spread for us her choicest feast. Some time I plan to go back, and I’d hate to find a sea-food palace there, with women cooks in the kitchen.
We started off across the flats one morning with a couple of gunny sacks. In the tidal pools we picked oysters from the sea floor. Small oysters, few of them the size of a silver dollar. I don’t know how many we picked, but a lot, maybe half a bushel.
Then on to the outer sands, where eelgrass lies in slick green windrows and the big Pacific crabs are each a moving hump under the sea’s unmowed lawn. We poked out a dozen crabs with our sticks and dumped them into the sacks atop the oysters. Scallops next, with daintily fluted shells, dug from a waverippled bar. Then butter clams and, last of all, as a gift from a fishboat crew who had just hauled their seine, four mottled flounders.
We lugged our booty home to camp, kindled the fires and got busy. The crabs, reddening in a gasoline can of brine, screamed softly as they boiled. We opened oysters with our jack knives, vinegar and pepper beside us, eating by agreement one out of three on the half shell. The rest we set aside to be rolled in bread crumbs and fried in butter. We put the clams on to steam and prepared the scallops and soles for frying.
When all was ready—drawn butter and halved lemons to hand—mugs of clam nectar at our elbows—the parson among us pronounced the briefest grace ever known to pass his lips. Then we dug in.
We ate for two hours, perhaps three. How long doesn’t matter, because on such occasions time loses all significance.
There were no women in the party, I hardly need add. If the girls had been along they’d have loused us up with such feminine gimmicks as cocktail forks and tartare sauce. And they wouldn’t have let us wipe our hands in our hair. ★