Nothing tastes quite like outdoor gastronomy cooked up by friends
When it comes to backcountry eating, I tend to be described as a minimalist. In order to keep weight down on a five day hike without resupply, this is a necessary sacrifice. A typical trail day for me would include packaged tuna, macaroni and cheese for dinner, grits for breakfast and a ton of cereal bars throughout the day to stave off tremendous caloric deficits. My Appalachian Trail section hiking buddy, Frank Whitehead, turned me on to the bagel and peanut butter delicacy we enjoy for lunch before saddling back up for our typical 12-17 mile days.
However, when we are not worried about keeping our pack weight at 22 pounds, things become a little more bougie. My group has been known to throw down in the back of beyond with buffets that would rival a country church homecoming. I recall a certain event over at Chasteen Creek, campsite #50, where our culinary organizer divided up side dishes for each of us to backpack the few miles into this Smokies site.
Dave was stacking rocks when I rolled into camp for a rudimentary smoker that would see him tending pork for the better part of an autumn weekend. Most assignments had been handed out as I had hoped, and Dave told me to bring whatever I thought would add to the feast. Off shouldering my backpack, Dave inquired as to what I would add to his well-thought and well-executed dinner, knowing my aversion to toting weighty items. The look on his face when I produced 14 individually packaged cups of applesauce will never be forgotten. You would have to be of a certain age to have watched the Brady Bunch to understand the joke, which allowed me to get by with it. No one hit their tent hungry that weekend with a smorgasbord including a cheese platter, baked beans, pork chops, hard rolls and a cornucopia of dessert offerings that included whole pies.
This past year, I hiked up into Whigg Meadow in the Cherokee National Forest from the Cherohala Skyway. We were there to escape the late summer heat at elevation on an exposed prominence. The smell of onions and peppers greeted me as I concluded my hike to the summit of this treeless campsite. A hiking partner, Richard Hatten, was slicing and dicing vegetables, per usual. My tent was getting pitched as he handed me a paper plate with a tortilla shell and said, “The sausage is almost ready.” It’s always nice when his girlfriend Linda joins us, as this all but guarantees five-star outdoor treatment. We reclined to witness the sun tickling the skyline as our stomachs were filled with a dinner you can’t buy at home. It would never taste the same anywhere else.
By now you may realize that I am more of a recipient than creator of such Appalachian gastronomy. Sometimes all I bring is a fork, which doesn’t go unnoticed when wood fetching duties are required. These chores are more in my wheelhouse anyway.
The most extravagant offering to date has to be the duck, seemingly crafted for the gods. On a chilly February, with patches of snow still lingering, deep in the backcountry of Elkmont near Jakes Creek, Richard crafted his pièce de résistance. Producing a portable grill for the fire, he meticulously seasoned and tended wood duck breasts he had personally harvested that winter. In bear country, we are always mindful of the smells wafting up hollers, but they would have to fight me for the delicacy so astutely tended over coals of beech and oak embers. Richard sings praises of the Country Pleasins marinade that tamed the wild out of this dish. The following morning saw him stirring embers, getting ready for the coming eggs and venison, also personally harvested by Richard.
Cold weather allows for all sorts of food to be toted into the woods without fear of spoiling. Our area is blessed with so much backpacking that no one need go malnourished. Some seek wilderness as a proving ground for survival. I’m more like a scavenging hyena who is on the “thrival” spectrum of campsite gastronomy.