Welcome to the Golden Age of Camp Cooking

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CC BY 2.0. Michael Coté -- Camping breakfast looks better than what I eat at home!

Forget powdered soup and freeze-dried food. It's more like a backcountry banquet these days.

Take a peek at Mountain Equipment Co-op’s ‘camp kitchen’ category and it’s enough to get any food-lover drooling about camping. MEC is Canada’s REI, and it’s no different from any big outdoor gear retailer that is tapping into Millennials’ desires to eat well while hanging out in the wilderness.

Never mind the fact that spending time in nature is supposedly about getting away from the luxuries of civilization. For people who enjoy eating well at home, they now expect to do the same in a campsite.

Enter the ‘golden age of camp cooking,’ as described in a New York Times article, “Upscale Food and Gear Bring Campsite Cooking Out of the Wild.” It recounts the mouthwatering foods being prepared in campgrounds these days – French-press coffee, trail beer made from a fizzy concentrate of citric acid and potassium bicarbonate, cast-iron grilled steak with farro and peas, Bolognese sauce, noodles with shrimp and fresh vegetables, wine, fresh hot flatbreads, lentil dal.

It is a serious departure from camp food of the past, when gourmet food supplies were an unheard of luxury. Back then, it was impractical to haul superfluous fresh ingredients and specialized equipment along a trail – or even in vehicles that were smaller. But now more people are more willing to do this. I suspect it’s because

(a) the gear has gotten better (read: lighter and prettier);
(b) many active Millennials, in particular, are preoccupied with maintaining nutrient intake, and so like to plan meals in detail;
(c) people drive enormous SUVs and pickup trucks to campgrounds, in which they can easily fit enormous coolers of food and booze;
(d) the temptation to post fun pictures to Instagram and Pinterest has taken over the world.

car camping

© K Martinko -- Car camping with kids in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia

I’ve seen this change in my own life, too. As kids, car-camping for up to four weeks each summer, my siblings and I were fed the most basic of meals: cold cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, soup out of a can for dinner. When in the Maritimes, there was local seafood with a pot of rice. Dad would occasionally buy a coffee at a bakery, and we might wheedle a doughnut out of him. Snack was good old trail mix. We came home thinner and leaner, ready to gorge ourselves on ‘regular’ food – but chock-full of memories, of course.

Now, as a parent myself, I approach things differently. We are, without a doubt, part of a new generation of campers that is not willing to forego culinary pleasures while ‘roughing’ it. Meals are important, the highlight of every day spent camping. My husband and I plan them well in advance. We do a special grocery-shop and pack specialized gear and ingredients for cooking, i.e. multiple stoves (two-burner Coleman plus mini collapsible rocket with a special fast-boiling pot), cast-iron skillet, insulated mugs for coffee made in our stovetop mocha pot, a battery-powered milk frother, chef’s knife, spices, pepper mill.

cooking dinner

© K Martinko -- Husband cooking dinner over stove

Granted, we’re talking about different kinds of camping, which affect the level of gourmet one may hope to achieve. My car-camping weekends with kids are a world apart from my friend Genevieve’s completion of both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, and her current journey along the Continental Divide Trail, where she travels so lightly that she doesn’t even carry a stove. But there are hardcore trail-goers who want good food, too. From the NYT article:

“‘People who are part of the foodie movement want to carry that onto the trail,’ said Inga Aksamit, a distance backpacker. The classic hard-core ultralight backpacker may chop off the handle of a spoon to save a few grams, or eat instant coffee instead of wasting time and fuel boiling water. But for others who carry supper on their backs, food quality outweighs ounce-counting.”

I’m all for people getting out into nature, and if knowing they can have delicious food along the way acts as an incentive, then that’s a good thing. But it is worth keeping in mind that food eaten outside always seems to taste better, no matter what you’re having, which is why I continue to throw a package of Knorr powdered soup mix into every box of camping food, perhaps for the sake of nostalgia.