Monday, January 17, 2005
Cooking or McCooking?
click photo to enlarge
DH with one too large to fit in the frying pan whole.
When I remarried, now ten years ago (a mid-life commitment to optimism), I asked my husband (DH) to build a wood box to hide the cooler in which I intended to take period-appropriate dishes to events, each dish lovingly prepared on my gas range at home, each dish needing only to be reheated over my camp cooking fire, each dish intended to wow everyone who sampled my preparations. He agreed to build me the box--I am still waiting for it--but he chided me for my "McCooking" intentions; said I was entirely missing the purpose of reenacting.
My husband began shooting muzzleloading firearms in the 1960s. Blue jeans and suede fringe were still seen at rendezvous. Authenticity was fine as long as it didn't get in the way of having a good time. But what he and his friends did was to camp in the manner that Carson or Bridger or an unnamed mountain man might have. They went into the mountains of Oregon and Alaska with their rifles, frying pans and axes. Little else. Once when asked why he took along his ax, he said, "Some of what I shoot won't fit into the frying pan whole." That was true, but not the truth. He and his friends were camping minimalists. In their blue jeans, they were living for a weekend, or a week, or in a few cases, several weeks as mountain men. Costume was less important than experience. They transcended the trappings of their mountain man time period, and they lived day by day off what they killed. No game, no dinner. They took along no coolers concealed in wood boxes, no corn chowder needing only to be reheated, no 20th or now 21st Century MREs [Meals Ready to Eat]. Their seasonings were limited to salt from a horn, and campfire char. And they brought home enough meat to fill winter freezers year after year.
When we married, I informed my husband that I had no intentions of reenacting as a Native American woman, stretching and chewing hides for him. My interests were in how the "civilized" world lived. I had no interest in spending a night burrowed in a mound of spruce branches stripped from nearby trees, then gnawing on a strip of charred meat for breakfast, which he has done while moose hunting in Alaska. And he has humored me by relocating farther east than he ever had any intention of living. But his point about McCooking is valid: are we really reenacting a "civilized" time period when our campfire cooking is limited to a camp stew, charring a few steaks, and reheating dishes prepared at home? Can we prepare the type of dishes that would have come from a habitante's 18th-Century hearth kitchen over an open fire, without first doing all or most of the cooking at home? Of course we can. Of course I can--that's what I told my husband. "Then why," he asked, "do you need the cooler?" "To protect the eggs," I quickly answered. As I mentioned earlier, I'm still waiting for my wood box so apparently my answer wasn't reason enough to motivate my husband. We can do more than reheat period-appropriate dishes, make stew, or grill steaks.
Many if not most of the techniques associated with modern French cuisine were known in the 18th-Century. These techniques were practiced by frugal housewives who had more to work with than a frying pan, an ax, and a dead animal. Habitants didn't practice "cuisine minimalism." At least as early as in the writings of Chaucer [c.1380], French chefs were recognized for their preparation of savory sauces. A frugal habitant's wife would have thickened the drippings from a roasted chicken with an egg yolk and a little cream, beaten together in a separate bowl. She would, then, have poured this enriched sauce over the hot meat to dress up an otherwise plain dish. The use of brandy or wine (or even water) to deglaze a skillet will produce an almost instant sauce that can add superb flavor to camp cooking. Other possibilities, especially for wild game, are fruit juices, preserves, honey and vinegars. French sauce techniques are not difficult to master--consider giving them a try--and bon appétit!