“Camp food is weird but surprisingly delicious,” I texted my sister one morning last September. It was a promise and a warning. We were about to head to Acadia National Park in Maine (Pemetic) to spend three days in the woods, and I was considering our meal plan. After a long trail day, I like to fork a packet of salmon into my camp stove macaroni and cheese. Its fishiness seeps into the sauce, turning the dish pungent, rich and objectively perfect—if you’re into that sort of thing. My sister, however, was not interested in cheese sauce that tasted slightly of the ocean.
While hiking and camping, the alchemy of food, location and very particular cravings has a way of attaching itself to specific memories. A meal or drink can be the punctuation mark for an expedition, rendering it in even finer detail in your mind. I still remember the camp quesadillas—and side trip for lobster rolls—we made in Acadia. I’ve always liked working within the constraints of camp cooking, which rewards planning ahead and a little innovation. Even the not-so-great meals are usually, somehow, delicious. And the meals that aren’t? The epic disasters like, say, the first time I attempted scratch-made mac and cheese for a gluten-free, dairy-free crew? At least they’re memorable.
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1. Acadia National Park, Maine, 2021: I’m Sorry About the Cocktail Weenies
All I wanted to do was impress on my sister how fun camping is. We were about to head to Acadia for her first camping trip as an adult, and I hoped it would deliver: big panoramas, ambitious hikes, abundant lobster rolls. We wouldn’t bring a cooler since my camp menus usually prominently feature boxed macaroni and cheese, but she’d requested a hot dog to slice into the pasta. I headed to the grocery, figuring I’d find a nonperishable substitute somewhere in the preserved foods aisle.
And there it was: a tin of Vienna sausages. For the uninitiated (me), a Vienna sausage is a roughly inch-long fragment of parboiled, finely ground mystery meat—often an unseemly combination of chicken, beef, and pork, shaped like a tube. Vienna sausages reached the height of their popularity in the middle of the 20th century, the heyday of many tinned and frozen convenience foods; these days, their primary consumers are fishermen and hikers, according to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. What the encyclopedia doesn’t explain, though, is what it’s actually like to eat a Vienna sausage: how it bobs in broth when you open the tin; its soft, tofulike texture; and its taste—like a hot dog, but somehow not quite, my sister told me after sampling one.
On our first night camped among the spruces, I put a test sausage over low heat in an aluminum saucepan, trying to brown it a little. The weenie stuck to the bottom of the pot, and when I poked at it with a spoon, it peeled open—a massacre. The next day, as we scrambled up a ladder climb while a drizzle began to fall (a sign, graphically illustrated with a stick figure falling off a cliff, had warned hikers about slippery conditions in the rain), I added it to the tally in my head of ways that this trip hadn’t delivered.
Still, my sister polished off the sausages—the whole tin of them—and swore me to secrecy. If you tell anyone about this, I’ll deny it.
2. Minnewaska State Park Preserve, New York, 2020: Liminal Space
A few nights each week early in lockdown, my partner and I got in to the habit of making cocktails toward the end of what passed for the workday. We were spending uninterrupted, unremarkable days together quarantining inside a studio apartment, and mixing drinks helped divide up the clock’s relentless forward motion—transitioning from day to night. Wistful for other rooms, we also began amassing all the equipment we needed to camp together. So when we finally came across a tent platform available to reserve that fall, we rushed out the door.
The last things I added to my kit before we drove upstate that brisk evening were a flask of bourbon, a vial of bitters and some raw sugar. Making old-fashioneds would be a tiny ritual we brought from the city into the forest, a different kind of transition.
The sun was receding below the horizon when we arrived at our campsite, and we rushed to pitch our tent in the half-light. Early the next morning, we would set out toward Lake Minnewaska, one of the handful of “sky lakes” on the Shawangunk Ridge—so named for their high elevation and crystal-clear cobalt blue waters. But for now, there was mixing to do: I muddled the ingredients in our enamel mugs (mine printed with scientific illustrations of fish in the Atlantic Ocean, his with the name of the coffee shop where he used to work) to make two drinks. We clinked the cups together and sipped.
3. Harriman State Park, New York, 2021: A Change of Plans
We arrived back at camp around dusk, the day’s stifling summer heat finally starting to break. The 13-plus-mile trail had been more intense than my partner and I anticipated—I’m nothing if not reliably taking on too much—and I was salty and glistening and wanted to sit down, or maybe lie down, forever. But I was still brainstorming aloud possible routes for the next day as we crawled into the tent. “Let’s see how we feel tomorrow and pick a path then,” my partner suggested, ever so gently.
When I woke up with legs creaking the next morning, I conceded that, OK, maybe it would be best to take it easy. We decided to skip the hike entirely. Instead, we paddled a canoe around the lake near our campsite and swam—and I sunburned.
Eventually, I got chilly from the water and my stomach began to growl, so I suggested we make toasts with the ingredients we had planned to make into trail sandwiches that morning before heading out: sliced bread, avocado, a beefsteak tomato. I normally wouldn’t take out all our kitchen supplies, stove and all, for lunch, but the mood of the day was very, What if we tried something else? I set up the backpacking stove on a picnic table and got to work. Toasting the bread in the pot didn’t work great, but things improved when I started roasting it directly over the open flame like a marshmallow. I showered each slice with sea salt and Sriracha sauce, and we bumped two halves together as if to cheers.
4. Langtang Valley, Nepal, 2018: Everything Else Out There
I chanted the numbers 1 to 10 in Nepali under my breath, trying to memorize them, as my friend and I trudged up a sinuous trail through the Langtang Valley, with our guide, Shanta, leading the way. Shanta had taught me the words. I felt like I was breathing through a straw from exertion and elevation as we ascended to the summit of Kyanjin Ri at more than 15,000 feet, and the repetition—count to 10, start again—became a mantra.
By the time we were descending back into the valley a week later, I felt ready to learn 10 more numbers—as if that would allow me to remain there, trekking through the Himalayas, for as long as it took me to catch on. But it was time to go. During our bus ride back down to the capital, Kathmandu, our bus stopped at a roadside restaurant dishing out the ultimate Nepalese street food: momos. We had eaten well in the mountains, stopping at teahouses along the way for hot lunches and dinners of dal bhat: rice and curried lentils. Still, after so many days of the same dish, the huge metal steamer packed with dumplings beckoned to us. Shanta recommended the “buff,” or buffalo, ones.
Throughout Nepal, slaughtering cattle is prohibited by Hindu tradition and law, so water buffalo are the country’s primary source of red meat. But I didn’t eat meat at the time, and without a vegetarian option, I looked on with envy as my friends speared dumplings off Styrofoam plates.
These days, I’m mostly vegetarian. After a few more experiences like this, I started eating meat while traveling; I don’t like showing up to an unfamiliar place and declining whatever’s usually eaten there. After all, being a little less rigid about food (always an ongoing learning process) has usually served me well, especially on the trail—a reminder to always say yes to the momos.