For me, camping is the pinnacle of negotiating our relationship between essentials and extras, with quiet and extreme beauty often increasing proportionally to a campsite’s remoteness--and the necessity to pare down. At its best, living with less can be a form of creative integrity, allowing us to consider how we are actually going to use an object, be it decorative or practical, before we make psychic or physical space for it.
As a Peace Corps “brat,” I accompanied my family on a number of dislocations that required my parents to shed most of their material goods as what we carried to future postings had to fit neatly into a wooden shipping crate. I have often thought since of the westward journeys of pioneers holding their family histories in one carefully packed trunk. But the time overseas did not represent sacrifice, as the trade-off of immersing myself for years rather than days in other cultures more than offset any loss of material goods. I took my clothes, a record player, the size of my algebra book, and a few records--the latter necessities for this 13-year old.
As an inveterate fusser, I have never found a small backpack and light as a feather mummy bag to work for me even though the rewards of roughing it have been richly described by intrepid aesthetes, poets and even my husband, who once slept partially suspended on the rock face of Mt. Owen in the Grand Tetons.
Leaves scarcely breathing
in the black breeze;
the flickering swallow
draws circles in the dusk.
In my loving
a twilight is coming,
a last ray, gently reproaching
And over the evening forest
the bronze moon climbs to its place.
Why has the music stopped?
Why is there such silence?
From Stone:24 by Osip Mandelstam, translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin
Instead, I am a car camper because I love to cook here as at home and feel the smug satisfaction of reverse engineering all of my meals to leave nary a scrap behind when returning home. I love a campsite’s slowness that allows for simple, one pot meals made on a one-or two-burner camp stove and even the hiss of propane. And I love extracting the most from very little, knowing that ice will melt, food cannot be stored indefinitely, and my counter space is an 8x12 cutting board. Every object in our kitchen in a box represents the spare history of our camping adventures: the same speckled plates, aging red-checked oil cloth and red plastic coffee cone that yields such morning delight.
When we return home, these essentials are washed and packed away. We return to living with more, with the accumulation from earlier generations--my parents' Rosenthal dishes, Aunt Beanie's celadon-tinted Havilland along with our own habit of unfettered book purchasing.
Through one long car trip home, we seem to have jumped eons in human development from nomadic hunter gatherers to settled accumulators.
There is nothing new about this pleasure in simplicity, well described by Thoreau and others. And so, I looked to more recent examples of individuals who negotiate the question of need and want with great dexterity.
The nexus between doing with less and delight is often found in the creation of the simplest of foods, easily created, whose enjoyment is heightened by circumstance.
Here for you to explore are recipes that do not stint on taste despite their death of ingredients and ease of preparation: Eric’s Dutch Oven Biscuit Techniques, Crèpes, Pan Fried Grilled Cheese Sandwich and what I like to call All Purpose Pesto. All of these can be more easily made in your home kitchen, but taste so much better at a campsite--or through the patina of memory.
Here, as well, are two evocative food histories, the first a description of a first memory of a meal that intertwines love, warmth and nourishment during a time of intense deprivation. The second is from my good friend Toti, who began cooking as a child in Italy and whose description of the discipline and magic of that faraway kitchen echo her later experience as a dancer and artist.
I was born in 1940 in Germany. The Second World War was over in 1945. We lived from potatoes and we had no heat. My grandmother would get up very early in the morning and put some wood and coal in the stove to cook the potato. When I woke up, she would have a boiled potato ready. I remember, she would put a potato in my hand and make sure it was not too hot but warming for my hands, cut it open and put salt in it. And I would spoon it out, absolutely delicious—so simple. Thinking of it—it has a lot of meaning to me.
Rainer Shildknecht, Architect
I had to develop faith: through the apparent stillness a metamorphosis would happen. Sure, like the sun in the sky, like tomorrow, like summer. Later, I have practiced the same philosophical virtue while beating egg whites. It is the same process: you sweat steadily for about 20 minutes, while nothing happens. When you are ready to give up, the fork finds a pleasant resistance. One more minute, and the slimy fluid becomes foam. You can shape it into self-standing mountaintops. It holds the fork if you drop it. Just the opposite of an iceberg melting, but equally impressive.
Toti O’Brien, Artist, from Notes from a Culinary Education
And finally, two more reasons for finding time and space for less. Happy camping!