It’s a timeless tradition here in the northern woods. When the sun slips behind the ranks of spruce and birch and the swarms of mosquitoes take flight, we scour the underbrush for dry kindling, thwack logs into quarters, and strike a match… or two… or twenty-seven. Long before the coals relax to a shimmering orange, as the flames melt holes in our polypropylene long underwear and the smoke ping-pongs campers from one fireside to the other, we whittle sticks to a fine point, wedge a spongy marshmallow on the end, and plunge our dessert into the fire.
Some campers hold their marshmallow just above the blaze and wait, patiently wait, for the sugars to caramelize to a golden summer tan. Others, mostly kids, show no such restraint. The marshmallow is set alight, brandished like a medieval torch, then extinguished in a single breath.
No matter the technique or age of the toasters, the delight that follows is mutual. We ease the crunchy outer layer—the skin of the marshmallow, as my eldest son says—from the gooey inside and yum-yum: charred sugar and gelatin topped with ash and mosquitoes. Delicious. We re-load our roasting sticks and continue the ritual well into the night. We do this only in summer and, of course, only outside. For the remaining ten months of the year, an identical bag of marshmallows grows stale in the back of the cupboard, unearthed, maybe, for bake-sale krispies or an after-skate cocoa but otherwise barely recognized as edible, much less a delectable treat.
So it is with much of what we eat outdoors in summer: the water-bottle-flattened PB&J on a day-hike; the freeze-dried Chicken Tetrazzini on a camping trip; even the cowboy coffee boiled to a slurry and blanched with powdered milk. It all tastes fantastic—outside and far from home. Why is food so much better outdoors?
In my twenties, I backpacked summer and winter, making ten or more trips a year into the mountains or woods. My hiking friends and I carried what we needed and nothing more: shelter, water, bedding, maybe one carefully chosen book. Food was similarly basic. We cooked porridge for breakfast, grabbed trail mix for lunch, boiled pasta or rice for dinner. As financially pinched, somewhat geeky science students, we may have been unduly austere, but I loved how those days in the wilderness stripped the accessories from life and left the rest more vivid and vital. I would read that one book slowly, then read it again. Deprived of a shower, I found clean, dry socks luxurious. And while I craved sweet dessert, I savored the banana chips in my trail mix, the huckleberries trailside, and that single bar of chocolate rationed to last the trip.
These days, with three kids in tow, I’m more apt to let our Honda schlep the tent and cooler to the campsite, more willing to let the day-hike lean heavy on the snack breaks, light on the actual hike. I pack more stuff into the wilderness, no doubt, but the mental and material clutter of home life—the schedules and errands, the six kinds of cereal, the video games (and the rules about video games… and the fights about rules about video games)—stays at home. Though contrived, that simplicity paves way for discovery, even revelation.
On a recent camping trip, I packed pillows and fresh bread. We added M&Ms to the standard trail mix and threw the boogie board in the car at the last minute. This was no survivor challenge. Still, we got by on much less than usual; even less, it turned out, than I’d planned. As we pulled into our campsite just before dinner, I realized I’d left the flashlights, headlamps, and mini-lantern—all battery-powered lighting—at home. It was high summer, just past the solstice, and though the sun wouldn’t set for hours, I envisioned shepherding three nervous boys outside to pee in the dark-and-scary night. I imagined them turned off camping for years by pairs of beady eyes or the sudden snap of a branch. That night, I guided only one nervous boy outside. He hesitated near the tent-flap; considered waiting for morning. I considered the car headlights and thought wistfully of the high-beam Maglite left on the kitchen table. We decided to brave it, and discovered dozens of tiny flashlights to show us the way. Fireflies, ephemeral, nature-made LEDs, blinked their welcome to the not-so-dark-and-scary woods.
The following somewhat groggy morning, I awoke to three hungry and thirsty but very rambunctious boys crashing around our campsite. I kindled the campfire for breakfast while they chased chipmunks, fought each other, and rummaged for trail mix and something to drink. We had no orange juice, of course, just fresh, cold water, collected and carried from a short distance down the path. We had no toaster, save the sputtering fire, and no array of cereal boxes on our picnic table (which was as just as well because we had no milk either). We had, precisely, six tortillas, six eggs, and salt to taste. I’d stashed a block of cheese in the cooler, but that was scheduled for lunch; eat the cheese for breakfast, and there’d be meager sandwiches later on.
In other words, we had less choice. I couldn’t pop to the supermarket or manufacture ketchup. We had what we had, to borrow the phrase: a secluded campsite encircled in green then edged in ocean, Chippy-Chipmunk, an eager new dining companion, and a beautiful, wide-open summer day. Close to an hour and many matches later, we had three very hungry boys, passable scrambled eggs, warm tortillas, and the best-tasting water ever.
Food isn’t better outside. Like a single book or lightning bugs at midnight, it’s just better appreciated.
As summer wanes and we head into the busyness of school and abundance of the holidays, I’ll keep an eye on that half-eaten bag of marshmallows at the back of the cupboard. I may catch a glimpse over the bulwark of cereal boxes or mid-search through racks of spice and seasonings. During the winter, those mass-produced blobs of glucose will dry out, shrink into themselves as if ashamed of their artificial flavor and color. I’ll know, however, that within the sugar-dusted “skin” lies a tiny bit of magic: the power to transform smoke and mosquitoes into celebration, a so-so meal into year-long memories, and slight discomfort, transient wanting, into gratitude for all we have both outdoors and at home.