Cooking Old School In The New Year

Souzz and I often spend New Year’s Eve in the backcountry or in a cabin, and we traditionally make risotto (along with some other fancy dish). The standard bearer of New Year’s absurdity was probably the year that we made risotto with lobster in a five burner kitchen while camping in the snow. We didn’t quite reach that level of absurdity this year, but we at least thought about it.

Anyway, with cold rain in the 2019 forecast, we decided to head to the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s Dawson Cabin in Pennsylvania, about two hours drive from our home in Virginia. Dawson is one of the lesser visited cabins in the PATC system, maybe because the hike to the cabin is straight uphill. But the hike is short, and Dawson is a hidden gem that is worth the visit. The cabin is well appointed and very well maintained, and it has southern exposure and a beautiful view.

For our planned risotto and filet mignon feast, we hauled in a lot of cookware, as well as a five pound canister of propane and a two-burner camp stove. Utility wagons are a great tool for getting bulky gear into walk-in PATC cabins—but dragging them uphill through the mud and over tree roots while it’s raining might be an acquired taste.

When we reached the cabin, we learned that the camp stove and propane were basically flammable barbells. It turned out that there was a problem with the stove’s regulator that was beyond what I could field-repair, and fiddling with high-pressure gas connections is exciting in any circumstance—but especially so in a remote wood-framed structure. I’m also kind of fond of my eyebrows.

Well, at least we had some good appetizers…

With appetizers gone and still five hours to New Year’s, we had a new twist: how to make risotto without a modern camp stove. But there was a perfectly serviceable wood stove sitting right at our feet, so how hard could this be?

Tending a wood stove is always important in a PATC cabin in winter, although the goal is usually just heating the place. But now we had to figure out a way to keep the heat somewhat constant.

I get that wood stoves have been around for generations, and my friends in bush Alaska are probably rolling their eyes by now (well, at least Ruby is…but in my defense, I don’t remember seeing a lot of risotto on “Life Below Zero“).

It took a little fiddling to maintain the level of heat on the cooktop, and there were times when we had to cool things off by lifting the pan onto a hastily made wire trivet (using a piece from a broken dartboard that we found in the cabin).

But we figured it out, and the risotto was quite good. And the keys to good risotto are the same whether on a modern range or on a wood stove: using homemade stock (way less salty), heating the stock quite a bit before adding, and cooking the risotto at high heat (ideally enough heat to finish the job in less than 20 minutes). With too little heat, things take a long time and the risotto gets sticky.

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We paired the risotto with filet mignon, which we grilled over wood fire coals. And note Souzz’s thumb print in the steak. I guess that’s how real chefs figure out if it’s done.

Lastly, our stove challenge gave us the chance to puzzle over why we go to primitive cabins and then haul in hundreds of pounds of fancy gear. It seems about as logical as getting turbo in a Ford Fiesta. So maybe simplifying things should be our New Year’s Resolution? Well, that and preserving my eyebrows.

Mixing Work and Play

I’m on a work trip in Alaska at a camp for military kids that starts in a few days, but I came north a little early just for fun. Right now I’m in the riverside community of Cooper Landing, on the Kenai Peninsula, one of Alaska’s more popular outdoor playgrounds.

Cooper Landing is not far from the world famous (ok, regionally famous) Russian River, well known for its “combat fishing” during salmon runs. We’re right in the middle of a salmon run now, so it was interesting to see anglers shoulder to shoulder. Sure, go fishing to get away from it all…but do it within elbow reach of your neighbor. Clearly these folks were about filling freezers and not about solitude.

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Combat fishing on the Russian River (photo by Becca C.)

Souzz will join me later in the week and we’ll work our way down to Katchemak Bay. In the meantime, I’m at a lovely camp right next to the Kenai River and enjoying a simple dinner of pasta with tomatoes, mushrooms, basil, Romano cheese, and chopped steak.

The steak wasn’t really in the dinner plans, as I thought I could pick up some salmon here in “town”–until I realized that there isn’t really a town here.

So, with only a mini-mart for food supplies, I’m in the fishing capital of the world and I’m eating frozen steak…probably from a far away place like Virginia. At least the view is good.

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This is literally one foot from camp.

Grishgroom

Another weekend, another PATC cabin visit–or so it seems. And while that may look like a pattern of sorts, it’s really not—as each of the PATC cabins are so incredibly different. This weekend’s destination is Olive Green Cabin in Cunningham Falls State Park near Thurmont, Maryland.

DSC_0752Olive Green cabin is named after its last resident, Olive Green (duh!), whose father built the cabin in 1871. There is a ton of history here, with a rusted old car and a bunch of stone fence lines that hint at stories of days gone by. Olive lived in this simple two story 15×15 structure until 1986, when she was 83 years old. She raised eight kids here, despite no sink, no counters, no power, no water–and not much insulation, as I soon learned.

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As for the present day, the cabin is very well maintained and much appreciated by its visitors. Its guest book is also full of references to strange noises in the dark of night, which most of the prior guests credit to Olive and say that they find comforting. With Souzz out of town, I am flying solo tonight, so I’m not interested in a lot of company.

DSC_0763In any case, there are a lot of reminders around the cabin about Olive, including notes from relatives that still visit regularly. Olive sounds like she was an amazing woman, and she was apparently a gracious host that always fed her guests with a home cooked meal. I hope she’d be pleased with my menu: antipasta, spaghetti and meatballs, brownies, and grishgroom.

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Aaah, so what is grishgroom, you might ask? (ok, so you probably wouldn’t ask, but let’s play along.)

So here’s the backstory. When I was a kid in Rapid City, South Dakota, my tv trayenterprising older sister and my two older brothers had a favorite dessert: ice cream with chocolate sauce. It was generally served in a bowl on a TV tray while watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or Mannix on a Zenith black and white TV that took about two minutes to warm up. The chocolate sauce recipe was one that my mom basically made up (marshmallows, chocolate chips, evaporated milk, and a dab of peanut butter).

As older siblings sometimes do, my sister and my brothers convinced me that this dessert wasn’t called “ice cream with chocolate sauce” but instead was called “grishgroom,” and that word then entered my ever-expanding vocabulary. My sister told me later that she just made it up  (shocking, I know).

1968 Rapid City Arroyo Drive  before church 1      That’s me in the stylish shorts, thinking about grishgroom, no doubt.

 

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Me and my sister, perhaps as she sells me on another lark…

Some time later, when I was about five years old, we were enjoying a rare dinner out as a family. After the meal, my sister and brothers made a recommendation for my dessert order as they pointed to a menu that I couldn’t yet read. To this day, I’m not sure what is more memorable: my parents’ confused stares, the blank expression of our server, or the belly-laughing convulsions of my siblings. If the fist bump had been invented by then, I’m pretty sure that my sister and brothers would have had to ice their hands on the way home.

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DSC_8240Last year over the holidays, I shared the story of grishgroom with my nieces on Souzz’s side of the family. As you might expect, they enjoy any story that makes their uncle look like a dork (time is of course the limiting factor here). Armed with their new vocabulary, they marched into the living room and announced to their parents that they were going to serve themselves up some grishgroom. That led to a few confused nods from the adults, and then the nieces returned with giant bowls of ice cream–not exactly what a parent wants to happen after dessert at 10:30 pm on Christmas Eve.

It’s fair to say that my in-laws weren’t as amused as my siblings about grishgroom. Somewhere out there is a retired server nodding in agreement.

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 My sister still has the original grishgroom bowl (but thankfully, no sign of the tv trays).

Forever Wild

DSC_0049We’re at a cabin on Daicey Pond in Baxter State Park with the perfect view of Katahdin, the highest point in Maine at 5270 feet. Katahdin was named by the Penobscot Nation and it translates to “The Greatest Mountain.” It towers over its neighbors, and on a clear day you can even see it from Cadillac Mountain in Acadia (some 100+ miles to the east).

We’ve found good hiking, good paddling, and good opportunities to relax in the cool mountain weather (lows in the upper 30s last night). We’ve also taken the time to cook up some of our favorite dishes. Over the past three days, we’ve had baked brie, french fries, nachos, antipasto, fresh baked bread, chocolate chip cookies, caprese, and sweet rolls, along with a nice deep dish pizza.

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The park is very remote and rugged, and it comes with an interesting history. It was a gift to the people of Maine from former Governor Percival Baxter, who donated the original 200,000+ acres over about a 30 year period ending in 1962. As “co-owners,” Maine residents don’t have to pay the $14 admission to access the park. Once inside, there is no electricity and no running water, and there are no paved roads–only a single 13 foot wide gravel road, the Tote Road, for the majority of access. The park’s motto is “Forever Wild,” and it certainly is.

While Baxter is far from population centers, it’s still surprising to me that it only saw 63,000 visitors last year. In contrast, Great Falls Park in Virginia is 250 times smaller and draws 10 times the visitors. Crowds are relative, I suppose.

DSC_0885The cabins at Daicey Pond date back to 1902, and its easy to feel Daicey 1931 Charlotte Millettlost in time here. Our cabin has just a wall-mounted propane light, two twin beds, a table, a wood stove, and a few wooden chairs. Down at the dock, there is an honor system for canoe and kayak rentals ($1 an hour), and there is an always-open library full of interesting books. Add in friendly rangers, a nice network of hiking trails, loons, deer, and moose, and you’ve got something worth trying to keep the same.

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Perhaps best of all, the mountain is visible from most anywhere, seemingly watching over the handful of visitors that make it up here. Percival Baxter had this to say about Katahdin: “buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes, but Katahdin, in all its glory, shall forever remain the mountain of the people of Maine.”

Oh, and one other thing about Katahdin: it’s officially named Mount Katahdin, but that literally translates to “Mount Greatest Mountain.” Naturally, everyone just calls it Katahdin, as Mainers are way too smart to be redundant—unlike, say, whoever named “Panera Bread.” Along those lines, maybe I should open up a “Vino Wine” concession at the summit of the highest point of Mount Katahdin?

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Holiday Road

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Sioux frybread with wojapi

Our Fourth of July started with breakfast at a diner in the Badlands that included Sioux frybread with wojapi, a traditional berry dish. While there, we tapped into wifi to do a bit of planning. It was quite a contrast to the days of getting a “trip tik” auto-bingomap from AAA, changing cash over to traveler’s checks, and handing auto bingo cards to the kids. Today it’s Google Maps, Apple Pay, audio books, and movies, and even the dustiest diner has wifi.

The plan was to head a bit out of the way to Wessington Springs, a small town of about a thousand people in the central part of the state. We wanted to see their Running Irons/Cowboy Mounted Shooters horseback riding competition. Neither of us knew what this event even was…which only added to the intrigue (although we were hopeful that it didn’t require all attendees to ride horses and shoot). No matter what it was, we were looking forward to our techno-spontaneity.

We arrived in Wessington Springs just as their Fourth of July parade was starting, with the VFW presenting the colors and the local church choir leading a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. The sidewalks were lined with flags and people wearing red, white and blue, and the parade lasted a full 30 minutes. It included a lot of older farm equipment, some fancy cars, some horses, a softball team, and several fire trucks. Each tractor was announced with a year and model, information that seemed quite familiar to the folks around us.

At one point, an antique tractor stalled and halted the parade…but not to worry. A truck driving behind the tractor had a tow line and enough power to haul a tractor up hill. Toto, we are now in South Dakota farm country.

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Check out the cartoon on the fire department’s water truck 

After the parade, we had lunch at the Springs Inn, a classic diner on Main Street (butterscotch pie highly recommended)) before heading over to the horseback competition at the Foothills Rodeo fairgrounds on the edge of town. The horseback competition included some amazingly skilled competitors, and several spectators were scoring the event themselves on small spiral notebooks.

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Celebrating the Fourth of July in a small town in South Dakota farm country was memorable to say the least, and the folks in Wessington Springs were quite friendly to the tourists from Virginia. What started as a wacky idea over breakfast quickly became the highlight of our trip.

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A Wall of People

IMG_4313One of the amazing things about this country is the amount of “must-stop” places on road trips that don’t offer much in the way of a reason to stop–except to mingle with all of the other folks that have done the same math. It seems that we are all herd animals, and I have to admit that it’s fun to go to an occasional roundup.

Wall Drug is one such roundup, a thousand tourists in a IMG_4301town of 800, all crammed into a mall-like building browsing through key chains, jackalopes, cheaply made cowboy hats, rock art, and jewelry. In my case, jewelry meant replacing my lost squirt ring from my first trip to Wall Drug as a kid–which I was thrilled to find among the displays of plastic dog doo and fake spilled Coke. Souzz is now in goggles as a precautionary measure.

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Wall Drug, 1968

Truthfully, we wouldn’t have missed stopping in Wall, as it’s definitely a part of the road trip experience. It gave us a chance to marvel at kids panning for gold in a man-made creek, to eavesdrop on a salesperson for South Dakota wine (we passed), to mix in with family reunions in matching shirts, and to see throngs of travelers taking pictures next to a 25 foot long plastic Rushmore replica (some of whom were surely just at Rushmore).

One of the restaurants had pizza in the window that would have IMG_4314made 7-11 proud. I asked Souzz if she wanted to stay for lunch. Now I’m no expert in non-verbal communication, but I got the idea that we’d be eating later.

Black and Tan

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Needles Highway, Black Hills

We are making our way east by way of the Badlands after a nice visit with my brother and his wife in the Black Hills. We drove the Needles Highway, visited Sylvan Lake and Custer State Park, and checked out the marvel that is Wind Cave.

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Sylvan Lake
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Wind Cave
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hail-proofing

Arriving in Pringle, my brother asked if I had full insurance on my car–a curious question to welcome a guest. Apparently there was a storm on the way, and golf-ball sized hail was in the forecast. With the carport full, it was time to get creative with windshield protection, local style.

While in the Black Hills, we asked about a Dakotas dish called fleischkuekle–and nobody had even heard of it. Hmm…. The locals do, however, seem to eat plenty of beef and also a fair amount of buffalo, which is easier to prepare and easier to pronounce–so it’s on tonight’s menu.

Next stop, Badlands, by way of the small settlement of Scenic. While misnamed, Scenic gave us the chance to pick up some buffalo steaks at the only store in town, the Tatanka Trading Post (Tatanka is a Lakota word that means “bull buffalo”). The friendly and helpful owner was happy to see us, and the guest book may explain why. We rolled in at noon and we were the first visitors of the day.

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photo by Heyn, 1899

From there, some gravel back roads brought us to the heart of the Badlands, named hundreds of years ago by the Lakota Sioux due to the difficulty they encountered in traveling this land (Badlands is “mako sica” in their language). The terrain is rugged, the heat is intense, and there isn’t much water in the park. Moving around on horseback would have been no easy feat.

While the heat and terrain haven’t changed, travel today is of course a different story, with an excellent road that loops the park. The Badlands are spectacular, a study in shades of tans and greys and colors that seem to just fall off of the prairie above it.

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Bighorn sheep

Back at camp, we served the buffalo steak with brats. The buffalo steak was tender and flavorful, somewhat sweeter than beef, and a nice addition. I would choose buffalo above fleischkuekle, but that may be because I don’t know how to say fleishkuekle.

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Home Again

Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel some years ago that suggested that you can’t go home again…and he’s wrong. We just finished visiting my former home, Rapid City, South Dakota, and it was even more charming than I had remembered as a kid–and the city hasn’t changed as much as I have. I lived in Rapid from 1968 to 1971; old pictures say that I was pencil-thin and had a bit of a moptop–words that haven’t been used to describe me since about 1980. But I do still use pencils and (occasionally) mops.

IMG_4269Last night near Main Street Square in Rapid, we had a lovely dinner IMG_4267at the Independent Ale House (who in the world wants partisan ale, anyway?). Apparently enjoying local fare means 46 beers on tap, Sicilian pizza and Greek Salad. The food was very good, the service great, beer selection excellent, and there was a moving display of beers that even included the date that the keg was tapped.

The opportunity to drive by my former houses and a few other significant places in town, like Dinosaur Park, was a strong draw…and Souzz was extraordinarily patient. She even repeated a few of my sister’s poses from 1968 (see photos).

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After visiting Rapid City, we had a nice visit to Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park and are now heading south to Pringle, a small community of about a hundred that my brother Jack calls home. Jack has always called summer tourists (like us) “pilgrims,” so I am tempted to show up in a Miles Standish costume. But whatever I wear when I go to Pringle, my experience in Bell Fourche taught me one thing: it won’t be shorts.

Keep Your Eyes on the Stars, and Your Feet on the Ground

The country owes a lot to Teddy Roosevelt, including the quote that titles this blog entry. Roosevelt’s vision around conservation is credited with inspiring much of the national park system–and his appreciation of the country was of course gained when western travel required an incredible commitment.

With that in mind, Souzz and I headed further west yesterday, through Fargo and Bismarck and on to the tiny jump-off town of Medora in western North Dakota. On the IMG_4232way, we stopped in Tower City and picked up a rhubarb pie that we planned to have for last night’s dinner. We arrived at Theodore Roosevelt National Park around 6pm and made a simple camp in Cottonwood Campground.

Since arriving in the park, we’ve learned that Teddy Roosevelt first came here in 1883 to hunt bison. He returned a few years later for extended visits after the tragic loss of his wife and mother, and one can easily see why he might get a lift from this landscape. It is a peaceful study in contrast, brown canyons surrounded by green buttes. There are also meadows with hundreds of buffalo, much like Yellowstone…except hardly anybody else is here.DSC_0975

The park itself was established by President Truman in 1947, and it seems wholly under-appreciated and under-visited. Of course, there are only 740,000 people in the entire state of North Dakota, about 8% of the population of the metro Washington DC area, so crowds are relative. We chatted with a few locals that come here every year, and it seems that the park is greatly appreciated by the people of North Dakota. Based on our experience, the locals are super-friendly and immensely proud of their state.

During dinner prep in camp, a buffalo ambled by just 50 yards away, and a wild horse came by to say hello, as well. For dinner, we had steak (from North Dakota, of course), local corn, a simple tomato/cucumber dish, and of course the rhubarb pie. Nothing fancy, just grilling over charcoal, but sometimes the simple meals are the best.

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The corn, which we soaked in water before grilling, was sweet and crisp, and the rhubarb pie was really good. It was both tart and sweet, lots going on. I hadn’t eaten rhubarb pie since I was a kid, and remember hating it. My memory isn’t what it used to be.

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Meeting Up with the Matchmaker

To think that wagon trains used to take months to get to the west, and sometimes there were…um…adventures (see: Donner Party). Nowadays, of course, one can drive half way across the country in a few days. And if flying, as Souzz did, you can get to the northern plains in two hours and watch a bad Adam Sandler movie all at the same time. Is this a great country, or what?

After meeting up in Minneapolis Saturday, Souzz and I enjoyed a fun visit with great friends Michele and Kyal. Michele is the person that introduced me to Souzz, so I guess you could say I owe Michele for this blog…among other things. And Michele and Kyal are foodies, so they tried to cram in as many regional foods as possible during our visit (well, not literally, as we didn’t want a foie gras situation).

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Kyal, Suzy, Michele

juicy lucyWe started with lunch at Axel’s Tavern in Loretto, just outside of the city, where Juicy Lucies and Walleye sandwiches were de reguer. While a Juicy Lucy is unique because of the cheese in the center of the burger, the notable thing about my dish was more that the ground beef lived up to its juicy name. And the walleye was mild and flavorful, sort of like a more buttery version of arctic grayling.

After lunch we spent some time boating on the lake behind Michele and Kyal’s house IMG_4225before we headed dinner at one of Minneapolis’s hottest restaurants, The Butcher and the Boar–a trendy place right downtown that is a frequent James Beard nominee. It’s especially known for its sausage, fresh and local and packed with unique combinations of spices and flavors. Needless to say, we outperformed ourselves at dinner, and my corduroys were actually just slacks by the end of the evening (ok, I don’t actually own corduroys).