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 in the rain might be an acquired taste.

 

When we reached the cabin, we discovered that there was a problem with the regulator on the camp stove, so the stove and propane were basically flammable barbells. The issue was clearly 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.

As a consolation, 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.

Ok, so 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. That seems about as logical as getting the turbo option when you buy a Ford Fiesta. So maybe simplifying things should be our New Year’s Resolution? Well, that and preserving my eyebrows.

 

Hollow Full of Memories

This weekend we joined good friends for a quick getaway to the nearby Blue Ridge mountains and a stay at the Rosser Lamb House. The house was built in 1915 as the home of Hiram and Lucy Lamb and their nine children, and it is now one of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s primitive (no power or water) rental cabins. It is located in Lamb’s Hollow (of course), adjacent to Shenandoah National Park.

Shenandoah National Park was created during the Great Depression, and the formation of the park resulted in more than five hundred families being forced by the U.S. government to leave their homes. Many of these families had been on land that they had occupied for generations, and entire communities were uprooted and moved to the east—including some to a subdivision in nearby Madison County called “Resettlement Road” (seriously).

In 1934, the Lamb family–which had been in that hollow since 1845–got the word that they needed to relocate. But in a twist of fate, the government ran out of funding for the park before the Lambs were forced to move. The park border stopped just short of the Lamb house, and they stayed there well into the 1960s–when the house was eventually sold to be used as a hunting lodge.

In 1995, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club acquired the house and its surrounding property and began what became a 17-year project to restore it. The house has been described by a park historian as “a tribute to a mountain family living out the American dream in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.” And a fine tribute it is.

We spent our weekend hiking on the nearby trails, enjoying the stream-side setting, cooking in the spacious and renovated kitchen, and imagining life here some 100 years ago.

Our visit was made even more memorable by some family history that was shared with us by Larry Lamb, a sixth generation member of the family and a volunteer with the Blue Ridge Heritage Project, and Kristie Kendall, who is a historian with the Piedmont Environmental Council.

Larry and Kristie were incredibly gracious in sharing the history of the house and the surrounding area, and both of their organizations are doing amazing work.

 

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A mill on the Lamb property. Photo courtesy of Larry Lamb

Larry’s father, Thurman, was born in the house in 1925, and Larry visited the house often as a kid. He shared that his grandparents, Rosser and Rosetta Lamb, were “kind, humble people who loved the mountains and their home.” There were also stories of corn growing on the hillside, a smokehouse, a big garden, and family gatherings that featured banjo music and dancing the Virginia Reel.

As for food during our trip, we tried to use recipes that we thought might be common back in Rosser and Rosetta Lamb’s day. Cherry trees were popular in the Blue Ridge, so we made a cherry pie. The Lambs made sorghum molasses, so we baked molasses cookies and muffins. They grew corn, so we had corn on the cob. They likely ate wild ramps, so we had some ramps. The streams in the park had wild trout, so we made a trout dip. They had a smokehouse, so we smoked some fish.

Of course, it’s a lot easier when you get your food from the local supermarket and keep it on ice in a giant cooler—a little different than in Rosser and Rosetta Lamb’s day.

Later on the trip, we visited Far Pocosin Mission, which is about a two mile hike from the house. The Mission was founded in 1902, and historians describe it as the center of the community at the time. Now, 115 years later, the Mission is slowly fading into the forest–but there are old foundations, stairs, and chimneys that are still visible. Rosser Lamb attended church at the Mission, and his children went to school there.

I’ve enjoyed hiking and backpacking in and around Shenandoah National Park for more than 30 years now, and I confess that I haven’t always thought much about the human history. But we found the house and the mission to be powerful reminders of the people that were here before the park. The house is a fine tribute to the Lamb family, and to a lot of other families that lived in the neighboring hollows. I really can’t imagine what it must have been like for those that were forced to leave.

Lastly, it turns out that Pocosin Mission was founded by a very distant relative of mine, Frederick William Neve, a fact which was fascinating to me—but was either irrelevant or annoying to Souzz and our friends. After all, how many times can you listen to someone say “hey, I’m related to the guy that built this!” without wanting to scream?

Actually, I know that answer, and it’s four.