November 1st, 2020

camp cook

Things I learned in Scouting: Cooking

My lifelong interest in cookery began at age eleven when I moved up from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts. In addition to getting our uniforms, my father also purchased a variety of camping gear for the both of us (he was an Assistant Scoutmaster for seven years during my youth). It was fall, and we wouldn’t get a lot of camping done before spring, but I wanted to use my new gear now.

One of the bits of gear I got from my father was a personal cook kit. It came in a canvas cover and looked like an aluminum clam shell. One half of the clam shell was a bowl, which fitted into the other half, which was a small skillet. The handle of the skillet swiveled around to lock down the bowl on top. Inside the cook kit was a tiny stewpot – about a pint or so – and inside the pot was a plastic drinking/measuring cup. For utensils to cook and eat with, I got a Vit-l-kit, which consisted of a spoon, knife, and fork that fitted into each other, and which came in a plastic case.

I began cooking in the back yard with my little cook kit, being careful to soap the bottom of the pans which were put on the fire. (This made it easier to clean them.) I looked up recipes, and my mother assisted me with technique. I made minute amounts of hamburger stew in the little pint pot as one of my first forays into the culinary arts. Sauteing onions in butter to start the process produced what has to be one of the most magical smells in the universe. I was in love.

As time went on, my troop got into untensilless cooking. This is a Scout advancement requirement, though usually no more than a stunt. But we were lazy and didn’t like washing dishes, so we became expert at it. I still love me a good caveman steak. I also baked potatoes in mud one time, which I found unsatisfactory: you can't check on them without removing the now dried mud (which doesn't go back on if it isn't ready), and you don't want to eat the skins, which is half the goodness of a baked potato. When I had all the utensils on hand, though, I became bolder and more creative. For Cooking Merit Badge, as I recall, I made a three-course meal with an entrée of pork chops. I also needed a cooked vegetable, so I got my mother to teach me how to make wilted lettuce, which sounded classy.

I served as a program aide my second year on summer camp staff. This was the year when we decommissioned the dining hall. All the troops cooked in the field, and we ate with them. You can imagine what some of the meals were like. And the menu was the same rotation, every week; I soon got tired of it. So I declared my Scoutcraft area would now specialize in camp cooking. I made a pot of chili one week. Another time, I baked a pie in a reflector oven, the only time I have ever bothered to use one.

Charcoal was dirty to work with, and I never got into chemical stoves (white gas tech buffaloed me, and no one showed me how to do it properly). So all my youthful cooking was done on open fires. When we got married, many people told Deanne how lucky she was to get a husband who could cook so well. She replied later that it was a long time before she saw much evidence of my ability. In my defense, there were lots of things I could cook very well, but only outdoors. I couldn’t tell you what temperature to set the oven on or how long something would take. I went by guess and by golly.

My daughter caught the cooking bug from me, and her son, now a ten-year-old Webelos Scout, is taking after her. At the camporee this last month, he had to plan and help cook one meal. He chose breakfast, and did a very creditable job frying bacon. I helped with the scrambled eggs. He and his little brother have been helping cook at the Winter Rendezvous for several years now. We are passing on a legacy of good taste.