Cooking in a modern kitchen is all about control: I have implements for cutting food into pieces of exacting dimensions; I can measure volume and mass; I apply precise amounts of heat to pans that have been engineered to have efficient and predictable conductivity. Sous vide and molecular gastronomy take control to the extreme.
As much as the modern cook might swear by his coterie of gadgets, for the past few million years people have been making do with decidedly more primitive means: fire and sticks, maybe a vessel or two. With all the conveniences that abound in the kitchen today, these basic conditions are hard to imagine.
Unless you go camping! While I have my fair share of outdoor gear, my camp kitchen is very basic—I enjoy the challenge of cooking over fire as well as the feeling of connection to those generations past. It helps to go beyond brats and hotdogs—not that there’s anything wrong with brats and hotdogs. Sometimes, though, you need to test just how much you can cook when you’re out on the range with no range.
For example, could I roast a chicken? I just so happened to have obtained a 2.2# young chicken from the Midtown Farmers’ Market (Chase Brook Natural). I was lucky to get a small chicken since the high temperatures of a wood fire would make it tricky to cook a large bird through without scorching it. I decided to butterfly the bird (cut out the backbone and flatten it)—with no good way to form a cover over the fire to trap the heat I wanted to get the bird as flat as possible to ensure even exposure. I rubbed the chicken down with salt, pepper, olive oil and herbes de provence before leaving the safety of our kitchen.
Cooking anything over a campfire calls for coals, not flames. Flames would burn your food. This means you have to plan ahead, starting the fire an hour or so before starting to cook. Playing with fire is one of the best parts of camping, so this really isn’t a bad deal. But if you’re hungry, you’ll wish you had started chopping wood an hour earlier.
Although not the best heat-retainer, aluminum foil works pretty well as a cover, which helps get some of the heat to waft over the top of the chicken while the bottom was getting direct exposure to the heat of the coals. To further improve the speed and evenness of the cooking, I employed the Italian ‘bricked chicken’ technique of weighing the bird down. I’m not so macho as to carry around bricks in my backpack, so I made do with what was available: in this case very nicely squared firewood.
After ten minutes on the cavity-side and twenty more on the breast-side things were looking good. I flipped the bird once more to finish a few stubborn undercooked spots (yes, I bring a Thermapen camping, don’t you?). Then I put it on a tray, tore/hacked it into quarters, and dug in. The heat of the fire resulted in crispy, golden-brown skin with just enough charring to make it attractive looking and smoky tasting.
All of this primitive cooking really brought out the wild beast in me—with the smell of roast chicken I was out of control. And that, after all, is what camping is all about.