Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Xan: Kerr Lake 2015!

We have just returned from VongsaCamping 2015 at Kerr Lake. This year's group: Mom, Dad, Kathleen, myself, Catherine, Chris VA, and also a cameo from Monica and Devin. Linden was notably absent, and yet somehow constantly present by phone, despite limited reception and significant timezone differences.

Regardless, good times were had by all. And, as this is technically a food blog, it must be said that we ate particularly well this year. Mom used to say that after a week of camping, regular food tastes amazing. However, I think this has slowly become disingenuous. The food gets better every year and at some point we just started eating better than we typically would at home.

What happened to us and when did we get so spoiled? It's hard to pinpoint a single cause, but if I had to describe the evolution of our camping menu, it would go something like this:
  1. In the beginning, we were like everyone else. Beans and franks, you know? And grill food -- burgers, I suppose, and more franks? Not sure. I'm too young to actually remember the beginning, frankly, but I think it was a very frankly time.
  2. Over the years, we picked up some great camping recipes from other campers. Chicken Chili and so forth. Things that are easy to prepare in quantity with limited tools. 
  3. However, we came to realize that it's so hard to cook anything in the wilderness that we ought to prepare as much as possible in advance. Dad would bring ribs that just needed reheating. Mom would precook onions and sausage and I would premix a dozen spices and then a Moroccan ragout involved nothing more than heating up a can of diced tomatoes together with precooked onions/sausage/spices, ready in 10 minutes.
  4. As more and more partial and complete meals were prepared in advance, planning took on a life of its own. Meals were either planned or panned. And it turns out that if you do 10 times as much planning, you can eat twice as well.
  5. From here, we continued to optimize, optimize, optimize, until we had so many great recipes that it became impossible to even cut the menu down to an amount we could eat in a week. This time, we had to have a two-dinner day to make room for it all. I even stopped catching catfish, which I'm told is an "improvement" in the menu, even though I don't necessarily agree.
What do you think, Vongsas? Is that what happened, or did I just make it all up?

I will now recap the food highlights of the trip, at least from my perspective.

Chapter 1: A cake with True Grit.
A few years ago, we discovered you can make cake in a Dutch oven over coals. Unfortunately, we had a little trouble with the orientation of our Pineapple Upside Down cake, which a certain person extracted from the oven only to drop it right into the sand. It was a very confusing experience. One minute we were looking forward to cake, the next moment we were looking down. We dusted it off as best we could, but it was certainly a cake with True Grit. It could have been much worse, actually, if it had fallen upside-down...or is that right-side-up? Whereas cats always land on their feet and toast always lands butter-side-down, Pineapple Upside Down Cake is guaranteed to land ambiguously.

In any case, this year we took no chances. We did a Texas Sheet Cake instead, which is always the right way up, and I was in charge of removing it from the pot, and there were no accidents, and it was glorious. You don't mess with Texas Sheet Cake.

Chapter 2: The Fires of Mount Doom.
Perhaps you don't know it yet, but there is really only one question you should be asking right now. You should be saying, "Xan, I get that you guys baked the cake in the Dutch oven, but what about the icing?"

You should be asking this because the answer is that we melted the icing on the fiery slopes of the goddamn Volcano we built with our bare hands. 

One tries to minimize the cursing on a family food blog, but in this case we have found that sanitizing only makes the Volcano angry. 

Specifically, what you see here is Chris wielding his trusty 40-oz bottle of 63% ethyl alcohol Germ-X hand sanitizer. The Volcano clearly does not appreciate attempts to clean up its act.

How this happened: Me and Chris are, of course, always looking for new ways to control fire. So I pitched him the idea to build a camping oven from scratch and see how good we could get it going. We quickly put together a small test oven with a few rocks and wet sand:

We were impressed with how well it worked and decided we needed Something Bigger. So we collected a bunch of rocks and dredged the lake bed for mud to act as mortar, which was baked pretty hard by the heat of the oven. Here is the oven in progress:

We found some mystery bricks and an old grate left behind by another camper. The fuel would go on the grate, and ashes would fall below like in a grill.

Some nice flat rocks would make for the roof of the oven and double as a stone cooktop.

We also added a smoking chamber which in retrospect was a mistake, as we did not actually have access to any woods that would be nice for smoking foods. It's mostly pine and sweetgum in the nutrient-poor soil around the lake.

Of course, at some point Chris decided that the chimney should be a volcano, and it was all downhill from there, in a Run-For-Your-Lives, Kill-a-Man-Jaro sort of sense.

To be perfectly honest, after hours of building this behemoth, we were not at all sure it would, you know, work when we lit it up. But as soon as we set it ablaze, smoke just shot out of the volcano.

Of course, we had to name it Mt. Doom.

One fire ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all, and in the darkness BLIND THEM!

Anyway, you get the idea. It was pretty awesome. The next day, Chris built up the volcano even more.

Lake mud, cast into the fiery chasm whence it flame!

Sadly, I do not have any pictures of it on fire. Nevertheless, the stone cooktop got hot enough to toast our garlic bread.

Chapter 3: Chop chop! Pull pull! Pork pork!

While Chris was building out the Volcano, I was also engaged in another ambitious project: spit-roasting an 8 lb pork shoulder roast over the open fire. I wanted to make a spit from scratch. This turned out to be difficult. In fact I was fortunate to have access to a couple of particularly helpful tools.

First of all, this year finally saw the arrival of a proper felling axe. We retired our beloved hatchet, affectionately named Old Faithful by Chris, for its longstanding habit of faithfully flying off the handle in mid-swing. I will shed no tears for the departure of Old Faithful, and no fingers either.

Wielding the mighty felling axe, I was able to effortlessly hew the necessary lumber from a downed pine. I fashioned a pair of tripods to hold the spit, and used one of Dad's woodworking tools to remove bark and sharpen the spit itself:

Make no mistake -- that spear would have skewered a wild boar! But I had only purchased an NC fishing permit, not a hunting permit, and so I was forced to rely on the domesticated variety. (For now). We coated it in Memphis Dust and went right through the center.

The idea here is to have a main fire blazing off to the side, which generates embers, which are moved near the pork to cook it under moderate heat in a controlled fashion. The fire itself might contain perhaps a whole tree..

I always do like to include a whole tree in a fire like this, because you can just keep pushing it in as it combusts. This one was long dead and dried, but still quite heavy and Chris helped me to drag it over.

In the absence of a battery-operated rotisserie, draft animals, or fellow campers willing to do my bidding, I simply turned the spit every 20-30 minutes. After 7 hours on the spit, the pork looked like this:

Can you smell that? It smells GUUD!

Not done yet, though, as we were going for pulled pork.

Chapter 3.5: Lightning Strikes!

Pulled pork is an all-day affair. Unfortunately, all the day was not fair. Before the pork could finish, we were beset by a Most Epic Thunderstorm and had to resort to Backup Contingency Rain Plan #1, which was to throw the pork into the Dutch Oven, surround it with coals, cover it with foil, and wait out the storm.

Two hours and two inches of rain later, the storm finished. An hour after that, so did the pork. We pulled it, and dug in!

Pretty good, under the circumstances! And I will say that despite the fall of rain and night, we never once dropped the pork.


Of course this is but a small sampling of the Kerr Lake 2015 menu. I wish I had pictures of all the food, but it's hard when your phone is mostly off. Maybe next time we can try to put together a more comprehensive review. In any case, I hope you have enjoyed this recap of our caper, jumbled as it may be. Yeah, think about it.

An epilog, charred. From the Greek epi- meaning "upon." A log on a log is an epilog. A frog on a log is an epifrog. 

A pig on a spit on a log, to wit: epihog. 

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