Camp Food

Camp Food

  • By: John Gierach
  • Photography by: Judith O’Keefe

Click image for slideshow.



by John Gierach

photographs by judith o’keefe


Elk Chili:

See recipe pg. 42

Fatigue and hunger have a way of turning nearly everything into gourmet fare. Lucky thing.

IN ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S 1925 short story “Big Two-Hearted River,” the protagonist, Nick, sets up camp after a long hike with a heavy pack that makes him desperately hungry. So before he goes fishing, he cooks a reckless meal: He mixes a can of pork and beans with a can of spaghetti and eats it slathered with ketchup. He says to himself, “I’ve got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I’m willing to carry it,” something every backpacker who’s lugged cans of food miles into the woods has thought.

Sound familiar? It does to me, right down to the beans and spaghetti with ketchup that would taste better than you think if you were hungry enough. “Big Two-Hearted River” was published 30 years before my own first clumsy attempts at childhood fishing and camping, but we were still carrying the same hand-me-down wood-framed canvas packs that weighed as much empty as the later aluminum and nylon jobs would full, not to mention canvas tents with oak poles and steel pegs, metal canteens, iron frying pans, and food in cans weighing just short of a pound each. I remember staggering under brutal loads with unpadded pack straps chewing on my shoulders like wolverines. If I hadn’t thought this was fun, my course through life might have been different.

Being your own pack animal whets your appetite nicely, so early on I developed a taste for the high-calorie, high-fat canned goods that are now frowned upon by nutritionists. Of course as a child in the 1950s, I knew nothing about nutrition; all I knew was what stuck to your ribs, as they used to say. Years later I encountered a food writer who said that if you’re eating poorly, you’re probably also living poorly. That sounded right in theory, but by then I associated eating poorly with the good life, although I did notice that this stuff tasted a lot better cooked over an open fire than it did at the kitchen table.

During my brief career as a Boy Scout I became partial to a certain brand of canned beef stew, with its meat and vegetables packed in glutinous, unnaturally orange grease. I didn’t last long as a Scout. The regimentation chaffed and I thought I was spending too much time in church basements and not enough time in the woods. I finally drifted away, taking with me a lifelong aversion to meetings and a taste for that canned stew that my friends and I were still eating in camp when I turned 60, often cooking it right in the can to avoid dirtying a pot.

It was only last fall, camping with the old gang on a favorite river in western Colorado, that I began to sense the end of the honeymoon with this stuff. I’d brought along the largest available can of stew (24 ounces) and I offered it up for dinner every night, but the boys always voted it down in favor of something else. So when I broke camp one morning a day ahead of the others, I handed the can to Mike.

“I’ll just leave this with you guys,” I said.

“Uh, sure, OK . . . .” he replied without enthusiasm.

This is the same guy who once volunteered to bring the food for a weeklong fishing trip and showed up with nothing but a cooked ham and three loaves of bread.

Most of my early camps were simple. My friends and I claimed it was for the sake of traveling light, but the fact is none of us owned much in the way of gear anyway. We sat on the ground, slept cold, got wet, and our meals ran to cheap, just-add-water stuff like dried soup, instant rice, and biscuits made with creek water and the ever-present box of Bisquick. Dehydrated meals for backpackers were available then, but although they’ve since improved, the early versions were hideously expensive and no better than Korean War surplus C-rations.

And of course we ate fish, or at least planned to, and for a while my fly-fishing gear included a secret matchbox containing an assortment of bait hooks. I did consider myself to be a fly-fishing purist, but I also understood that, while sport was a matter of style, collecting protein was sometimes an entirely practical business.


SOMETIME IN THE 1970s, three of us backpacked into a high mountain valley filled with beaver ponds, planning to go light and live off the land. We ate all the trout we could catch, backed up with black coffee and carefully rationed handfuls from the one small bag of granola. Within 48 hours we were suffering from ketosis, also known as protein starvation. That’s where a lack of carbohydrates in your diet (exacerbated by exercise) causes your body to begin consuming itself, starting with stored fat and eventually moving on to the vital organs. The sensation is one of ferocious hunger that not even a dozen beaver ponds filled with nine-inch brook trout can satisfy.

We stuck it out for four days before hiking out to the car and driving to the nearest truck stop. We had pancakes, sausage and eggs, followed by cheeseburgers and fries. The waitress eyed us suspiciously. We looked a little rough and she must have wondered if we had any money to pay for all that food.

For that matter, there were a few fall fishing trips where I packed my father’s old Harrington & Richardson .22 revolver, hoping to bag a stray blue grouse that I’d slow roast over an open fire. When the chance came, I emptied all nine shots at the bird without ruffling a feather. At that moment I realized this hog leg weighed more than a can of Spam and that the Spam, though less romantic, was a sure thing.

For some outdoor types, a camp is the open-air equivalent of a good hotel, complete with sumptuous, leisurely meals. For many fishermen, a camp is simply cheaper than a room and closer to the fishing, and the less time spent fussing with food the better.

We all know stories of the haphazard eating habits of fishermen, like the giant submarine sandwich from the last town that’s made to last for days while the bread gets hard, the mayonnaise goes skunky and the meat turns green. And a friend claims that he once fried a brace of trout in a pan greased with fly flotant because he didn’t have any oil or bacon drippings. He said it wasn’t that bad, but he wouldn’t make a habit of it.

A fish camp that’s pitched within sight of the pickup—as virtually all of mine are now—allows for luxuries like lawn chairs, two-burner camp stoves and ample groceries stored in the primitive refrigeration of a cooler, but the laws of physics still apply. Halfway through a warm fall steelhead trip to the Salmon River a few years ago, my ice melted, my food went south and I had to drive 40 miles round trip to the nearest store for fresh supplies. I missed half a day of fishing, but what really stung was the knowledge that a real steelheader would have just chewed some lichen off a rock and kept casting.

Few of my camp food memories actually rise to the level of horror stories. In fact, I don’t have that many camp food memories. In most cases, I recall the fishing and assume I must have eaten something because I’d have remembered if I hadn’t. Otherwise, it’s mostly a matter of breakfasts thrown together carelessly (or skipped altogether because I was in a rush to hit the water) and dinners where I was too tired to do anything but plop a cold wiener in a dry bun. And late in some trips when supplies were running low, there were some improvised burritos that were less than great, but still better than nothing (in the context of camp cooking, the term “burrito” is taken to mean anything vaguely edible wrapped in a tortilla).

And of course some culinary crimes have risen to the level of tradition, like a friend’s signature “sunny-side-up” eggs that are greasy and raw on one side and so burnt on the other you have to cut them with a knife. The only time I complained he said, “Well, you can always go to the café across the street. What? There’s no café across the street? Well then maybe you should just eat your eggs and shut the hell up.”

Occasionally I wonder if there isn’t a little posturing in the way some fishermen eat: some rebellious bluster left over from adolescence on the order of, “Who needs mom’s home cookin’ anyway?” Or maybe it’s a remnant of the old he-man mystique, where men on their own can manage bacon, beans and coffee, but otherwise don’t cook. A friend once wrote in an essay that I was a good camp cook, but I think all he meant was I was willing to do it. There’s an old joke about a camp where the rule is, anyone who complains about the food has to do the cooking. One night a guy looks at his plate and says, “This tastes like crap—but it’s good.”

Or maybe it’s just that we’re all more domesticated than we’d like to think, and sometimes the sudden freedom of fishing makes us as giddy as dogs that have slipped their leashes and are free to eat—or roll in—anything they can find. For that matter, fresh air, fishing and exercise generate the kind of hunger that resembles lust, so cold, three-day-old pizza might seem like a feast in the same way that the girls really do get prettier at closing time.

This is all part of the extreme-sport stance, where the goal isn’t so much to catch some fish as to test the outer limits of your compulsion. So you fish until you’re dazed from exhaustion and faint from hunger, thinking that you’re straining the last ounce of good out of a trip. It’s an approach that makes intuitive sense and we’ve all done it, but in fact you’ll last longer and fish better if you hit a stride you can maintain and stop now and then to take some nourishment. It’s the greenhorn who pushes too hard and hits the wall halfway through a trip, while the old hands fish on at a slower, but inexorable pace.

The same goes for drinking. My friends and I—and one friend in particular—used to roll up our sleeves and get shamefully hammered in camp. So much so that once I passed out while blowing on a stubborn camp fire and singed off half my beard. I guess it was fun, but I got tired of greeting beautiful morning hatches with a hangover, the shakes and an empty stomach because I couldn’t keep food down. What seemed like morning mist on the river was actually an internal fog that wouldn’t burn off until noon, by which time the trout would have stopped rising.

But over the long haul, the head-banging resolved itself into something more sustainable. If nothing else, too much booze and junk food make you feel bad, either right now or eventually. In the short run, this can result in the kind of explosive emergencies that explain the roll of toilet paper stashed in almost everyone’s fishing kit. In the long run, well, who knows? Some fare better than others, but the body’s miraculous ability to recover has its limits. Yogi Berra said: “If I’d known I was gonna live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

Once I was in camp with two friends who are good all-around sportsmen and pretty serious foodies. We stopped at a fancy market on the way to the river where they stocked up on all kinds of fresh, organic, artisanal goodies, and in camp they insisted on doing the cooking because they really were good at it. It naturally fell to me to do the dishes and there were a lot more of them than I’m used to, including utensils you rarely see in camp, like egg coddlers and garlic presses. (For that matter, my share of the groceries was five times what I usually pay for camp provisions.) I remember in a general way that the food was fabulous, but, oddly, I can’t recall a single meal. It’s possible that a gourmet spread is wasted on someone who’s hungry enough to see anything edible as nothing more than fuel.

At the other end of the scale were the elk tenderloins I brought frozen from home and cooked three days into a trip on the bank of a cutthroat stream in Wyoming. I hovered like a mother hen and got them perfectly medium rare on the portable wire grill and served them with pork and beans. Quick, simple and real good. On any fishing trip there can be a time and place for the celebratory meal—and sometimes the time is determined by when the meat will go bad.

I’ve also had some great food on guided trips where, as the pros say, the weather, the fishing and the skill of the clients are all up for grabs, but meals are the one thing the guide can control.

There was a certain hot lunch on a river in Oregon. It was a raw, rainy day in February with that bone-deep chill you get in the Pacific Northwest. On the first run we fished right at dawn, my seven-year-old waders suffered a catastrophic failure and I went through the morning with my left leg wet to the crotch. At noon, our guide put my partner and me on a good-looking run, found a spot out of the rain and grilled a couple of herb-marinated chickens on a hibachi. I was uncomfortably cold, but I think I was still this side of hypothermic, although it’s hard to be sure because judgment is among the first things to go. Maybe they were organic, free-range chickens, I don’t know, but they were hot and delicious and may have saved my life.

And there was another chilly morning in camp on the Deschutes River when I was up before dawn for a few hours of swinging with a Spey rod, during which I watched the sun rise over volcanic cliffs and landed two steelhead. Then I walked back to camp with my stomach growling and straight into the unmistakable aromas of bacon, pancakes and coffee. If you look up “happiness” in a dictionary, you’ll see a picture of me sitting down to that breakfast.


Duck Stew:

See recipe pg. 42


Far left, Stuffed Trout. See recipe pg. 42. Near left, Huckleberry Pancakes. See recipe pg. 43

Duck Stew with Herbed Drop Biscuits

It’s likely you have buddies who hunt birds, and they probably have a freezer full of vintage fowl carcasses. This recipe is a great way to utilize these birds and impress your friends. Bank on this—you can pretty much guarantee an invitation to the next fishing or hunting trip if you follow this recipe, which is perfect for advance preparation and maximum campfire time.


2tablespoons canola oil or bacon fat

4duck breasts with skin on (preferred)

or off (lazy)

1cup quartered carrots

1½cups diced yellow onion

1cup diced celery

1tablespoon minced garlic

1pound quartered red potatoes

1cup Obsidian Stout (you can drink the
rest after any knife work is done)

3½cups chicken stock

½teaspoon dry thyme

½teaspoon dry rosemary

½teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1teaspoon black pepper

3bay leaves

2tablespoons flour



2cups Bisquick

½cup grated parmesan (the good stuff)

1tablespoon finely chopped fresh

1teaspoon ground pepper

2⁄3cup milk



1In an 8-quart Dutch oven over low heat, render the fat from the duck breasts: Season the skin side with salt and pepper and place, skin side down, in the bottom of the Dutch oven. This should take 15 minutes, if done right. Basically you are slowly extracting the oil from the skin. This is the more advanced technique, but well worth the effort. When the skin is crisp, turn over and cook for 1 minute. Remove from pan and set aside.

2Increase heat to medium-high; add carrots, onion, celery and potatoes and sauté for approximately 5 minutes.

3Add garlic and stir for 30 seconds.

4Add spices (salt, pepper, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves) and stir for 30 seconds.

5In a small bowl, combine the flour and half the beer until there are no lumps.

6Add to vegetables and stir. This will thicken quickly. Add remaining beer and chicken stock, stir until smooth and well incorporated.

7Slice duck breasts and add to vegetable and stock mixture. Reduce to low heat and cover. Cook for 2 hours.

8Taste for additional salt and pepper. Duck should be tender enough to pull apart with a fork.


In camp:

1Bisquick, black pepper, herbs and parmesan can be combined prior and stored in a resealable plastic bag and placed in a cooler.

2Reheat duck stew in Dutch oven or appropriate pan with tight-fitting lid. When the stew reaches a simmer, reduce heat.

3Combine Bisquick mixture and milk in a medium bowl until it pulls together. Mixture should be moderately wet. Using a large soup spoon, spoon egg-size portions of the biscuit mixture on top of the stew, cover and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, or until biscuits are cooked through.

You should have approximately 2 biscuits per person. Crack an Obsidian Stout and serve it up.



River Ale-Braised Caramelized Onion-Stuffed Trout/Hatchery Steelhead

We all have great intentions to catch and cook a trout on the river, but you never seem to catch another fish after you make the decision to keep one. If you should be fortunate enough to have some success, this is a great recipe to convert the most adamant fish hater.

4trout of 12 to 16 ounces, or a hatchery
steelhead of about 4 to 6 pounds

2cups caramelized onions

12lemon slices

8sprigs of fresh dill

½cup sour cream

Salt and pepper

1bottle Deschutes River Ale



1To caramelize onions: Over medium heat, place 4 sliced yellow onions in a large skillet with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Stir often. When the onions start to brown add 2 tablespoons of butter, 2 tablespoons of brown sugar and 4 ounces of Deschutes River Ale. Allow to reduce until most of the liquid is gone. Remove from heat and set aside.

2Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare your cleaned trout or steelhead. Pat dry with a paper towel. Season both sides and the cavity.

3Fill the cavity with a quarter of the caramelized onions, a quarter of the sour cream, 3 thin slices of lemon and 2 sprigs of dill (each trout). If using a steelhead, put it all in.

4Place the stuffed trout on a large sheet of aluminum foil. Bring up the long sides and fold. Seal one end, pour 6 ounces of Deschutes River Ale in the other end and seal. Drink the rest of the beer. Place the parcel you just created on a sheet pan and place in a 375-degree oven. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Open parcel and bake for another 3 minutes.

This goes great with roasted potatoes, mashed potatoes or a wild rice blend.


Black Butte Porter Elk Chili with Cheesy Jalapeno Corn Bread

My father-in-law gives me tons of ground elk and venison every year. This is a great, quick recipe that you can make ahead of time, and it only gets better with time.

½lb. ground elk

1medium yellow onion

½cup diced red bell pepper

½cup diced green bell pepper

2teaspoons ground cumin

2teaspoons chili powder

1teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon granulated garlic

½teaspoon crushed red chili pepper

1tablespoon dry oregano

Salt and pepper

1cup beef broth

1cup Black Butte Porter

214-ounce can black beans (strained and

214 1⁄2-ounce cans diced tomatoes


Jalapeno Cornbread:

1cup all-purpose flour

1cup yellow corn meal

2⁄3cup sugar

1teaspoon salt

3½teaspoons baking powder


1cup milk

1⁄3cup vegetable oil

½cup grated cheddar cheese

1finely diced and deseeded
jalapeno pepper



1Heat oil in a medium-size, heavy bottomed pot. Sauté onions until they start to caramelize (about 10 minutes). Add elk and brown until cooked through. You can break this up as much or as little as you like, depending on whether you like a chunky style or smoother style of chili.

2Add the red and green bell peppers and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes.

3Add all the spices and seasonings and stir for 1 minute.

4Add beer, stock, tomatoes and black beans and bring to a simmer.

5Allow to simmer for 45 minutes. This will reduce the liquid. Check the consistency; if it is more runny than you like, continue to simmer for an additional 15 minutes. Taste and adjust salt and heat to your preference.

6Remove from heat and cool in the refrigerator.


Corn Bread:

1Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2Combine all dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Be sure to mix well.

3Combine all wet ingredients in a separate bowl.

4Add wet to dry ingredients. Stir until smooth.

5Fold in jalapeno and cheese.

6Pour into a greased 9-inch cake pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Hint: Set timer for 20 minutes and check that the middle is done. A toothpick should come out clean. If not, continue to cook for an additional 3 to 5 minutes.

Serve with butter and honey. Awesome!


Fluffy Huckleberry Pancakes with Sour Cream and Obsidian Stout Syrup

These are the best pancakes ever. For the best results combine the dry ingredients in a resealable plastic bag before you head out. You are going to look like a hero, but you better have the coffee ready.

¾cup milk

2tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1cup all-purpose flour

2tablespoons white sugar

1teaspoon baking powder

½teaspoon baking soda

½teaspoon kosher or sea salt


2tablespoons butter, melted

1cup huckleberries or blueberries

Cooking spray

½cup sour cream


Obsidian Stout Syrup:

1cup Deschutes Obsidian Stout

1cup brown sugar

1cup maple syrup (the good stuff)

½teaspoon vanilla extract


To make stout syrup: Combine all ingredients in a medium sauce pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for approximately 20 minutes, being careful not to allow the mixture to boil over. The syrup will appear to be too runny, but it thickens as it cools. A great test to see if you have the right consistency is to chill a plate, place a few drops on the plate and run you finger around in the syrup. If it has the viscosity of motor oil, it is done. Cool in the fridge for 15 minutes and transfer to an appropriate container for serving later.


The Pancakes:

1Combine milk with vinegar in a medium bowl and set aside for 5 minutes to “sour.”

2Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large mixing bowl. Whisk egg and butter into soured milk. Pour the flour mixture into the wet ingredients and whisk until lumps are gone. You can add half of the berries to the batter or save them for topping the pancakes.

3Heat a large skillet over medium heat, and coat with cooking spray. Pour 1/4 cupful of batter onto the skillet, and cook until bubbles appear on the surface. Flip with a spatula and cook until browned on the other side.

4Plate 2 pancakes, top with 2 tablespoons of sour cream and a quarter of the remaining berries. Drizzle with the stout syrup.


T.R. McCrystal is the executive chef at Deshutes Brewery, in Bend, Oregon. He is an avid fly fisher who plies the Deschutes River for steelhead and travels to the Bahamas, Canada, Mexico, Europe, and other locals when he can. He owns the trendy restaurant Jen’s Garden, in Sister’s, Oregon, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.

Camp Recipes

Worth Cookin’

When your turn in camp arrives, these dishes are sure to please.

by T.R. McCrystal








Deschutes River Ale




Black Butte Porter