No Beans, Please
Camping enthusiasts give dining out new meaning.
Photo: Glenn Matsumura
By Cynthia Haven
Ahhh, camping.Fresh air, roughing it in the wilderness, supper around the campfire. Soufflé, sushi or a calzone, perhaps.
Outdoor life has never been so good. History professor emeritus Hal Kahn and alum Rick Greenspan, the Click and Clack of the backpacker set, are two reasons why. They make an unlikely team—a septuagenarian Chinese scholar and an auto mechanic—but they have at least two things in common. They love camping and they love food.
After years of sharing both, they’ve written two books about it, beginning with Foghorn Outdoors: Camper’s Companion (Avalon, 1991). Their most recent venture, The Leave-No-Crumbs Camping Cookbook: 150 Delightful, Delicious, and Darn-Near Foolproof Recipes from Two Top Wilderness Chefs (Storey Publishing, 2004), instructs the footsore on how to make quiches, crepes flambées and chocolate cake with brandy icing (spirits swiped from the first-aid kit, of course) while on the trail.
Kahn is a tall, lean 74. Greenspan, ’70, MA ’71, is 50-something. Kahn admits he has cut back on some of the rough stuff, like “bagging peaks.” As Greenspan puts it, “I like to climb mountains. Hal likes to fish.”
The two met in the late ’60s in an inter–disciplinary program on social thought. “A lot of the professors were conservatives. He was one of the activists,” Greenspan recalls. “We pretty much hit it off when we met.”
Greenspan introduced Kahn to camping a few years later. Their first trek was in the Marble Mountains in Northern California, near Yreka. It’s the least-traveled wilderness area in the state. “I thought I was going to die on the first trip. Everything was heavy. My boots didn’t fit,” Kahn recalls. He learned to love it—and find the right footwear. With Greenspan, he is reversing what they call the “army mentality” of the outdoor life.
“We tell people over and over—this is a vacation, not a boot camp!” Kahn says. Readers should regard a campfire or stove as an “invitation to the imagination,” they write. “You won’t care if your hands get dirty, the yeast rises faster than you’re used to, or the home-dried strawberries need rehydrating before you can proceed with the cobbler. You’ll be willing to scramble up a boulder field to get the last snow of summer for the snow cones or rename the trout that’s fallen off the grill—it’s now ‘Cajun black’—then fetch it out of the ashes. . . .”
“It doesn’t weigh any more to make good stuff than it does to make goulash or beans and hot dogs,” Greenspan says. Sushi rollers are thin and portable, for example, about the size of a placemat.
Not everyone is a fan of such culinary improvisation. A camper from Reno, Nev., Ronald Kohlenberger complained on Amazon.com that many recipes required forays to gourmet and specialty stores—not the stuff of macho backpacking. “Scones are cool when sitting at an outdoor table at Starbucks discussing the evils of a capitalistic society with your liberal friends,” he opined, “but come on, when camping, I eat biscuits!”
Kahn and Greenspan are undeterred. The tone of Leave-No-Crumbs is upbeat, even euphoric with promises. “If your idea of wilderness fare is the stuff that comes in freeze-dried packets or out of a can, or is limited to prepackaged pancake mix, ballpark franks, and a flank steak over the grill, you’re reading the wrong book,” they write. “You won’t like what follows, and we hope you disapprove.
“If, however, you think that fine cooking can be done no matter where you are; if improvisation is part of your culinary vocabulary; if, in a word, you think it’s possible and desirable to begin a day at your campsite with fruit crepes, wrap poached trout in a sushi roll, celebrate the Sabbath (whatever day of the week it is) with a braided challah, wow the woodlands with a homemade pizza, or make dumplings for your casserole or for your Chinese dim sum, then stick around.”
Another camper/critic applauded the digression from the traditional “shoe leather and birdseed” approach to campsite food. “Be prepared to break out the food dehydrator and camping oven,” he warned, but concluded that “Leave-No-Crumbs is the best kind of camp companion: it kept us well-fed and laughing.”
The journey to the Marble Mountains camp trail was a long one for Kahn, who still teaches and spent spring quarter at Stanford in Beijing. He says he began his career with one aim: “I didn’t want to sell insurance in Poughkeepsie.” Instead, he studied Swedish with a scholarship to the University of Stockholm. (At the time he received the scholarship, he says, he wasn’t even sure where Sweden was.) En route to Harvard to pursue political science, someone encouraged him to study China. At that point, he recalls, the only Chinese names he knew were Charlie Chan and Anna May Wong.
But something about the culture grabbed him. He is now a specialist in the Manchurian Qing dynasty and the emperor, painter and poet Qianglong, who reigned for 60 years (1736-1796). “He basically was the 18th century,” says Kahn, noting it would be like having Truman still president today.
Greenspan was working toward a master’s degree in the School of Education when he realized he wasn’t interested in studying the effects of class size on student learning. He moved to San Francisco during the height of the feminist movement. His girlfriend was taking a course in auto mechanics for women, and Greenspan asked if he could tag along. He loved it. “I like fixing things,” says Greenspan, who found a way to combine both fields: he teaches auto mechanics at Alameda College.
Kahn and Greenspan concede they devote a lot of time to preparing meals on the trail. “It’s not unusual for us to spend all day cooking,” says Greenspan. Kahn recalls waking up one morning and asking Greenspan, “What shall we do today?” Greenspan replied, “Let’s eat dessert.” So they made desserts all day in the wilderness.
But they don’t just cook. While one stirs the risotto, the other reads aloud—Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Dickens’s Bleak House, or maybe a popular detective novel from Janet Evanovich. They have no tales of lions and tigers and bears in the wilderness. “Rick and I are not newsworthy,” says Kahn. “Nothing happens except we have a good time. And we always have a good time.”
Digs from their critics raise the obvious question: why not just stay home and cook? Kahn stares in disbelief at the question. “It’s fun,” he says. “You get to places so beautiful and so remote, there’s no way to see them except by walking there.”
Kahn also admits that a typical camping trip is not strictly persimmon bread and pizzas made in a frying pan. “The notion of going camping without gingersnaps is alien to me,” he says. So you can keep the granola if you want. Their rule of thumb is simple: “Do not take what you do not like to eat.”
CYNTHIA HAVEN is a frequent contributor to Showcase.
- Be the first one to add a comment. You must log in to comment.
The Streak that Nearly Snapped
Seeing at the Speed of Sound
Let Me Introduce Myself
The Effort Effect
Data is from the past two weeks.