Cooking with Fire

Turns out if the teenager says ‘we have plenty!’ you do not, in fact, have anywhere near enough to even cook hamburgers, let alone a whole-day smoking of 20+ lbs of pork meat in various cuts. So the time I’d planned for writing the blog is going to be spent instead running off to the store for a bag of charcoal. (edit after run: two bags, plus a bag of mesquite chips, and a bag of mesquite chunks. The logs I’d bought from a friend were too darn big for my tiny grill)

Rewards to being up bright and early to start the cook: clear cool morning air before the Texas sun turns it into a blast furnace.

I’ll leave you with this. I’ve done a lot of cooking over the years. I’ve cooked on gas, on electric, over a propane burner in the front yard to keep from heating the whole house to intolerable levels while doing my canning. New England houses don’t, as a rule, have AC when they were constructed just post-Civil War and only reluctantly updated over the years. I could tell stories just on that house alone… Where was I? Oh, yes. I’ve cooked on grills, and smokers, and over more campfires than I could shake a stick at. Or poke a stick into. Including a fire in the sugar bush at the aforementioned farmhouse, on New Year’s Eve, that turned into coal-roasted squash and potatoes with steaks grilled over them and a pot of water my Dad insisted we bring to a boil to ‘wash dishes’ before producing three lobsters from his packbasket for the three of us eating that night. A memorable meal that was.

I’ve cooked what I caught, shot, cleaned, or butchered after hand-raising. I’ve dug, manured, weeded, and harvested what I was going to cook. It’s back-breaking heart-aching work. These days I get what I’m going to cook at the markets, and don’t even have a garden. Yet. Fall will bring rain, cooler weather, and another growing season here in Texas. I sometimes wonder why I stubbornly persist in throwing myself at a garden, knowing I’m too busy to give it the time and effort it needs. Then again, there’s a vine-ripe tomato that tastes like nothing you’ll ever buy in a store. There is walking out the backdoor for handfuls of fresh herbs that give more flavor than the sad dried bits in a jar could dream of providing.

I’m back to doing Eat This While You Read That. Pairing food and reading is a natural for me, having grown up with parents who didn’t mind reading at the table, and often were doing it themselves. The First Reader and I will go out, sometimes, for no reason, and sit at a restaurant with our fingers intertwined over the table, phones in the other hand, quietly reading together. I cook, I eat…

And now that I’ve run off to the store and have sufficient charcoal, and woodchips to provide the smoky flavor, I’ll finish this off, later than I ought. Meat’s over heat.

Writers tend to dodge around food. I know I have in many of my books. Either having a replicator churn out molecularly-correct nutrients, or simply not paying it much mind at all. There’s been some books I read who got it right – Rob Howell’s fantasy detective stories, or Nathan Lowell’s Quarter Share series spring to mind immediately – and many who got it wrong. Few fantasy writers understand the efforts involved in feeding an adventuring party, far less an army on the move.

What books have you seen get it right? Or hilariously wrong?

22 comments

  1. Just because it used to appear so often it became a trope: camp and make stew that’s ready in an hour or less. This starting with raw ingredients from . . . Your guess is at least as good as mine. A private pocket reality? Our party of adventurers carries a big metal pot, and raw meat, and raw root veggies, and herbs, and all when they are traveling on foot? (Samwise Gamgee is excused. These books were not about him.)

    1. I mean, even overlooking where all the bulky ingredients came from and the pot (was it being worn as a helmet?) there’s the time! Stew in an hour? without a pressure cooker?

      1. See, that went Sam was the true hero of the books.

        That said, I’ve read its possible to sear a fish pretty quickly if you’ve got a hot skillet. Haven’t tried it myself, but should.

        On how to handle food, I know there are at least a few YouTube channels that do historical food. The Townsends have done a number of things on travelling food and food storage:

        https://youtube.com/user/jastownsendandson

        I gather a lot of it is mixing stuff and grilling it ala frybread.

        Roman style (aka Free range) fruitcake also travels well and is quite nice. Just no driving after consuming it…

        Eggs, if they haven’t been washed keep well at room temperature.

    2. Stew is for inns, where you leave the pot on the coals all day and add food as it becomes available.

    3. Even Sam didn’t carry raw meat and veggies; the one time you see him cook on the trail, Smeagol brought him the rabbits, and it specifically notes that any sort of veggies were greens he was able to forage near camp. And we don’t know how long it would have taken to cook them, because Sam’s fire attracted Faramir’s attention.

  2. *snicker* I always used to wonder where all the food and cooking gear came from, in westerns when the characters were traveling on horseback, with nothing more than a rolled-up blanket and a pair of small saddlebags in evidence in the earlier shots.
    The one movie that poked good fun at this trope was the parody western Rustler’s Rhapsody, where the hero character had a whole small wardrobe wagon following after, which was parked at his campsite.

    1. The chuck wagon.

      The cook would set out at a brisk pace, set up camp while it was still morning, and cook. Because the slower the cattle went, the less meat they would walk off, the cowboys would arrive just in time to eat.

      Some Westerns are confused about this.

      1. Oh, I knew about the chuck wagons – and how they operated on long-trail cattle drives. (Such drives featured highly in several of my books.) I meant the movies and TV series with some guys traveling light and on their own, who mysteriously arrived at a camping place at the end of the day … and the cooking gear and meal appeared out of … what, the forth dimension?

        1. On shorpy.com there are a bunch of Civil War photographs. Some Union soldiers brought their families along when they marched out; wives and children set up camps behind the action. There are photos of their tents, often with everyone holding at least one pot, or at least prominently sitting or hanging nearby.

          I wondered about that, until I realized that the pots were probably a sign of relative wealth, and that they had multiple uses. You could cook food in one, or carry water, or do laundry, or store stuff, or use it to carry things, or even use it as a chamber pot. When the rest of your belongings consisted mostly of some clothing and a tent, a pot was a swiss-army-implement.

  3. *grins* The last book with hiking in it, I included many comments on testing out hiking rations and finding them wanting, as well as supplementing on the side with fruit and game… and it not being enough, and being a burden to try to take with them.

    Because food! It’s important! And it’s a hassle! And commercial trail rations never taste as good as advertised, unless you’re actually that hungry.

  4. Just finished Five Red Herrings, where a suspect’s alibi involves getting roped into sailing on a very small yacht in Spartan conditions, off the coast of Scotland. He complains at one point that he was basically frying whatever they caught from a sitting/squatting position with his head between his knees. Never done that myself, but it rang true to me. In the Third Girl, Poirot’s horrified descriptions of midcentury Brit dishes like beans on toast also rang true. Third Girl is kind of a lame mystery but its dystopian take on 1960s London is interesting overall, and the food is part of that.

    I don’t know that I remember any westerns where the lone stranger materialized a significant amount of cooking gear out of his saddle bags. In For a Few Dollars More, the Man with No Name pours up some coffee after overnighting with a couple of bandits whose gang he’s infiltrated. It didn’t seem crazy to me that three guys between them could put together coffee pot, water, coffee grounds, and tin cups out of their gear.

    1. The only surprise was that it was an actual coffeepot rather than a tin can with a wire handle. See Also billy can.

  5. For too big logs a saw like this from a local store will make it just right. Put the wood on one end and the teen on the other. Maybe pick up some whine-stopper ear plugs too?

  6. I included a couple of dinner scenes in Texas at the Coronation, including one that introduced a British Admiral to that Texas delicacy, chicken fried steak.

    1. You just convinced me that I need to look at Texas at the Coronation. Because chicken fried steak.

      1. Thank you. I hope you enjoy it. I’m working on book two now, and I have a short story set in the same universe in an anthology that should be coming out soon.

  7. I always wonder the same thing. How are these people on the trail finding time to cook? And what are they cooking? And how about water?

    And don’t the horses need some time to graze and need water? And any dogs?

    They’re like infrastructure questions. I start noticing discrepancies and I’m thrown right out of the book.

    I try very hard to avoid those problems in my own writing.

    1. I usually have my characters walk just so I can stick to pedastrian problems if, indeed, there will be problems. (A royal party taking a well-traveled road from their capital to a foreign but close one to celebrate a wedding of a cousin, and then back, will not have story significant problems except in the rarest of cases.)

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