The Best Way to Cook Lunch in the Outdoors

The Best Way to Cook Lunch in the Outdoors

Orion, the great hunter, was starting his daily sweep across the southern sky when my wife and I tied the tent flaps shut and walked away from camp. It was a clear October morning. The grass was stiff with frost. The crisp air was fresh with the odor of fir and pine. We were here to hunt elk, and since they feed at night and move into their daytime hideouts at dawn, we would be watching a saddle a mile away by the time it was light enough to see our rifle sights.

Our strategy didn’t work that morning. The herd of elk we had hoped to intercept took a different route from the open south slope where they had been feeding to the spruce jungle where they spent the days. We left our vantage point at sunrise and wandered away to the north, hunting through the open lodgepole pine forest and skirting the thickets, and though we saw fresh tracks almost everywhere, we saw no elk.

Noon found us beside a tiny brook that meandered through a mountain meadow. The sun was warm now—we had long since shed our coats—and this would be a good spot to eat our lunch. And it was to be a memorable one, the brightest memory from that hunt of 15 years ago.

August 1970 cover of Field & Stream magazine
“Making the Most of Lunch Breaks” was published in August 1970. Field & Stream

In my knapsack was a typewriter ribbon box containing two 6-foot lengths of line, a coil of monofilament for leaders, and half a dozen flies. I cut a couple of alders, as straight and slender as I could find, and rigged them so the combined length of each line and leader was a little shorter than the pole. Then, in perhaps 20 minutes, we caught 10 beautiful, little, native cutthroat trout.

Ellen gathered wood and started a fire while I dressed our fish and made a crude broiler by lashing a couple of green alder twigs to another larger alder that had a narrow fork. It didn’t take long for the half-inch fuel to burn down and leave hot but short-lived coals. As soon as they were ready, I started broiling our trout, first salting them lightly inside and out. Meanwhile, Ellen kept the fire going beside the bed of coals so more would be available as I needed them. Over the flames, she heated water for our tea.

Lunch was soon ready—tea, a sandwich and apple each, and our delicious trout. Little, wild trout are a delicacy at any time. Broiled on the stream bank 10 minutes after they are caught, with just a hint of smoky flavor from the coals, they are superb.

It was a perfect meal in a perfect setting. No dining room anywhere could equal ours that day. The meadow, about 7,500 feet above the level of the sea, sloped away gently toward the south, bordered in spots by dark thickets of spruce or fir, in others by sun-dappled hillsides under an open stand of lodgepole pine. Here and there a clump of golden aspens broke the solid green of the coniferous forest. And far beyond, softened by the blue haze of distance, the skyline was a snowcapped ridge.

When you’re hunting, you’re busy trying to find game… Even though you may be aware of your surroundings, you can’t devote your full attention to the sights and sounds of the wild. Nature rewards the idle, and most of us, I fear, are idle only when we sit down to eat our lunch.

Ted Trueblood

The air was good to breathe, fresh and stimulating. The temperature was perfect, warm in the sun, a little chilly in the shade. There were none of civilization’s jarring sounds; only the odd, half-musical croaking of a raven broke the stillness. Nowhere, as far as we could see in any direction, was the landscape scarred by roads or logging or any other evidence of man. It was easy to feel as wild and free as the eagle circling slowly in the far blue sky.

We lingered longer than we had planned. I smoked my pipe and we made another can of tea and drank it before we finally drenched the coals from our fire and went on, hunting slowly back toward camp.

Strangely, when I look back on countless hunting and fishing trips, I can remember dozens of noon breaks for lunch, even though I may have forgotten other details. Or maybe it isn’t so strange, at that.

When you’re hunting you’re busy trying to find game. When you’re fishing you’re busy trying to catch fish. Even though you may be aware of your surroundings, you can’t devote your full attention to the sights and sounds and odors of the wild. Nature rewards the idle, and most of us, I fear, are idle only when we sit down to eat our lunch.

There was a time when I hunted or fished all day without pausing to eat. It isn’t hard. A hearty breakfast will keep you going until dinnertime if your enthusiasm is high. I have friends who still do it. But they are missing a part, sometimes the best part, of a day in the open. After all, since we don’t hunt or fish in self-defense, letting the magic therapy of the outdoors heal the scars of everyday life is the first reason for being there.

The standard outdoorsman’s lunch—a sandwich, a candy bar, an apple, maybe a hard-boiled egg, and a vacuum bottle of coffee—eventually gets monotonous. I’ve eaten thousands of them and I expect to eat more on days when there is no opportunity to do better. But it really doesn’t take much effort to improve on this poor fare.

A fire alone transforms an ordinary lunch into an event. And you can do so many things with it so easily. For example, a cold cheese sandwich is only food. Wrap that sandwich in aluminum foil rather than the conventional waxed paper, however, prop it up beside your fire with a 6-inch twig, toast first one side and then the other, and it becomes something else again.

Lamb chops, venison chops, or small steaks, such as sirloin tips, can be broiled quickly and easily and you don’t have to wait for coals to do it. Simply sharpen an 18-inch twig on both ends. Shove one end into the ground and stick the other through the chop, close to one edge so it will hang vertical near the flames. You can use any kind of wood. Resinous varieties won’t flavor the meat because it isn’t over them. Feed your fire as necessary to maintain the flames and turn your chop when the first side is brown. Fresh tea or coffee alone is enough to justify a lunchtime fire, especially in cold weather. A tin can with a wire bail so you can suspend it from a stick over the fire makes as good tea as the finest china pot. Maybe better. Too, you can even find a flattish can that fits neatly in pack or pocket. A pint can, measuring approximately 2x4x6 inches, will hold a sandwich, a candy bar, and a couple of tea bags—and there’s your lunch.

Obviously, your luncheon fire should always be in a safe placeon bare, mineral soil and well removed from dry leaves or grass. And it should always be well drenched, thoroughly dead, before you leave it.

A small fire is safer and it is better for cooking because you can get close to it. You can boil water for tea over a fire that consumes but a handful of twigs and is no bigger than a saucer, Even in hot weather such a tiny fire, on a shaded beach or rocky point with a breeze, isn’t uncomfortable.

During the off season, when hunting is over and fishing is not yet good, we often make one-day outings that are a little hard to classify. They’re not picnics in the usual sense of the word and not really fishing trips because we’re not very serious about fishing.

Early last February, on a lovely Sunday that was really more like April, Art and Mary Dell Walz and Ellen and I spent such a day at a reservoir near home. We got there shortly after the sun came over the mountain, which isn’t early in February, and the women took a long hike while Art and I fished. We caught about forty crappies, and I suppose it was 2 o’clock when we met our wives at the car and began preparations for lunch.

First, we gathered wood and started a fire, a fairly big one because Art would need a good bed of coals for the lamb chops he planned to broil. Then we set up the camp table and made our other preparations while the fire burned down. We had salad, a loaf of garlic bread, which we heated in its foil wrapper beside the fire, beans, and baked potatoes. And there is a trick worth knowing here.

It takes about an hour to bake potatoes in your oven at home. Wrapped in foil, it also takes an hour to cook them beside a campfire. We knew we wouldn’t want to wait so long. So while she was getting breakfast, Ellen wrapped four big bakers in foil and put them in the oven. They were done by the time we were ready to start, and all they required later was heating through beside the fire.

After a pleasant interlude, the wood was reduced to coals. Art put his grill over them and spread a dozen lamb chops on it. The potatoes, beans (also baked at home), and bread were hot by now. My appetite was gone before we got to the dessert. 

Aluminum foil is a great help with many outing dishes. Most vegetables, including squash, carrots, turnips, celery, onions, cabbage, cauliflower can be cooked in foil in the oven at home and then require only heating beside the fire. A chicken, stuffed and roasted in foil at home and then browned for ten minutes outdoors over a hot fire, is delicious. A beef roast or ham is equally good. And it took me a long time to think of this—a small ice chest is just as good for keeping hot food hot in cold weather as it is for keeping cold food cold in the summer.

We camp in many places on the desert where there isn’t enough wood to broil a steak if you picked up every stick for half a mile. There are other spots where, for one reason or another, a fire is either inadvisable or prohibited. In these cases we either use our camp stove or charcoal. The stove is fine for making coffee and frying a few fish. But broiling calls for charcoal.

A hibachi is great outdoors. It uses little fuel and you can control the draft when there is a breeze. Charcoal also works very well right on the ground, and we have broiled countless fine steaks that way.

It takes just a little more effort to prepare a perfect meal, and I can’t think of a better way to end a pleasant day in the outdoors.


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