Something’s in the air: woodsmoke on the breeze. The best new restaurants are fern-lined and fire-lit, their tables set with moss and seaweed sculptures — centerpiece or salad course? Cooking magazines read like gardening journals; cooking shows like survivalist documentaries. We forage, we flame grill, we hang up our aprons and lace up hiking boots instead. Food has gone feral. And for good reason: Everything tastes better outdoors. Remember summer camp? Mosquitoes in your mac-and-cheese, bark in your s’mores, grit in your grits — we dug in anyway. Summer’s delights are best seasoned with dirt. Times change but tastes don’t. We’ve traded grass-stained t-shirts for polos, friendship bracelets for fancy watches, but come the dinner bell we still dream of gathering ‘round the campfire. So pull up a stump and whittle a fork. This season’s crate is the best in refined but rustic joys, the campsite cuisine you remember — gorp and mac-and-cheese, jerky and PB&Js — dirty still, but all grown up.
Hawaiian Style Jerky // Chudabeef Jerky Co. // Long Beach, CA
Flavor is an afterthought with store-bought jerky. You’re lucky if it’s edible — let alone made out of recognizable cuts of real meat. And cracked-pepper shrapnel or a sprinkling of cayenne is often the best you’ll do when it comes to fancifying this fill-station feed. We appreciate jerky’s quick and dirty boost of energy, its clean protein, and the primal, utilitarian aesthetic of a pure, dried hunk of meat. But we ain’t survivalists. Pamper us a little. Chudabeef does: two-dozens grams of protein per package to keep your caveman cravings happy, with a slightly sweetened marinade of orange juice and pineapple to satisfy your more evolved tastes.
Brazen Buffalo Wing // Giddy Up Nuts // Los Angeles, CA
Worse ideas have been born on predawn ski trip runs to the gas station, en route to first chair, or late-night rest stop visits before pulling into camp, to stock up on last minute forgotten items. King-sized candy tempts when lit by flickering fluorescents and seasoned with rumbling bellies. But when the sugar high fades, you’ll wish for wiser choices. On their own pre-ski supply run, faced with questionable jerky and slowly spinning heat lamp dogs, these friends let their better judgment prevail, shunned the junk food and started Giddy Up. Satisfyingly savory with a zesty zing from fresh pepper, garlic, and just enough celery salt, pack these almonds for a trail-side snack, or hors d’oeuvres while you wait for the kettle to sing.
Crimson Seasoning // Bravado Spice Co. // Houston, TX
We suspect the name’s a tongue-in-capsaicin-coated cheek dig at other, er, more blue collar sauce names — looking at you, Frank. That’s because this one’s so much more than just a sauce, and world’s above simple heat. Jalapeños and arbols bring a rich mix of fruit, citrus, and, oh yeah, fire to your usual fare — think tacos and pizza slices — but makes this a burly enough vehicle for hearty marinades and deeply simmered sauces. Try this: Marinate strips of tenderloin in Crimson Seasoning and a drizzle of olive oil for thirty minutes, then grill fast and hot. Serve with similarly marinated onions. And remember, name aside, the sauce is no joke: Use sparingly, or keep the canteen close.
Angry Cukes // Doux South // Decatur, GA
This farm-to-table chef, raised in New Orleans on homemade pickles, knows that while canning is all about long-term storage, there’s nothing stale about a perfect pickle. It should crunch, it should snap, it should bite back, livelier than the day it was jarred — not smooshed or sodden but brightened by the brine. And Angry Cukes are as fresh as they get, with just enough dill, zested with vinegar, and a sweet spicy crunch. Angry? Only when you see an empty jar.
Green Chili Mac & Cheese // FishSki Provisions // Boulder, CO
The college sweethearts behind FishSki shared everything: Rocky Mountain pride, love of the outdoors, and good campfire food — especially a bowl of aprés-ski mac and cheese, with extra hot pepper sauce. One problem: green or red? Lest the classic Colorado conundrum douse these lovers’ flames, they turned the question into a business. Now everyone’s happy, especially ravenous campers tired of scraping the bottom of the backpack for broken bricks of ramen and gritty neon orange m-and-c from a box. We happen to side with Rob on this one (he went green), but no matter the color, easy campsite cooking just got even easier. Boiling water — and a big-ass bowl — is all you need.
Pecan Nut Butter // Georgia Grinders // Chamblee, GA
Campers pack it alongside the essentials: map, compass, dry socks, peanut butter. For outdoorsy types, it’s the alpha and omega, the ur-spread, slathered on rain-soggy tortillas in a desperate bivouac, or snuck straight from the jar on late night pantry raids. It’s so good, campers don’t mind the extra weight and prowling bears don’t mind the hassle of a hoisted food bag or, hell, even a well-locked car, known to bust down trees for a clawful. So don’t tell Yogi: Peanut butter has gotten even better. With Georgia pecans and real sea salt, Grinders makes a southern-style Elvis special good enough to dethrone the King: swap peach slices for banana, pecans for peanuts, and grill to perfection. Just be sure to hide your jar, or better, scrape it clean.
August 2017 Mantry | Campfire Cookout Vol. 3