Pretending to know how to grill, or, Jill goes camping

campfire cookingA few weeks ago I went back home to Michigan to go camping in Watervliet, near Lake Michigan. My family camped multiple times a summer when I was younger, and used a popup. I don’t care if you think that’s not camping—when it’s pouring rain and you are sitting in the middle of the tent trying not to touch the sides for fear of moisture leaking in, and trying not to sit on the huge pile of sand or that dead bug, we’ll be sitting warm and dry at our table playing cards. I will agree, though, that if you take your gigantic 1-mile-per-gallon motorhome out to some spot and call it camping, you are either well past retirement or a total failure at camping. I may as well say I’ve been camping in Boston since January. I have heat, a shower, and an oven in my apartment, too. But we were going tent camping, which makes cooking that much more challenging.

We had a group of 14 coming from different parts of the country and state, in four different cars from four different directions. From East Lansing, a group of four of us somehow managed to fit four sleeping bags, four camp chairs, four suitcases, and a myriad collection of camping supplies into a four-door sedan. Meaning that we assumed we would shop for food when we got there and used the empty cooler for transporting our socks instead.

The rain stopped and we were able to set up our tent in (relatively) dry weather. As the other groups started to show up, we realized how vastly underprepared we were. One married couple and another couple came lugging coolers and cookstoves, pots and pans and robots, and all sorts of implements that we’d opted to leave behind to save space. I felt like shouting “We left stuff behind on purpose! I’m an experienced camper, I swear! Please don’t judge me!” “We’ll go in the morning,” I reassured my tent-mates. I hoped to prove my pot-pie-making prowess. And that I wasn’t an idiot.

In the morning, we realized we were idiots. I woke up to the sound of my friends making something spectacular like omelets or cinnamon rolls or something, and we realized that we still didn’t have food. And we didn’t feel like driving all the way to the grocery store in our mud-hemmed sweatpants and come all the way back and have to cook everything. The rest of us gave up trying to prove our collective manhood and walked up to the campground diner for a buffet breakfast to eat French Toast and bacon in shame. As soon as we got back to the campsite, we dressed and headed for the grocery store.

That night, Charlie and I got ready to make burgers. We both love red meat enough to know that you don’t need anything else to make a complete meal. Everyone else fell to their own food preparation, wrapping corn and spearing hot dogs and getting the flambé pan ready. Right away, everyone fell into gender roles—all the women getting plates and paper towel and utensils and tongs and the boys prodding the fire with sticks and molding raw meat into patties. I would have loved to take the lead on the raw animal flesh, but I know it would be a failure, so I accepted my fate and started getting buns ready to toast and trying to find ketchup.

Charlie is a professional at cooking all things meat, and I let him do it—I would likely overcook steaks or check the burgers for redness so often that they would fall apart. He likes to season the shit out of the things, and I let him—it always turns out well. I just don’t ask what he did to it. He knows to avoid onions and mushrooms.

However, we were camping, so none of his usual arsenal of spices and sauces was available. The prospect of charred meat alone was pretty depressing, until I remembered a previous camping discovery. I went and got the maple syrup out of the car, and he poured it over the meat and folded it into thick patties.

Our burgers were thick and juicy and tasted fantastic with the hint of maple and the toasted hamburger buns. I looked with disdain at the vegetables another couple was preparing on a tripod. Who wants to eat vegetables when you have a hunk of burger in front of you? But a few days later, two of my friends had cut up some vegetables and were eating them with fat-free veggie dip. They had extra and offered them to the rest of us. We pounced on them like we hadn’t just polished off a 6-pound bag of gummi bears, innumerable pounds of meat, and several boxes of wine. I ate broccoli without dip. It turns out vegetables might have been a nice accompaniment. My goal for the next camping trip is to make some Jill-friendly vegetables.

I was still disappointed by the fact that I had shown off nothing but my ability to consume multiple burgers, so the next night I readied the ingredients for pizza pot-pies: bread, butter, pizza sauce, mozzarella cheese, and pepperoni. One by one, people pulled their burned pot-pies out of the fire while I made sure the backs of the bread slices were liberally and completely buttered. I offered to make one for Charlie, and placed my pot-pie onto the coals along with others’. The trick with pot pies is to find coals, not flames, and to check the pot pie often.

I pulled mine out of the fire and set it nonchalantly on a plate in front of Charlie. The bread was steaming and golden brown, and the cheese was melted and the sauce hot, but not burning. One of my friends looked at it, and said, “Jill is the only one who cooked them right.”

Look who else knows what to do with an open flame.

4 Responses to “Pretending to know how to grill, or, Jill goes camping”
  1. Lindsey says:

    Pot pies cooked in a campfire sound amazing! I would love to hear about the method/recipe in more detail if Miss Jill would like to share?

    • Jill says:

      Thanks Lindsey! “Pot pie” is probably a bit of a misnomer, since they are not pot pies in the traditional chicken, peas, and carrots sense. It’s more like a grilled cheese than anything else. We used pie irons, which most people will use to make dessert versions with fruit filling ( To make the pot pie, butter two pieces of bread and place one butter side down in each side of the pie iron. Then, add your desired fillings to one side (being careful not to overfill). I typically do a pizza version with pepperoni, mozzarella cheese, and pizza sauce, but you could add anything. I had thought it might be delicious with pesto, cooked chicken and mozzarella, too. Throw it on the coals, turn it, and you’re done!

      …Spelling it out like this makes it look much simpler and therefore less impressive, but they are delicious regardless.

  2. cd says:

    Pot pies sound suspicious like marijuana brownies. Other options can be ham and cheese or some mores(chocolate and marshmallow).
    How about avocado and basil or artichoke and peppers or bananas and chocolate or pineapple and strawberry or mango and tuna or ??? Hamburger and maple that is really going too far.

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