I was unpacking from a weekend of camping with my family, throwing clothes haphazardly into my laundry basket. Giving a jacket a sniff to test its eligibility for the pile, I discovered the residual smell of campfire. Briefly weighing my options, I draped the jacket over my bedpost. I wanted to hold on to that cozy, comforting aroma just a little while longer.
I’ve been camping with my family since I was very young, so that which is associated with the activity stirs a lot of pleasant feelings. Naturally, these feelings extend to our traditional camping foods. Hot dogs roasted over an open flame, s’mores assembled by flashlight, bacon and egg sandwiches on English fried toast: these are what complete a successful camping trip. These foods on their own are tasty, but there’s something about the context of chowing down outside a pop-up in a folding chair in the woods that makes them exponentially better.
Why is it that a setting can change our culinary experience so drastically? Is it simply that we fall privy to certain perceptual sets as we sit down to dine? In other words, do our prior experiences in a setting set us up for similar experiences the next time around? Surely that constitutes part of the explanation. However, there remains the question of why we eat certain foods in certain settings in the first place. At the basic level, there is the matter of convenience. Given the nature if camping, it is of no surprise that hot dogs and baked beans are considered standard fare whereas chicken cordon bleu is not. A good camping meal requires minimal assembly, minimal cook time, and minimal cooler space.
Convenience alone doesn’t craft our eating patterns, though. We are also inspired by the unique methods of cooking available to us in a particular setting. It is not often we are able to prepare our food over a crackling campfire, so we take advantage of the rarity when we can. This adds a feeling of occasion to what may otherwise seem a humble meal. This method of cooking also introduces the dynamic of preparing food as a group, casually striking conversation and snacking as you go. It’s almost like jumpstarting a mini party every time you pull out the skewers and pull up around the fire pit.
Contrastingly, camp breakfasts are accompanied by a refreshing rather than stimulating atmosphere. The crisp morning air clears the mind, birdsong and soft light trickle through the trees, and your pajamas keep you nice and cozy. Soon, the scent of sausage begins to permeate the air and the pop-sizzle of bacon plays drummer to the blue jay’s song. The backdrop has been set for what will be a singularly spectacular show, despite a rather familiar cast. With palettes unfettered by the taste of civilization, campers tuck in to the morning meal with a sense of never having tasted anything before. Even accompanying fruits take on stronger and more satisfying flavors and textures. This phenomenon remains a mystery to me, and I have not yet formulated an adequate hypothesis to explain it. I can only return to the recurring feeling of “freshness” and gratefully accept it as the root of the experience.
Even now, reminiscing about the unique camping atmosphere and the crunch of a well roasted hot dog is bringing me great content. Although I could further question why that is, I think, for the sake of preserving its mystical purity, I’ll let the matter rest. The only reason I inquired in the first place was that I figured, having identified what makes camping meals amazing, I could extend the fabulousness to everyday culinary fare. In the end, it’s just food for thought.
If you need me, I’ll be snuggling my smoke-infused jacket.