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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

© DNR Photo

August 2006

Well seasoned memories

Treasured recipes from a new cookbook stir up thoughts of good times around the campfire and stove.

David L. Sperling


© DNR Photo

Where to buy the cookbook

Our memories are a montage and mélange of the sights and sounds of our past, blended together to recall a friend, a face, a time or place. Surely underrated among those memory triggers, smell and taste quickly stir up old recollections, and just a waft of a certain odor can bring you right back. The tasty recipes in The Many Seasons of Peninsula State Park: A Camp Cookbook serve as guides for enjoying those simpler times.

Most of the 359 recipes are leavened with a good dash of humor and seasoned with short stories introducing the families and workers who inhabited the park from the early 1900s through the present. I say "inhabited" because people who camped at the park year after year for 30 to 50 years, or who stayed there for months at a time, could hardly be described as "visitors;" these folks were truly encamped.

Page after page and voice by voice, today's younger readers get a sense of what it was like to go camping in the era before ripstop nylon tents and pop-up campers. The equipment was much larger and heavier, befitting a stay of two weeks or more rather than a long weekend. Families set up big, high canvas tents that accommodated full-sized cots for each member of the family. If your clan planned to stay the summer (for a fee of $18 for the whole summer season!), it wasn't especially uncommon to outfit THREE tents – one for adults, one for children and a separate cook tent where mom set up a pantry. If the menu called for something more elaborate, several families could share oven space in the big cook stove in the park's cookhouse. In those days as now, local Door County merchants catered to the summer tourists, driving through the campgrounds to take orders and offering campers weekly grocery delivery, ice delivery and laundry services.

The cookbook provides interesting tidbits about each of the park's six superintendents in its 97-year history. One story is so eye-opening it will be retold here, at the end of the article.

The recipes, grouped into sections on snacks, breads and pastries, soup and salads, side dishes, breakfasts, main dishes, wild game and fish, and a big selection of cookies, s'mores, cakes and pies, are hardly all campfire fare; I suspect most were perfected in the communal cook stove. But some quick snacks and dishes you'd only try around a campfire – like Mud Apples, apples slathered with an inch-thick coating of mud, buried into glowing coals, and baked until the mud hardens. When cool, crack off the mud and scoop the warm filling out of the skins.

Readers will pick up interesting tips for living off the land. A simple recipe for Dandelion Fritters tells how to batter up and fry those profuse flower buds. For Sumac Lemonade, gather the red berries from staghorn sumac trees. Soak a cup of the fuzzy berries in one quart of warm water. Let it cool overnight, strain through cheesecloth. Sweeten the pink liquid with sugar or low-cal sweetener and enjoy a refreshing drink.

A whole group of recipes give kids a chance to make some fun foods that can double as scary Halloween treats. These confections include the colorful Been Camping Too Long Armpit Hairs, Edible Campfire Coyote Droppings, Apple Ladybug Treats, No-Bake Snakes and the ever-popular Pit Toilet Jell-O, a recipe submitted by the park maintenance crew. You can wash it all down with a mix of lemonade, limeade and rainbow sherbet dubbed Day-Old Bathwater.

If you lean toward the wild side, try the recipes for venison, squirrel, turtle, pheasant, wild turkey, a slow-cooker version of raccoon in apple cider, and a Dutch oven paprikash recipe for Smothered Muskrat and Onions. The dressed muskrat meat is soaked in salted cold water overnight, drained, patted dry, seasoned with flour and paprika, browned in oil or butter and then slowly simmered in an onion and sour cream sauce for an hour until tender.

Reacquaint yourself with recipes for those tinfoil dinners from scouting or summer camp – ground meats, potatoes, veggies and spices wrapped in a sheet of foil, then tossed on the coals or grilled until the foil is charred and the contents steaming hot. Skillet hot dishes tempt the palate with lasagna, enchilada, stroganoff, walnut chicken with cherry glaze, campside pizzas, pork chop and barbecue options. And there are burger ideas galore, including Lone Ranger Burgers (a mask of black olives disguises the ground chuck). As times have changed, there's also a healthy mix of vegetarian offerings like Chipotle-Glazed Veggie Kebabs, Veggie Couscous with Feta, and Grilled Zucchini Lasagna.

Authentic recipes from some of the old CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camps and standards from the heart of the Great Depression show how people made a dollar stretch. Like this recipe:

Rinktum Ditty

1 can condensed cream of tomato soup
2 cups cheddar cheese, grated
½ teaspoon dry mustard
1 egg, slightly beaten
6 pieces of toast

Heat soup over low heat. Add cheese, stir until melted. Add mustard and egg. Heat thoroughly and serve on toast. Yield: six servings

Often served with pickles, olives and raw carrots on the side, Rinktum Ditty was an easy, affordable dish. It had several variations, all served over toast:

Pink Poodle: Follow recipe for Rinktum Ditty, but add a little red wine.

Blushing Bunny: Melt two tablespoons of butter in a saucepan, blend with two tablespoons of flour, add soup, cheese, salt and pepper.

English Monkey: Melt two tablespoons of butter in a saucepan. Blend in a like amount of flour. Add a cup of grated cheddar cheese and two beaten eggs. Cook thoroughly.

Pink Monkey: Melt two tablespoons of butter in a saucepan. Blend in two tablespoons of flour. Add two cups grated cheese, chopped green onions and one can condensed tomato soup.

Lenox Rarebit: Combine one can condensed tomato soup, two beaten eggs and four ounces of cream cheese. Heat thoroughly.

Welsh Rarebit: Combine one can condensed tomato soup, two cups grated cheddar cheese, a dash of Worcestershire sauce and a dash of cayenne pepper.

Try these recipes over your own Hobo Stove (a coffee can and some melted paraffin in a small tin can; the book shows you how to make one) and you'll appreciate how people made do in tough times.

Make a hobo stove using a tuna can, coffee can, cardboard and paraffin. © Kathleen Harris
Make a hobo stove using a tuna can, coffee can, cardboard and paraffin.

© Kathleen Harris

The cookbook features ample recollections of simple pleasures and also includes a few tales that go beyond simple to the downright elemental. Check out this reminiscence from Gary Patzke, who was Park Superintendent from 1974-84. His family camped at Peninsula for two weeks every summer for nearly 50 years. Even if this account is a bit of a stretch or even if some of it happened once, it is seasoned with enough humor to make a good yarn.

Road Kill Delight

When I was a child, my parents always spent their annual vacation at Peninsula State Park. We lived in Racine and in those days there were no expressways, so the route to Peninsula went through the heart of Milwaukee. To minimize traffic, my parents usually left at 1 a.m. My sister and I retired early the night before, but never slept much because we were too excited. Once we were clear of Milwaukee, our job was to keep our eyes peeled for road kill. It didn't matter much what animal, except we learned the hard way skunk wasn't at the top of the list. Once we even found a nearly intact deer, but when dad kicked it to see if it was still alive, it exploded! Perhaps its bloated size should have tipped him off.

After we found the "kill," it was my sister's and my job to pluck it, skin it and gut it in the back seat. The first few years it was kind of messy, but with a little practice, we managed to do the job quite nicely without the dog and cat going too crazy. Once we had it prepared, dad tied the carcass to the luggage rack to keep it cool on the trip north. Despite the noise of the carcass flapping in the wind, we eventually fell asleep.

When we arrived at the campsite, mom woke us up so we could gather "beater" rocks to tenderize the carcass. Sometimes we were lucky as tire tracks had done the job for us. If not, we beat it to a bloody pulp and then seasoned it with mom's Louisiana "red hot." Finally we rubbed campfire ashes over the entire carcass to give it a nice smoky flavor.

My sister skewered a willow stick through the carcass butt to front so we could "spit" it over the campfire. We traded off turning the spit, but usually tired after about 30 minutes, so we called mom and dad to "Come and get it," even if it was on the rare side. Dad always washed down his portion with three to four beers, as he said it "slid down better."

If we were lucky, we could feed off the carcass two to three days as long as we didn't have too many rangers to share it with. Usually the smell kept them away, as some of those rangers would eat just about anything as long as it was free! We were always glad to oblige, as we were eager to build up "points" to offset the inevitable trouble that always seemed to find us.

Our two weeks of vacation seemed to fly by. And soon we were packing up and dreaming about the unknown road kill treasures that waited us on the way home.

The Many Seasons of Peninsula State Park: A Camp Cookbook is available for $12.50 ($10 plus $2.50 shipping) from Peninsula State Park, 9462 Shore Road, P.O. Box 218, Fish Creek, WI 54202. Make checks payable to Wisconsin DNR. Proceeds help fund the Peninsula Park education programs.

David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.