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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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.