"Hey, I'd Eat This at Home!" -- a New Cookbook for THE BEST Wilderness Cooking
December 07, 2010
Michael Gray is an outdoor guide who specializes in sea-kayak trips. But I have a suspicion the paddling is just an excuse. What he loves to do is cook. And please people. In tricky situations. The result is great eating and entertainment -- both with a “Wow” factor.
I’ve been acquainted with Michael and his outdoor enthusiasms for a long time. He’s a mix of discerning with gung-ho. So he’s ended up running his own adventure company, and in several different parts of the world. The occasion of his book is a fun chance for me to write about him!
Even though he’s a bigtime outdoor cook, he’s still an outdoor guide. But even the guide hat has two, uh, bills on it. One side is your pro trip organizer/host. Flip it around and you have a top-notch instructor. So, if you want to go fresh-air traveling somewhere, he’s your guy. And if, in particular, you want to learn about sea-kayaking or fly-fishing he’s your guy, too. Check out uncommonadv.com to see what I mean.
I got to paddle a SUP board for the first time last summer, trading back’n’forth with Michael between his board and my canoe. We were enjoying "walking on water" way out on the calm surface of Lake Michigan during a gorgeous sunset. Later on I asked him where he considers to be home. He looked quizzical. The world really seems to be his home “ anywhere where he can both push forward and take care of people. Home is where the drybag and cook-stove are. For real! He spends months each year in Roatan, Honduras, where he has a house. (Roatan --sounds like Croatan, the lost colony of Virginia: “Gone to Croatan” was all their note said. It’s assumed they went native. They saw something they liked and it wasn’t Puritan.) Michael also spends a lot of time in Alaska. And in the Rockies. And in northern Michigan, where he also has a house. --Cooking, cooking, cooking everywhere he goes.
He gives popular sea-kayak symposium presentations on cooking. And when he’s in Michigan I’ve heard stories about him being hired to make big, difficult, outdoor catering missions come off without a hitch. Word has gotten around that he likes a cooking challenge.
I’ve known about his cookbook project for years, too. A few years ago I was shocked to learn about the theft of his baby when the laptop it was stored on was stolen out West. It was almost done. But now it has finally made it to the finish line!
The thing is that there aren’t any other truly practical modern outdoor cookbooks out there. --Not with great food that’s been developed, honed and actually made time and again to raves from clients, and which works great for 3 traits that don’t always go together: ease, portability and pleasure. In short, this cookbook is about simple, sensible, single-burner gourmet cooking. Michael doesn't toot his own horn, but if you don’t fully appreciate the amazing impact his approach and recipes will have on whoever you cook for, then the “Backword” at the end will clue you in: he’s the Mario Batali of the backwoods but his approach to gourmet saves you time and money, and you don’t haul anything more around with you than usual. What’s more, every recipe has been table-ized and scaled for us, to cover several common sizes of groups. There are even meal lists for common trip-lengths.
The book has a neat “Group of Seven"-evoking cover painting of a feast-of-kayaking scene -- with a trail-proof, lay-flat, ruggedly coated cover stock.
In organizing the book, Michael starts at the beginning. What do you need from outdoor cooking? You need food to fuel the furnace. It has to be hard-working, healthy and local/fitting to the region where you are. And it has to be based around foodstuffs that are easy to get and easy to carry. From there he covers what you need to know to pack and carry it. Then there’s the equipment to cook it and serve it. Then stoves. Then how to manage your moveable outdoor feasting (and avoid attracting critters). Then come the recipes. Each one is flagged with icons that let you know what kind of trip it’s best for. *Heavy, complex recipes are for “base camps” accessible by car or where you’ll be staying awhile; *mid-weight meals are for water-borne camping (fresh fish!); *light-weight action for backpacking; and, finally, *fresh produce or vegetarian angles. Most recipes can be spun multiple ways.
This is zesty camp cooking for all levels and regions. But what stands out is the sea-kayaking, canoe-tripping angle. If you can haul a soft cooler along, plus fishing gear, Michael’s book will help you make quick food that will send your group into applause. But the dry-land oriented recipes are just as good. Maybe the waterworld food stands out because it usually gets short shrift. Now, water travel can vary a lot: freshwater, saltwater -- northern, southern, Caribbean -- where these angles come into play Michael gives us the nod -- as in when to use bananas, plantanos, or canned pineapple. Really, the bases are covered in ways that go beyond usual camp fare while staying within the same cargo and expense parameters. These recipes use few expensive freeze-dried ingredients. There’s a LOT you can use in the regular grocery store which Michaels clues us in on, especially the "eternal" cabbage!
The subhead of the book is “A Fresh and Fearless Approach to Wilderness and Home Cooking” and he means it. The big punchline of this book is that you’ll have dozens of quick’n’easy -- and superior -- recipes for cooking at home.
You gotta know that folks eat better when they head off for a week of wild weather and stuffsacks with Michael than they do at home. That's why they've been requesting this book for a decade. I’m going to be cooking from it, too! “And my family is going to be happy about that, especially Martha!
Michael loves his tried’n’true old outdoor cook kit, with his priceless antique Woody dutch oven nested in its two heavy pieces closest to his heart. These two 9-inch aluminum pans, which fit together for packing (one flips over to be the lid) weigh NINE POUNDS! It takes real loyalty to haul that baby around. The great thing is that after it had been long unavailable Michael and a friend decided to reproduce it and now he sells a new, improved Woody!
Michael’s approach shows he knows what’s important. An easy-to-grab lunch fixins' bag keeps people happily paddling through a day of wind and waves, but when the day is done, something else is needed. Thus Michael lets us know that a lot of these recipes SMELL GREAT while they’re cooking. Smell counts after a hard day outdoors! And the magic dutch oven pops up whenever Michael writes about great smells. Yes, baking hasn’t always been thought of along with quick’n’easy one-burner camp cooking, but Michael shows the way.
Then there’s good looks and good times, which come up a lot as well. If you can improve a dish in a few seconds -- in taste AND entertainment -- with something that weighs hardly anything to bring along, why not? Thus we quite often see brandy and liqueurs being used for added piquancy “ and sometimes for flaming flare.
With Michael’s writing it’s easy to visualize the flavor and the action, but I would request for the next edition: more, more, more photos! The text and photos are black’n’white, but the photos we get turned out fine. All I can say is MORE! And BIGGER. And ACTION -- I’d love to see picturesque camp kitchen scenes, and folks scarfing down their treats, and maybe a “funny but I’m glad I wasn’t there” pic showing why we need hot drinks on a day full of cool moisture.
The sidebar stories are a treat, too -- especially the one about the busman’s holiday where two guides take time out and skimp it on the cheap. I’m not sure, but it sounded like they baked French-bread in a bottomless coffee can rolled in coals -- huh?
Yeah, it’s a bold cookbook -- but it’s not over anyone’s head, so check it out.
Order it over at: uncommonadv.com/cookbook/orderCookbook.html
Michael's book cover.