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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Alimentary, My Dear

Sticks and Stones —
What Goes Around, Comes Around

By Tamia Nelson

March 20, 2007

It's snowing as I write this, but I've got summer on my mind. In fact, I've been sorting through my camp cookware, a motley collection of battered aluminum billies, soot-blackened stainless steel pans, cast-iron skillets, and military surplus cutlery, along with a mismatched collection of cups and bowls, not to mention two filleting knives. This batterie de cuisine isn't exactly fashionable, I admit. There's not a single titanium pot, for instance, and everything shows signs of having led a hard life. Still, each piece has served me well, no matter how unprepossessing its appearance. And that got me thinking about the evolution of campfire cookery.

There was a time when pots were made from baked clay rather than metal, and the cook's knives had blades of obsidian or flint — a time when gourds doubled as drinking cups. Some of these artifacts survive today in the dusty storerooms of museums or in locked cabinets in college anthropology departments. That's the fate of a lot of the things we label as "traditional." But not all relics of the past are gathering dust on somebody's shelves. There are living traditions, as well. Many old ways of doing things survive today simply because they're passed on from each generation to the next. Paddling is one such living tradition. Cooking…

Things on Sticks

…is another. After all, what could be easier than poking a green stick through a hot dog and roasting it over an open fire? Not much. It's a time-honored technique, too — as old as fire-making itself, probably, if not more ancient still. I suppose we'll never know for sure. In the final analysis, however, pedigree matters less than results. Meat roasted over a fire is delicious. That's the important thing. And hot dogs are only the beginning. Just about any meat can be skewered and cooked over flames or coals. You can bake bread on a stick, too. Make a stiff dough, then tear off a hunk and roll it between your palms. Now twist it around a stout stick and place it near a hot fire, turning as needed. In no time at all you'll have a golden spiral of hot bread. What about vegetables or fruit? Threaded onto a skewer and brushed with a well-matched marinade these make mouth-watering accompaniments to any meal.

Of course, a green stick can also be used to suspend a billy over the flames, a technique enshrined in many early camping manuals (and frowned on by most modern wilderness managers). But even in places where such engineering feats are still feasible, when the time comes to serve up whatever's in the pot you'll find yourself transported back to the 21st century. Or will you? Not necessarily. It turns out that there are many ways to make…

The Trip From Pot to Lip

You don't have to be a beachcomber to find treasure on the seashore, or the lakeshore, come to that. Seashells, clamshells, even the shells of freshwater mussels…once cleaned up, any and all of these make serviceable spoons and cups. Half a clamshell makes a pretty fair mug. And half a mussel shell pinched in the split end of a cleft stick works fine as a ladle or spoon. (A hint: Frap the cleft to tighten its grip, and watch out for the edges of the shell. Some are razor sharp.) Rarer finds — large conches, say, or the carapaces of long-dead turtles, scoured in the surf — can double as water carriers and bowls.

A couple of caveats are in order here, though. Beachcombing has rules. Observe posted regulations. Always. National parks and wildlife refuges usually prohibit all forms of scavenging, for example. Even where this isn't the case, limit yourself to found objects, and don't deplete the resource. Take your improvised utensils back to the shore for "recycling" when you've finished your meal. This isn't much of a hardship. Nature is generous. Once you've trained yourself to see what lies around you, you're not likely to return empty-handed from any foraging trip. Bear in mind that not all the gifts of the sea come from nature. On many stretches of beach, you stand a good chance of finding enough stranded flotsam to stock a flea-market stall — everything from running shoes to net floats to living-room furniture, along with the ubiquitous tar balls and plastic bags. So if you have the time and some free space in your boat, why not remove as much of the lethal trash as you can? That's beachcombing with a purpose.

Let's move away from shore now, and explore a subject that takes real guts: the stomachs and intestines of large animals, to be precise. While most paddlers will happily forego this particular resource, others — many hunters, some farmers, and more than a few sturdy Scots — have come to appreciate the value of the material that slips through their fingers when they're butchering. Put succinctly, the well-scrubbed stomach of a sheep or steer makes a first-rate boiling bag, and processed intestines were the original sausage casings. Both are still in use, though only the best sausage now has "natural" casings, and few dishes other than the Scots' Hogmanay haggis are cooked in a sheep's stomach. Still, the option is there for any adventurous chef.

Animal skins also have a place in the outdoor cook's tool kit. Botas — stitched leather flasks — have long been used to transport wine, and they're occasionally seen on outfitters' shelves even today, despite the fact that hydration packs have pretty much taken their place on the backs of cyclists and hikers. Nevertheless, leather bottles are well suited to the rough and tumble of life on the move. The hardy ponies that brought my Mongol forebears out of Asia and across Europe also carried goatskin flasks of mare's-milk yogurt. Do you need a basin to wash up in? Drape a dressed hide loosely over three sticks lashed together to make a tripod. Voilà! You're in business. Or maybe you want an oven for a clambake (or a pig roast). Nothing could be easier — ask any Downeaster or Hawaiian. Just dig a trench in a sandy beach, line the resulting pit with rocks, and build a driftwood fire on your stony hearth. (Better check with the local authorities first!) Then, when the wood's burned down to coals, scrape away the embers. Now pile seaweed on the hot rocks, alternating layers of clams (and corn) with more seaweed. Lastly, cover the whole assemblage with a dampened hide, finishing it off by shoveling wet sand on top. In little more than an hour, you'll have the ultimate shore lunch.

Or not. Has all this delving into the inner recesses of the animal kingdom got you thinking that the vegetarians among your friends might be onto something? Then maybe you'd like to consider…

Turning Over an Old Leaf

You've had Mexican tamales, right? What about soft French cheese served on grape leaves? Or pillows of sticky Thai rice wrapped in succulent new bamboo? The humble leaf can serve many purposes, from oven wrapper to plate. Nor are leaves limited to vegetarian dishes. Native Hawaiians wrapped meat in ti and banana leaves before cooking it in their imu (pit ovens). Back to bamboo for a minute. Few plants meet so many human needs and do it so well. The leaves are employed as wrappings, the green shoots are eaten, and the segmented stems — despite appearances, bamboo is a grass and not a tree — see all manner of uses. When capped, individual segments serve as canteens and steamers. Long bamboo poles are used in scaffolding and building, in the construction of bridges, and even in the manufacture of bicycle frames. Fibers pounded from the stems are twisted into rope, while bamboo splints are woven to make baskets. And no material is more highly prized by anglers. The finest fly rods are "split cane," bamboo that's been cut to length, split, matched, and then glued together. Shorter splits serve a more mundane end, but one that's closer to the cook's heart: they're used in making chopsticks.

Gourds also have many uses. Once they've been dried and scooped out, these colorful, hard-shelled squashes make excellent ladles, cups, bowls, and canteens. This brings us to the subject of utensils once again. Here, too, the closets of the woods serve modern paddlers almost as well as they did our ancient ancestors, furnishing us with…

Stones and Bones

Bones can serve as needles and fish hooks, using sinew for thread and lashing. Flint, chert, and obsidian can be shaped and flaked to create a whole inventory of edged tools, from scrapers and gouges to knives to spear points to axes. (In a fascinating example of turn and turn about, flint gravers are used to cut grooves in bone for lashings, while craftsmen often resort to bone burnishers when putting a final edge on stone blades.) On the other hand, coarse-textured stone, of no value in fabricating sharp tools, finds equally useful employment in querns, grindstones, basins, and hearths. Heated rocks have even been used to boil water — an interesting variation on the stone soup theme, as well as a world-class test of the cook's patience.

Sticks and stones, shells and bones, stomachs and hides and leaves. These are the tools of earlier cooks. Now their uses are all but forgotten. But don't you forget. What goes around comes around, after all, and paddlers have more reason than most to keep one eye fixed on the past. So the next time you spear a hot dog on a stick or squirt a stream of red wine into your mouth from a bota, take a moment to reflect on the importance of keeping living traditions alive and healthy. It's alimentary!

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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