by Ronnie "Cuz" Strickland
I know that in today’s politically-correct, green world that many things that were considered normal when I was a kid are now frowned upon if not illegal. I can’t tell you how many miles I rode in the back of Dad’s pickup going down the highway when I may have been guilty of throwing a rock or two at a road sign along the way. Today if parents hauled a kid in the back of a pickup, they would be brought up before the Cruelty to Earth and Children Foundation and fined, reprimanded and probably sent to jail.
At the tender age of nine, I can remember heading outside early in the morning and riding my bike several miles to the Duncan Park golf course and hanging out all day by myself. I would hunt for golf balls, sell them and buy lunch at the public pool and more or less hang around all day. I might play golf all day (walking not riding); I might stay in the woods building army forts or stay just inside the woods edge and harasses golfers by yelling in their backswing.
I can remember arranging my busy schedule so I could be in the kitchen when Mom was going to make cookies. Raw cookie dough was a super special treat. Today the food police would surround your house like a SWAT team if someone thought you were feeding your kids raw cookie dough with real sugar and butter in it. If you watch the news and keep up with current trends, then you realize it is only a matter of time before even slightly overweight people are going to be banned from all kinds of things or at least punished for the added poundage. Airlines want to charge more even if you fit into one seat as well as the next person. A town in California was trying to pass an ordinance that would make it against the law for an overweight person to purchase fast food. Other than “Whataburger,” I’m no big fan of fast food. But who are these people that are trying to tell us what we can eat, how much we should weight and how to raise our kids? It’s amazing what Americans will put up with these days. Some of these types eat raw veggies and soy patties, drink mineral water, don’t discipline their kids in any form, think hunting and or fishing is cruel, never watch TV (even NASCAR) and would never, under any circumstance, touch a gun even to protect their family.
Thank God I was not raised by those types, but sadly that is where our nation is heading. It’s not sad because these people are different from what I consider normal; it’s sad because they were not exposed to the outdoors as children and have no idea what it means to shoot a deer then make a venison stew or catch a stringer of bluegills, fried them in cornmeal and eat them with nothing but ketchup and white bread.
At 6’1 and 270 pounds I’m certainly not one to say what’s good for you and what’s not, but I can promise you that many - if not most - of my fondest memories are centered around food. Camp food, wild game, cooking over an open fire, MREs on a mountain top in Colorado, vienna sausage and crackers with Dad and brother Al in the Homochitto National forest, my wife’s cheese grits served with fried turkey breast, can cokes that taste like fish because they were in the same ice chest as our bass, a sausage biscuit hard as a rock because it stayed on the dash of your truck all day while you chased a rude gobbler - you get the picture. It’s more about the people you were eating with than the food itself. OK in my case it all kind of runs together, but I can’t imagine getting back to the truck at noon after hunting all morning and my buddy and me busting open a bag of bean sprouts and chugging down a jug of green tea and reliving the morning. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
For me, at least once I was passed the” I gotta kill something” stage, the preparation for the hunting or fishing trip became at least as important as the hunting or fishing. How many people that you hunt with spend more time getting the food for camp ready than their gear? Recipes handed down for generations on how to prepare seafood gumbo, hunting camp stew, duck breast, venison roast, pies, cakes, cheesy potatoes and baked beans become as cherished as your favorite shotgun or bow. It’s the same way with camp stories. At least half the tall tales from hunting camp will be about the food. Ol’ Joe’s fried tenderloin or big John’s chili will get as much air time as someone’s buck story.
There are many common threads intertwined in these camps, cooks and tales but the one constant is good people. There’s something about these folks; these hunting, fishing, camping out, charcoaling, camo clad smiling nimrods that sometimes eat too much that raises them to a higher level, at least in my book.
I think that food prepared with so many smiles and laughs, so much care and pride cannot possibly be bad for you. I don’t care how much butter or sugar or fat grams may be swimming around in it, the smile factor has to offset the cholesterol factor by at least a little bit.
By now you may have picked up on the fact that I love food - good food anyway. The fact that so much of the good stuff has come from the hunting camp, outdoor world or at least people who live in or were raised in a hunting, fishing or rural environment may be a coincidence, but I don’t think so. I’ll agree, I most likely need some type of 12-step program to kick the food thing but before I check into the big boy clinic, I’m gonna make sure all that healthy stuff is actually good for you. I have my doubts.
I used to hear you can’t eggs anymore and then they said eggs are OK. Then it was don’t eat butter but we later learned butter was much better than margarine. My Grandmother on my Mom’s side lived on a dairy farm her entire life and ate real butter, eggs, syrup, homemade bread, fried chicken, dumplings, jelly and pound cake and lived to be 92 and was sharp as a tack until the day she passed. I’m not sure how much stress was in her life but folks from that generation certainly had more to stress about than we do. Somehow they seemed to know what was worth worrying about and what was not. Life was slower then and food may have been high in fat grams, but it was also loaded with love. If you’ve ever smelled homemade bread baking in your house, then you know what I’m talking about. I’m no doctor and may drop dead before I finish this paragraph, but I believe less stress, fewer preservatives and more food cooked, shared, and collected by your owns hands with family and friends will do more good than harm.
For example, I was in a hunting camp in North Dakota one December with some guys from the Northeast. The weather was cold to say the least, minus 2 degrees, snow on the ground and the critters were laid up waiting for better conditions. All of us hunted each day, but the cold temps and lack of animal sightings were beginning to take its toll on some of the hunters.
The outfitter was doing his best to keep camp as upbeat as he could, but a couple of the guys were getting impatient and grumpy. One night the meal was not to their liking and some rather rude comments were thrown out at the table. I was not exactly shoveling down the unidentified casserole thing that was served up but was thankful for the meal and finished what was on my plate. After more grumbling that night, I decided to pass on the morning hunt and four wheel drive it to town and replenish the cupboard. I found the basics for a good southern pantry: bologna, cheese, butter, eggs, white bread, bacon and salt and was back in camp by lunch. I whipped up some fried bologna sandwiches that weighed in at about two pounds each, fried some potatoes, made some sweet tea and before long the grumpy hunters were smiling like a Dale Jr. fan at Talladega. It was as much about me fixing the food and picking at those guys about being Yankees and not knowing how to cook as it was the food. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing left but the faint scent of fried meat in the kitchen, but something as simple as camp cooking turned a hunt around that was headed downhill fast. Now did fried bologna help any of our waistlines or cholesterol? No, but it lowered the stress level of several of the hunters and once again the smile factor may have affected the stress factor enough to offset the good/bad scale.
Not all camp food is good but almost always it generates great story fodder. One of the most memorable meals I can recall was certainly one of the worst, but the smell and sight of that meal is etched in my mind. I was in Colorado in 1979 with several pals from my hometown. We drove to our dream hunt in two Broncos that should never have crossed the Mississippi yet alone less Grants Pass, but we made it. We had a local fellow lined up to rent us a cabin and show us where to start our hunt for record class mule deer or barely legal bucks, whichever showed up first. The local fellow met us at the cabin and declared he was going to do a little cooking for us while we were there. Sounded great to me, until later that night when he delivered a huge bowl of something to the table. I can only describe it as chicken goulash.
It had at least one chicken or some type of poultry in it, boiled until the bones fractured and split apart, green peas, string beans, corn, some type of cubed dough stuff and beets. As terrible as that sounds, the sight was way more appealing than the smell. The only time I’ve ever smelled anything close to that aroma was once when delivering Coca Colas to a ladies’ hair salon. It was kind of a chemical scent with a tainted meat overtone. To this day, I can still smell that bowl like it is right in front of me.
When you’re from the South, you never turn your nose up at someone’s cooking, so we all got a portion. And let me tell you, the stirring with spoons and moving food around the plate maneuvers were nothing short of unbelievable. I saw one of my buddies put his entire portion of chicken goulash in the side pocket of his brand new Browning jacket. Needless to say with that scent attached to him, he didn’t get a mule deer within a mile of him on the trip. Looking back, that meal provided more laughs and memories than anything else on the trip by far. Was it great food? No. It was terrible. But it was made with some love at hunting camp and the chicken goulash is still the first topic that comes up when I see those guys.
Whether food is a big deal to you or not, surely some of your fondest memories revolve around hunting camp concoctions that stick in your mind as well as to your ribs.