In April 1986, I was nine years old. I lived in San Angelo, out in West Texas. I was a member of a Camp Fire Boys and Girls troop, which is an inclusive scouting organization for both boys and girls. One Friday, my Camp Fire troop trekked out to a campground in the wilderness to meet other troops from all over the region for a one-night jamboree. We set up our tents, went canoeing, and when it started to get dark, we gathered by the campfire where the chaperones had dinner waiting. Each of us got a foil packet containing ground beef, potatoes, and carrots that had been roasted on the hot coals of the campfire while we canoed. It was glorious. Hot and hearty and savory — the perfect thing after a very busy day for us third-graders. Eventually, it was time to crawl into our tents and go to sleep. I was sharing a tent with one other girl, and we stayed up really late talking and giggling.
Eventually we fell asleep, but were awakened by the sound of an incredible storm outside. We had a good tent, so rain wasn’t leaking inside, but judging by the sound, we thought it must be pouring out there. The wind was incredible. It made the top of our little tent sway, and we were afraid it might blow over and take us with it. My tentmate started screaming, and all I could think to do was have us both lay at the very edge of the tent to concentrate our weight there so it wouldn’t blow away. Eventually the storm quieted down and we fell asleep again. In the morning, we woke up and staggered outside, expecting the campground to be muddy from the rain…but it was bone-dry. The adults said it had been a huge windstorm. One of them turned on a radio and picked up some local news. And that’s how we found out we had been camping during the Great Sweetwater Tornado of 1986. We were about 70 miles away from where the tornadoes touched down, thankfully, but that same storm system blew right over us on its way to destroy Sweetwater, Texas. Whenever I think about camping, that’s my sense memory collage: canoes, yummy food in shiny packets, terrifying natural disaster. I’m pretty sure those food packets gave us the extra strength and weight to hold back the tent – and the forces of nature – all night.
Why am I telling you this? Because this was the story I thought of when I first read Lumberjanes. It’s a terrific comic — funny, exciting, and with a great cast of characters. I think most people can identify with at least one of them. Formative experiences like my tornado adventure are why I relate well to Mal. Some might say she’s over-informed and a little paranoid, but I say she has a healthy respect for how danger is everywhere and your best weapon is knowing how to avoid or get through perilous situations. I bet Mal will mellow out a bit as she grows up. I was like that as a kid … and clearly never got all the way over it. But when I was in high school, if other girls’ parents knew I was going to be there, they would let their daughters go places they wouldn’t allow otherwise because they believed I was level-headed and responsible. That was (mostly) true, and I always brought everyone home on time and in one piece. I was no longer in Camp Fire by then, but I’d like to think that would have earned me a Safety Buffalo badge or something.
Anyway, that’s why this recipe is peppered with safety warnings about food handling and storage, and avoiding bears. Also: this recipe involves the use of knives and fire. Be careful and keep your fire extinguisher and first aid kit handy. And let me know if there’s ever an opening for my new dream job: camp cook at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for
Girls HARDCORE LADY TYPES. I’d make sure the Lumberjanes stayed ready for action with the magic of Dinner in Foil!
This recipe allows for some customization. That’s helpful when you have a diverse group of campers who like different things. Something for every Lumberjane!
Dinner in Foil
Makes 5-6 portions
2 pounds ground beef, 80% lean
2 cups breadcrumbs
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbsp Chicago steak seasoning, divided
4-5 cloves minced garlic
1/2 cup ketchup
1/3 cup Dijon mustard
hot pepper sauce (optional)
1 12-oz. bag frozen peas (optional)
1.5 pounds potatoes, chopped
1 pound carrots, sliced
1 onion, sliced
4 oz. white mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (optional)
2 Tbsp rosemary leaves, chopped
heavy-duty aluminum foil
If you like, you can prepare the meat mixture in your kitchen before you head to your campsite, as it’s a bit messy. You could even freeze the mixture in the portions you want to cook it in; just thaw it before packing it in the foil to cook. Chopping the veggies at home is a good option to simplify things at the fireside. Whenever you chop them, make sure they’re in bite-sized pieces. You could assemble the foil packs completely while you’re still home if you prefer. It’s probably easiest to do that if you’re cooking for your whole troop! They’ll be fairly stackable. Make sure you have a good cooler full of ice bricks to keep your food cold until it’s time to cook it.
I always recommend wearing disposable kitchen gloves when mixing meat with your hands. I EXTRA-SUPER recommend it if you’re handling raw meat at a campsite, away from a real sink.
You need to cook these over lots of glowing coals, so build your fire and let the glowing-coal thing happen. Directions for that are here. (You can do that in a charcoal grill – the fire doesn’t need to be on the ground.) They can also be cooked over indirect heat on a grill or in an oven. See below for cooking times.
In a large bowl, use your hands to mix the ground beef, egg, breadcrumbs, Worcestershire sauce, Chicago steak seasoning, garlic, ketchup, and mustard. Add the liquid ingredients slowly with one hand, then mix with the other hand. You don’t want the mixture to be too wet, or it’ll fall apart when you cook it. If it gets a little too wet, add more breadcrumbs. This is very similar to making my Meatloaf for Captain America. Add the hot pepper sauce if you want to. You can also splash some over just some of the patties later if some people don’t want the heat. At this time, you can split up your meat mixture evenly into the number of portions you need and form the portions into oblong patties.
This is when you make your first decision: are you going to include peas? Do some of your campers want peas, but others don’t? Add peas to the portions for the people who want peas. People who hate peas seem to really hate peas, so it’s best to ask. Same for the mushrooms.
If you’re making this in your kitchen before going to the campsite, put your meat portions into individual zip-top freezer bags and refrigerate or freeze them as appropriate. If you’re making these right before cooking time, or assembling the packets all the way, full steam ahead!
Prepare a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil for each portion to be cooked. If you’re making four portions, put 1/4 of the diced potatoes on each sheet of foil in an oblong shape. Add 1/4 of the diced carrots. Then add the sliced mushrooms, and the peas if you didn’t mix them into the meat. If you want to, splash on a little more hot pepper sauce and sprinkle a little more Chicago steak seasoning over the veggies. Sprinkle rosemary leaves over the veggies last.
Place a meat patty on top of each veggie pile. Lay sliced onions on top of the meat. You can opt to mix diced onions into the meat, but having tried both ways, I prefer putting slices on top. That way, as it cooks, the onions release their juice into the meat, and the juice from the meat patty cooks off in turn and runs over the veggies, giving them lots of delicious flavor as they cook. Carrots and potatoes cooked with beef are so, so good.
Now it’s time to seal the packets. Pick up the sides of the foil that run parallel to your oblong pile of soon-to-be-delicious food. Bring the other open ends together at the top and roll them down together until you reach the food. Then roll up the ends to create a nice packet. (See photo.) You want it to keep steam in so that heat cooks the food instead of escaping and letting your food dry out and maybe burn.
How long you cook depends on the cooking method, how much you packed into a single foil packet, and how big your chunks of veggies are. Bigger packets and chunks take longer. Your food is done when the meat is cooked through and the potatoes are soft enough to easily pierce with a fork.
On hot campfire coals or indirect heat on a grill, that might be 45-60 minutes, or maybe even longer. One good thing about this recipe it it’s pretty hard to overcook it. Camping is supposed to be relaxing and not heavily scheduled, so just chill out and wait until it’s done. It will smell great. Keep an eye out for bears.
If cooking in an oven, go for 75-90 minutes at 425F, and put the packets on a baking sheet in case any juice leaks. It kept raining here, so I had to cook mine in the oven! I left them in for around 105 minutes, and it was done and not burned.
Be careful when you open the foil packets! All that steam will escape in your general direction, and steam burns are bad news. Piping-hot juice will likely be sloshing around too, so watch out. Danger is everywhere! But it’s worth the risk for this delicious, hearty meal. You have a fully stocked first aid kit, right?
You might be thinking, “That is not exactly the prettiest food I’ve ever seen.” And you’re right. But it smells great, and here’s the best part: it’s meant to be eaten by firelight! Grab a fork and enjoy.