Food to Float Your Boat

Get gourmet on Missouri's rivers

On my first-ever float trip three summers ago, I was ill prepared, to say the least. Nobody told me beforehand that river beds were made of sharp, pointy rocks (how would a city gal like me know that?), so I didn't think there was any reason to pack moccasins or other appropriate, sole-saving footwear. I didn't realize that three grown adults sharing a canoe could mean capsizing trouble, especially when one of those people happens to be a helluva drunk, or that a bikini top fastened together with a flimsy plastic clasp could be brought down (literally) by a single, low-hanging branch along the riverbank. (Thankfully, a friend in another boat brought along an extra sports bra. Otherwise, I might still be standing out there in the Meramec, holding my capsized canoe to my chest and looking around desperately for that dang clasp.)

Eating was another key factor of the float-trip experience where I ranked as a neophyte. I learned the hard way that a pre-made, poorly wrapped po-boy, a bag of chips and a bottle of Boone's Farm does not a happy camper make; it makes for a starving, soggy-bellied, malnourished one. On subsequent floats, I ratcheted up my rations substantially and boned up on the basics: a box of Pop Tarts for breakfast at the campsite, a pack of brats tossed into the cooler for dinner, and for lunch on the river, GORP (Good Ol' Raisins and Peanuts) and Lunchables. (Good? Eh. Water-tight? Yes.)

Then last summer, as a friend and I discussed our upcoming annual float, inspiration struck. We were having dinner on the patio at King Louie's, that venerable midtown restaurant where warm weather ushers in their outdoor grill menu — wood-roasted chicken, hickory-grilled top sirloin, roasted halibut. Couldn't we manage a similar level of gourmet gastronomy around the campfire? Would it really be any more difficult than piercing a wiener through the end of a stick and twirling it over the flames till it's done?

Turns out, no, it's really not difficult at all. In fact, it's remarkably easy to feast like a king on a float trip, requiring relatively little effort beforehand and about as much money as you'd normally spend on all those prepackaged foods.

"Are there really people who don't know how to foil-wrap a hunk of meat with onions, garlic, peppers, and a potato or two and set it in the coals for 45 minutes to an hour?" asks Washington University graduate student Adam Eggebrecht, an experienced floater and camper. (When he said this, I thought it best not to mention my travails from three years ago.) "It takes about twenty minutes of prep at home to wash and slice up veggies, wrap them in foil with your meat of choice, and throw it in a cooler — and that's if you're preparing dinner for your whole group."

Which, coincidentally, is exactly what a friend and I did last summer: We rubbed some tilapia filets with olive oil, pepper and lemon juice, sealed them up individually alongside chopped veggies, and kept them on ice. When we cooked them over the fire the following night (simply by placing the foil packets atop the grill and leaving them be), we were heralded by our famished friends as the world's most innovative chefs. Remarked our buddy Scott: "Cooking the pre-bundled dinners seemed like even less effort than grilling hot dogs." And clean-up was as simple as balling up the leftover foil and stashing it away in a plastic bag (to recycle later at home, of course).

"Good planning and proper refrigeration" are really your main concerns when figuring out your float-trip cornucopia, according to local chef-turned-cookbook writer Abby Hupp, who actually sticks to old-school hot dogs and hamburgers on floats, claiming that "we eat 'gourmet' at home enough." Beyond that, any epicurean delight you can cook, grill, sauté, boil, roast, pan-sear or even bake in your home kitchen, you can likewise do at your campsite.

South-city resident and realtor Fred Hessel has prepared London broil on float trips. It's a perfect cut of beef for such an occasion, he claims, because "it tastes great medium or medium rare, and there's no need to marinate it." He simply dresses it up with a just-add-water package of demiglace. For his starch, he'll half-bake a potato in the microwave at home, then finish it off by swaddling it in foil and tossing it right into the campfire. Hessel is also fond of marinating chicken or sirloin beforehand, then cutting it up and arranging it on skewers with quartered onions, peppers and mushrooms. Once he's ready to grill them, he adds fresh grape tomatoes to the skewers.

Novice outdoorsmen would do best to first try camp-cooking a dish they already know from home, according to C.W. Welch, a former Idaho game warden and author of Cee Dub's Dutch Oven and Other Camp Cookin'. "You don't want to get lost in the recipe," explains Welch. Rather, a camp cook's attention should be focused on the fire and the heat it is (or isn't) producing. "Cooking is time and temperature," says Welch. "People don't have to learn a new recipe when cooking over a campfire, but they do have to learn a new way to manage their heat."

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