Dinner in the dark

Although we are in the desert southwest and have a mild winter that allows camping, it’s still winter.  That means the nice low-70s sunny day quickly becomes a frigid black night after the sun falls, and if you are camping with a mountain range to the west, the sun stops warming you around 4 p.m.  The effect can be startling to people who aren’t used to the climate.  It’s typical for the temperature to fall 30 degrees in three or four hours because the dry air doesn’t hold warmth and we have no large bodies of water nearby to moderate the swing.

But the desert offers some intangibles that make it worth a little chilliness.  The winter days can be startlingly clear, with fantastic views through clear blue sky for a hundred miles.  Daytime hiking is superb, and there’s always lots of room to find your own campsite.

The past few years we have spent New Year’s Eve in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, about 70 miles south of Palm Springs.  We like it for the peacefulness (we don’t go to have a blowout party). Every New Year’s Eve the primary sound we hear is coyotes howling, and occasionally a breeze blowing through the long fronds of the palm trees.

The early sunset means that dinner is always in the dark.  Typically it’s in the 40s as I’m outside grilling something on the Weber, wearing a ski hat and gloves.  It reminds me of days in Vermont when we’d grill in the winter, except in the desert I don’t have to spend the first 30 minutes shoveling snow out of the way. (Although last year we had a brief moment of sleet.)

Last year we were joined by Alex & Charon, who travel with a substantial collection of cast iron cookware.  Alex gave me my first instruction on Dutch Oven cooking, a subject I’ve been interested in since we ran an article on the subject in the Fall 2010 issue of Airstream Life.  Alex piled some hot charcoal atop and beneath his Dutch Oven and baked us a nice dessert.

The combination of glowing charcoal, and a nearby campfire with a roast on an iron spike, reminded me of reading about the exploration by Lewis & Clark.  They cooked in much the same way, over a century ago as they walked and canoed across the new American wilderness.  It transformed the cold dark night into a great camping experience, full of delicious scents and great karmic rewards.

So it was with pleasure that I received a late Christmas gift: a #10, Lodge four-quart Dutch Oven, a gift from my mother.  It comes with a booklet entitled, “Dutch Oven Cooking 101,” to get you started.  I’ve been studying it and planning out a few basic recipes.  Today I am going to get some charcoal and some welder’s gloves, and piece together a complete set of tools and ingredients so that I can try some Dutch Oven cooking of my own next week.  What better time and place to learn this new skill, than out in the desert at night, with no distractions and plenty of time?

Of course, there’s a small fear of committing some heinous Dutch Oven error and producing a charred or inedible dish.  I’m not generally known as a cook, although I do a lot of grilling.  For this reason the Weber Baby Q will also come with us.  It’s my safety net.  I’ll just stick to “optional” items with the DO, so if my experiments turn into charcoal briquettes themselves, nobody will starve.

Tomorrow we are going to seriously start prepping for the trip.  Already we’ve been buying groceries and making lists of things to bring.  The Airstream itself is kept mechanically ready to go at all times (empty holding tanks, cold refrigerator, cleaned, fresh bedding, etc.), so our efforts will be focused on packing our personal stuff. Since we only anticipate being out for 10 days or so, it should be a straightforward job compared to the usual challenge of packing for several months.

We’re not just staying in the desert this time.  Our route will take us all the way west to the Pacific Ocean.  Depending on circumstances, we may make a second stop in Anza-Borrego on the way home, or make a longer trip out of it up the Pacific Coast Highway in which case we’ll be out a little longer.  Friends have popped up all along our route, which is always superb.  We’ll see Bert & Janie, Leigh & Brian, John & Helena, David & Ariadna — Airstreamers all — and perhaps a few other people.  So it’s shaping up to be a great trip.  We’ll hit the road on Saturday and I’ll blog regularly as we travel.

OK, that’s all the musing. One random note: We still have a few spots available at Modernism Week 2012 (Vintage Trailer Show), Feb 25-26.  The Mod Week people have sweetened the deal for trailer owners.  Now for your $95 entry fee you get one free night of hotel (a $100 value right there), two receptions, a chance to win one of three Airstream Life awards, an electrical hookup if you want to stay in your trailer, and a pump-out at the end of the event.  It’s a great way to meet a lot of really cool people, and we always have a wonderful time. All you need to participate is a very nice vintage trailer of any make.  It’s a great reason to visit Palm Springs and check out some of Modernism Week.  If that sounds like fun to you (and it really is), ping info@alumapalooza.com for an application form & details.



  1. says

    I very sadly put my very favorite orange Le Creuset cast iron dutch oven in storage, figuring the weight would be too much for us to bring in the Airstream, never mind the propane suck. I’m interested to hear how you like your camp dutch oven.

  2. Tom Palesch says

    Glad to see you’re dipping your toe into DO cooking. It makes a great ritual and a nice break from the galley for “E”. I’m sure she and “e” will learn to love your cooking. A year ago in Anza-Borrego DO cooking our DO meals with Bert & Janie made the ASL article become a twinkle in my eye. I believe that even Bert has the bug now.

    Great link for DO cookers is: http://www.ahappycamper.com/

    They are suppliers for the river rafting outfitters so their needs are the same for Airstreamers. The aluminum hard- coat anodized DO’s is a good way to go and they are available there. Light, easy to clean, no seasoning and NO RUST between gigs. GO ALUMINUM!

    Happy New Year everyone