Note: This is the second installment of my 6 part blog series
“River Gator: Exploring the River, Expanding Ourselves,”
a recollection of my adventure on the Lower Mississippi River.
Crispy charred edges of willow-smoked catfish melted over my taste buds on our first evening beside the Mighty Mississippi. The Quapaw Canoe Company team built a roaring fire where we all sat, eating and enjoying the evening. That first night, two Quapaw Captains Chef Wolfie and Johnnie Driftwood, showed us just how creativity and cooking collide on the River.
Each night after building a fire between two hefty logs, red-hot coals were transported away from the flame to create our very own cooking hearth. The logs were helpful tools, balancing cowboy coffee, frying pans and the big cast iron dutch-oven that cooked eggs, potatoes or whatever might be on the menu for the day. A dutch-oven is a thick walled cooking pot with a tight fitting lid, and though it’s too heavy for backpacking, is arguably the most versatile, durable and important cooking tool to bring camping and has been for centuries. Most cooking was done this way throughout the trip, with one notable exception we will get into later.
Simplicity is the name of the game on the River. A couple logs and a few kitchen items were all we needed, but simplicity also applies to what we ate and how it was cooked. Can you cook catfish with no batter or oil? YES! A time tested tradition now for the Quapaws, willow-smoked catfish is a staple on the River. Catfish is plentiful on the River as are black willows that grow willy-nilly along with cottonwoods along the shoreline. Captain Driftwood collected an armload of willow branches, broke them in half to about three-feet sections and dunked them in the rippling River beside camp. Half the branches were placed over the bed of coals; next, the catfish was carefully placed on top of them with no oil or seasoning added. Finally, the second half of the River dipped branches was placed on top and Poof! smoke started billowing. Careful watch by Quapaw Captain Mark River ensured the branches on the bottom remained damp and any little flare ups were doused with River water.
Waiting for the fish to cook was a challenge in itself, the aroma surrounding you, trusting the branches wouldn’t burn up and drop your dinner into the fire. When the top layer of branches was pulled off, they revealed the most beautifully cooked and healthy catfish! Some of the fish had gotten down into the coals, negating my fears since I found these pieces to be the best. It’s hereditary in my family to like the crispy stuff. What’s a little ash, when your fish pulls right off the bones?
Corn on the cob cooked directly on the coals and an assortment of potatoes: sweet potatoes, small white and purple Peruvian cooked in the cast iron dutch-oven filled the rest of the belly. Finally, a light salad with oil and vinegar and a dash of Parmesan cheese cleaned the palette and readied you to keep on eating. I was in heaven.
Breakfasts were cooked likewise over the open fire – coffee, oatmeal with dried fruit, egg and potato burritos, stone ground grits and hard-boiled eggs. These guys never underestimated the importance of a good breakfast.
Lunch was again a model of simplicity. Lunchmeat, salmon, hummus, tortilla chips, avocado, cut veggies and fruit never failed to please us hungry paddlers.
Not only was the food delicious, but had I cultivated the appetite of an elephant having paddled for the majority of the day. It’s a great feeling to eat til your heart’s content, knowing you have earned every calorie.
Pear cobbler was the grand finale made again in yes – you guessed it – the big mamma cast iron dutch-oven. Only this time she was placed over a limited amount of coals, slightly away from the fire, with coals on top and around her sides. This might have been the most anticipated creation, luckily as always, there was interesting and intelligent conversation around the fire to distract us while we so impatiently waited.
Our ancestors cooked using dutch-ovens for centuries. They explored the Mississippi River cooking over the open fire and following in their footsteps allows us to connect to them through the heart – that is the stomach. They might have had access to all the ingredients we used, just about every product available on Earth could be bought in New Orleans and many could be found in the floating general stores along the River too, though I doubt they had as talented a chef as Wolfie.
Everything we ate and drank was carefully thought out and packed when we set out to paddle because there are few places on the River to pick up supplies. The new River Gator website tells you where you might be able to re-supply, find restaurants or local attractions. For example, the page on Greenville says, “Downtown lacks any grocery store, but is full of the highlights of Delta civilization … Doe’s Eat Place is an often frequented steak house, but you can also find Chinese, Mexican, Lebanese, Italian, and many more selections throughout the city.”
Food, like life, can be spicy, simple, plain, strange or multi-cultural.
Food is nature we get to enjoy while it nourishes the body and mind at the same time!
Most of all, food helps us to connect with each other, just like the River.
To the River!
~ Annette Anderson is the Outreach Coordinator for the 1 Mississippi Campaign, now with River water flowing through her veins!
Continue reading the rest of the series!
Plus a bonus blog: Top 10 Most Awesome Things About Quapaw Canoe Company