On The Banks of the Gay Mississippi

Alright, so maybe there’s nothing inherently gay about the Mississippi, but we did happen to spend this National Coming Out Day camping and hiking at Mississippi Palisades State Park, on the Illinois side of the river, just a stone’s throw from Iowa.

It’s a significant day for us because, prior to last National Coming Out Day last year, we were just acquaintance-y friends from the Chicago Performing Arts community. Then, we saw each other’s social media posts, each broadcasting our out and proudness and began a several month online flirtship, culminating in finally, as luck would have it, playing a fateful gig together in December (that gig happened to be a live album recording of a world premiere musical and you can listen to me belt my face off/Rachel playing gorgeous cello here).

We began dating seriously almost immediately and, of course, with the pandemic, so came the U-haul. The rest, as they say, is them-story. So it seemed like as good a day as any to commemorate by scaling the face of a small mountain (yes, the very same big rock thing we’re standing in front of in this photo).

queer love, camping, hiking, National Coming Out Day
Sure, we looked super cute and happy before we climbed the mountain…

Now, I don’t want to over-represent my skillset here. When I say “scaling the face of the mountain”, what I really mean is, “losing the trail and just going off-road, grabbing ahold of whatever roots, rocks, or trees we could find, and continuing our ascent by any stupid means necessary”, or something like that.

I’m a crazy hiker from the old school. Losing myself on trails was how I initially started losing weight many summers ago in the Cuyahoga Valley National Forest and I was absolutely giddy to be losing myself in the woods again, especially since elevation of any kind is something sorely lacking on the Chicago landscape. I might have been a bit too gung-ho though, nearly giving Rachel a panic attack on the way up.

We definitely weren’t the only group on the trail with novice hikers among us. City folx seeking socially distant diversion had come to the state park in droves this weekend, pushing the limits of this natural space’s infrastructure. Some trails were too narrow for groups to safely pass each other, while some were simply poorly marked or maintained (see also: CLIMBING A FREAKING MOUNTAIN BECAUSE WE THOUGHT IT WAS A TRAIL).

And then I realized, this was a CCC park, meaning it was built largely by the Civilian Conservation Corps, an FDR-era New Deal Initiative that provided work AND housing for homeless, jobless, unmarried men (ok that part is sketchy and weird by today’s standards), while bolstering infrastructure and literally creating endless miles of trails all across the country.

state parks, civilian conservation corps, camping, hiking, illinois state map
Yes, I am 100% that person who reads every little plaque at the museum.

Interesting. With participation in outdoor activities at an all time high (I’m telling you, this campground was PACKED, y’all.), right there along with joblessness and homelessness, maybe we need A NEW CCC? Just a thought…

But enough of the boring history stuff (amirite?) and onto the reason I was most excited for this trip- cooking three square meals for 8 people on a dutch oven over a campfire, because I’m crazy like that.

one pot pasta, dutch oven, no-knead bread, garlic bread, campfire cooking, gemelli pasta
A jar of homemade pesto is the perfect addition to some pasta with fire roasted veggies. Served with Mark Bittman’s famous No-Knead Bread (baked in my own kitchen the day prior), slathered with butter and garlic, wrapped in foil and thrown into the fire.

Pasta was the perfect night one dinner. After settling in and unpacking, it was easy enough just to boil water and toss in some gorgeous gemelli pasta, along with pesto gleaned from the last of my window box basil, and an array of veggies roasted right on the grill plate! Mmmmm…. you can’t make pasta that tastes like this at home!

Campfire, fire roasted veggies, dutch oven, red enamel dutch oven, zucchini, peppers

Toss in a bunch of shredded mozzarella, get a whole roasted Vidalia onion from your friends at the campsite across the way, and you are in for a good time, my friends. Our full bellies surely made the ground an easier sleep that night!

campfire cooking, pasta, gemelli pasta, campfire garlic toast, no-knead bread, vidalia onion, fire roasted vegetables
The dirt under my fingernails all weekend was the sexiest part, IMHO.

BUT WHAT ON EARTH DID YOU EAT FOR THE REST OF THE TRIP, MEGAN? Relax, would ya? I’ll be back tomorrow with an actual recipe for my delicious Apple Cinnamon Raisin Campfire Oatmeal, but don’t worry, this is one you can easily make at home, though the process might surprise you!

Brats And Beers and BBQ civics

Last weekend, Rachel and I took a much needed day trip out of town. As we drove north of Chicago to the suburbs of Milwaukee, the buildings seemed to grow farther and farther apart. Trees, meadows, and shopping plazas planted themselves in the negative space, the landscape flattening the farther away from Cook County we got.

I won’t lie. It’s been a challenging seven months in the city and this wasn’t our first trip to “the outside”. We had previously enjoyed a camping trip with a group of friends downstate and had also taken a long road trip to see my family (chosen and otherwise) in Ohio and Pennsylvania, while the weather was still nice enough to visit with folks in the out of doors. 

In whichever direction we’ve driven- North, South, East, West- the changes in the landscape looked slightly different depending on where we were heading, but one stark change remained the same no matter where we were headed- the names on the political signage.

We shifted in our seats a bit each time we saw one. She removed her hand from my lap. I stopped running my fingers through her hair from behind the headrest. We were having feelings we never have in our progressive little urban community- feelings of fear for simply being ourselves and loving each other, and the deep seated knowledge that we were humans whose existence was outside the realm of what an entire political party deemed natural and good.

Approaching the steeple-specked skyline of Waukesha, we began to relax a bit, finally seeing some blue signs mixed in among the red. We were ready for a beer and a brat, specifically a much coveted New Glarus beer (which is delicious and ONLY distributed in Wisconsin, for those not in the know). Our hosts, Julie and Derek, did not disappoint.

Derek serves up some mean slaw with our brats!

Actually, I should say that Derek did not disappoint. This was my first time visiting their home and it was impressive and endearing the way Derek buzzed around the kitchen, ever the attentive husband, making apple strudel dough and throwing together a simple, fresh slaw from the purple cabbage cut just moments prior from their garden. Julie gave us a tour as she harvested poblanos, foisting a kohlrabi upon us, the size of which we had never seen (find out what I did with it here).  “Is that a mandrake?!”, Rachel exclaimed. We were both sure we heard it shriek when it was picked.

I will now figure out how to eat this thing.

As we sat down on the patio to eat, we first complained the standard unpleasant pandemic pleasantries, so as to get them out of the way, but quickly shifted talk of Julie’s struggles as an in-person classroom teacher and my challenge at having to generate arts programming for the digital classroom to the far less maddening thing we both we held in common, a love for reality cooking shows.

Our latest collective obsession? The American Barbecue Showdown. Eight cooks from different parts of the South complete various long-smoked meat challenges for a panel of expert judges. It’s not exactly a ground-breaking television format, but it is Netflix, so it’s at least got a strong aesthetic sensibility and an eye toward inclusion and diversity. The black and white hosts huddle together laughing in the straw-filled bed of an old Studebaker and sit down to taste each entry at a big, rustic outdoor table on carefully curated, mismatched vintage lawn chairs. 

We northerners admittedly don’t know much about barbeque (that is, aside from quickly grilling off a cheddar brat over propane) and the four of us found the allure of this program to be twofold. On one level, it offered us an opportunity to learn technically how best to make everything from smoked brisket to possum stew. On an entirely different level, it provided us a glimpse into the culture and food folkways of the South, divided dutifully and equally along diverse racial lines by the network.

In many ways, this show is cringey in the way that almost all television in the Pandemic era is. “People are so close to each other! They’re hugging! They’re holding hands in anticipation of the announcement of the challenge winner! Ew! Germs!” But, beyond that, there’s another nagging little problem in this show that smacks of inauthenticity. Everyone is so nice to each other. They seem to really like each other, root for each other, and get along. That’s not how I, a dyed in the wool Yankee, have been educated regarding race relations in the South.

I know, I know. I’m stereotyping white Southerners! I haven’t spent enough time in the south and I don’t have enough southern friends to speak with any firsthand knowledge about what white southerners are actually like, but I am a pretty avid student of American History and understand well the Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynchings, and general second class citizenry that black folks throughout the south have been subjected to in the centuries since the North “won” the war.

It’s no secret that the losing confederate states have been, almost exclusively, Republican strongholds since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, so it is not difficult for me to imagine that the political signs dotting the idyllic Georgia countryside where this program was filmed might look very similar to the signs of white resistance to our country’s shifting demographics found along the road in suburban Wisconsin. 

How then, does Netflix manage to paint such a rosy picture? Yes, there is a brief nod to pre-colonial cooking techniques and ingredients, as there is also mention of Antebellum techniques used by sharecroppers to roast whole animals in the ground, but these moments of true social import seem almost obscured and overshadowed by the friendliness of the competitors.

When good ol’ North Carolina boy, Ashley, becomes frustrated and nearly throws in the towel, weeping in grief over the passing of his friend, Big Worm (itself a laudable and rare display of male emotion); Jamaican-born Rasheed holds him, comforts him, and encourages him. I wonder if they still hang out- if Ashley went home and started proudly proclaiming to his friends that Black Lives Matter. I wonder if it made them think differently about immigration, voting rights, healthcare… Maybe they’d even strip the confederate flags from their bumpers once and for all?

Now don’t get me wrong, all of this is not so much criticism as observation. All four of us agreed- we had watched the show and thoroughly enjoyed it. More than that even, we needed it, needed to see the possibility of harmony, needed a trip to race-relations Disneyland the same way we needed this quick escape to the Badger State. In a time when it has become so difficult for us to travel, the show helped us to explore something far outside ourselves and, in the meantime, portrayed a South we’d like to believe in, one of cooperation, equality, and collegiality, a hope for the future of our country.

But, to my knowledge, the ills of humanity had not yet been settled over beers and brats and, before we knew it, afternoon turned to evening, the early autumn air turning cold along with it. The four of us said our goodbyes and, as we were leaving, Julie told me that she couldn’t wait to read my new cooking blog, to see what I had done with that giant kohlrabi! 

“Oh, thank you,” I blushed, “but it’s going to be about much more than that…”