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Reflections on Eating at Baxter State Park

I’ve just gotten back from my annual camping trip to Baxter State Park (BSP), and I started thinking about how and what we ate, as well as how it compared to earlier years when I went with different people.

For reference, I started going to the park with my family when I was 10, and then eventually it morphed into my brother and I going with some of our friends, until 2014, when I started going with my friends Matt and Doe. And it may help to know that BSP doesn’t have any electricity or running water (apart from streams). It’s also carry in, carry out.

The early years

When I was a kid, I just assumed that how we ate while camping was what other people did too, although, in retrospect, that’s not the case. For one, we used regular plates and mugs, which meant dishes could break fairly easily. I don’t remember if anything ever did, but it seems a little odd that we didn’t use something a little more durable.

We also didn’t have any kind of drying rack, so we had to improvise (see photo). This really seemed to be asking for trouble.

My mom and her friend Nancy doing dishes, and my cousin Troy photo bombing

And as I recall, we did almost no food prep in advance. So when we made pasta, or cooked bacon and home fries, we weren’t just heating them up. We had to take the time to cook everything through. We didn’t cook over a fire, though, but rather used a portable propane camping stove from L.L. Bean that at least had two burners.

The other thing that only seemed a little unusual in hindsight was how much produce we brought. We always had a salad with pasta on our first night, and on the second night, we’d typically have burgers with veggies on the side. We also had plenty of fruit for snacking during the day. Since that was how we ate at home, too, I didn’t think anything of it, but I haven’t seen salad showing up on any lists of popular camping foods.

The middle years

After my mom died, my brother and I and our friends took over much of the cooking, or at least had a bigger input on meals, even when my dad still went and helped out. And my brother tended to make more elaborate meals.

For example, he decided that he liked making stir-fries at camp. This involved bringing lots of pots and pans and cooking oils and ingredients, cutting vegetables and protein of choice, and starting things at different times so it would all finish at once. One year the beef we had with the stir-fry had even been packed in dry ice, just to make things extra exciting. (And because one of my brother’s friends was a chemical engineer.)

We also started trying to prepare some of the food ahead of time as possible. That meant making burgers ahead of time, as well as cooking bacon and the potatoes for home fries at home. It certainly made things easier at the park.

At one point, I decided it was silly to keep bringing breakable dishes, so I bought some plastic camping dishware to use. That made things easier since it was lighter and easier to pack.

Another change was our lunch on the way up and breakfast on the last day. When growing up, we always packed a lunch and ate at the rest stop just outside Millinocket (the town closest to the park). We would also make breakfast on the morning of the last day, which meant that we had to wait until after eating to pack things up.

My brother, though, advocated for two changes. One was to stop at Subway on the way up, so we didn’t have to worry about packing one more meal. And instead of making breakfast on the last day, we started stopping at the Appalachian Trail Café in Millinocket.

That meant we could pack up all the food and cooking gear the night before, and we could just pack up our sleeping bags and remaining items on our last morning. (We liked to leave early because it takes several hours to get home.) Plus, the café has amazing homemade donuts.

The recent years

So, it was interesting when I started going with my friends Matt and Doe since they had their own routines.

Some things have stayed the same. We’re okay with packing a lunch on the way up, so we eat at the same rest stop where I used to eat when I was younger. We usually have burgers one of the nights, and s’mores have always been a staple.

But we also have tacos one night, with gluten-free tortillas, and for the past couple of years, they’ve been experimenting with making soup mixes that we can bring and then just add water.

Oh, and that reminds me. I never used to worry about getting water right from the streams to refill my water bottle, and I don’t think any of us ever had a problem. But Matt is much more fastidious about this since he had a bad experience one year, so we bring a lot of water with us and filter any water we get from streams at the park.

Getting back to meals, on the first day, Matt and Doe tend to skip eating breakfast before starting to go hiking, but I always have something – I can’t hike on an empty stomach. On the second day, we have corned beef hash and home fries, and on the third day, we stop at the Appalachian Trail Café. We were worried in 2021 when the café was closed due to COVID, but happily, it’s back open now.

I do still bring veggies and fruit for myself because I like having them, and my friends will have a little salad or a few sugar snap peas. But produce is certainly not high on the list of their priorities, which I suspect is the case for many campers.

Not going hungry

The main constant in all this, of course, is making sure we have enough food not to go hungry. Even getting to Millinocket from the park takes about an hour, so leaving to go pick up extra food isn’t a great option.

So far, we’ve always had enough food, with some extra, but not too much extra. So I think we’re striking the right balance. And whatever we eat, it always tastes a little more flavorful when eating it outside at a picnic table in the park.


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