Food & Culture in the South:
Handling the Camping Stove
My friend Melissa and I arrived late at Shakori Hills, the music festival where we would be camping for the next three nights. It was after dark, and the biodiesel tractor that lugs people from the parking lot to the campsites was no longer running. We would have to walk three quarters of a mile up a rocky hill carrying a great many things with only our bodies and a little red plastic wagon.
The wagon capsized twice. The first time the bungee snapped and hit my face when I bent to reset it. The second time I didn’t notice I had lost my load, because I was talking to a high-spirited older couple who, with plastic-cupped beverages in their hands, asked why we didn’t get a car-camping pass. In my toil I couldn’t remember why we hadn’t—I guessed we didn’t want to be sleeping in a field of parked cars.
“It was fifty dollars more!” Melissa yelled over her shoulder, with none of the friendliness I felt compelled to maintain. Melissa is from Ohio. She then noticed that my wagon was empty, and scolded me for losing everything before going back to find our pillows and whatever else had fallen in the dark. We made three trips total. It felt like moving. People got pissy.
We found a spot down a path behind a dozen porta-potties in a crescent moon formation. The festival was in the woods on a farm just north of Pittsboro, North Carolina, and we set our trappings down on damp soil, young green plants, spiders and worms and ticks. The caterpillars were so prevalent we could hear them falling on the tent like a slow rain. We had carried the makings of a home up there, with a kitchen and two coolers—one full of food and one full of booze. We had equal amounts of things to nourish and harm ourselves, and it wasn’t clear which was the priority.
“This is going to be pretty fucking serious,” Melissa had said on the phone a week before our trip. “I don’t think you know how serious this is going to be.” Melissa is my friend from grad school, a poet from Toledo who uses cuss words in everyday speech and has a passion for music festivals, smoking weed, and cooking. This was our first time camping together, and leading up to the trip, all the hype was about what we would eat.
It was Melissa’s territory—she is known to not fuck around in the kitchen. She likes to get things perfect, regardless of time and level of difficulty. When this woman bakes a pie she goes to the Mexican grocery to pick up lard, because for her it’s the only way to get a sufficiently flaky crust.
“Fuck Crisco, dude,” I have heard her say and go on to lament how sad it is that Crisco is in grocery stores and cookbooks and people no longer know how to bake without it. It’s a specialized knowledge she holds, making things tasty in ways most of the rest of the culture has forgotten or decided against for health reasons. I knew watching her handle a camping stove would be something to behold.
In the morning, it was easy to let go of the punishment we endured while setting up camp when Melissa made these egg sandwiches.
These egg sandwiches were supported by English muffins and featured melted cheese, sliced tomato, and avocado. There was a side of fried potatoes. When bitten, the yolk dripped out politely, offering itself as lubricant for our potatoes but never threatening to soggy our plates. They were dazzling. In this land of ticks and transience, here were these expertly crafted egg sandwiches. Who eats avocado in the woods? We do.
We had our fill and there was an extra sandwich. Melissa called out to our neighbors, “Who wants an egg sandwich?” and a woman appeared, our age, and grateful. She had come in from Greensboro by herself and had hooked up with some young partiers on the biodiesel tractor the day before. “Avocado!” she said. We nodded. She thanked us, and I passed her thanks along to Melissa, who was used to winning people’s hearts this way.
Melissa and I once weathered a hurricane together by baking a chicken pot pie. She led the effort, involving heavy cream and a pulled-apart rotisserie chicken. We ate it while the winds and the rain came in, and I knew we would be friends long-term. Melissa knew something, too, about sharing food at festivals: There was a gift economy at work that might come around to benefit us. It was good to have extra food.
The lady went back to her campsite, and I noticed that it was bare compared to ours. Just a tent, a table, and some camping chairs. Some other folks woke up in hammock tents hanging from trees. We woke up on an air mattress inside a deluxe tent, then assembled the canopy (which had been gifted to one of Melissa’s friends at another festival), which protected our tent from rain while providing a covered front porch area.
I could not take credit for this domestic space. My camping style involves winging it, sometimes to my great discomfort, or else relying on the planning and property of my salaried women friends, among whom I occupy an unpropertied dude role. They ask me things on the phone like, “Are you going to bring a sleeping bag?”
Melissa had even brought sheets and clothespins, which she hung from two sides of the canopy, making walls around our folding table. It was so private and cozy. A person could raise a family in a structure like that. It made me think that having babies would be fun.
“Melissa,” I said. “Wouldn’t it be fun if we had babies at the same time and raised them together?”
“Fuck those motherfuckers,” she said.
After lingering too long at our campsite, it was time for us to engage in Shakori Hills. We had a taste of it the night before when we joined a crowd watching a band called Leftover Salmon. They’re a jam band, Melissa’s taste, and they were about to play “Up On Cripple Creek.” The front man said to the crowd, “Man, that man spread a lot of love,” and people howled in agreement. Melissa explained that he was talking about Levon Helm, a member of The Band who had just died. Everyone knew this and everyone loved this song. Melissa started hippie dancing with her eyes closed.
Once the sentiment had passed, people were back to straight partying. “PBR!” a man shouted from the audience.
A male voice answered, “Pabst Blue Ribbon!”
“Margarita!” a lady shouted.
“Cosmopolitan!” answered another lady, closing out the sequence.
Nighttime at Shakori meant scores of people in altered states. If a person wanted to self-destruct, there would be company.
The daytime was healthier, with families and hippies all about, going to sustainability talks, doing two-step in the dance tent, learning about wild foods. The daytime was more aligned with the tone of the welcome message printed in the festival program, which opened like this: “A five thousand year cycle marked by the Mayan calendar is ending/restarting—2012—now! What is our plan?”
At one point, Melissa and I walked past the healing arts area and spied a yoga class in session. Normally it would seem unfit to drop in on a class midway, particularly in the state we were in: holding beer cans, no yoga mats, me in a dress. But the great thing about festivals is that the barriers that normally keep people separate dissolve a little, so we put down our cans and practiced on the plywood floor.
The instructor, a science teacher from Concord, North Carolina, welcomed us with a nod and led us through a bunch of vinyasas that made my whole body feel fixed. The instructor had a way of making us work but also making us feel at ease, and at the end of class I offered him my gratitude then picked up my beer, which I no longer cared about. Melissa and I are yoga friends, and as we walked back to the tent we said vague but heartfelt yoga things to each other and felt the best we would feel all weekend.
“Dude. Yoga is so good.”
“I know, dude. I know.”
“It’s like, if you do that, then you feel better. Like, that’s how it works.”
“I am for real.”
For dinner on Friday night, Melissa heated some homemade minestrone soup and bread. We had friends come visit, two non-campers who drove in from Durham. The four of us ate soup by citronella candlelight and watched as our neighborhood filled in. People had just gotten off work and were setting up tents in the empty spaces around us.
While we polished off the soup, a group of unknowably hip youths approached and asked if we minded if they twirled fire near our tent. I don’t know what my comrades were thinking, but I know that no one had ever asked me that before. We said sure. Who would we have been to say no? Old people? Nerds? A young lady with a shaved head swung fire poi in circular formations around her person. A young man joined her. A bottle of lighter fluid sat over by the post of our canopy.
The next morning, we had another perfect breakfast: sausage links and flapjacks drizzled with honey. The flapjacks were a special camping trick of Melissa’s, made by flattening canned biscuit dough and frying it on the griddle. While we ate, a young man in a neighboring tent yelled at his friend to wake up. His message was, “Wake up. Dude, wake up. We have to go to work. Wake the fuck up.” They were two of the volunteers who staff the festival in exchange for passes, and they had a shift coming up. The sleeping man kept sleeping, despite the nearness, volume, and repetition of his friend’s calls.
After some time, a young lady voice answered from another tent, “I’m awake!”
“I would have woken you up so much nicer than that,” the man replied. “You sound like a sweetheart, and my friend is a douche bag.”
After a surprisingly long time, the second man did wake up, springing from his tent and almost tripping over his feet. He was shirtless, and a wilted Mohawk flopped over his face. We fed these people our leftover sausages.
Because the night belongs to binge drinkers, the sounds of drums and hollering were almost constant outside our tent. It was Saturday night, and the festival had reached its wildest, most crowded expression. Melissa and I were tired, though, and wanted sleep. As we settled onto our air mattress, I could hear a phone call one of our neighbors was making to an outside friend, requesting that the friend bring in a few cases of beer.
Hours later, I woke up to the sounds of our neighbors with the requested beer inside them. This was a group of folks who had been unable to start a fire all weekend, but now that they had borrowed lighter fluid from the fire poi kids and doused an enormous log with it they had a huge one. It lit the side of our tent with a great orange glow. I thought I could feel its warmth. The shitty thing about festivals is that the barriers that normally keep people separate dissolve a little.
One voice kept threatening to push a person into the fire. That same voice kept suggesting they make a bomb by pouring lighter fluid into a Naked juice bottle and tossing it into the fire. The project kept getting delayed by the voice calling the juice gay, then not knowing where the bottle was, then finding it, then a tiny lady voice suggesting they not do that, then the bottle getting lost again, then found, and the cycle repeated.
There was a sloppy aggression to the voice that I found troubling. I wondered if I should put my shoes on, go outside, and try to confiscate the lighter fluid like somebody’s fifth grade teacher. I didn’t want to. I kept lying there, listening for a sign that action was necessary. I wondered if people had to deal with shit like that in the car-camping area.
Then the men who had eaten our sausages that morning came over to the fire.
“Dude, it looks like Pride Rock,” one of them said. A Lion King reference. The sausage eaters had brought their guitars, and their non-aggressive personalities, and started dominating the scene with improvised country songs. One by one the fire-makers lost interest and went to bed. The music was loud—it sounded like they were playing inside our tent—but their energy was a gift. They kept playing until probably 5 a.m., when the rain came and silenced it all.