Last weekend I spent as “Cooky” to a very special group of people, the members of CHAS, the California Historical Artillery Society. CHAS sponsors and puts on an American Civil War reenactment and Living History event about the middle of July each year in Duncan’s Mills, about 30 minutes west of Santa Rosa along the Russian River.
Because this is our own event, and we are the hosts, not the guests of the other reenacting clubs, our turnout is high, though we are spread k tent. Somehow I had to satisfy an average of 40 hungry soldiers from Friday night through Sunday afternoon with food, beverage and snacks. Friday night I made the usual spaghetti dinner, cleaned up, set the cook tent in order and laid down to sleep in my nearby canvas A-tent, my alarm set for 5am. I knew that I would have to be on top of every step in the morning because it was crucial to be absolutely punctual for the meal-time. Officers Call was at 8, and breakfast was at 7:30am. And the worst was that my usual helper was handling the front gate. I was on my own!
I love the first half hour of the breakfast preparation. I crawl out of my sleeping bag while it is still a little dark and pull on my wool trousers, brogans, cotton shirt and shell jacket. I smooth down my wild hair with my wool forage cap. The sight that greets me outside the door of my tent is the lone horse watch sitting in front of the fire that has been kept going all night. Sometimes the horse watch is dozing with the cape of his greatcoat pulled over his head, sometimes he greets me with an offer of help.
The first task I must do is to make a big pot of coffee. I fill the 2 gallon pot with water from the water can and set it on to boil on the 3 burner propane stove we have hidden inside the cook tent. Two oil lamps light the well-stocked tent with a homey glow, and the burner heats up the chilly interior comfortably. Once the coffee is out and set on the campfire grate to keep warm, I can begin putting the breakfast together.
Today I am serving ham; sometimes I have sausages, sometimes I cook bacon. I have already cooked 2 ham halves at home and sliced them up. Now I fill up a Dutch oven with the slices and set them over the fire with coals heaped on top. In a cooler part of the fire, I set a Dutch oven filled with tortillas to slowly warm up. I have learned that a big pot of oatmeal will stay warm for a long time, so I like to get that cooked and out of the way early. After it is boiled up, I wrap the pot in a wool blanket and set it out on the planks we use as a serving board.
I try to have 2 kinds of fruit to set out; grapes are always popular, so I have brought a few pounds of those, and I rope a volunteer to cut up a pineapple that I have brought. Someone has donated a watermelon, so I get someone to cut that up also and put the pieces in a bowl.
I’m getting more volunteers for help now, and that’s a good thing because of the other breakfast tasks looming. Two large wash tubs have to be filled and set on the fire; one with wash water and one with rinse water, for everyone washes their own tin plates and utensils after they eat. The drinking water dispenser has to be filled so everyone can fill their canteens, and the hand washing station needs to be topped off with warm water and soap. In between, people are trying to give me their weekend chow bill payment so they won’t have to worry about it later.
Condiments and toppings, all poured and transferred into period correct containers, are being flung onto the serving board by me and by my volunteers. Milk and juice are set out in metal pitchers. The hot Dutch ovens are hefted up on the boards. The last 10 minutes before breakfast call are reserved for the eggs. It takes 10 minutes to scramble them to perfection, and when they are done, I’ll not have my eggs wait! Because of the crowd, I’ve decided to add another dozen and a half eggs to the usual flat of 5 dozen I cook. The big skillet is full of eggs with a half stick of butter to cook them in.
The eggs come out at 7:30 sharp and I ring the triangle. Right on time! For the moment I sit behind the boards in my chair drinking a cup of coffee, taking pleasure in the sight of folks filling their plates and enjoying their meal around the fire and in small clusters near tents and on sitting on “cracker boxes.”
It doesn’t take long for the food to disappear, and guys begin to head off to where they need to be, rolling rounds, Officers Call, the “sinks,” training session for the new drivers. So then I eat a little breakfast too and take a few minutes to relax before it is time to clean up. It won’t be long until I have to start getting the place ready for lunch, and I’m already thinking about how soon 11:30am will be here!
The Pismo and Morro Bay area is my favorite section of the California Coast. I’ll admit that could be because I haven’t been to any of the more southern beaches, but until then, I’ll pick the San Luis Obispo area.
We went to Pismo Beach or thereabouts about once a year when I was a kid. I can still see and smell and taste the evening there. We would be sitting around a low campfire, quietly talking, listing to stories from my dad. Mom would be in the camper, or over the Coleman stove getting dinner ready. Soon our plates were ready, with fresh boiled shrimp and cocktail sauce, a wedge of iceberg lettuce and a lemon slice, and maybe some cottage cheese.
For lunch the next day, we usually went by a fish and chips place. We didn’t have a favorite one; we liked to try different places. Clam chowder, fish and chips, steamer clams, those were the usual fare. We would always take a turn through Giovanni’s Fish Market and see the live crabs and rows of fresh fish behind the glass.
A couple weekends ago, I went to Pismo with 2 of my daughters. Even though I’d kept the tradition with my sisters and our kids, Melinda and Loreleigh hadn’t been since they were little. We had a nice little tent spot on the far edge of Pismo North Beach campground where we struck our three tents.
We made easy dinner, out of cans mostly, but did try to enjoy a little campfire. I’d brought some wood and kindling from home, but just couldn’t get it going! It smoked and sputtered all evening. I thought I had brought wood that was too green, but when the same wood burned brightly the next night, I realized that the misty fog was keeping the humidity too high for a good burn.
Morro Bay is a great place for a seafood lunch. We loaded up Bingo and Melinda’s puppy Tess and drove up there, just skating in before the lunch rush. One of the best things about Morro Bay is that the parking is free! We got a spot in the lot right across from the heart of the strip.
A digression: have you ever seen a ruder parking situation as the black pickup who takes up 4 (four!) parking spaces by covering the “four corners?” And it’s not like it was a new pristine paint job either!
Rose’s Landing seemed like a good place for lunch. The dog-friendly patio was perfect, with a great view of the bay, glass fronted to protect from the wind, and great service. The service surprised me, since it had been so bad the last time we were there. Obviously something had changed. The fish and chips were battered. I usually prefer a more breaded texture, but these were so hot and crisp and obviously seconds out of the fryer that they were very nice. The girls order clams and chips. Sometimes fried clam strips can be like rubber bands, but these were tender and flavorful. A little pricey, but a lovely lunch.
Afterwards we drove out to the Rock, climbed up on the “Do Not Enter” area to look down at the wild sea, which wasn’t particularly wild that day. Sometimes you can see the spray flying up over the top of the rocks, but not today. We parked at the lot looking up at the Strand to watch the windsurfers and a cute little “wind buggy” madly tearing up and down the beach.
Back at the campground, we gathered up beach blankets and books and took the dogs out to enjoy the sunset over the sea. It was hard to get settled for very long, since the tide was coming in, and Tess became a digging maniac. She reminded me of “The Diggingest Dog,” a kid’s book that I hated but my children loved, so I had to read it over, and over, and over…
Later, back at the now merrily burning campfire, I opened a bottle of Rosa D’Oro Muscat Canelli for after-dinner glasses. A fruity sweet-tart wine, nice for a not-too-heavy dessert.
If I was allowed just one indulgence, I think I would spend it on cinnamon rolls, those big, yeasty spicy specialty bakery ones, with frosting and nuts. There is a shop in Pismo that sells those. We walked up the beach to town on our last morning for our cinnamon rolls from “Old West Cinnamon Rolls” bakery. Warm, nutty, cinnamony, but not cloyingly sweet. It’s a good thing I don’t live near this place!
Life is an adventure, and face it, food is a big part of life. Very good food, very bad food, and even mundane, boring food has something interesting embedded in it that can be pried out with a good opener.