Aspen Times Weekly: You fancy, huh?
LOUNGING OUTSIDE at dusk on the cabin’s spacious deck, we ooh and aah as platter after platter emerges from the kitchen: buckwheat blini with smoked trout, crème fraîche, and chives; burrata crostini with cherry tomatoes and basil; prosciutto-wrapped Palisade peaches and plums drizzled with balsamic reduction.
We savor every morsel, alongside sparkling wine and cocktails made from Woody Creek Distillers new artisanal gin. Later at dinner, fifteen or so diners devour an enticing seasonal spread: sweet corn soup with whipped cream and tarragon, to start, then asparagus grilled and tossed with lemon dressing and crispy fried shallots; sugar snap pea risotto, luscious and bright with mascarpone and mint; and a Spanish-style, grilled bone-in pork loin with a beautiful vermillion Romesco sauce. To cap this feast, we polish off bowls of airy white chocolate mousse topped with marinated Colorado cherries and pistachio biscotti. We are stuffed.
The meal, prepared by a prominent Aspen chef, would have been impressive anywhere in town. However, we are tucked many miles from Mill Street, tucked far outside of cellular service in the Sawatch Mountain foothills, at a spacious and sturdy 10th Mountain Division Hut. The three-day excursion has drawn a gaggle of travel journalists and adventure industry folks from across the country here for a full-on “glamping” retreat in the Colorado wilderness — guided hikes and gourmet meals included.
Prior to happy hour we embarked on afternoon-long jaunt that saw us scrambling up steep embankments, across rocky pastures, over narrow footpaths crowded by branches and brambles, and beneath a massive, thundering waterfall. Before that, upon arriving to our lodging, we enjoyed a lavish lunch: Vietnamese bánh mi sandwiches stuffed with pork-pistachio pâté en terrine; Southern spiced deviled eggs; and fresh fruit cocktail with kaffir lime simple syrup and what we all thought was lavender but turned out to be basil seeds instead. Basil seeds.
“Our days might revolve around food!” quipped a writer from L.A. as we dug into dinner of our first day. It was clear that nobody would go to bed with even the slightest stomach rumble. We were not just fueling up after muddy treks. We were dining like royals.
When I had received the invitation and scanned our itinerary, I was equally parts intrigued and perplexed. On one hand, having a private chef cater a swanky meal at the hut sounds like a fine way to close the day. At the same time I knew I’d long for the experience of primitive camp cookery: meat thrown on crusty grates over a fire pit or skewered on sticks whittled with a pocket knife, perhaps some canned soup bubbling in a battered tin pot. S’mores.
I think about what is lost. One of the most satisfying meals I ever cooked was the first time I camped solo, a few years ago in Pennsylvania’s Ohiopyle State Park, some 500 miles into what would turn into a seven-month cross-country road trip. The forest was lush, wet, and swarming with mosquitoes — Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater territory. The threat of rain hung in the sky as I found my site and unpacked my tent to less dusk light than I would have liked. By the time I got a fire going, it was straight up nighttime. Still, I had a headlamp and I was determined to make dinner. I had secured all ingredients à la carte at the lone general store in the town nearby: a quarter-pound of ground beef, cheese, deli veggies, bun. I even bought a whole potato to slice up and wrap in foil for makeshift camp fries, as my science teacher taught us how to do on a sixth-grade trip.
I felt invigorated by my newfound and seemingly limitless independence — until I dropped a slice of cheese in the dirt. I laid the finished burger, with a crust of black pepper and sea salt charred by fire, gingerly between a potato bun with limp slices of lettuce and tomato. I ate in pitch darkness. It was one of the best burgers I’ve ever enjoyed. One burger can encapsulate so much: the sheer satisfaction of working in the wild to feed oneself a hot meal, despite inherent limitations and inevitable screw-ups.
Back at the hut, on our second night, our massage therapist — another unnecessary luxury, but one I am totally on board with — shares a story. A veteran of commercial rafting trips on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, she laments the hassle of lugging along “the kitchen” in the raft. The focus, she says, shifts away from the experience of adventure on the water to what elaborate dishes the guides might concoct from packets and cans on a riverbank beach. Plus, it’s a lot of extra weight. So when a friend inquired about joining her upcoming raft trip, she felt it necessary to be stern: “Sure, but can you live off peanut butter for 26 days?”
Meanwhile, our guides are jockeying among propane burners inside the cabin’s tiny kitchen to boil water and chop veggies for a simpler meal of pasta primavera and fresh fruit. The private chef had left the night before, leaving us glampers to fend for ourselves.
A professional female rock climber from California — our yoga instructor, natch — surveys the meal in progress. She’s petite and sinewy — the kind of spry athlete who must keep moving during all waking hours and whose skin is baked to a permanent bronze.
“This looks healthier than what we had last night,” she whispers. “I don’t like fancy food. There was so much butter, cheese, and heavy cream. I can’t eat that stuff! Not my thing.”
Any other time, I might have chalked up her aversion to a lack of sophistication, a misguided contempt for gourmet cuisine. But now I find myself nodding. We are in a hut — not exactly roughing it — but still camping, technically, without electricity, running water, or other trappings of modern life. This is no place for fancy — or rich — food.
Earlier that day, we made individual lunches to take on an all-day hike. I layered turkey, avocado, and sprouts onto a tortilla, showering it with salt and pepper. I rolled it up like a sandwich artist champion of the world, nestled it in my backpack next to a rain jacket, and dug it out a few hours later when we found some rocks overlooking a sinkhole. Fingernails caked with dirt from picking snail shells from the limestone-rich soil along the way, I peel away the foil delicately. The first creamy, chewy, salty bite is bliss. This is what I’ve been craving out here in the woods: Camp food.
Amanda Rae still enjoys a five-course tasting menu — at a restaurant. firstname.lastname@example.org