For over 30 summers, we rented cabins until we found our own. In those unfamiliar rustic kitchens, I flipped pancakes for 10 on a stove with one working burner, whipped cream by shaking it in a quart jar, and baked blueberry crumble in a cast iron skillet. All this was done with views of sunsets over the lake and the scent of pine mingling with cinnamon and butter. Doing without my kitchen comforts — no food processor, microwave or convection oven — provided a different sort of comfort and joy.
With those dull knives and banged-up pots, I’ve turned out some of our favorite dinners, surprising our guests and even myself. There’s a winsome beauty in meals from a meager kitchen.
Granted, a cabin cook has a few factors that tip the scales: outdoor appetites that rage after a day of hiking, swimming, biking, paddling or even reading a book. No pressure to perform or apologize for stained dish towels, dinged flatware or mismatched plates. Released from deadlines, routines, obligations, we are free to simply hang out in the kitchen to cook. Prep time morphs into cocktail hour(s) while we chop and taste and gab over a beer or glass of wine.
When I’m more relaxed, I’m a more attentive, responsive cook. The whole point of this is to make memories along with a meal, so I try to slow down and enjoy the process. Vacation cooking follows the rhythm of fun, rest, eat, repeat.
Leave the fussy equipment and high expectations behind. Remember that your hands are your best tools, so keep things simple. No matter a website’s promises or the rental agent’s assurances, what you see in the photos may not be what you find in the cabin.
The trick is to stock up without schlepping too much along. Take these suggestions for packing in stride because just getting out of town is a challenge — organizing the gear, the kids, the dog, covering work, holding the mail.
You want to be prepared while allowing room for that local discovery and welcome surprise — the fresh fish, caught by a guest or picked up at a nearby fishery, farmstead cheese from a local dairy, wild mushrooms foraged on a hike, wild berries picked along the shore.
Being bossy, I like to dole out assignments to friends who will be joining me. When I’m a guest, I appreciate our host’s guidance. Especially in these times of food allergies and preferences, it’s gracious to ask, “What can I bring?” and not make assumptions.
I’ll ask friends to tote up the foods for their own breakfasts and lunches and to provide one dinner for the entire group. I’ll fill in with the basics to have on hand — coffee, tea, pantry essentials such as butter, oil, vinegar, spices and herbs. We all bring drinks to share.
It sounds haphazard, but things always work out. It’s good to have some structure as well as time to simply watch those waves dance on the water, follow the moonlight path on the beach, wander through the woods picking daisies and the wild strawberries that hide beneath. Let’s get to the cabin and savor that thin slice of summer.
It’s a good idea to make one or two dishes ahead of time, especially if you’re planning to serve dinner the night you arrive. Here are suggestions for what to prepare ahead and what to bring and make on the fly.