We shuffle around the fire, trying to escape the stream of black that undulates out of the pit. I dip the stainless steel cup into the pot of snow my husband has melted and lift it to my lips. I smell the smokiness a split second before I taste it; it has worked its way into the water, too. I give my daughter a taste. She crinkles her nose.
My husband unwraps some smoky bacon and slaps the slices into the cast-iron pan he has hiked into the woods with earlier today.
This must be how I fell in love with him.
Growing up, I spent winters watching Westerns with my dad in the living room after he came in from chores. When he’d fall asleep in the recliner, I’d wander to the kitchen and open a can of baked beans, pour them out onto a plate, grab a wooden spoon and slurp them up. I could hear the high hum of my mother’s sewing machine out on the porch, the only place we had any extra room for her to work. The machine drowned out my attempts at clanking the spoon into the plate as hard as I could, to make it sound like I was eating out of a tin plate. But I never felt quite satisfied. I wanted the beans hot, a metal cup of something to drink and a fire to sit around.
My parents weren’t the kind to indulge us in outdoor adventure. The northern Plains seemed to either be sweltering or blustery, and both my parents worked hard, one at farming, the other long hours in town so we could have health insurance. In my adulthood, I have forgiven them. But in my childhood, I inwardly longed for outdoor thrills: for ocean spray on my face, mountain trails beneath my feet, and, yes, a campfire with a plateful of beans.
Up north, winters can drag on – especially with a toddler. My husband and I play outside with our little daughter as long as we can take it. But the great expanse of white bores her after a while. Repeatedly tripping on snow chunks the size of her head soon loses its luster. Sometimes we still squeeze her into the baby backpack, and John hauls her into the woods, which are much more exciting. We catch glimpses of whitetails leaping up over logs and away. We whisper to our daughter, “Uh-oh, let’s hope we don’t wake up the bear.” Mystery waits just around the next bend. Way-up-there treetops harbor scolding red squirrels, and, the day of our fire, a porcupine.
We had heard on the news that on this particular Saturday temperatures would hit the 30s. Finally, a break in the long cold streak. We would celebrate outside, of course. Snowbound and rearranging things around in the basement, John had come across our tubs of camping gear. He saw the tin plates, blue with white specks, just like in the movies, and without a word from me, the idea was born.
John set out earlier than we did to stoke some coals. He bypassed the civilized fire pit in our yard; we wanted to be travelers in this enterprise, not just tourists. Then I set out with our girl, pulling her purple sled atop the two-rut trails that dive into the heart of the woods. Through the white pines, we turned north toward the birch. When we came upon my favorite maple, a perfect blazing red in fall, I cut across to the river. We found John’s footsteps and followed them to the bridge he built last year, pausing to see if any water had yet seeped through the ice. Nope. I pulled her up the banks, and then we cut right, through a nice stand of old oaks that’s about to give in to the wind.
And there he was. John had shoveled away all the snow, thrown down some dead pine branches, piled on blown-down oak branches and set the pot of snow on to melt. “I thought we’d show her how to make water.”
The food was far from perfect, beginning with the water that tasted like smoke. We turned our backs for just a moment – really – to look at what the dog was doing, and when we turned back, the bacon had progressed from perfect to charred. The beans were, well, just a can of beans we poured into the pan.
I didn’t need flawless. In all the good Westerns, the cowboys swore at the cook: “Doggonnit! Whyda we pay ya if alls we gets is mushy beans?”
Out there in the snowy woods with my husband, daughter and dog, my first fire-pit tin-plate meal was perfect indeed.
These days Jodi McLain lives, teaches and writes in rural Wisconsin. She’s currently at work on a novel about a character who, in order to get on with life, has to do quite a lot of “looking back.”