My husband has used his religious identity as an excuse for all sorts of failings. Requests for yard work or anything that requires a trip to Home Depot are met with the same defense. So it is no surprise that when I bring up the idea of camping, he gives a helpless shrug then says, “But, I’m Jewish.”
And I’m not even talking about “real” camping—not the kind that kicks off with a long drive then a tough hike carrying a heavy pack and is capped by cooking tinned beans over a homemade fire. I’m only asking to go to the Glencoe Beach campout, an event best summed by this: the Park District provides Starbucks in the morning.
I have wanted to attend for three summers and this year the event happens to fall when my husband is away. I consider if I’m up to the task of taking a four-year-old and a seven-year-old for a full-night outdoor sleepover on my own. I cross my fingers and register for the campout.
For this week’s baking, I eschew my own plan to move through Baking Illustrated in an organized way—one chapter at a time. I want to bake as a reward to myself. I want a treat I can look forward to at the end of dragging down supplies, shaking sand from sleeping bags, and setting up a tent. This chapter on “Quick Breads” just isn’t going to cut it. I heft all the way to the back of the book to “Cookies, Brownies, and Bar Cookies.” That’s more like it. I settle on Pecan Bars—basically mini pecan pies.
I don’t really know what to expect when it comes to camping. My family never camped. Ironically, the idea of “roughing it” seems like a luxury; it requires time, knowledge and equipment—all things my family lacked when I was growing up. In my house, the car getting packed up did not equal fun family vacation; instead, it meant we were moving. Great swaths of my childhood were spent bubble-wrapping items and labeling boxes. With each move, our fortunes fell further (they weren’t that high to begin with). So though we never went camping, we did spend time without lights, power, or water. Being a teen girl without access to a telephone? That’s roughing it. In the eighteen years I lived at home, that home changed eighteen times.
Because of my own ever-shifting childhood, I decided when having children that the most important thing I could provide in addition to love was simply stability. And now I live in Glencoe with my husband and two kids. It’s a town so intimate that you can’t pick up your prescriptions without overhearing the ailments of your neighbors. It’s so tight-knit that your children spend nine school years with the same group of kids and will later be more excited to attend their eighth grade reunions than their high school ones. It’s so intransient that when a “for sale” sign goes up, you can be somewhat certain that the family is simply moving to a different home in Glencoe. My children have a comfort in this community—they see friends at every event, are on a first-name basis with the parents, and know the way to their own schools—that I never had in any of the places we lived. This campout is merely an extension of that.
My camping preparation is threefold: I borrow some camping supplies from the neighbors; I practice setting up our tent in the den; and, I bake. My daughter is nut-crazy (and also crazy nuts). When I make pesto, she grabs handfuls of the over-priced pine-nuts and downs them. When her dad hosts card games, she “preps” the mixed nuts by eating out all of the good ones. For the pecan bars, we toast the nuts in small batches. At one point we have two piles of pecans—one toasted and one not—and I offer my daughter a taste test. After gobbling some of each, she puts up a finger and says straight-faced, “Um, I have to try them again.” She tries them so many times that when I re-measure the toasted nuts, we run short and have to run into town for another bag.
For baking the sticky bars, the cookbook suggests fashioning a sort of sling out of aluminum foil in the square pan. We take two pieces foil and make a large cross then mold it into the pan, leaving a little hanging out on each side for handles. When our pecan bars are done cooking, we simply grab the foil and pull up and our gooey dessert comes out just like that. Plus our pan is perfectly clean—what a great idea. I spray the knife with nonstick spray and cut them into squares as soon as they cool.
I am not one for waiting. In fact, the Christmas I turned eleven, I secretly opened every gift under the tree and re-wrapped them while no one was home (I was busted by a poor re-wrap of an unmarked gift that turned out to be for someone else). Now I am tempted to down about four of the pecan bars but, uncharacteristically, I show some restraint and pack them in Tupperware; they are meant as a reward and we moms know that rewards don’t work if given in advance.
I tuck the bars into our overnight bag and set it with the growing heap of things I’ll need to drag down to the beach: three sleeping bags, three sleeping mats, a tent, flashlights, bug spray, sunblock, pajamas, toothbrushes, towels, and a few energy bars just in case.
When we get to the beach, we happen to arrive at the exact same time as four other families we know. We stake out a spot near the water and lay our tents flat. As if a starting gun has been fired, we all start assembling at the same time, tent supports stretching out into the sand, kids darting between our legs. I am happy to report that mine is done first. “Your tent was easier,” one of the men says. Sure. I feel some welling of pride at doing this on my own and succeeding. Two of my girlfriends have also come sans husbands and we high five and in general spout off about girl power.
Later, as we are gathered around eating, a girlfriend says, “You know, this is fun, we should all go glamping.” The other girls around the picnic table nod enthusiastically. I have to ask, “What, exactly, is ‘glamping?’” Glamorous camping, they shrug, as if I’d just asked what “bread” is. They explain that it’s when someone else does the setup for you, you just show up. But it’s not just a regular tent, they assert, it’s fancy. I’m imagining something from a JCrew ad with girls in jeweled necklaces and pearls against an unruly mountainous backdrop.
I look around the beach and see portable picnic tables and circles of lounge chairs; I smell marshmallows being toasted over campfires stoked by Park District employees who have just handed out sticks and baggies pre-filled with marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate squares; I hear the sound of battery-powered portable fans inflating blow-up mattresses—yes, blow-up mattresses. A husband at the table mirrors my thoughts exactly when he says, “This sort of seems like glamping.” Another guys adds, “Yeah, Glencoe camping. This is how we do it.”
Posh or not, it’s hard to argue with the joy of the event. Kids have melted marshmallow bits stuck to their cheeks and sand in their hair and in between their toes. They are constantly moving—in and out of the tents, up and down the lifeguard stand, sideways at the edge of the water. As night falls, the kids don glow sticks around their necks, ankles and wrists. They are blurs of light as they rush by, always in a hurry, a band of dirty misfits.
I feel completely content as I perch in a borrowed seat and dig into the pecan bars. Oh my. They are delicious with a crunchy pecan-sandy-like buttery crust and gooey, sticky pecans. The adults gather to try them and ooh and ah. Around midnight, my last child finally peters out and we climb into our tent. I am exhausted but am kept awake by the insistent waves and the loud snores from the nearby tents—really more than I want to know about my neighbors. When the sun rises over the water I am awake to see it, mainly because I never really slept. It is a beautiful sight, as are my kids all flushed and askew in their sleeping bags. I nibble the very last pecan bar with my Starbucks before I have to pack it all up.