North Fork Outdoors: Put some thought into those meals

Certain features associated with outdoor activities can be good, bad, or ugly; this is especially true of meals that may add to or detract from days spent on the water or in the field. 

Take breakfasts, for example. The first time we ever shared a Montauk charter one October morning some years ago, we made the mistake of assuming the best sea conditions, so we sat with our party at a diner down by the docks around 5 a.m. (after a long drive) and put away enough breakfast to fuel us for the day ahead. By the time we were set up trolling in three-foot seas east of the lighthouse, that breakfast was long gone overboard for all but one of our party, an old salt from Massachusetts who knew better than to “chow down” and try to digest a big meal before facing Beaufort Six seas.

For land-based activities, outdoors persons have more leeway. For example, when we did a goose hunt with the Gays on the South Fork more than 20 years back, we met in another diner, this time in Hampton Bays, and took down a similar meal, again in the wee small hours, around 4 a.m., I recall. It worked, but with one small change in our usual regimen: We substituted hot cocoa for coffee, a trick that those who frequent pit blinds can understand. Nothing messes up a setup quicker than the guy or gal who has to get out of the blind for an urgent call of nature just about the time a little flock is zeroing in on the blocks out front.

George Reiger, a waterfowl specialist and conservation columnist for Field & Stream back in its glory years, had the simplest solution of all for shooters’ breakfasts. Even if you arose in the middle of the night, you packed light with only a thermos of beverage and a banana, and that was your breakfast before the black duck and divers began moving at first light. If you couldn’t handle a growling stomach bordering on starvation, well, you just didn’t understand DelMarVa duck hunting! I think those strict conditions helped turn us into upland hunters in later years. Bobwhite quail and ruffed grouse keep more civilized hours.

The most civilized breakfasts of all are served by camps with lodges whose guides arrive for their sports during what more or less pass for business hours, somewhere between 7 and 9 a.m. At a salmon lodge in the Atlantic Provinces or in a lodge in the North Country of the Midwest or Canada where the quarry is usually muskellunge, northern pike or walleye, the guides are waiting for you down at the docks after you’ve brushed your teeth. Unless the weather is unusually hot or stormy, the fish have nowhere else to go, it seems, and pike, especially, can be provoked into striking at almost any hour under the right conditions.

The end of the outdoor day can also be a challenge. Those who field trial their bird dogs often push activities until they see the last rays of the setting sun. Sometimes the clubs try to put on a big dinner after all dogs and horses are attended to and results of the day’s competition have been announced. If you’ve been able to hold out (and not pass out), it’s great to sample the home cooking, often smoked fish, clams, venison or other game meats. Sometimes, if the planning doesn’t go well, everyone bakes ziti, desserts are mostly s’mores or lime jello and salads are nonexistent.

Successful fishing trips can produce some rather interesting evening meals. John Rozansky of Mattituck, who kept a boat in Montauk, would treat his friends after tuna excursions to sushi and sashimi from the day’s catch, the best we’ve ever eaten.

No meal, however, quite matches the shore dinners cooked by the guides of the Thousand Islands region. These meals harken back some 120 years to the heyday of tourist boarding hotels like the one in Clayton run by hostess Sophia and guide George Lalonde, whose Thousand Island dressing, promoted by entertainer May Irwin and, subsequently, by the Waldorf Astoria, became so famous later.

We’ve partaken of shore dinners that begin with fatback, cooked down and served as pork rind crisps, catch of the day, batter fried in the same fat, fried or baked potatoes, and batter-fried onions (otherwise called “blooming onions”). Of course there’s lettuce, preferably iceberg, with tomatoes, covered with (what else?) Thousand Island dressing. For dessert there’s fat-fried French toast and boiled coffee (coffee plus grounds boiled together and clarified at the end with a fresh egg). As you consume this repast, you hear in your head sharp scolding from the “Eat Heart Healthy” crowd and shrug.

Some wags might suggest that the coffee be served with a tablespoon of Metamucil and perhaps a side of Lipitor, but never mind!