Joco Diversions

Culinary delight? Give 20 young chefs a shot at campout cooking

Chicken fajitas are a safe bet when other kids are venturing into uncharted culinary territory.
Chicken fajitas are a safe bet when other kids are venturing into uncharted culinary territory. Special to The Star

I was chatting with a coworker at the coffee pot this week when she mentioned that her little nephew wanted to fix chocolate eggs for her.

Not a bowl full of egg-shaped Easter chocolates by the sound of it, but some sort of dish he’s dreamed up that calls for at least a couple of chicken eggs and a nonzero amount of chocolate, which any reasonable parent will recognize as too much chocolate for any kid to be mixing with eggs.

His mom, of course, put a stop to the young chef’s plans.

“Good thing she saved you,” I said. But as I walked out of the break room, I started thinking.

I’d spent the previous weekend helping around 20 boys master the art of campout cooking. They’d come up with their own menus to try out in Dutch ovens, on camp stoves and over coal fires, and some of the plans certainly were… well, I guess you’d call them ambitious.

Some a leader could steer back onto a conventional track with a few well-aimed questions.

“So, guys, mac and cheese from scratch in a Dutch oven over coals, huh? If dry macaroni takes 10 minutes to cook in a rolling boil on a hot stove, how long do you think it will take starting with cold water, a heavy cold pot and a bag of charcoal? And what time are we supposed to eat?”

It didn’t take those boys long to shift part of the cooking to one of the nearby propane camp stoves.

Other meals, though, we adults just had to stand back and watch unfold as the inexpert chefs and the ineffable will of God dictated.

For a pair of boys who learned too late how little jiggling it takes to knock an avalanche of Italian seasoning from a spice jar into a pot, the result was surprisingly good. They ended up with an amped-up chili mac that any diner who hadn’t witnessed the accidental creation would call inspired.

Then there were the kids who cracked eggs into foil envelopes and laid the packs on hot coals until they reckoned enough time had passed. They came out of the experience wiser about considering the right cooking method for the ingredients, and grateful for friends who didn’t mind sharing their tastier bounty.

And a few of the dishes that drew raised eyebrows during preparation turned out to be aces in the hole for the chefs. That was the case with a sour, spicy watermelon snack that was unknown to most of the boys but is wildly popular with Latinos. Judging by how quickly it disappeared, the kids now understand why.

It can be revelatory to bite into something you feel like you wouldn’t have dreamed of cooking in a million years.

A week earlier, the 10-year-old and I had gone to a Chinese restaurant right after we read a line from “Buttermilk Graffiti,” Edward Lee’s excursion through America’s immigrant cuisines: “I want that one item on the menu that prompts the waiter, when I order it, to look incredulously at me and say, ‘You sure you want that?’”

That’s how we ended up reaching for our first plate of steamed chicken feet, an entirely unfamiliar food to us. The texture is going to take us some getting used to yet, but the layered spicy flavor — wow!

And now I’m thinking it might not be an entirely bad idea for someone to ask my coworker’s nephew what he needs from the store to get started on those chocolate eggs.

I mean, definitely have a pizzeria’s number handy in the very likely event that he has about as good a plan for the meal as we all fear.

But he might be on the verge of a startling culinary leap.

Or who knows, maybe he just got his hands on a real good souffle recipe.

Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at