Bannock in the Backyard

We thought we’d practice making the traditional wilderness trip staple – bannock, which is essentially unleavened bread cooked by an open fire. The variations in recipe are legion, but we kept it pretty simple. Simplicity is good and, as this was a decidedly impulsive midday activity begun while my youngest napped upstairs, it needed accomplishment with only the ingredients on hand. I’d found an American-made, 8-inch cast-iron skillet at the thrift store the previous day with intentions on use of this very nature. A hasty seasoning earlier that morning did the trick, cleaned, greased, and ready to go. We mixed about 2 cups of flour  (more was added later) with roughly 2.5 tablespoons of baking powder, a few shakes of salt, 1 cup of water, and a handful of raisins. Mixed, rolled, and patted into a ball. I quickly discovered the need to grease my hands and powder the table with flour or the dough will stick like hell. Knowing cooks refrain from grimacing – this was a freshman attempt.

While H putzed, I got the fire going and set all other accouterments, ingredients, and whatnot on the plicker table, fumbled with a tarp in anticipation of the rain, and then gave up as soon as the clouds parted and C woke from her nap. I’d had a two salmon steaks thawed and a couple handfuls of raw spinach thrown in a steel skillet with some water and olive oil. When the wood had burned down to coals, I propped the cast iron skillet with the doughball against a stick about a foot from the coal bed and watched as the hunk of bread mix slid down to the bottom of the pan. There’s no such thing as greased too well but this would never do. I’d already had a grate set aside, intended for the salmon and spinach, and set it straddling the stones in the fire ring with the skillet on top.

After five minutes I rotated the pan 180 degrees. After ten I flipped the bannock and looked with satisfaction at the crisp, cooked surface, brown and gold, steaming. The salmon steaks went straight on the grate and I shoved one more hunk of wood underneath for good measure. No flames but the coalbed was already cooling. The bannock came off after another ten, hard on the outside soft within, boiling hot but slid right off the pan without a trace. On went the spinach skillet, also on the grate. Both spinach and salmon finished at about the same time. All portioned out on plates for three, two-and-a-half more accurately. Coupled with some pine needle tea and all’s served for a lovely meal on summer’s afternoon.

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Fishing and other Thoughts

I never intended to pick up another hobby. But I suppose anyone that knows me well enough could easily concede it’s one of my more or less endearing qualities, depending on your point of view. Makes Christmas and birthdays easier, though it also means I’ve accumulated a lot of crap over the course of my life.

Most of these interests come and go, victims of life circumstance, while some just wax and wane with my changing tastes, dwindling free time, and aptness for inspiration from unexpected sources. They’re often chosen pursuits, a clear decision, an opportunistic purchase. But the angling thing crept in, slowly, steadily.

It probably began with the canoe – a willful grasping at the outdoor life I often wished I had – that became something I practiced without remorse or loss of interest. It was an endeavor I could share with my son, and often, something that helped to clear space in my mind, to lose myself in my environment, out on the open water literally a block from my front door.

The Elizabeth River became my wilderness, its squared shoreline tracing either side of the thoughtful, urban aesthetic of Norfolk, the stark steel and gunmetal gray of the Portsmouth shipyards, the rows of colonial Old Towne houses, the Naval Hospital complex. For a time, a cheap fishing rod with a push-button reel from the thrift store just seemed to do the trick. A couple of successful night escapades with a seasoned fishing friend, and little by little it became something on which I can spend a few guiltless hours, when it was conducive, and sometimes when it was not.

As with the luck that usually finds me in some form during another Craigslist perusal and then thirty-some dollars later, I’ve now found myself in possession of a dozen and a half old rods, nine castoffs from the dark corner of a storage unit, all but one with the open bail-type reels. I’ve matched reels to rods in the way that seemed most functional to my amateur sensibilities and swapped the handles to my preferential right side, disassembling only one and oiling them all. Not a bad haul – three shorter fresh/saltwater rods (as best I can classify them) including an old fiberglass Sears & Roebuck 535, two surf rods, and the real gem – a vintage Garcia 2637-A fly rod.

The “fly” niche of the fishing world once evoked for me images of old men in hip waders and wicker baskets, thigh deep in forest streams casting off thick line as if with a bull whip. The unexpected coupling with distance trail running had tugged at my fascination not all that long ago and sparked an interest in the sport too weak to justify the investment in all of the requisite gear. A few months and a not-so-serendipitous purchase later, I’m staring at this beat-up little piece that I hope will offer a fitting introduction to it. I marvel in its simplicity – the fiberglass rod, two-piece aluminum Martin reel, faded green fly line. I’m still intimidated by all the components I don’t yet have, but all in time. At least for now, opportunities for fly fishing will be scarce relative to the ease with which I can cast into the brackish water of the Elizabeth.

Hopefully I’ll be headed out early tomorrow morning to try out a few of the smaller rods. I’ve already set them up with some simple bottom rigs, and with my modest tackle and some experimental bait, decent weather and a little luck, my hopes are high.

Report from the next day:

I caught the changing of the tides sometime just after twilight, paddling in the cool stillness of early morning as the mist collected over the Norfolk skyline. For nearly four hours I sat in near silence. H joined me for the last two, deftly casting his simple float rig from a 30″ pole, reeling it all back in as soon as the bobber hit the water, over and over, a strange discipline borne of the natural impatience of a three-year-old.

I used the old fiberglass Sears & Roebuck rod with cork grips, quickly noticing the marked difference in responsiveness, the flex and give of the rod as compared to any of newer, cheaper setups I’d used previously. For something that was surely consumer-grade, it was still manufactured in the USA, and is just as functional to me now as the day it was made (not unlike my Harmony H-62).

By the end of the morning jaunt, I’d caught nine or ten Croaker, all throwbacks, and paddled home as the sun climbed from the South-East, beating now from a cloudless sky.  It was nearing lunchtime and both H and I were longing for ice water and a sandwich, midday respite following a morning that was itself a reset from a more frenetic life.