Friday, May 24, 2013

Radiant Heat (or, How I Make S'mores)

I grew up as a Brownie and a Girl Scout visiting the charming pine woodland Camp Wawbansee every summer until I was 7. We made s'mores every night and I grew aggravated that my chocolate never melted before I put the hot, perfectly toasted marshmallow between the graham crackers, a situation which always ended with half of a cold bit of chocolate and hard graham crackers in my lap. Since age 8 until my senior year in high school, I attended the Episcopal summer camp outside of Pollock, Louisiana, Camp Hardtner, where I made lifelong friends and learned some very valuable lessons about bonfires and s'mores building every summer.

We had big bonfires at Camp Hardtner, and we had s'mores events regularly, often preceding our nightly milk-and-cookie hour in the cafeteria. Our bonfires tended to be made with large logs rather than the split firewood that can be bought by the bundle at the entrance to the Kisatchie from any gas station around Boyce. I was impressed by the bonfires, and really appreciated how the staff (usually the older priests rather than the LSU students who were counselors) could manage these massive fires. But when I really learned about how to make s'mores as well as valuable bonfire lessons using large logs was when I moved to the Ozarks.

During my first overnight gravel bar camping float trip, I noted evidence of failed fires, large logs with char marks that never caught, usually punky sycamore but no trace of kindling beneath them. I used to laugh at the sight of these failed fires on gravel bars, thinking that whomever tried constructing them had no clue what to do with large logs in the absence of a saw, until I went gravel bar camping with my colleague. They used to call those abandoned campfires constructed with massive flood debris, usually sycamore, but large in size, they called them St. Louis fires, thinking that the folks who tried to set fire to massive logs without kindling must be from an urban area and lacking fire experience. Granted, I realize there are very fine folks in St. Louis who can build wonderful fires, but when high school kids from any urban area hit a gravel bar without any prior experience of how to construct a fire, the heap of woody charred debris left behind sort of screams "urban kids with no fire experience" to veteran Ozarkers or the veteran Jefferson County 1960s boy scouts with whom I spend my time.

So, for starters, if you're on a two or three or four day float and you don't want to pack in beautifully split red oak firewood or timber mill seconds, gather all those big logs and old punky trees and enough kindling underneath to get a fire going. Once the fire burns through that primary log, you push the two logs together to make more firewood. Rather than one big tree, you now have two logs. This is, I believe, the aim of St. Louis firebuilders, but the abandoned fires I come across usually have no trace of kindling beneath. You can build a perfectly great fire out of a big old sycamore with enough kindling and enough patience to push all those logs together to make an actual fire. See above my own St. Louis fire made from flood debris and three pieces of split wood earlier this week.

Get the fire going, make sure it's hot enough to burn through the punky sycamore so the log will dry out and you can have two logs instead of one big tree, and then focus on the s'mores. Using what I know from Girl Scouts, you can make s'mores utilizing two types of heat: Conductive or Radiant. Conductive is a more direct heat, like throwing your marshmallow on a stick directly into the fire or right above the flame. Radiant heat is a gentler heat, as the heat radiates onto the surface from another surface. I was once a s'mores maker who would set the marshmallow on fire until it turned black because I liked holding fire. Now that managing fire is old hat to me and it doesn't excite me as much as it probably should, I've started roasting my marshmallows with radiant heat. However, and this is a serious matter, to make a perfect s'more, you should really melt your chocolate onto the graham cracker with radiant heat before you even start roasting your marshmallow. Like so: Note that the logs are now burning into a campfire and the chocolate is propped up (chert rocks work better than slabs of wood) on the graham cracker, attracting radiant heat from the fire. At this point in the operation, I hadn't started roasting my marshmallow. I waited until I saw signs of melting on the chocolate and then began slowly roasting the marshmallow in the radiant heat. Once the chocolate starts to droop from being a perfect rectangle into a little amorphous glob, it's time to connect the pieces, to put the marshmallow on your cracker and smash them together.

Here's a picture of the s'more I made this week with a fire made from flood debris: Note how the chocolate is perfectly melted and the toasted marshmallow is melding with the chocolate. Unfortunately, the graham crackers were from the back of my Honda and have probably been there for about a year so there was a staleness about them. Nevertheless, I toasted my marshmallow very well and my chocolate melted quite nicely. Of course, everyone has their own preference for s'mores including using Reese's peanut butter cups instead of squares of chocolate, and setting the marshmallow on fire until it's charred. To each his and her own, but I have learned that employing radiant heat makes my favorite type of s'more.

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