Jake Buffington wins National Trails Day cook-off

by Brian Clarey

The air smells like wild onions at Bur-Mil Park on National Trails Day ‘— wild onions and, under the rough wooden shelter, an emerging scent of fuel as the camp stoves are lit for the 2nd annual Camp Stove Cook-Off. The three contestants have half an hour to produce their meals using only the things they’d normally bring on a backpacking trip: no fancy utensils or superfluous ingredients, with technique limited to the things they can do on a one-burner outdoor rig.

I’m here not because I’m an avid camper ‘— I don’t particularly care for the great outdoors and I’m much more comfortable in a hotel, preferably one with a casino ‘— but I’m here as a judge for the cook-off because I know a little something about food. Very little, actually, when compared to fellow judge Brad Hendrix, a veteran of the Greensboro restaurant scene who has worked the line at Bert’s Seafood Grille longer than Bill Gates has had an email account. The third judge, Adam Collins, describes himself as an ‘“avid backpacker.’”

‘“’Avid’ is not the word I would use,’” says Kurt Peterson, a manager at Blue Ridge Mountain Sports and emcee for the cook-off. ‘“Manic, maybe.’”

‘“Oh, come on,’” Adam says. He’s recently returned from a trip and his gear is drying in the sun so he can set out again tomorrow.

Under the shelter, the campground cooks prepare their dishes.

Thirteen-year-old Jake Buffington browns ground beef in a deep pot on his burner. When it’s ready he’ll add water, elbow noodles, spices and tomato sauce. ‘“It’s called Jake’s Backpack Goulash,”” he says proudly. Jake’s a high-level Boy Scout, not quite an Eagle, and he’s got serious gear like the all-purpose utensil with interchangeable parts. Jake is prepared.

At the end of the picnic table, Israeli Eiten Stern crumbles bullion into a pot of boiling water, a seasoning for the rice that makes up the starch portion of his chicken and vegetable dish. He’s done some prep work, with a tray full of sliced cabbage, red peppers, onion, tomatoes and green and yellow squashes that give the dish an Asian flair. He’s got cans of chicken and jars of cashews. He’ll also serve quartered pitas smeared with tahini paste.

‘“Tahini has a lot of calcium,’” he says, ‘“very good for trekking.’”

But the first chef to plate her dish is Jenn Alford, a twentysomething Greensboro resident who works for the Fire Department.

‘“It’s called Jenn-Jo’s Peppercorn Burrito,’” she says, showing off a vegetarian dish prepared with organic ingredients including corn, black beans, red onion, tomatoes, mushrooms and avocado. The ingredients are heated in a small pot and then served with peppercorn brie cheese and Veganaise, a vegan alternative to mayonnaise, rolled inside a tortilla made from spelt, a whole grain that has been around since 5000 BC.

We try the dishes.

Jenn’s burrito is a textural delight, ranging from the gooiness of the melted cheese and soft avocado to the crisp presence of barely-cooked vegetables. The chewy spelt burrito enfolds the dish nicely.

Jake’s goulash, which comes up next, is warm and comforting with noodles cooked to just the right consistency and a tomato stock that is not overbearing but thick enough to hold the dish together. There is enough heat in the finish to make it interesting. He serves it up in a bowl with herbed flatbread and the combination is sound.

Etian’s chicken dish is savory in all the right ways and perhaps the most nutritionally dense, with good carbs coming from the rice, vitamins and minerals from the vegetables and a variety of protein from the nuts and chicken.

At one end of the bank of picnic tables I confer with my fellow judges.

We agree that each dish has its own merits and that all are tasty. Adam says he never eats this well on the trail, often relying on things like Pop Tarts or Stove Top Stuffing for sustenance. Brad, a man who appreciates a fine cut of ahi tuna as much as a good grilled cheese, has his own reckonings for figuring out the winner.

‘“[Eiten] looks like he went to the grocery store, and he’s traveling pretty heavy.’” Brad says. ‘“Jenn’s tacking light, and her dish was quick, too. But this,’” he gestures to the goulash, ‘“this just tastes good.’”

I have my own criterion which include presentation, practicality, nutritional value and, of course, taste, and after huddling with my fellow judges we give the day to Jake Buffington, whose Backpack Goulash had all the necessary elements of a good campground meal.

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