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All Sticks Are Not Created Equal

Julia Bainbridge
Food Editor
July 15, 2014

Oh, hey. Do you like long walks in the woods, eating gooey s’mores by the fire, and making a meal out of whatever you can hunt, fish, or catch with your bare hands? Well, welcome to Camping Week, featuring tastier ways to get your outdoors on. 

Photo credit: Keller + Keller

While it’s true that Paula Marcoux, the author of Cooking with Fire, builds wooden spits and roasts whole animals on them when spending time in the wild, we suggest that others start small. One stick, one marshmallow, one bit of sausage, or one chunk of cheese. Snackable things.

But do try it.

Cooking with foraged tools over a campfire is “just a nice things to do with other people,” she told us. “Instead of crackers and cheese, why not have everyone make toasted cheese?” Starting a fire and hunting down sticks doesn’t just make for a fun cocktail-hour activity, it makes for delicious appetizers. “Regular Havarti or Swiss or cheddar from the grocery store is really delicious brought up to melting point and smeared on some toasted bread.”

Here are Marcoux’s rules of thumb for cooking with sticks.

1. Use greenwood. “You want to make sure that you’re selecting a tree that is not toxic and not too strongly flavored,” says Marcoux. Maple and alder are greenwoods, which you can tell by snipping off branches and checking to see if the flesh is, in fact, green. Another telling factor: It’s flexible and its bark peels away relatively easily, plus it doesn’t burn as quickly as some other wood types. “I roasted a chicken with a greenwood spit over a hot fire—hot enough to roast a chicken in 1.5 hours—and the stick didn’t even brown. It looked the same as when I put it up.” And you can always “ask someone around you who is ‘arboristic’ to make sure you’re not getting anything poisonous,” says Marcoux.

2. Let the food determine the size. The size, thickness, shape, and density of whatever you want to cook will determine the hardware necessary. Some hard cheeses, for example, crumble easily, so you want to make sure your stick has a super-fine point to pierce through a chunk without destroying it. If your stick is serving as a spit, it should be larger, of course, say 2 inches in diameter for a whole chicken. “The roasting tools you select for any job should be able to support the weight of the food in both raw and cooked form,” Marcoux writes in Cooking with Fire.

3. Whittle like a Girl Scout. This time-honored method, writes Marcoux in the book, relies upon “a knife to skin the bark off of the thin end of the stick and put a bit of a point on it.” That point is where your food will go; you can leave the bark on any portion of the stick that will not touch food. And, of course, strip off any side branches. Marcoux urges prospective stick users to go freestyle: “Look [at] your stick and see what’s there. You may have a nice angle” that will inspire your design. The point is: Have fun with it. “It’s not a dogmatic thing; it’s a contemplative thing to do while you’re sitting by the fire.”

Excerpted from Cooking with Fire (c) Paula Marcoux. Photography by (c) Keller + Keller. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.