Barton and Cindy Close of Signal Mountain grew up camping. "It's in our blood," Cindy Close says.
The couple started out in a two-man pup tent for outings during the first five years of their marriage.
"Life was simple then, as we used my parents' hand-me-down Coleman stove," she recalls. "Being newlyweds on a budget, we ate hamburgers and locally made brats — fully loaded — which, I'm sure, gave our veins a good lining of cholesterol, along with additional farm-fresh eggs and bacon to start our mornings. Coffee was brewed in an old percolator over a toasty fire. Those were the days of simple pleasures."
Fifteen years ago, though, they traded in their tent and began renting an RV. Recently, they bought their own motorhome, a behemoth they've christened "Moby."
"The pandemic tipped us over the edge into buying our motorhome," Cindy Close says. "Barton (a certified financial planner) can travel for business, limiting his exposure to COVID. And, as a cancer survivor, I appreciate getting to avoid hotels, gas pumps and public restrooms."
They're not the only ones hitting the road for socially distanced adventures. Sales and rentals of camping gear, including tents, RVs and pull-behind campers, are seeing big increases, according to industry analysts. A recent report from market research company Ipsos found that 20% more Americans are hitting the highways in RVs than before the coronavirus hit.
Close says having the RV makes cooking convenient, though she admits their camping diet is a little more cholesterol-rich than the food they eat at home. For example, a recent camping menu featured steaks and burgers.
"We've not had a bad camping meal yet," Close says. "There's something about eating outside with candlelight and, this year, cicadas singing, or sharing breakfast time with chirping birds that creates wonderfully relaxing atmospheres."
Nick Kyriakidis, owner of The Acropolis Grill, says whenever he can get away from the restaurant — which is more often now than before the pandemic — he and his wife, Amy, and their three sons pack their tents and food and go camping. Indian Boundary Park in Tellico Plains, Gee Creek in Benton and Thunder Rock in Ocoee are among their favorite Southeast Tennessee campgrounds. "We've tried Florida," he says, "but the campgrounds weren't open yet."
With three growing boys, food is a big deal, so the adults keep things simple. Among their go-to dishes are recipes that can be made over an open flame, especially foil-packet meals, which can be made individually and customized.
Quickie recipes from the Kyriakidis family
Nick and Amy Kyriakidis say they feed their three sons with quick meals that can be made over an open flame. Here are two to try.
› Foil-packet meals: Make a packet of aluminum foil, and stuff it with sliced onions, carrots, diced red potatoes and a hamburger patty seasoned with steak seasonings (garlic, kosher salt, black pepper). Seal the ingredients inside the foil packet, and place it directly on the hot coals — grill or fire — and cook till done.
› Campfire cobbler: In a cast-iron Dutch oven, place two cans apple pie filling — or your favorite fruit filling — and two boxes yellow cake mix. Cut up two sticks of butter, and toss them over top, then put the Dutch oven on the coals and let bake for 30 minutes.
The Closes' motorhome has a convection oven and they have a grill for outdoor cooking, so their menu can be as simple as hot dogs one night and Steak Diane the next. But one dish that's become tradition on all camping trips is Watts Bar Spaghetti Casserole, named for the dish Sarah Close, Barton Close's mom, would always make for dinner on their first night's stay at their cabin on Watts Bar Lake. It's an easy dish Close can whip up at home, put in the RV's freezer and have ready at a moment's notice, something that came in handy on their inaugural motorhome trip.
"It was a stormy night on our maiden trip in Moby, and we were stopped on the interstate about 6 that evening due to a logging truck overturning, spilling its load and blocking the road for the night. We were grateful for our self-contained motorhome providing every need. I was able to pull out a Watts Bar Spaghetti Casserole smack dab in the middle of the interstate. This is a welcome meal for every first night of camping, making for easier setup at the campsite to eliminate food prep.
Here's that recipe, plus a few more she enjoys adding to her camping menu.
Watts Bar Spaghetti Casserole
1 pound ground beef
1/2 cup chopped onions
1 (16-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1/2 cup dark Karo or maple syrup
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
1/3 cup white vinegar
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce (preferably Lea & Perrins)
2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1 (8-ounce) package spaghetti
Grated cheddar and parmesan cheeses
Brown ground beef. Add onions to meat, cooking until transparent. Add remaining ingredients except spaghetti and cheeses. Cook spaghetti per package directions, and drain without rinsing. Mix meat mixture with cooked spaghetti, and place in casserole dish. Top with cheeses. Bake in 350-degree oven for 35-40 minutes. Made in advance, this is perfect for the first night of camping when the setup process might have campers bushed and grumpy from backing the RV into a space.
2 pounds trimmed beef round, cut into small chunks or coarsely ground
1/2 pound ground pork or pork sausage
Oil of your choosing
3 onions, diced
3 cans black, pinto and/or kidney beans
Diced garlic, to taste
1-2 (28-ounce) cans diced tomatoes
Dried chile peppers
1 can V8 juice
Cumin, to taste
Cayenne pepper, to taste
Chili powder, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
Dried oregano, to taste
1/4 cup cocoa powder
Some type of thickener — cornmeal, cracker crumbs or instant potatoes
Brown the meats, using oil as needed. Add onions, cooking until softened. Add rest of ingredients, ending with the thickener as needed. The longer this simmers, the better. Top with cilantro and a dollop of sour cream. Add some Mexican cornbread to sop up the goodness. This can be made in advance or made in a cast-iron Dutch oven over a fire, on a camp stove or a grill.
Close House Guacamole
Juice of 6 limes
1 large ripe tomato
1/2 red onion
1/2 bunch cilantro, or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil, optional
Tortilla chips, for serving
Cut the avocados into small chunks, add the lime juice, tomato, red onion, cilantro, salt, pepper and a little olive oil, if desired. Enjoy with chips around the campfire.
1/2 head green cabbage, cut or sliced into shortish ribbons
1/4 head purple cabbage
1 tablespoon sugar or stevia
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
Peanut butter or peanut butter powder
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Oil (enough to bind slaw)
Combine all ingredients, chill and serve.
Grilled Fall Pineapple
This is a great dessert or side dish for a fall meal.
1 fresh pineapple
1 tablespoon olive or other oil
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
Dark rum, optional
Cut pineapple into long chunks. Combine marinade ingredients, and marinate pineapple for an hour or two. Grill pineapple for 3 to 4 minutes, basting with remaining marinade. Turn the pineapple, and move to cooler part of grill for another 3-4 minutes. If for adults, brush with dark rum. Garnish with lime zest.
Email Anne Braly at email@example.com.