Traverse City Record-Eagle


August 30, 2012

Everyday Cook: Scouts learn to cook outdoors

PETOSKEY — When Stephen Bartha's daughter and fellow Brownies needed a Girl Scout leader a dozen years ago, he rose to the occasion.

It's rare for a man to run a Girl Scout troop, but Bartha, who lives in Petoskey and is a father of six, had more than 30 years of experience with Boy Scouts behind him at that point and so embraced the challenge.

There were conditions. He required every single girl's mom to be trained as an assistant and he always had at least two mothers in attendance at the troop's events. When they camped, he slept away from everyone else, in his van.

Beyond that, he approached leading the girls with the same manner he'd taken as a Boy Scout leader.

"I told the moms when we had our first meeting, I'm going to run this as a Boy Scout troop," he said. "I don't know how to run a Girl Scout troop.

"We're going to do no arts and crafts. We're going to be camping, doing wilderness survival. I am going to teach my kids that if your car gets stuck in the winter, you're going to survive the night. You're not going to be cold, you're not going to be wet, you're not going to be hungry."

And on that last point, he succeeded in spades.

The troop camped a lot and cooking over the fire was central to each outing.

"I believe everyone should know how to cook, and I'm a very good cook," said Bartha, a former restaurant owner. "My kids never had hot dogs, baked beans, or any easy, cheap stuff for camping. They never saw it.

"Typically, we had five things on the outdoor stove. These kids ate top of the line."

But making it happen took ingenuity.

"My goal was using the survival concept to teach kids how to cook, how to be nimble: 'Here's the ingredients "¦ now make something edible,'" he said.

Breakfast might be potatoes with shallots, mushrooms and garlic slow cooked in the fire for an hour, served with eggs doctored with cheese and basil. Bartha always brought a box with a multitude of seasonings, wanting the girls to experience different flavors and how herbs work with various dishes.

Shrimp scampi was a favorite.

"It's three ingredients — butter, garlic and shrimp, and we're done," he said.

They barbecued chunks of beef using cut-up meat and a jar of barbecue sauce. Italian chicken was chicken marinated in Italian dressing.

He taught them to make toast on a stick over the fire. For a while, they did campouts during which they prepared all their meals without pots or utensils save one to boil water for washing.

That meant skewers on sticks from the woods, and making eggs in orange skins.

"The kids couldn't get enough of that," he said.

They caught fish and baked it on a rock near the fire. Once, they put rocks heated in the fire's coals inside the cavity of a chicken that was itself inside foil wrapped in newspaper in a backpack, and the chicken cooked while they went hiking. Creating a portable oven out of a box lined with foil, they baked cookies, pie and even pizza.

"The point is, I'm after survival, and they think it's fun," Bartha said.

In fact, the group got so good at campfire cooking that they conducted training for other Scout, youth and church groups. They took awards for their dishes at the Hessel International Scout Rally held in the Upper Peninsula each year. They also created a cookbook featuring their techniques and recipes that Bartha continues to have reprinted and sells for donations that help defray the costs of their camping trips.

Because while the girls have graduated from high school and scattered, they continue in Scouting as what's known as a Venture Crew.

"It's for age 14-21," he said. "Those who can come to events come to events."

In fact, those who could make it participated in a camping trip just a few weekends ago near Onaway. They all brought food and cooked, just like they have for the last 12 years.

Bartha believes the troop's years together will have a lasting influence on all of them. His daughter, Natasha, who was in the troop but now goes to school at the University of Montana and is taking classes in resource conservation and mountain studies, is certain of it.

"I think that part of bonding, the dinner part, preparing for it, cleaning up, it just really brought us together," she said. "It was an event in itself."

And knowing that his "kids" have retained much of what he taught them is all the reward Bartha could want.

"The very first merit badges kids will get with me will be first aid and cooking, and right behind that will be wilderness survival," said Bartha, who also continues to be involved in the Boy Scouts. "Those are the three things you just need.

"You need to know how to cook. That's the motive behind me, to develop cooks and survivalists so they never have a problem in the woods."

Bartha still sells the Crew 290 "Outdoor Cooking Cookbook" for donations. Write to him at 2698 Country Club Road, Petoskey, MI 49770 or call 347-0008.

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