The words “backcountry dining” don’t usually inspire much hope in people. More likely they call forth images of undercooked mac and cheese, half spilled in the dirt. Or sad, extra-flattened granola bars pulled from some deep recess of a backpack. But hike the Appalachian Mountain Club huts in the White Mountains, and you might start thinking of backcountry dining as something to be relished.
The standard Pygmy itinerary in the White Mountains includes nine nights of accommodation in AMC lodging: three nights in private accommodation in the Highland Center Lodge in Crawford Notch, and one night each in the huts Greenleaf, Galehead, Zealand Falls, Madison Spring, Lakes of the Clouds and Mizpah Spring. And every day during the full-service season, lasting from early June to mid-September or mid-October, the lodge and the huts cook up a hearty breakfast and dinner for their guests.
FOOD IN THE HIGHLAND CENTER LODGE
There are two things that separate the Highland Center Lodge and the high mountain huts: season and staff. The huts are in full operation for only several months a year due to weather conditions. This is known as full-service season, as described above. The lodge, however, is open year-round, and its kitchens are always in operation.
Starting at 5:00 am every day, you can find coffee and tea in the lobby. Breakfast in the lodge is served buffet-style every day from 6:30 am to 10:00 am. Expect standard, but quality, buffet fare: eggs, bacon, toast, hash browns, pancakes, fruit, and granola. Dinner is served family-style at 6:00 pm Sunday to Thursday, and on Friday and Saturday, there is a dinner buffet from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm. This changes over to buffet-style during busy times of the year, like July 4 to Labor Day.
A notable difference between the lodge and the huts is the availability of lunch and alcohol. The lodge has a deli that serves up soup, salad, and sandwiches from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm daily. You can even order a trail lunch to take with you on your hike, but just make sure you order the night before. And if you want, you can order beer or wine to go with your meal in the lodge. Alcohol isn’t prohibited in the huts, but you’ll have to bring it with you.
FOOD IN THE HIGH MOUNTAIN HUTS
The biggest difference between dining in the lodge and the huts isn’t the food, it’s the people preparing the food. And in the huts, it’s the AMC’s famed croo. “Croo” is slang for crew, a lively bunch of young people that run the huts during the full-service season, and an essential part of the hut experience. Their duties are various, including maintaining the hut, dispensing bedding, and providing helpful information. But most important, and most memorable, is their backcountry cooking.
The croo prepares breakfast and dinner fresh daily. Like in the lodge, breakfast is a hearty affair of oatmeal, bacon, fruit, coffee, and other breakfast favorites. Breakfast is at 7:00 am sharp, and the croo will wake you at 6:30 am in very creative ways (violin and guitar serenades are possible). Dinner is always served family-style at 6:00 pm, and follows a rotating menu. The soup comes out first, followed by fresh-baked bread and salad. The entrées are the same for all huts on a weekly basis so that hut-to-hut hikers always have something different for dinner. And the selection is impressive, especially for the rustic setting: turkey dinner, stuffed shells, beef, lasagna and more. And finally, dessert, which could be chocolate chip brownies, apple pie, lemon poppyseed muffins or chocolate chip cookies.
Anyone with dietary restrictions or food allergies will be gladly accommodated by the croo – just notify them the day before you arrive so they have time to prepare.
Cooking experience varies among croo members, from a lot to none. This may sound haphazard, but there is a secret glue holding it all together: the master recipe book. The recipe book is a thick, worn three-ring binder that sits at the center of every hut kitchen and holds the collective knowledge of everyone that has cooked a meal there. Even the most inept of chefs can use the recipe book to successfully prepare a meal for 50 guests. You may not be able to buy the croo’s master recipe book, but if you’re looking for inspiration you can pick up their trail meal recipe book.
BRINGING FOOD TO THE BACKCOUNTRY
Feeding thousands of guests a year in very remote settings is a remarkable operation. It all starts in May with a helicopter airlift in preparation for the start of the season in June. For example, in 2009 Galehead Hut, the most remote hut in the AMC network received 16,800 pounds of nonperishable food via helicopter. That included 1,450 pounds of flour, 100 pounds of hot cocoa, 178 pounds of brown sugar, 120 pounds of coffee, and 14,752 pounds of other dry goods. Until 1964, the AMC had used mules to pack up all of their supplies at the beginning of the season. The mules are probably happy that they’ve been put out of business because that single run-up to Galehead Hut took 21 airlift loads to complete. Nowadays, each hut receives an average of 30,000 pounds total of supplies each May, including nonperishable food and other things like propane and soap.
But the huts don’t run on non-perishable items alone. Every Wednesday and Saturday, croo members hike down to the nearest trailheads to pick up shipments of fresh food. They use antique packboards, which they stack high with boxes containing turkey, ham, lettuce, eggs, and vegetables. It’s not unusual for a single pack to weigh 80 pounds or more. In 1940, croo member Bud Hefti set the record for the heaviest load, reportedly carrying 224 pounds up to Madison Spring Hut in one go. At Lakes of the Clouds Hut, the biggest in the AMC network, the croo packs in about 1,000 pounds of fresh food a week to feed their 90 nightly guests. In 2015, the hut croos carried up a total of 2,300 pounds of beef, 700 pounds of mozzarella, 1,200 pounds of pork loin, and 3,000 pounds of frozen turkeys.
In recent years, the AMC has been procuring as many of their ingredients as possible from local sources. Their produce now comes from farms in New Hampshire and Maine, and the maple syrup comes from Vermont.
THE HISTORY OF FOOD AND THE AMC
The tradition of serving food in the AMC huts is (nearly) as old as the hut network itself. Madison Spring was the first of the huts, built in 1888, and the first to receive kitchen facilities, in 1911. After the 1912 season, the AMC’s Trustees of Real Estate wrote of the meal program in the huts, “We believe this feature will meet with increasing acceptance.” Little did they know how well it would be accepted. By 1913, hut croos were struggling to keep up with demand at the huts, often making daily supply runs down to the trailheads.
The menu was diverse even back in the early days, according to the AMC trustees, including “[p]ea soup, bacon, eggs, fried potatoes, stewed corn, baked beans, pancakes with maple syrup, canned fruit, mountain cranberries.” And turkey dinner has long been a favorite, meriting a mention from Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas, who wrote of his White Mountains hut trek in the August 1961 issue of National Geographic: “It is always a joy to me to watch the hungry eyes of a camp group—perhaps 20-50 youngsters—following the motions of a hutman carving a turkey. … The aroma of a crisp brown bird, bubbling soup, and hot biscuits seems magically to take the ache out of tired feet.”
UNFORGETTABLE BACKCOUNTRY DINING
Backcountry dining may be no Michelin star experience, but dining in the AMC huts is about as close as it gets. As one happy hiker said, “The meals are absolutely sensational. It’s something we’ll never forget.”
They take a load off your shoulders, drastically reducing the amount of food you’ll have to pack. And they take a load off your mind, allowing you to focus on the trail while someone else focuses on the food. If you have any questions about how the AMC huts can help you have an unforgettable backcountry experience, let us know. Just send us an email or give us a call at 1-414-377-3555. We’d be glad to help you plan the right hut experience for you.