THERE WAS AN old TV commercial you might remember that stated something like “Nothin’ says lovin’ like something from the oven.” I beg to differ.

For my money, nothin’ says lovin’ and nothin’ says delicious like something cooked over an open-wood fire. Whether pan frying, broiling, cooking something foil wrapped or something buried in hot coals, nothing beats cooking with a wood fire.

I learned my first wood cooking lessons from my dad. At the time, my dad was one of those people whom you might say couldn’t boil water. He had one dish only that he prepared every time he and I went on an overnight fishing trip. That dish consisted of a pound of bacon done in a frying pan over a campfire until it was crisp, with a can of baked beans stirred in until they were bubbling hot. It was years later that I learned there were other things you could cook over a wood fire, not that I ever complained about beans and bacon twice a day.

When I was a teenager, I began to cook my own campfire meals. One of my earliest attempts was grilling northern pike fillets draped over a grill made of live maple sapling pieces with, what else, a can of baked beans bubbling alongside. The beans turned out just fine. The pike was good too, if you consider charred black on the outside and raw on the inside good.

Since those early attempts at campfire cooking, I have become a halfway decent chef in the outdoors. One of my favorite meals consists of onions wrapped in foil and buried in hot coals, accompanied by fish laid out on foil after being seasoned with pepper and salt, and topped with a couple generous pats of butter. Topping off the meal is, what else, a can of baked beans. 

Campfire cooking is an art and though I consider myself a fair hand at it, I know there are others who can do something fancier and more delicious in every way far better than I can.

Several years ago, my wife and I shared a double campsite with Doug and Kathryn Drew at one of our area lakes. During the course of our weekend outing, we had a gourmet Saturday evening meal that was better than any you could find in a five-star restaurant.

The highlight was Alaskan halibut caught by Doug Drew and Jim Thomas a few weeks before our camp out. Doug Drew grilled his halibut steaks over the campfire and though I don’t remember all the things he did or the seasonings he used, I do remember it was the best fish I have ever eaten. 

Several friends joined us that evening, among them Jim and Bonnie Thomas, and just when I thought nothing could top Doug’s halibut, theirs at least equaled it. As I recall, their recipe was more of a baked style over a bed of coals and it too, was a meal fit for kings.

One of the best meals of fresh-caught trout I ever ate was one my son, Brooks, and I prepared while camping at a small lakeside campground between Drummond and Delta. The trout came out of the cold, clear water of one of our favorite trout spots in that beautiful northwest Wisconsin country, all of them native brookies from 8 to 11 inches in length.

Laid out on a square of tinfoil, I seasoned them with my own secret seasoning mix, put a pat of butter inside each trout along with a slice of lemon and a slice of onion, and laid them out over hot maple coals. Potatoes sliced thin and seasoned with the same secret mix went on another greased square of tinfoil upon which they cooked until they were crispy and brown. Foil-wrapped onions came out of the coals sweet and tender. As you might have guessed, a can of beans heated over the fire made it onto the menu as well.

Fish aren’t the only menu items that are better cooked over a wood fire. More often than not when I do a solo weekend fishing trip to the Upper Peninsula or somewhere north in Wisconsin, the first thing I do on the way to my chosen campground is to pick up a thick T-bone steak. Fresh mushrooms and onions go along to be grilled together over the fire. 

You might say steak is steak and it doesn’t matter whether prepared at home, at a restaurant or over a campfire, but as far as I’m concerned you would be wrong. Not that I’m shortchanging some fantastic steak houses we have in our neck of the woods, but none of them can put a steak on the plate like a steak grilled over a campfire of hardwood, preferably maple.

Maple is, in my book, the finest cooking wood in the world and any piece of meat flavored with the sweet smoke of maple is going to taste better than it will prepared with any other kind of fuel.

Along with the flavor good wood like maple imparts to meat being grilled over it, I firmly believe there is something else, something largely intangible about cooking outside with wood, that makes everything taste better.

That would be the atmosphere, the aura surrounding you as you sit next to a glowing bed of coals or a small campfire listening to songbirds serenading you from all around your campsite, feeling the cool brush of a summer breeze wafting through the trees, maybe even enjoying an ice-cold beverage while your dinner cooks on a perfect back-country evening.

Sometimes, I enjoy such a wood-cooked meal with friends or family and whether it be fresh-caught fish, venison, wild duck, store-bought steaks or even a breakfast of pancakes, homemade hash browns, eggs and toast, by just a slight margin my favorite such meals are those I enjoy with no other company than trees, a murmuring stream and a host of wild critters.

No matter the setting, the company I keep or don’t keep or the food I prepare, it is always better when my meal has been touched with the heat and smoke of a wood fire.