Dining in the rough

If Wilderness Grill's dismal food is the best nature has to offer, then thank God for civilization

Nature is awe-inspiring, splendidly pure, breathtakingly harmonious, gloriously elegant in its savage innocence. If you don't yet know this after a lifetime of public television nature programs, Robert Redford rants, and Free Willy sequels, you'll be stuffed with this delicious knowledge at Wilderness Grill in Grapevine Mills mall. You may even retch in the rapture of it.

Billed as this megamall's new "shoppertainment" concept, Wildnerness Grill is a tranquil respite from the barbaric brutishness of civilization. "On an average Friday, many metroplex freeways are filled with cars making a westward trek as city dwellers seek a brief escape to pristine lands and clear, expansive skies," says the press release hyping the new dining experience. "Wilderness Grill resembles an authentic Montana lodge and captures the spirit of the Rocky Mountains while providing a unique, family-oriented dining experience."

It's the kind of thing you want after a bumper-to-bumper trek from the city to pristine Grapevine: a repast with the kinfolk amongst a host of schmaltzy props in a big-sky-country lodge without mosquitoes, horseflies, or references to the Unabomber and the Montana Freemen. I guess. I personally don't get all misty-eyed and whipped up over thoughts of the wilderness or images of a backhoe digging a hole in it. The wild has too many physical dangers, things that make you itch, and excuses for bad hygiene.

I was 12 when I had my first wilderness experience, and an indelible impression it made. It was a Canadian fishing trip with my father, an escapade that was far from pristine, harmonious, or even relaxing. We were dropped into a godforsaken lake allegedly teeming with walleye and northern pike. We flew there in an old Norseman pontoon plane, a flying machine that looked like a school science project stapled together with surplus Edsel parts.

Our wilderness aviator, a loud, burly bush pilot named Art, was hours late for takeoff because of a bad case of the green-apple trots. He told us, after a detailed summary of his internal plumbing predicament, that the Norseman was one of the most rugged, durable planes in the bush. Yet the plane turned me as green as forest foliage. On takeoff, as the line of trees at the far side of the lake quickly came into bold relief while the plane cut a wake through the water, Art screamed at us to get to the right side of the cabin. This was the only way he could break a pontoon loose from the water and hope to clear the trees before our excursion turned into a treetop camping trip.

Art lifted just above them, laughing the whole time as he delivered us to our destination, where there were no roads, electricity, plumbing, or toilets. Just a Unabomber-style shack with lanterns, a leaky roof, and an outhouse missing the splintered plywood seat over the latrine pit. There was also a barbecue pit covered with a twisted iron grate. I discovered that the only difference between grilled wilderness food and the griddled fare served in your average diner is the spunkiness of the bugs.

Most of our food came from cans, Styrofoam, boxes, or plastic bags. Everything was fried except for the Wonder Bread when it wasn't used for toast. Every meal was Spam and eggs, or bacon and eggs, or eggs and fried macaroni and cheese, or pork and beans over eggs over easy, or ground beef. The insects loved everything we cooked.

Despite the menu, we weren't bad cooks as much as we were dangerous cooks. When it was my turn at the pit, I set out to cook a package of ground beef, which I opened and left intact because it roughly resembled the shape of my mother's meatloaf. I stacked a pile of kindling and logs in the campfire hole. Once the fire was going, my intention was to place the bent and mottled iron grate over the rocks around the hole and toss on the meat. Only I couldn't get the fire going, even after a book and a half of matches. The kindling was too damp. So I took a can of Coleman lantern fuel and dumped it on the measly embers I was able to muster. My appetite was consumed in a fireball, as was most of my hair. The Jimmy Page decal, the one where he plays a double-neck guitar on "Stairway to Heaven," curled right off my Led Zeppelin concert T-shirt.

Between Art, the food, and the cooking techniques, I don't know how we survived the wilderness. Then again, I don't know how we survived the Wilderness Grill either. On our first visit, the place was virtually void of humanity, an air of authenticity I'm sure was unintended. Off to the right, beyond the rocks where a giant teddy bear sits on a cliff and a stuffed prairie dog stands erect on a canyon ledge over a makeshift falls, are the remains of the Naturally Untamed retail store. The gift shop suffered extinction just a couple of weeks after the restaurant opened.

I asked the hostess what the place sold. "Things people buy to stick on their shelves," she said. "You know, stuff to dust."

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