Cooking On a Campfire

In a previous article, I discussed the benefits clients gain from busting a fire. In this article, I will discuss the benefits of cooking on that same fire. The significance of cooking on a fire that one created oneself should not be overestimated. Especially for those who feel unequipped for life, inadequately prepared to face its challenges, doubtful that they have the capability to leave the safety of their parents’ home and take care of themselves, creating fire by means of materials they harvested in nature and cooking on that same fire are invaluable methods to increase their confidence and self-worth.


Most clients, it is probably fair to say, arrive at Legacy without much experience cooking. A typical addict spends as little time preparing and eating food as possible. What he seeks is the quickest route to intoxication, and food tends only to slow this down. The act of cooking on a campfire, then, is antithetical to the way most Legacy clients have previously dealt with food in particular and life in general.


For one, cooking on a fire is a time-consuming ordeal in which the cook must remain engaged throughout. The client cannot simply leave the meal on the fire and turn to some other activity. He must continue to stoke the fire so that it cooks the food and keep an eye on the food, stirring it and turning the pot or pan occasionally, so that the meal cooks evenly and does not burn. The more engaged the client is with the process of cooking, the better the meal will turn out. The client learns a significant lesson: active engagement is positively correlated with satisfaction. The meal itself satisfies physically, and the act of engaged cooking satisfies mentally and emotionally. Prior to Legacy, clients were disengaged with life, engaged only with their substance or addictive behavior of choice, and constantly dissatisfied. Cooking on a fire teaches clients how to be engaged with a single life-sustaining activity, and as a result of their active engagement they make a satisfying meal.


Cooking on a campfire is radically different from how clients at Legacy had previously lived their lives in that they are cooking not only for themselves but also for the other members of the team. It is a rare client who would come to Legacy with much prior experience cooking for others. The addict is concerned with his substance of choice; the video gamer is concerned with his gaming; the anxious and depressed individual is concerned with his anxiety and depression and how to alleviate those feelings as quickly as possible. All of these persons are seeking immediate relief. The reward they receive for fulfilling this desire is further isolation into their addiction or compulsion or mental illness. There is little to no energy available for any of these individuals to focus on others. Cooking a meal for other people is very low on the priority list, and likely not on the radar screen at all.


At Legacy, two clients are generally chosen to be cooks at the beginning of the week, before the team heads out on adventure. One person’s role is to be main cook, and the other person’s serves as assistant cook. These two individuals choose the meals that will be cooked and make sure the team has all the necessary food before heading out into the field. In the field, once the adventure is over for the day, it is their job to start preparing the meal and cooking with plenty of light left in the day, so that they will not be cooking in the dark. If they work together effectively and efficiently, the team will enjoy a deserved meal together with plenty of time to clean up camp and get to sleep at a reasonable hour. The cooks’ reward is their own satisfaction after a job well done, and their teammates’ pleasure in eating a well-cooked meal after a long day. The reward is not immediate or automatic and comes only after work is put in. There is no place here for instant gratification, no microwaves or toaster ovens to do the work for you. The work takes time and attention. The reward for the work is greater connection between the members of the team: less isolation between and within members and a stronger community as a whole.


Clients come to Legacy with feelings of uselessness. Immersed in their addiction or compulsion, they have been concerned almost solely with getting their personal ‘fix.’ There is a deep desire to contribute, to share one’s gifts with others. Cooking can provide the space for clients to contribute and have a positive and tangible effect on the well-being of the other members of the team. The cooks learn to give a meal without asking for anything in return, and the other members of the team learn how to accept this gift with gratitude. At Legacy, there is a gratitude circle before each meal. Everyone links up, putting their arms around those to either side of them, and each person expresses a few things in their life that they are grateful for. The gratitude circle is a physical representation of the importance of community. It is a chance for clients to express loving sentiments towards others that they might otherwise not express, and it is also an opportunity for clients to learn how to take in those loving sentiments. At almost every gratitude circle, some person or a few people mention their appreciation for the cooks. Learning how to accept gratitude from others in real time can prove to be a challenge for clients. Opening their hearts to such sincere thankfulness from others challenges clients’ beliefs in their own inadequacy and incompetence. That they have been of use to others, that their effort has been worthwhile and is valued as such, is clear and undeniable.


Cooking around a fire has inherent therapeutic benefits for clients. It necessitates engagement from the cooks, and as a result of this engagement all involved experience a definite feeling of satisfaction. It also provides a chance for the cooks to contribute to others in a clear way as well as an opportunity for the other members of the team to accept this contribution with gratitude. Both the giving and receiving of the meal strengthen the bonds of the community as a whole. The members of the team are literally sustained by each other’s efforts.


Brian Leibold

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Legacy programs are highly respected by the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBH) as well as other leaders in mental and behavioral healthcare. 

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