AMC Huts Offer Welcome in the Wilderness
It might not be considered fine dining, but the delicious, hearty meals prepared by the dedicated AMC hut “croos” are unlike anything you’ll find in a restaurant.
“Hunger is the best sauce,” or so goes the parable, but the Croo of the AMC hut system knows that, at the end of a long hike, a body needs something as delicious as it is healthy and filling.
A hidden community exists in the wilderness of the White Mountains. Dotting the landscape, on mountainsides and deep in the forests, are a series of lodges and huts where hikers are welcomed with a bed, friendly hospitality and, most importantly, warm meals cooked with care.
The Appalachian Mountain Club, a nonprofit dedicated to caring for more than 1,800 miles of trails in five states, also maintains a system of lodges and shelters throughout all four seasons. There are the larger, more accessible lodges (New Hampshire’s three are the Highland Center, Joe Dodge Lodge and Cardigan Lodge), plus a number of campsites and the scenic high mountain huts, which are located in the most spectacular parts of the White Mountains.
For more than 125 years, hikers of all abilities have traveled hut-to-hut with their sleeping bags, availing themselves of the amenities offered at each stop. For a fee, you get a bed, a warm place to stay and meals both morning and night.
Remoteness has its virtues and its challenges. Croo packers must hike down to the packhouse to pick up food and provisions, strap it all onto their big wooden hiking frames, and then hike it all the way back to the lodges. The scenes here are at the Zealand Falls Hut.
If you’re thinking of basic camp food — canned items might come to mind — think again. Meals here feel like home cooking because they are, whipped up by the hut caretakers themselves, often using fresh, local ingredients.
During full-service season (June 1 to September or October, depending on the hut), you will be served breakfast and dinner, family-style, by the hut “Croo.” These are the caretakers, cooks and lively staff of the lodging system. The Croo really make an effort to keep guests happy, a little bit entertained, and educated about the huts, the trail system and the surrounding wilderness.
There is no prior food service experience needed to become a Croo member, but those who are selected to become part of the Croo undergo a bit of training before they feel comfortable on their own. Depending on the season and how long they are on duty, Croo members will have weeklong training sessions where they learn how to make proper elements for meals, like soup and bread, and how to make full meals for larger groups. In most cases, it’s up to the more seasoned hut masters and members to help out the new members until they are confident in their cooking and serving skills.
In recent years, the AMC has been striving to keep the food local, and it’s been their ongoing mission to introduce more food from small farms in the region. They’ve been consistently able to keep the fresh produce coming from farms in New Hampshire and Maine, and all the maple syrup for morning pancakes comes from Vermont (no one’s perfect).
Entrées in the huts are assigned for each day of the week, but the cooks are allowed some freedom with what they make. For example, there may be an assigned main meal, but then the cook can choose what type of soup, bread, veggie, starch, side and dessert they want to go with it. Cooks can find inspiration from the books that contain all of the past recipes ever used, plus the dates they were made. Those with dietary restrictions or food allergies don’t have to worry — call ahead and the Croo will be glad to accommodate your needs.
One of the most important parts of the food system at the huts is the elimination of food waste. While it’s not always entirely possible, the Croo tries hard to make sure nothing goes to waste. They compost what can be composted and try to minimize trash, as eventually trash needs to be hiked out. One of the aims during mealtime is educating the guests on trying to “take as much as they want, but eat as much as they can” to hopefully cut down on the amount that gets thrown away.
Croo members also try to incorporate leftovers and excess food into new meals, such as using leftover oatmeal in the next day’s bread. Other leftovers will be out for sale the following day for any through-hikers (those hiking the Appalachian Trail) that come by the huts. If you are an AT hiker and come through in the late afternoon, you might be able to snag some food before you head to your next campsite. It’s probably a bit more satisfying than the granola bar sitting at the bottom of your pack.
The huts are made to be as sustainable and eco-friendly as possible. Some of the huts operate using solar panels, wind turbines and hydropower in an effort to keep the resources renewable.
Remoteness causes one key problem — there aren’t delivery trucks in the wilderness. All food and supplies need to be hiked in, and each hut needs to accurately and economically plan out the weeks. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the Croo sends down request sheets for the amounts of ingredients they will need for the week. That’s the easy part.
After that, Croo packers will hike down to the packhouse to pickup the food, strap it onto their big wooden hiking frames, and then hike it all the way back to the lodges. Packs can weigh over 80 pounds and often tower over the packers themselves.
Staying at a hut isn’t exactly inexpensive, but when was the last time a chef carried 80 pounds of food up a mountain for you? Croos provide tireless and passionate (and physical) service, and tipping is always appreciated.
One of the best parts of the stay is when everyone gets to sit down together at the end of the day and in the morning to break bread, share stories and learn each other’s backgrounds. People from all walks of life come to stay and work at these huts, and if you’re lucky, you can enjoy a hearty meal with some of them. The Croo will tell you tales of pranks on other huts, the secrets of being a hut member, naturalist facts and, of course, how to fold a blanket the AMC way.
It might not be fine dining, but a meal at a hut is a life experience you’ll never forget.
Scenes from the Zealand Falls Hut kitchen, where Croo members work in tight spaces. All the recipes ever served are kept in a master cookbook for quick reference.