I get a serious kick out of reading the restaurant reviews from one of the writers of my local newspaper. The guy knows his food, and his recommendations are not taken lightly.
I also confess to being a huge fan of the television programs Anthony Bourdain produces. Part of it is the travel element, but also his wicked sense of humor, excellent screenwriting and music tastes. On top of all that, I want to eat the things he eats.
I’ve never been a cook of a chef, and I’m not the guy you would want writing about cuisine. I just like to eat, and eat well. The fitness side of me wants to treat food as fuel, but the rest of me says otherwise. Taste matters. So does setting.
This is a particular problem for those of us who like to spend time outdoors. Sure, if you car camp or otherwise have access to the tools that make cooking away from home easy, you can work wonders. But what if you’re backpacking for several days? Living from a tent? Packing as light as possible to cut weight? Cooking with a camp stove?
Often times, those dining experiences are relegated to dehydrated foods, energy bars, trail mix and powder drink mixes. Or maybe some beans and rice. Often those backcountry or outdoor dining experiences are long on atmospherics and short on taste.
But not always. I got to thinking of a few times where the food, the surroundings and the company made for some of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had.
Catch of the day
If you’re stuck living away from the coasts, you know all about bad seafood. The fresher, the better. And that doesn’t happen very often when you live far from the sea. All we usually get that somewhat qualifies as fresh fish come from catfish filets gleaned from large fish farms.
But all is not lost. You actually can live inland and get a meal more fresh than anything served at a Boston bistro or San Francisco eatery.
In this scenario, I was with my brother-in-law, Mark, somewhere near the town of Eagle in western Colorado. Inside a small alpine valley was a mountain stream, with its flow interrupted by frequent beaver ponds.
Storming through the weeds and sloshing away in this little wetland, we’re on the prowl for brook trout. They don’t get very big – a foot-long brookie is a whopper – but they are quite common and oh so tasty.
On the streams, we searched for those sweet spots behind boulders, in front of riffles and around the bends. But the real action was in the beaver ponds. Lots of hungry fish in still, deep pools carefully engineered by those tree-gnawing rodents we all know and love.
The end of the day brought us a modest catch, but more than enough for dinner. Mark was the man in this scenario. He came prepared. Corn meal, salt, pepper and some vegetable oil. We cleaned the fish at the campsite, fired up the stove and fried up a few filets for the evening meal. The simple ingredients, paired with the brookies’ light, flaky and tender meat turned out to be the perfect end to that day.
I dare you to match that dinner in terms of freshness. You can’t surpass it. Straight from the stream, to the campsite, to the pan and on my plate within a couple of hours. That’s how you do fish.
First, we went up 1,000 feet. Then down 1,000 feet. Then up 4,000 feet.
And it was then that we were only half done, atop the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross last fall. The next half of the journey would be retracing all those steps back to camp. Twelve miles round-trip, and 6,000 feet of total elevation gain.
A simple breakfast and high-calorie snacks helped power me through that ascent, but there is only so much sweet-tasting stuff you can handle before something more savory is required.
That’s not just a preference. It’s fact. When you’re burning through thousands of calories on such an endeavor, your body needs its salts. That’s why you see pretzels and salted potatoes sometimes offered during long races for runners’ consumption.
I was too tired and lazy to do much cooking myself. So I resigned myself to eating whatever edibles I had left at camp before retiring for the night.
But being among a group of mountain people, and mountain people being generally awesome, generosity abounded.
A couple of dudes grilled up some bratwursts over the campfire. They then hurried those tubes of meaty, fatty goodness away, sliced them up, then plopped them into a pot filled with mac and cheese and a sprinkling of diced peppers.
Best mac and cheese ever. A got a sampling of it just as it came off a two-burner Coleman stove. They need to serve that mess in restaurants.
Just then, another couple confessed to over-buying on food and had a box of convenience store White Castle burgers they didn’t want. They offered it to me, which I gladly accepted. Wrapped in foil, these little grease bombs cooked nicely over the fire and filled that salty/savory urge my body craved. Such nice people! I shared what beer I had, knowing my offering was an inadequate trade.
As the night went on, more goodies were passed around, usually in the form of cookies, potato chips and fine scotch. A warm, low glow of the fire brightened the faces underneath knit caps pulled tight over folks’ heads. Hours drifted on and a whole bunch of stories were swapped between people who all seemed to know each other well from past ascents, and yet included me just the same. I wasn’t an equal to any of them, but felt a part of the gang nonetheless, even if temporarily. This was their world, and I was just a guest.
And one of the best things about being an outsider invited in is feeling the gratitude toward people’s hospitality. The best meal isn’t always about atmospherics, mood-setting or even the quality of the cuisine. Sometimes it’s the company you keep.
Breakfast for three
So I noted earlier that great meals aren’t always about the setting in which you dine. But let me tell you something: Sometimes they are.
About seven years ago, I was on a little backpacking trip in northern New Mexico. We’d hiked about five miles into the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area near a small alpine lake somewhere around 11,000 feet.
The previous night was a little rough in terms of sleep. No one at camp had done a whole lot of sleeping in a tent lately, and certainly not at that elevation. I got up first, fired up the stove and began to boil water for the morning’s breakfast.
It was going to be simple for me: instant oatmeal. I got the water boiling, mixed it with the oats and munched on this modest meal alone just before everyone else finally roused.
The woods where we camped were gorgeous. The smell of pine was amazing. The only sounds (aside from the stirrings inside the tents) were birds greeting the morning.
And then my solitude was interrupted.
Uphill from me, a female bighorn sheep slowly ambled its way into camp, its lamb in tow. They weren’t skittish. They paused to take a look at me, and their curiosity satisfied, continued their leisurely walk downslope.
I wished everyone else there could have seen them, but then again, we had a big day of hiking ahead and they’d need all the rest they could get. And selfishly, that was a moment I kind of liked having to myself. A brief one, but very memorable. Sort of like a gift, and it was all mine.
Best breakfast ever? I won’t go that far. But certainly the most memorable. And definitely a backcountry dining experience that trumps just about anything I can think of at any restaurant to which I’ve ever been.
I think I will excuse myself from ever being a full-time food critic or foodie television rock star. But I know good eats. And I know a little something about great dining experiences, even if they don’t quite fit within the norm.
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