I was never a very good ‘cross racer but I think I was a pretty solid cyclocross eater. That’s because Tumbleweed was at most of the races, and after every 45-minute slaughterfest he’d set up his stove and a frying pan and whip up a defeat-erasing breakfast.
He always seemed like a genius to me. With nothing but a couple of link sausages and eggs, some pepper, a spice or two, and a couple of fresh vegetables he could make some of the finest food I’d ever eaten. Having backpacked as a kid, and as a votive of Sancho Panza in my 30s, I knew of course that “Hunger is the best sauce.” Tumbleweed’s ‘cross breakfasts were simple, hearty, and fresh, coming hard on the heels of an all-out physical effort. In retrospect the reason his food was so good is that the only thing he did that none of the other 200 racers and their entourages bothered to do was care. Caring is what it took to set up camp and cook that kind of food and share it with his friends.
I’ve spent three years baking bread and fiddling around in the kitchen, but when the covids showed up, pitched camp, and announced they were here to stay, my cooking hit a whole new level of simplicity. A handful of fresh vegetables, flour, and spices (and yes, bacon, eggs, and milk fresh are vegetables), and suddenly I realized that I didn’t need anything else and could still eat like a king. More importantly, I didn’t want anything else.
And here’s a brag: I make oatmeal so good you can eat it seven days a week and never blink. I can make eggs, bacon, and toast that you will come groveling for. My biscuits are off the fucking hook, and so are my hotcakes, cornbread, beans, and half-a-dozen other simple things made with the ingredients that even the most basic kitchen would have.
Being able to cook to please yourself with a few simple things is the story of humankind. The mantra that people can’t prepare their own food is an invention of only the last thirty years.
Now then, there is nothing to focus your attention on preparing your own food like the thought of taking an 1,800-mile bicycle camping trip. My first ploy was to visit the Internet, because when I backpacked as a teenager there wasn’t one. I was unsurprised to mostly find dried things in a pouch way more complicated than anything I make at home. I was even more unsurprised at the cost. $11 for chicken and mashed potatoes? You fucking kidding me? I eat at home like a king for six or seven dollars A DAY.
As I scrolled through the cornucopia of high-culture yuppie foods for sale, foods that suspiciously mimicked the items on the average yuppie’s favorite restaurants, it hit me. People buy this shit because they do not cook.
What they do is eat out, and the contest in restaurants isn’t in the taste, it’s in the name, the “cuisine,” the CCF (chi-chi-factor), and the ethnic flavor that reassures them that although they have no black friends and have never sat at a black family’s dinner table, they can be totally non-racist by enjoying some Louisiana jambalaya with red beans and rice high on a snowy plateau where everyone is coincidentally white.
In addition to the fact that people don’t cook, the yuppie culture of being “outdoors” is radically different from what middle-class people, poor people, or rednecks do. What rednecks do is “camp.” What ethnically sensitive white people in Houston and Manhattan Beach do is “backpack.” Camping involves Wal-Mart, burgers, a giant cooler, a trailer hitch, s’mores, hot dogs, beer, a big campfire, firecrackers, fishin’, and sittin’ around doin’ nothin’.
Backpacking and bikepacking involve missions, goals, challenges, lightweight everything, saving the earth, leaving no trace, REI, organic coffee and a press made from recycled plastic, vegan kidney pie, extra supplies of whiteness in case you run out on the trail, and most crucially to differentiate it from rednecking, fancy packaged food.
All of this focus on trail food brought back memories.
In the summer of 1977 I was thirteen. My dad and a couple of his buddies had planned a fathers-sons backpacking trip to southern Colorado. We were going to spend ten days backpacking, starting on the Rainbow Trail outside of Poncha Springs.
“It’s going to be hard,” my dad had said. “So we’ll need to do some practice hikes.”
Houston, at sea level, was slightly different from the Rainbow Trail, which started above Poncha Springs, itself already at 7,000 feet. The trail was 29 miles long and sported about 6,000 feet in elevation gain.
My dad and I did a couple of hikes. I had a canvas Boy Scout backpack on an aluminum frame, filled it with a couple of books and strapped on my sleeping bag, and did a few walks in the blistering Houston heat. “Colorado is really cool,” my dad said. “It won’t feel like this at all.” He was right and damned right, but that’s mostly another story.
The most fun thing about that trip, though, was the planning and the buying. The nearest REI was in Colorado so we ordered everything from a catalog. It took six weeks for our stuff to come, and the thing we were most excited about? The freeze-dried food. We boys had never seen or had such a thing, and the pouches had some pretty way-out names.
For example, Beef Stroganoff. Dad had ordered four of those, in consultation with Don Huddle, the leader. “That’s good, hearty stuff,” Don had said.
I knew it was hearty because it had the word “beef” in it, and I was from Texas. “Who though was Stroganoff?” I wondered. And wtf had he done that was so impressive that his name would be paired with the mightiest food word in Texas, “beef”?
In addition to prepping for our 10-day hike with a couple of gentle walks around the neighborhood, when the REI shipment arrived, dad decided we should cook one of the dinners to see how it tasted. Dog forbid we got up on the trail and the stuff wouldn’t cook, or was inedible.
I was so excited. I was going to get a threefer: Beef, freeze-dried food, and find out what made a beef a Stroganoff. I was pretty eager, let me tell you.
To add to the authenticity of it, dad set up our camp stove in the backyard, which was itself a whole other level of excitement. Like any normal kid I loved fires, and this mini backpacking camp gadget oozed, well, fire. It had a fuel tank that you had to fill with kerosene and pump up, and some little paste stuff that you used to get the fire going. Dad seemed to know what he was doing, and as long as it ended in fire I didn’t care.
Our backyard in Houston was probably a bit tamer than what we were going to find on the Rainbow Trail, but it never occurred to me that if dad were having trouble and cursing like the ex-sailor he was getting this thing going in the backyard where we had 100 matches and limitless oaths, what would happen at 10,000 feet in a rainstorm? And no, it never occurred to me that it would snow in summer anywhere, for any reason, at any elevation. BTW, what was elevation and why did the dads talk about it all the time?
The fire finally got going and it was death and destruction beyond my wildest dreams. The little stove was wholly unstable, so balancing the pot to boil the water was itself a circus trick, but dad pulled it off by putting it on the picnic table. I didn’t ever wonder whether we’d have giant redwood picnic tables at our backcountry primitive campsite just a couple of steps beneath the roof of the sky.
The water boiled, and in went the Beef Stroganoff. Opening the pack was so exciting; the food looked like something from an alien’s intestines. Then as it steamed up and cooked it turned into an orange and brown goulash that smelled okay but looked highly suspect. In Texas we knew what beans and cornbread looked like, but not Beef Stroganoff.
Anyway, I was excited, my brother Ian was mildly excited, and dad was pretty proud at having gotten that finicky stove to light and the water to boil. We capped off the simulation by pouring the goop into our plastic plates and eating with our camp spoons.
I stuck the spoon into my mouth and got a nasty shock. Whoever Stroganoff was, what he’d done to the beef was criminal. Had ol’ Stroganoff served that up to any cowboy in my family he’d have been strung up. I spit it out and made a face. Dad chewed dejectedly and forced his down. Ian didn’t even try it after watching us. “That’s the grossest looking stuff I’ve ever seen,” he said in disgust.
A month later we were seven days into our hike. We’d eaten all of our dinner meals except, you guessed it, the Beef Stroganoff. Every day had begun with a raging appetite so sharp and relentless that our lives were punctuated as if by harpoons with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Every bite of everything we ate tasted so fucking good I can remember it now. Velveeta? Luxury food. Gorp? Manna from heaven. Freeze-dried eggs? Better than the real thing.
In other words, real hunger makes no distinction in taste. If you think a thing doesn’t taste good, the simplest explanation is that you aren’t really hungry. This is why people who eat out are always critical of the food–they aren’t really hungry.
If you’re burning 4,500 kcal a day on 2,000 kcal of food, the point will immediately be reached when your body will demand satiety in any form that can be consumed, and it won’t quibble about whether the center was a tad too pink. It will eat the whole fucking slab of beef raw and have but one question: Is there more? And if there is and I can’t have it, I will kill you.
Hunger on the trail is compounded by being on the trail. Psychologically you know you can’t “live off the land,” and you’re limited to what’s in the pack. People get possessive of certain things. You want to know where civil society evolved? At the dinner table, where rules had to be in place to keep Caveperson A from killing Cavperson B over the little bit of kidney burning on the stick.
But the day finally came when we had to cook the Beef Stroganoff. Don and the others had been prepared for the culinary misery that awaited, and as the goop bubbled and stewed, dad ladled it out onto waiting plates. The others looked a bit forlorn, but Don, who’d been in the mountains all his life, stabbed it with his spoon and took a bite.
“God damn, Chandler,” he said, “this is great!”
We all looked and then took a bite. Indeed, it was the finest tasting thing we swore we’d ever had. Big chunks of beef, tomatoes, and generous pieces of Stroganoff sprinkled everywhere. The most dicey part of any dinner, divvying up seconds so that no one got a gram more than anyone else, was even more tense than usual, so good was that goop.
We ate as we always did. Quickly and silently. Once it was all gone, which took three eyeblinks, Don said, “You and the boys were yanking our chain, weren’t you? That’s the best meal we’ve had on this trip.”
“I know,” dad said, “and we have two more meals where those came from.” I’ve never seen more happiness in more leaned-up, sunburned faces than when dad told them that nugget.
The other dad, Carl, nodded in respect at dad’s clever tactic. “Saving the best for last.”
But Don wasn’t ready to give up that easily. “So why’d you tell us it was so bad?”
“We made it at home before we left and it was gross,” I piped up.
Don smiled and nodded. “Yes, indeed. Everything, and I do mean everything, is better on the trail.”
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