Food, Glorious Food

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Struggling up a steep hill, picking my way cautiously down; overlooking a beautiful view; counting the last miles to a shelter for the night; convincing myself that I must extricate myself now from a warm sleeping bag into a chilly morning; hitching a lift into town; hanging out at the Laundromat; whatever I’m doing my thoughts are not far away from FOOD.  Stopping for a snack is always an acceptable excuse to sit for a spell and munch on whatever goodies are in your pack.  You don’t even have to admit you’re tired or bored or weary of climbing this darned mountain – hunger will always provide a believable excuse to stop and rest, dig into your pack and have a nosh.

 And just what are we munching on?  Snickers bars, mostly.  That and M&M’s.  There is a universal hunger for these two candies that transcends age barriers, sex barriers, healthy eating barriers, good sense barriers.  My personal style is to munch on M&M’s throughout the day, not only to provide needed calories and energy, but also for the fun of being able to eat them without fear of blimping out.  (There is a story that you are not a true thru-hiker until you have picked up and eaten an M&M that has dropped on the ground. I confess that I not only ate one, but actually went back to look for it when I realized I no longer had the red one in my  hand.)  I have also developed the habit of a 5 p.m. Snickers Bar and I always do my fastest and best hiking immediately afterwards.  Hmmm!  Perhaps I should consider having them for breakfast, lunch and dinner also….

 And what of breakfast, lunch and dinner?  Personally, I find breakfast the most difficult and challenging meal to come up with.  Many hikers eat oatmeal – sometimes hot, sometimes cold.  Sometimes they just add cold water to a paper pouch of instant oatmeal and eat it right out of the bag. Some will fire up their stoves, heat water, make coffee, hot oatmeal and have a real meal.  I can’t be bothered to heat the water in the morning and couldn’t face cold oatmeal, so I don’t consider that an option.Papa Smurf and Bamboo Bob at lunch

 I tried “breakfast bars” and could barely force them down.  For a short while in the beginning of the venture, I could get down a Pop Tart or two, known generically as “Toaster pastries”, but it wasn’t too long before disgust overcame me and I could no longer face them, either.  Now, I simply eat a slice of bread, or two or three, perhaps smeared with peanut butter, perhaps not.  I may also eat some dried fruit and will always try to drink lots of water.

 A word here on bread.  Amtrak taught me a trick – it works only with whole wheat bread, which provides more energy in the long run anyway.  When I buy a loaf of bread, I smush it down, lengthwise.  That is, I put one hand on each end and s-q-u-e-e-z-e, compressing it as far as possible.  (It’s going to get squished in my pack anyway and this way I get to choose the direction of the squishing.)  When I want a slice, I simply peel it off the top.  Only whole wheat has enough gluten to make this possible.  The loaf will last well beyond the amount of time it takes to eat it all, so spoilage is not a problem.

 I’ve also learned that hard cheese and spiced meats, like salami or pepperoni, will survive for days and days without refrigeration.  I’ve never had any spoil on me in my pack before I could eat it.  That, with the whole wheat bread, usually makes up my lunch on the trail, along with anything else I can get my hands on – more dried fruit, raisins, apricots, apples etc., some sweetened coconut, some M&M’s, maybe a Werthers, another sandwich of bread, cheese and meat. And that should hold me ‘til snack time.

 Dinners on the trail are all similar, all different. .  Certainly pasta in one form or another is universally consumed by hikers. Macaroni and cheese is a real staple, although, oddly enough, I’ve only had it once on the trail.   Nomad usually added some canned chicken or tuna or ham to noodles, with or without the cheese.  I find the cans much too heavy to carry.  Amtrak adds some home made, dried spaghetti sauce (with meat) to his egg noodles. (He has a friend mailing him previously prepared food at certain points along the way.)

 I tend to buy packets of flavored pasta and add some spices or spicy meats, or maybe some sun dried tomatoes for a flavor hit.  I can usually eat the whole “Four Serving” packet by myself.

 Some hikers eat the freeze dried dinners in the foil envelopes.  They are handy and convenient (you add hot water to the envelope, let it sit and eat it out of the envelope.  No dishes to clean.)  I find them unpalatable because no matter which one you’ve chosen, they are mushy and all the ingredients taste the same – the individual flavors never come through.  They are also saltier than I like and very expensive. 

 One universal fact about food – there is never enough.  A backpacker consumes between 3000 and 5000 calories a day.  We can’t carry that much food for the number of days we are out between re-supply.  That means that when we hit town, our first thoughts are devoted to food – greasy, fried, high-calorie food…pizzas, cheeseburgers, fried chicken, bacon and eggs.  “All-You-Can-Eat” (AYCE) is sought after much more than the “Best Salad” award of the year.  When we grocery shop, we scorn the “lo cal” version and seek out the old-fashioned fat-saturated edition of whatever food we’re willing to carry until we devour it.

 One last note….the order in which we eat our foods – it’s heaviest first.   There was one lucky hiker who had a wife and daughter at home cooking delicious meals, dehydrating them and mailing them at intervals.  He ate better than anyone else I met on the trail.  He had an extra meal at one point that he gave to me.  It was weeks before I ate it.  Not because I didn’t crave it – it looked delicious.  But it was lighter than any of the other food I carried, so I put it off, eating the heavier packages first.  When I finally ate it, it was the best trail meal I’d had, before or since.  Why can’t I have a wife and/or daughter?


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