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September 2011 From The Back 40

Posted in Features on September 1, 2011
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The other night my wife and I were invited to dinner at a four-star restaurant located in a beautifully restored 1880’s building. The ambience was luxurious and tranquil and the food was complex and impeccable. It was like being invited to an episode of Top Chef. The first course was scallops with almond cous cous, romesco, and black olive. Round two was butternut ravioli with prosciutto, apple brandy sauce, maitake mushrooms and parsnip puree. The third go-‘round was golden beets with blue cheese, pistachio, sherry gastrique, fennel chips and arugula. Plate four had short ribs with a white ale mustard sauce, asiago polenta, capers, and fried brussels sprouts. Concluding the meal was a triple dessert of almond raspberry cheesecake, chocolate lavender truffles, and a hazelnut brulee. Yeah, the food was good.

But ya know what? As good as that meal was, it didn’t hold a fork to some of the trail food I’ve eaten. No, the trail food wasn’t prepared by a professional chef, served on an artsy plate and presented like it was the Holy Grail. Quite the opposite. It was basic fare, served in the great outdoors, and in some cases it was a challenge just to keep the paper plate of food balanced while wildly swatting at bugs while my eyes were watering from wind-driven wood smoke. Nonetheless, every bite was amazing.

A few years ago, I was on a winter trail ride near Duluth, Minnesota. We were deep in the Northwoods and it was snowy and cold. To gather photography I had been walking (and falling down on the ice) for hours. Hunger was in full swing. I was told lunch would be “on the trail,” which carried a fairly broad meaning. ’Bout noon, the group stopped and built a fire. I was hoping lunch had nothing to do with hot dogs because, I have to be frank (no pun intended), hot dogs aren’t on my favorite foods list. Hot dogs were soon unpacked and the roasting began over a roaring fire. The entire group was huddled around the flames, holding sticks with hot dogs impaled on them like they were flame-sensing divining rods. I roasted my lunch while engaged in conversation. Due to total inattention, I inadvertently overcooked my ’dog on one side ’til it was black ’n’ crispy. I threw it on a cold bun and began eating. That piping hot, wood smoke-saturated, tubular hunk of magic mystery meat was the best hot dog I’ve ever eaten. Chatting and laughing with those great folks, the crackle of the fire, the smell of wood smoke, the crunch of the snow, and the reality that we were miles from any “civilization” all combined to make that hot dog taste like a gourmet meal.

Over the years I’ve eaten hundreds of meals while standing next to a 4x4, including mosquito-peppered food in Alaska, half-frozen sandwiches on a snowy mountain in New Hampshire, rain-soaked food on a mega humid day in Tennessee, and good ol’ engine-warmed food in Utah. All of those meals were awesome. One of my fondest memories is of a beef/gravy/rice concoction eaten after a day of wheeling on the Rubicon Trail. Every bite of that trail-prepared dish was filled with mind-blowing flavor. It was just simple, nourishing, hot food, prepared by a wheeler who knew what other wheelers want to eat. There was no roving violinist or candlelight, yet the ambience was incredible with the spectacular view and sound of the Rubicon River rushing over the rocks.

Maybe that’s part of the reason trail food tastes so good; it’s served on the trail. Over the years I’ve seen folks come up with some amazingly creative dishes while in very inhospitable terrain and in some cases very nasty weather. Reality: Wheelers are hard-wired to thrive on adversity that leaves others flustered.

If a wheeler were to open a restaurant I can’t help but wonder if they’d have a firepit in the middle of the room, 4x4 parts all around, and everyone would eat standing up. That would be cool.

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