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Firing Order: Trail Food for the Win

Posted in Features on December 3, 2018
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A few years ago, my wife and I were invited to dinner at a four-star restaurant located in a beautifully restored 1880s building. The ambience was luxurious and tranquil, and the food was impeccable. The first course was scallops with almond couscous, 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 brûlée. No question about it—the meal was gastric nirvana.

But ya know what? As good as that meal was, it didn’t hold a fork to some of the trail food I’ve had. 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 as my eyes were watering from wind-driven woodsmoke. 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 to my cooking task, I inadvertently overcooked my hot dog on one side until it was black ’n’ crispy. I threw it on a cold bun and began eating. That piping hot, woodsmoke-saturated, tubular hunk of magic mystery meat was the best hot dog I’ve ever had. Chatting and laughing with those great folks, the crackle of the fire, the smell of woodsmoke, 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 scores 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 a spectacular view and the 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. Well, that may be part of the reason, but I think that trail food is an art and wheelers are artists. Over the years I’ve seen folks come up with some amazingly creative dishes, some simple and some complex, while in very inhospitable terrain, and in some cases very nasty weather. It’s almost like wheelers are hardwired to thrive on adversity that would leave anyone else flustered. If wheelers were to open a restaurant, I can’t help but wonder if they would have a firepit in the middle of the room, 4x4 parts scattered around, and everyone eating standing up.

So, here’s to trail food and the people that cook it. Wheel hard and eat well.

—Ken Brubaker

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