Those of you reading this who know us reasonably well know that food means a lot to us. We love to eat good food; we love to cook, and we love to grow, store and preserve whatever food we can. Like my mom and my mom’s mom, we make all our meals from scratch, bake our own bread, make our own yoghurt and preserve our own sauces, pickles and jams from fruits and vegetables that we pick or grow ourselves. With the restoration of the fields on our family’s farm we have been able to grow and mill our own flour for the sourdough bread we bake. All this isn’t so much out of principle, but out of love for food, a love for its cultivation and the care that goes into growing, preparing, and sharing food and the combined senses of self-sufficiency and community that comes with this. Driving through the millions of acres of farmlands and fields full of produce in Southern California is filling us with a longing for the land and a keen anticipation and urgency for our return and the planting season that will see us plant, as Stan Rogers sang, “another season’s promise in the ground.”
But eating on the road is a bit more complicated. Despite being somewhat of a gourmand who enjoys discovering other cooks who love food as much as I do, we try not to eat out on the road. Even carefully chosen dining options are usually disappointing and the cost adds up very quickly as we have found out during our recent forced break from van life. We try to cook most of our meals in our van. This does mean some compromises: we choose to settle for canned beans rather than expend our small store of propane on cooking dried beans. The few jars of homemade tomato sauce that we brought with us from home have long since run out, so we make our sauce from canned tomatoes. And, without an oven we are limited to meals that we can cook using the two tiny burners on the van’s stove and whatever food stuffs we can fit in the two minuscule cupboards and the tiny fridge. That means no homemade bread or yummy baked goods. But even though our options are more limited, there is still that sense of joy, satisfaction and self reliance that comes from creating a delicious meal from scratch. Indeed, like camping, meals that might be somewhat ho-hum at home, taste veritably cordon-bleu because of the distinctly humble nature of their creation.
Those of you who have followed our lives over the past year may perhaps also see a little irony in our current culinary situation. Having recently completed a year long renovation of our house that included the creation of our dream kitchen complete with walk-in pantry, expansive island and two ovens, we up and left before even getting to whip up an omelette in our new digs, exchanging it for a kitchen that would fit into one of the mid sized cupboards in our kitchen at home. Despite this not insignificant inconvenience, the joy of eating food that has been carefully made by your own hands still fills each bite with more flavor and enjoyment than it’s humble provenance has any right to.
Eating on the road takes some planning too. We can’t store much in our van, so this means more frequent trips to the store and smaller purchases. It sometimes means ruefully foregoing farm stands because we have no place to store the fresh produce or means of preparing it. We have also assembled a series of meals that are simple enough to prepare and provide healthy and hearty fare for days spent walking or biking around, or sitting for long stretches in the car. Having food in our cupboards and a kitchen in the van means we don’t have to worry about finding a restaurant or being near a store because we have, more or less, what we need packed in with us.
Lunch is the trickiest meal of the day not only because cheese sandwiches get boring pretty fast, but because we are often driving somewhere and don’t want to stop by the side of the highway to make a meal. Our most gourmet lunch creation so far involved a delicious red lentil soup that Amanda had prepared at dinner the evening before along with grilled cheese sandwiches. Sometimes Amanda I will sit in the back seat and make sandwiches at the little table while I keep driving towards our next destination.
Breakfasts are the best and are usually the most enjoyable meal of the day. There is something so wonderful about making your breakfast in the sunny outdoors, the smell of freshly ground coffee, boiling the kettle, sitting down amidst the sunbeams and bird songs to eat and commune with the waking world. (Yes, Lucas does have a small hand coffee grinder and grinds fresh coffee every morning.) Everyone looks forward to breakfast, whether it’s simply toast and tea, or fried eggs with toast and sausages, or pancakes with maple syrup, fresh fruit and yoghurt.
Like lunch, dinners are a bit challenging, not because we don’t have time, but because we often don’t stop until everyone is tired and hungry and I usually don’t feel like starting the process of making dinner. This is where the temptation to take the easy way out comes in and the thought of pizza or other restaurant fare creeps in. Amanda is almost always the voice of reason and prefers the small inconvenience of preparing dinner to the many difficulties associated with dining out, not least of all the frequent disappointments and the cost. We have come up with a roster of standby meals that work well with our limited resources. Pasta, beans, stir fries, rice and whatever; we somehow manage to make them satisfy both hunger and palate. Making dinner in a space that is about six feet by eight feet becomes a whole lot more cozy and challenging when it’s raining out and all three or four of us have to share the space. Then things get interesting.
When we do decide to go out for a meal we try to find places that are committed to local and sustainable food. When we were in New Orleans we sought out the Cafe Du Monde’s famous beignet (disappointing), but we also discovered a small restaurant called Angeline whose menu showcased produce and meats from local organic farms. While this commitment can sometimes lead to menu’s that are decidedly on the grittier side of hippy with items like tempeh and hummus figuring prominently on the menu, Angeline’s menu could have gone toe to toe with any upscale eatery in Toronto. To Eamon’s considerable disappointment we didn’t manage to sample any of the local alligator dishes. In Lafayette, origin of the Po’Boy sandwich we found a slightly less greasy hipster diner that showcased a whole variety of different sandwiches along with sides like deep fried pickled okra (surprisingly tasty). In Phoenix, to celebrate Mason’s arrival we decided to look for Mexican food and accidentally stumbled across The Taco Guild and what, according to the Food Network, is America’s second best Mexican restaurant (superb tacos). Besides that, we are fond of stopping by local artisan bakeries to get our bread and baked goods, and we find it very hard to pass by farm stands that advertise home baked pie.
But tonight, just before it gets dark we will start looking for a place to pull over for the night, and when we have popped the top I will sit at the little table and start chopping veggies while Amanda works the stove, and we will make our family meal together, the warm aromas of cooking filling the van and steaming up the windows.