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Eating Well On the Road

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Being on the road for long stretches is something of a purifying experience. Any initial boredom or restlessness gives way to contemplation, which I rarely indulge in as I flit from task to task. Of course, if you're traveling with children, just go ahead and cross contemplating off your to-do list. But beyond that, there's the minor thrill of taking in places strange or foreign to you. As someone who hadn't seen anything west of the Mississippi until the ripe age of 22, I knew that Kansas was flat. However, it now occurs to me that I didn't know what "flat" meant at the time.

It wasn't until driving through Kansas and then eastern Colorado that the extent of what flatness can be washed over me in little waves, the trees growing smaller and smaller. At a point, the horizon is further away than seems possible, especially for a child of the fecund forests of the East Coast.

The high drama of the Rockies against that dusty backdrop of golden wheat made me realize that I also had no idea what a "mountain" was. The Appalachians have the languid look of a woman sleeping beneath a green velvet blanket. The Rockies are purely masculine. I still can't say which I prefer.

But more than anything, the road trip is really the only way to experience America in its fullness. Flying above it only masks its immense and gaudy expanse. The long tradition of American travelers, from Lewis and Clark to gold rush nomads; from Dust Bowl exiles to Jack Kerouac, persists in the wanderings of restless Americans.

All this is to say that just as wanderlust is bred into some of us, as we hunger for the knowledge of what we do not yet know, so do our ramblings provoke literal hunger, and unfortunately, road fare is, for the most part, completely inadequate.

I'm not the first to bemoan the state of road food. For those who are concerned with the quality of the food they consume, to say nothing of its nutritional value or flavor, what is offered off most highway exits is pitiful. For those of us who make long trips by highway and interstate, it is even more unbearable because fast food does not satiate. It appeases the taste buds but offers little nutrition and has no staying power.

The options are few, and so we choose, when traveling, to resist the status quo and bring along provisions that we know will provide our sustenance. This is only slightly less convenient than going through a drive-thru window, and with a few tools, a road trip can be as satisfying to the taste buds as it is to the eyes and the spirit.

Some road trip necessaries:

-A small serrated knife
-A swiss army knife with corkscrew
-As many sets of utensils as there are people (we have Boy Scout utensil sets, but plain old flatware is just fine)
-A small cutting board (perhaps not necessary if there's nothing you have to cut, but we find it comes in handy, if for no other reason than to use as a "table" for preparing sandwiches on)
-Unscented baby wipes (we try to be as environmentally conscious as possible, but cloth napkins on a road trip are perhaps not the best idea)
-A large reusable water bottle (we found an amazing insulated one here)
-Coffee thermoses for all coffee drinkers
-A French press or other portable coffee maker (until this year we used a metal French press, but have since moved on to better things)
-A small cooler
-Select seasonings (salt, pepper, hot sauce, furikake, etc.)
-Plastic grocery bags for trash.

In addition to this motley batterie de cuisine, we also bring along certain foodstuffs. A long trip is the perfect excuse for me to bake a loaf of bread for sandwiches (if you bake your own bread, slice it ahead of time). But, of course, buying a loaf is still much better than relying on fast food sandwiches. Some of the most portable toppings are:

-Hummus and crudités (carrots, cucumbers, celery, salad turnips or radishes, cauliflower florets, celery...). Store the hummus in zip-top bags and freeze it flat. That way, as you travel, the hummus will thaw and help keep your cooler cold. This is also great for snacking--no bread necessary.
-Pouch tuna. No can opener needed. No draining required. You might also want to bring along some little packets of mayo and mustard or even relish. We were even able to find packets of sriracha at our local Asian supermarket.
-Nut butter and honey. I'm always amazed at the staying power of nut butter and honey sandwiches. I usually have them for breakfast, but they make a fine lunch as well.
-A sturdy cheese. We brought along some well-aged white cheddar. They key is that it should be fairly firm and dry. Of course, if you want to bring along a really stinky, runny cheese, who am I to stop you? You'll just have to put more thought into storing it and making sure it doesn't dirty your cooler.

Be sure to pack all items that will stay in the cooler in either zip-top plastic bags or sealable plastic containers. Unfortunately, you really have to keep an eye on the ice in your cooler. Otherwise, as it melts your foodstuffs will be sitting in water. One idea is to put ice in one of those plastic cereal storage containers and replace it as it melts, but this is an untested theory.

Look for more to come in this blog series. We will explore some great road food recipes and tips for traveling and managing to eat well along the way.

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