Top 5 Meals of My Life

For Christmas this year I got a renewed subscription to NatGeo, some fun photo stuff, and three pounds heavier. I love food and have approximately zero willpower. So when I’m around holiday goodies they disappear like ants into an aardvark’s snout. And of course the cookies, candy, and snacks aren’t enough; my family follows a pretty traditional route and whips up a heartily irresistible Christmas dinner. This year, while I was cramming a second helping of gravy-laden potatoes into my overstretched belly, I couldn’t help but reflect on some the great meals I’ve eaten on my adventures over the years. Perhaps surprisingly there are very few grand feasts that made the list. No foie gras or truffles, no caviar and champagne; rather, depending on the circumstances surrounding the food, it was the simple things that seemed like manna from heaven. So here they are, my top five meals.

5) Every backpacking meal everHiker and Banner Peak, Ansel Adams WildernessI’m not sure what it is about spending time in the wilderness but it seems to enrich your perception of the world. The stars twinkle brighter, the air smells better, and food tastes, well, amazing. After 15 miles on the trail, huffing and puffing over mountain passes and alpine meadows, it’s incredible how appetizing a dollop of reconstituted, dehydrated, I’d-be-hesitant-to-feed-this-to-my-dog-if-he-was-starving, chicken alfredo pasta can be. My friend, Joe, summed up the sentiment neatly back in 2008 on his first backpacking trip when after 8 tough miles of ascent at 10,000 feet we stopped for a simple lunch of untoasted bagels and tuna with lemon. His words: “This is the best thing I have ever eaten.” Indeed, Joe, indeed.

4) Pretzels and Rootbeer on the good ship Kahana, Pacific Ocean
Tern Island Blackfooted AlbatrossI used to pride myself on my ability to not get seasick on boats, even when folks around me were hurling streamers of stomach chum overboard. All that changed when I had the (mis)fortune of a three-day cruise on the good ship Kahana. In 2009 I spent a month volunteering on seabird conservation projects on Tern Island, a coral-sand atoll approximately 560 miles northwest of Honolulu. My journey to the island was by prop plane, a lovely (if noisy) three-hour aerial tour of the Hawaiian island chain. The trip off the island however was to be by boat: a 60-hour ride in a flat-bottomed barge designed for pretty much everything except open ocean travel. The swell was running about 30 feet during much of the voyage and the Kahana’s flat hull ensured that instead of slicing through the waves, we battered head on into each one like a big horn sheep ramming his way through an endless gauntlet of rivals. The boat shimmied, shuddered, and gyrated, and I think I even caught air a few times as the bow of the boat dropped through 30 feet of empty space before slamming into the next wave with a sledgehammer blow (side note: I later learned that the Kahana cracked its hull on a similar trip a year or two later).

It took me an hour to feel nauseous, two to be miserable, and three to begin emptying my guts over the rail. And we had 57 hours to go. Oh my god. I spewed until there was nothing left to spew, then spewed some more. My stomach was twisting itself in knots like it was wringing out a wet cloth. The only relief came from lying down on my bunk with my eyes closed. So that’s what I did. The moment I stood up I was back at the railing, hating life. 36 miserable hours later (with no food and just some sips of water to tide me over) I finally felt well enough to venture out of my room. I was ravenously hungry, a condition not helped by the scent of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies wafting throughout the ship. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep any rich food down so I simply grabbed a package of pretzels and a root beer from the galley and headed out on deck into the fresh air. Sinking low in the plastic deck chair and keeping my eyes closed to distract me from the pitching of the boat, I took a nibble of pretzel and practically went into conniptions over how unbelievably good it tasted.

3) Chili Burger and Apple Pie, Alaskan Roadhouse
Some lake in Alaska's Kenai PensinsulaIn 2006 I was exploring Alaska’s Kenai peninsula by myself, cruising around in a $1500 Jeep Cherokee (now known affectionately as the Eep) I bought in Anchorage, camping, hiking, getting into trouble, and generally having a ball. I stopped one evening at a campsite with a remarkable view of a pristine lake ringed by a striking set of snow-capped peaks. Tomorrow, I said, I will hike to that lake. I had no maps and no trail guides, but I could see the lake from my campsite, so how far away could it be? Famous last words if ever there were.

In the morning I bounded off down the trail with a great amount of enthusiasm, and not very much of anything else. Some three hours and seven miles later my enthusiasm had transformed into frustration and confusion. How could the lake be this far? Surely it was just around the next corner. If not, then the next. Or the next? Nope. It also became clear that I had neither enough food nor water for the return trip. And a fresh grizzly track on the trail succeeded in raising the creepiness factor of the day ten-fold. Suddenly instead of a lovely jaunt the hike had become a grueling trudge with grizzlies undoubtedly lying in wait to ambush me and dehydration rearing its spectral head. The blisters on my feet didn’t help either.
Grizzly Bear tracks in the Kenai Peninsula

Eventually I made it back to my car, hungry, thirsty, and scared 1/4 of the way out of my wits. I decided to celebrate my return the best way that I know: by stuffing my face. Driving down the highway I pulled into the first restaurant I saw and ordered the biggest meal I could find: a double chili-cheese bacon burger with a side of fries, followed by a huge slice of apple pie a la mode. I was just about fit to burst after that meal and waddled more than walked out of the roadhouse, but I’ll never forget the feeling of contentment I carried out with me.

2) Mongolia Goulash somewhere near Arvaykheer, Mongolia
Shawarma in Ulaan Bataar MongoliaPost-college my brain was so full of engineering formulas, coefficients, and jargon that it went into meltdown. So rather than jumping straight into a job I decided to expand my horizons and travel around the world. At one point about seven months into my journey I found myself in the middle of the Mongolian steppe on a 7-day horse trek with five Israelis, a British girl, another American, and 14 half-wild Mongol ponies. We arranged every aspect of the trip ourselves from the horses, to the gear, to the food. The only problem was that none of us really knew how much eight people would eat over seven days. But we did our best to estimate and started the trip with two huge gunny sacks: one full of pasta and rice, and one full of candy. Quite exactly what we were thinking I don’t know.

By day two it had become apparent that we had nowhere near enough food to last us through the rest of the trip and immediately set out a course of rations: a cup of coffee and three cookies for breakfast, no lunch (unless you count a handful of jolly ranchers), and a bowl of pasta or rice for dinner. To make matters worse it was cold and rainy, and none of us had brought enough clothing. So on top of the fact that we weren’t eating enough, our bodies were burning our existing fat reserves like furnaces in order to stave off the cold. I personally lost 12 pounds in that week and stopped pooping after the third day. Needless to say, we all had an excellent time.

After the week was over and we returned the horses to the family we rented them from, we found a husband and wife who owned a large van and paid them $100USD (about three months’ salary) to drive the eight of us 12 hours back to the capital city of Ulaan Bataar. Along the way we stopped at the first town with a proper restaurant and having taught myself the phonetics of the Cyrillic alphabet over the previous few weeks I set about deciphering the restaurant’s menu and searching for anything familiar. About halfway down the page I saw it: ?????. Goulash, please, and lots of it. The other travelers followed my lead and the proprietors brought us eight steaming bowls of gravy-soaked mutton. And I don’t think there has ever been a more delicious meal served.

1) Burgers and Pizza, Ulaan Bataar, MongoliaTent in the Mongolian SteppeLess than 24 hours after I arrived in Ulaan Bataar after my fateful horse trek, my stomach was remembering what it was like to eat food. And with the 12 pounds sucked from my already-thin frame during that week my stomach wanted to CONSUME. My fellow travelers and I descended on a random cafe in town for a celebratory meal. I ordered a large pizza and ate the thing without batting an eye. Then I ate half of someone else’s pizza because they claimed, astoundingly, that they weren’t hungry. And then I still wasn’t quite done so I ordered a cheeseburger to top it all off. How exactly I crammed all those calories into my gut in one sitting I’m not sure. I can only assume that my stomach was so starved for work that it instantly transformed each bite into fat and muscle and sent it on its merry way to be distributed about my body. Whatever the case, unlike Mick Jagger, I got satisfaction.

What you about, what are you most memorable adventure meals? Leave your stories in the comments.


One Response

  1. The post backpacking meals are always in my favorites. We often go to Pie in the Sky for pizza and beer after spending a week or so in the High Sierra. I always leave so satisfied. If they knew what they were doing they would quadruple their prices when they see me coming, and I wouldn’t even bat an eye.

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