Despite the fact that I was tasked with guiding 105 middle school students through a week of outdoor education, and despite the fact that I had just spent $400 on new bicycling and camping gear, I still showed up woefully unprepared. All I brought for the first day’s lunch were a couple mandarin oranges and a small peanut butter and jelly sandwich — gone less than a third of the way into the ride. It might not sound like that much of a problem, except that I had approached the trip with the intention of methodically doling myself calories depending on the mileage of the day’s ride. With the physical demands of cycling, the need to treat food as fuel was essential. As if I needed a reminder of my plight, a quick rummage through my saddle bag for a leftover Powerbar instead produced an old medical release form that said, in capital letters, HYPOGLYCEMIC: NEEDS TO EAT STEADILY DURING EXERTION TO MAINTAIN BLOOD SUGAR LEVEL.
Spooked by the prospect of again not having enough to eat, I spent the next two days gorging myself at every possible opportunity. Instead of focusing on eating sustainable, plant-based, well-rounded meals — which was my obsession on normal days — I worried about having enough energy to climb mountains. With each day’s meals prepared by the school’s chuck wagon, all the fuel I needed was ready for the taking. At the first night’s dinner, I wolfed down a turkey burger and two veggie burgers. The next morning, I loaded up on double servings of eggs and potatoes, plus several packets of oatmeal. That night I forced down two massive burritos stuffed with meat, beans, rice, cheese, and lettuce. Then the binge caught up with me. As I lay alone in my brand new tent, bloated and uncomfortable, I realized being outdoors was testing my relationship with food. Treating food only as an energy source showed how much I had yet to learn. Surely there were even more ways that being on the road would force me to think differently about food.
Once I accepted I wasn’t going to starve, I looked outside myself and realized how food, and the rituals and ideas surrounding food, influenced relationships between different groups. For example, food preparation acted as an equalizer between students and staff. Predetermined “families” had rotating cooking and cleaning duty, so that adults and teenagers were equally likely to be tasked with scrubbing the bottom of the soup bowl. The family system also means students serve their peers and leaders once a trip, instead of just passively receiving a warm dinner from a doting adult. I also used conversations about food as a palliative for students struggling with the challenges of day-long bicycle rides. On a particularly difficult uphill stretch, I got at least two miles’ worth of distraction out of “what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?”
Just the idea of food, and the psychological benefit it can bring, was another unexpected facet. Three days in and missing my own home cooking, I saw salvation in a farmer’s roadside stand. With crates full of organic, fresh vegetables, the stand was like a desert oasis — a temptation for me to retreat to my usual ways of eating, but which ultimately proved illusory. I bought a couple small eggplants, an heirloom tomato, an onion, and some cucumber, envisioning some sort of baked vegetable-stuffed eggplant. For the rest of the day, forging rivers and pedaling up hills, I fantasized about crafting a lovingly made meal out of beautiful ingredients. Alas, the rest of the ride took longer than expected, and once in camp I ate the school’s pasta with meat sauce for dinner, while the vegetables sat idly in the corner of my tent. For the next few days I held onto the idea that I would do the produce justice, but with all the trip’s meals pre-planned and my ravenous appetite fading, there simply wasn’t time or space to concoct an experimental baked dish. Yet the original feeling of buying excellent ingredients and planning a meal with them was so comforting that I’m not even angry they ended up in the trash. At home this would have been a shameful waste, but on the road just the idea of what the vegetables might become sustained me.
I wasn’t the only one who sought the pleasure of unexpected food surprises. Having something new and “off the menu” to eat every day also gave the rest of the staff a psychological boost. On the second night, a special teachers-only pot of pork chile verde simmered on the chuck wagon’s stove. With plenty left over, it was repurposed over the next couple of days into stir-frys and breakfast burritos. While it tasted great in each stage, its real value lay in being a bonus addition to the school’s standard trip fare. To be able to tell the other adults that a treat was waiting for them behind the serving table gave everyone a feeling that something special was awaiting them.
By making certain ingredients exclusive to staff and teachers, food was also used to foster a sense of fraternity. As darkness fell and the rest of the school gathered around the nightly campfire, it felt innocently devious to hide with other staff out behind the chuck wagon and dip a stash of teacher-only cookies into milk, with only the moon looking on. At home, I hardly ever ate sweets; here, knowing that precious storage space had been saved for a coffee cake, cinnamon roll, apple pie or chocolate almond pick-me-up, I partook, and I felt like a part of the gang.
As someone who thinks and reads a lot about food, understanding that food was a force for community and a boon for psychological wellbeing should not have felt like a revelation. But it took getting outside the usual boundaries of my grocery and my kitchen to really appreciate some of the other things that food can accomplish. I went into the trip thinking that since I couldn’t be a sustainable at-home cook for a week, dealing with food would simply become a matter of fueling up for each day’s ride. I assumed the only purpose of food would be to power our family of 130 children and adults the 130 miles our itinerary had laid out. Yet even when the need for sustenance was indeed great, these other uses of food, surprisingly flexible and universal, endured.