Blue Plate Special

When in doubt, corn.
When in doubt, corn.

    From mid-July to mid-August, I worked as a field technician/research assistant in Crater Lake National Park. My field mate and I established 50m sq. plots to study the decline of Pinus albicaulis, the Whitebark pine.

    Emily, my field mate, also makes beautiful food. Much to the bemusement of others, in our crew, we were “ridiculous” enough to bring a cooler full of produce that we had bought at the Arcata farmer’s market before leaving for the high, dry caldera. Much to our excitement, we had extraordinary food to look forward to at the end of the work day.

    I really wanted to document the satisfying and fortifying foods you could make from random pantry items, little produce, and a Coleman stove. Choosing what to bring involves some thoughtful planning. Propane comes in canisters that inspired us to make meals that were conservative of gas. A cooler full of ice will be a cooler full of water at the end of the day because the heat is quite intense and all of the bear boxes, in the campground, are planted, fully exposed to the sun. Some vegetables that keep well enough through patterns of cool and not so cool and then cool again are: cabbage, carrots, avocados, not-so-ripe tomatoes, summer squash, ginger, onions, potatoes, garlic. We didn’t keep the potatoes, onions, and garlic in the cooler but they would have definitely lasted longer. Kale, despite its ruggedness, goes yellow, as if in protest, as soon as you put in the ice box.

    Here are some of the dishes that Emily and I put together using the random assortment of pantry goods and produce that we brought…

Polenta cooks quickly and is filling and delicious. After working for eight hours in the hot sun, we wanted starch, fat, and salt to replenish our depleted bodis and spirits. We grilled summer squash with onions, and jalepeno peppers and threw them atop polenta with shredded cheese, olives, chopped tomatoes, and hot sauce. Hot sauce and peppers are remarkably comforting. Everything we made was cooked in olive oil which, for me anyway, supplies me with enough fat to make my system feel satiated and a lot of Vitamin E to help repair all the sun damage to my skin. And, it’s freaking delicious. Flavor is medicinal.

Dinner is the best part of the work day
Dinner is the best part of the work day

 

Then, one evening, we got really hip and made a scrumptious sauté with tempeh, carrots, cabbage, ginger, onions, and orange cauliflower (a vegetable that keeps really well in the cooler). We seasoned it with tamari, cumin, garlic powder, basil and thyme, and a little habenero sugar.

Cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, onions, ginger, spices and seasonings.
Cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, onions, ginger, spices and seasonings.

…with rice of course. It’s a good idea to soak rice over night so that it takes less time to cook, if you’re crazy about not using instant rice, that is.

Finally, that cabbage looks good.
Finally, that cabbage looks good.

Emily is nuts about hot sauce and peppers. She really opened my eyes to the awesomeness of spicy dishes. Before leaving civilization, she made a brilliant chili sauce from dehydrated peppers that a colleague of hers brought back from China.

We ate it on everything.

With homemade chili sauce
With homemade chili sauce

We made tempeh stir-fry a couple of times. One night, we really strutted our food genius and whipped up some peanut sauce. Sauce is everything.

Peanut sauce: Peanut butter, tamari, chili flakes, cayenne powder, apple cider vinegar, habeñero sugar, hot water.
Peanut sauce: Peanut butter, tamari, chili flakes, cayenne powder, apple cider vinegar, habeñero sugar, hot water.

Nothing tastes better with dinner than a game of cribbage. I’m not advocating anything except to enjoy being human and meditate on moderation in all things….even moderation. Too much cribbage can lead to a dependance that brings out crankiness when its not around and contributes to sleepless nights of “the one more game I could have played!” Cribbage will be there for eternity so relax.

I found the ultimate comfort food in split mung beans and rice seasoned with curry spices, garlic powder, and fattened with coconut oil.

A nourishing comfort food for the downtrodden soul.
A nourishing comfort food for the downtrodden soul.

   So, one night, we got really crazy. It was the evening of our first day off, and all we wanted was breakfast food. It started with the half quart of strawberries we had to eat before they turned inedible. Then the idea of pancakes unfolded. We fried up two cakes and topped them with peanut butter, yogurt, and camp-made strawberry compote.

Emily, whipping eggs for pancake batter.
Emily, whipping eggs for pancake batter.
Pancakes made of brown rice and buckwheat flours.
Pancakes made of brown rice and buckwheat flours.
Obviously, they had to be eaten that day.
Obviously, they had to be eaten that day.

 This phenomenon, we know as food, is really unique in the animal kingdom. In the hours spent beneath the traffic of Clarke’s Nutcrackers harvesting seeds from Whitebark pine cones, I constantly pondered what it was that I was working for. I work for money to get food or ingredients to make food. We have placed a specific value on food that is described by monetary amount. In my observations, this monetary amount narrates that we value food less than drugs, electronics, healthcare, material goods. One doesn’t just grab a handful of grain from a field and eat. Food, for us, requires laborious processes and a marked impact on the environment. The Clark’s nutcracker’s food is also a labor-intensive task but it is executed and eaten by the same bird or a bird (or some other fortunate animal) who finds a forgotten cache of Whitebark pine seeds. An abstract conduit/place marker, like money, tends to come across as meaningless from this perspective. However, I cannot just go to a field, to the woods, to get my food. I need the cooperation of those who make food happen. I want our economy to use money (if we must) in a way that mimics ecology, a system of constant recycling. Food and money are bound together in the world of humans.

Food is my life source and medicine.

In the days, spent in the wilderness, observing the foraging habits of chipmunks and birds and  musing over the nutrition strategies of high altitude plants that thrive in such bare soils with limited access to water, the idea of food for humans, came into focus, for me, as entirely anthropocentric. To regard nature as an exoanthropocentric realm that freely provides food, is to not regard the impact our species has had on the evolution of how we eat. Food is cultural, interpretative, qualitative, quatitative, narrative, nutritious, and nurturing. It is most definitely not just fuel.

Ingredients are cultivated in the land. Bread stuffs, as well as adding sugar to fruit, are a human innovation. Food is love, love is food.
Ingredients are cultivated in the land. Bread stuffs, as well as adding sugar to fruit, are a human innovation. Food is love, love is food.
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