Foodie Underground: The Beauty of Eating Outdoors

ColumnA stove, a tent and a sunset is the formula for appreciating simple food.

Mediocre wine is excellent if you have a view, coffee is exponentially more delicious when brewed after a night in a tent, and trail mix can compete with the fanciest hors d’oeuvre when you’re in the middle of a hike. It’s simple: food always tastes better outdoors.

I was thinking of this in the process of drinking a mug of wine, overlooking a horizon of red rock formations last week. Dirtbags, sunsets and merlot do go hand in hand after all.

I was on the tail end of a trip and my father insisted I take a few days off the grid and get outside. Fathers often know best, so I accepted his invitation and was soon in one of my favorite landscapes of North America, the slickrock country of Southeastern Utah, peppered with canyons, arches and beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

Three days of hiking and sleeping under the stars requires fuel, and while for many food is an afterthought, for me it’s the number two priority, second only to water.

There is a certain formula to food when you’re camping. Keep it simple. Invest in good peanut butter. Always have some fresh fruit that can last a few days. This was all instilled in me as a small child, growing up spending summers in a tent across the Pacific Northwest.

The memory of hot chocolate on brisk summer mornings in some far off campground are still clear in my mind. My father would fuel up our old Svea stove, mom would create some fancy one-pot concoction – there is a family standard recipe of couscous with pine nuts and dried apricots that I first remember eating on the Oregon coast – and we would pull out our blue and red checkered tablecloth, intended only for outdoor eating occasions. There was a process; we didn’t leave good food when we left the house, we carried it, and a routine dedicated to appreciating good food, with us.

That process quickly wore off on me, making quesadillas on a kayaking trip at the age of ten that has become another standard family backcountry recipe. Which meant my father was overjoyed when I busted out a new rendition on this recent trip with a sauteed portobello, sweet potato, red pepper combination. But it’s not because I’m a foodie-freak that’s packing a kit of sea salt and fancy spices (although I do believe in always having curry powder and cinnamon along) that food in the outdoors is good. It’s because it’s simple.

Be it on a camping trip or on a picnic, we all have strong attachments to eating outdoors. The second it gets warm we flock to outdoor patios and plan picnics. Think about your favorite moments from last summer and I’ll bet one of them involves an outdoor meal. There is an undeniable connection between food and being outside that not only gives us time to appreciate nature, but makes food taste better in the process. Dig out an apple and peanut butter from your backpack on a hike and it will most certainly taste better than it does when you’re in front of your computer in need of an afternoon snack.

But why does food taste better outdoors? Because in our everyday lives, we are removed from the effort that is involved in food and when we’re outdoors, we’re reminded of what that process looks and feels like.

There was a time when we were responsible for hunting our own food, whittling spearheads out of rock and chasing wild animals in nothing but our bare feet. We foraged for edible plants. Later we industrialized the process, but were still responsible for running farms, waking before dawn to milk the cows and living in rhythm with the seasons as we tilled our own land.

Nowadays, the large majority of us are almost completely detached from that process. Our meat comes on styrofoam beds wrapped in plastic, our milk in cartons and our salad from an aisle that’s doused with refreshing water at regular intervals. Besides the actual preparation of a meal, our most “laborious” moments come from a trip to the grocery story, and if we’re feeling extra lazy, eating can be as simple as picking up the phone, dialing a number and rummaging through your wallet to make sure you have enough cash when the delivery person shows up.

Add a dose of the outdoors into that equation and things immediately change.

If you’re backpacking, you have to haul your food by your own means. If you’re car camping, you have to get creative with what you’re making and do without the usual luxuries of running water and a large stove. Eating outdoors forces us to think more about what we’re eating and truly engage with the process of putting it on the table. We’re still not taking on the labors of working the farm or hunting our own food, but things that are simple and require little thought at home suddenly require more work and attention.

Even boiling water, normally a task we do at home, sleepy-eyed and barely conscious, takes more thought than usual. Because we can’t just open the refrigerator or pantry, instead of mindlessly consuming, in the outdoors, we think about meal times in a different way. We revert to something more fundamental, breathing fresh air and eating food that we put work into making, two activities that are basic, yet essential to our well-being. We’re not texting, we’re not tweeting, we’re not analyzing, we’re just eating.

Food tastes better outdoors because we simplify. We take down all the walls that our everyday routines require us to put up, and we enjoy food for food’s sake.

A worn tablecloth. A spork. A bowl of sauteed vegetables. A group of friends taking the time to reconnect. A view. A sunset. A dinner with no distractions. That’s even better than the best food truck.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.

Images: Anna Brones

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.