Author/adventurer, hiker/historian Jeff Ryan returns to the festival to share tasty tips for campsite cooking. We asked him a few questions about his evolution as a trail gourmet.
Did you figure out how to cook better food after some less-than-stellar eating on the trail?
Thankfully, my mother was an exceptional cook (so much so, that she tested receipts for cookbooks). It didn’t take long in my hiking career to realize that most of the popular choices of the day could use some serious upgrades and that I’d need to get creative with my trail menus to eat the way I wanted to.
Regarding low points, one really stands out. When I was on the PCT my hiking buddy, Mick, made what has become the enduring “low point meal.” Decades later, we still talk about his mac & cheese with dehydrated carrot and turnip. It was so inedible that we buried it and hiked three miles off trail to get to a cheeseburger.
A memorable trail meal you remember?
Breakfast burritos for sure.
I had bought some dried chili mix at a health food store to make as one of our dinners. I had also packed some freeze-dried scrambled eggs to eat one morning to break up the “oatmeal every morning” routine. We had also packed some whole wheat wraps to eat during the first few days (they pack really well).
As I was making the chili for dinner, I realized that if we saved a bit of the mix, we could have breakfast burritos for breakfast (wraps, scrambled eggs, chili and cheese). It’s become a trail favorite.
Anyone on the trail teach you a few tricks of the trade?
Not yet. I think most of the breakthroughs I’ve had have been adapting kitchen cooking to the trail. When I make something delicious at home, my first thought is, “How would I go about making this on a one-burner backpacking stove?”
It’s not just the recipes, but also the condiments and spices. Years ago, I found a tiny, super lightweight plastic pepper grinder in a gourmet shop on Cape Cod. I’ve been packing it for 30 years. If it ever broke, I’d be really bummed. I’ve never seen anything like it since. It’s such a neat final touch.
Any idea how many meals you've cooked on the trail? (You do have your 28-year A.T. adventure, plus all the others!)
Oh my gosh. Literally thousands.
The great thing about cooking (on the trail or at home) is there’s always something new to try. Whenever I grocery shop, I’m always on the lookout for packable meals, snacks and seasonings. Most often, I try them out at home first, but I don’t always have that luxury.
What I’ve found works best is combining old favorites, one or two new discoveries and taking along some versatile vegetables that I dry myself beforehand (kale, mushrooms, spinach, leeks) that can be saved with lunchtime soup or one pot dinners.
Do you have a trail cooking philosophy?
"Eat well, be creative.”
I believe that trail meals should be part of the fun of being out in the wild. I strive to pack lightweight meals that are flavorful and healthy, but also minimize prep time. I also make sure that I have some meals that don’t require much water to make, so I have the flexibility. A little extra planning really does go a long way.
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