Mar 12 2011

On the Road: The Fine Art of Foraging

Cyclists, like armies, travel on their stomachs. So it’s no wonder that cyclotourists spend a lot of time thinking about food. If a tour is short, you can carry all you can eat on your bike, but since food weighs in at somewhere between two and five pounds a day (depending on your menu, and not counting water), the grubshed dividing short tours from long comes pretty early. Most cyclists can carry the meals for an overnight or weekend without feeling overburdened, but by Day Three or thereabouts, many of us will be looking to restock. That’s where foraging skills come into play.

Of course, if this were an ideal world, you’d find a well-stocked grocery store on the roadside at the end of every day in the saddle. In real life, however, things often don’t work out this way. It’s not a Third World phenomenon, either. Ser-Sta-Gros—little general stores that sold food, pumped gas, and even fixed flats—were once a fixture of the American landscape. You’d see one in almost every crossroads community. But those days are gone. When you find anything more than a boarded-up storefront in a rural hamlet today, it’s likely to be a “convenience store.” These are great places to buy beer and chips, but they’re not much use if you’re looking for fresh fruit—or even canned hash. Which probably explains why the locals all drive to the nearest Big Box store to do their grocery shopping now. It’s only 30 miles away on the state highway, and the HyperMart’s everyday low prices can’t be beat.

But 30 miles may be farther than you want to pedal at the end of a hard day, and anyway, your planned route probably doesn’t lie along the state highway. So you resign yourself to dining on beer and chips, only to discover that convenience stores often charge tourist prices for their limited range of offerings. (You want convenience? Then you gotta pay for it.) The bottom line? Your beer-and-chips supper ends up setting you back almost as much as a champagne-and-caviar brunch. The gut ache that follows is free, however. (NB The convenience store also stocks Alka-Seltzer. It’ll cost ya, though.)

Is there an alternative? Yes. But it requires that you take a leaf out of the Scout handbook:

Be prepared!  Always keep a little food in reserve for a rainy day. It doesn’t have to be much—just enough for a meal or two. A couple of pounds, tops. Choose foods that travel well. These are your insurance policy against going hungry. Don’t eat them unless you really need to, and then replace what you eat at the first opportunity. And speaking of shopping opportunities, …

Stock Up When You Can.  When you find a store with reasonable prices and a good selection of staple foods, don’t stint. Buy a little more than you’ll need for your next meal. Dry and canned soups and stews, pasta, canned tomato sauce and vegetables, chili, macaroni and cheese, oatmeal—these all make good road food. Don’t forget bread and crackers, too, along with nuts (or peanut butter). And what is bread without cheese? Cheddar is always good company on the road, and plastic jars of grated Parmesan are light, as well as pannier-stable. Dried fruit is another hardy traveler, as are tortillas.

So far, so good. But bread and cheese, while filling, simply aren’t aren’t enough by themselves. Nor will you want to live solely on canned and dried foods. Whenever possible, therefore, you’ll need to …

Get Fresh.  Which won’t be a problem if your route takes you past a HyperMart. But plan on eating any fresh fruits and veggies that you buy within a day or two. Bananas, tangerines, Macintosh apples, fresh spinach, green onions (scallions), green beans, and bagged salads—none of these will keep very long when crammed in a hot pannier. Granny Smith apples, navel oranges, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, and firm heads of iceberg lettuce are better travelers, to be sure, but you still won’t want to carry more than enough for a couple of days.

Which leaves you no alternative but to forage. Don’t expect much choice if you’re wandering the byways of convenience-store country, however. Once you leave the HyperMarts behind, you’ll find fresh fruit and vegetables of any description mighty hard to come by. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a few overripe bananas gathering dust (and fruit flies) on a convenience-store counter, keeping company—in the picnic season, at any rate—with a quarter of a none-too-gently aged watermelon, shrouded in cling film. But don’t despair. You can do better. If you’re on the road in the States between the Fourth of July and Columbus Day, keep your eyes peeled for farm stands. You can never be sure what you’ll find, but it’s usually something good. Fresh eggs, strawberries, ripe tomatoes, sweet corn, zucchinis, apples… The offerings change with the season, but they’re almost always enticing. You might even be able to buy fresh-baked bread, still warm from the oven. And from time to time, you’ll probably ride through a village that’s playing host to a regular farmers’ market. Then you’ll have no end of choice. Just remember that you’ll have to carry everything you buy!

No luck? Can’t find a roadside stand or farmers’ market? Then stop at the next post office and inquire, or—if you’re halted at a construction site, waiting to be waved on—ask the flagger. The more people you ask, the better.

Just Ride

There’s no need to go hungry on a cyclotour. But to eat really well on the road takes a bit of planning, along with a healthy dash of initiative. Then again, planning and initiative are the hallmarks of the cyclist, aren’t they? Sure they are! Which pretty much guarantees that any tour will be a movable feast.

On the Road

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