I’ve written about food for a quarter century, feasts savored on several continents piling up into a phantasmagorical smorgasbord of sorts. But when I think about the most memorable meals, it’s often less about the food than about the company assembled, the conversation enjoyed, the setting unexpected or serendipitous. And that’s why one of my favorite meals involved wet boots and a food product that lists as its first ingredient “mechanically separated chicken.”
Let me back up. If you, like me, were a child of the late 1970s, you knew a few things. You knew Sesame Street would segue into Electric Company and that Golden Grahams—and possibly everything—tasted better when eaten out of doors, en plein air. Every one of those General Mills cereal commercials featured families rapturously spooning up tiny brown cardboardy squares at sun-warmed picnic tables, while woodland creatures scampered adorably in the foreground.
I bought it. Because my parents were young and poor, every family vacation entailed tent poles, bug spray and a backseat chorus of “When are we going to get there?” And on those many camping trips, to Yosemite and Kings Canyon and Big Basin Redwoods, my mother brought ever more elaborate meals.
My family had moved to Northern California during the Summer of Love, my mother’s home cooking swiftly moving from hippie brown bread to Julia Child (PBS’s The French Chef was on right after Electric Company, as a matter of fact).
What started with camping spaghetti spun into Indian chicken curries and boeuf bourguignon. My father was fine with the new frou-frou stuff, but, being the steady, think-of-every-contingency mountain man that he was, always brought backup food: canned Vienna sausages, Minute Rice and such that got schlepped to the campsite and then, uneaten, back home. We mocked those lowly Vienna sausages, occasionally slipping the cans into each other’s Christmas stockings as a gag.
One year we set our sights on camping along the American River, bringing along a friend of mine to expose him to the serene joys of sleeping in the woods. Rains had swollen the river so it licked high against the banks, and fording required a fire brigade of sorts. Standing on river boulders, our boots damp and slippery, we passed our backpacks overhead, person to person.
There was a bobble with the heaviest backpack, the one with the lion’s share of our food and a couple days of Tupperware. It slipped from our grip and careened, like a daredevil whitewater junkie, into the fierce torrent. I remember only silence and rushing water as we watched our provisions pass out of sight.
That night, our boots drying, my parents surveyed our emergency rations. There was chuckling and a little smack talk between them as my mother brought the Minute Rice to boil and my father dumped the tiny finger-length sausages into an aluminum pot to heat. They were sweeter and smokier and more tender than I would have guessed, the rice fluffy and fragrant as we ate the mélange out of our long-handled camp bowls.
Sure, we were all hungry, the nip of incipient night making anything warm taste that much better. But it was pride in our shared fortitude, our unflinching embrace of Plan B that made those little mechanically separated sausages taste so darn good. I haven’t had one since, but still.
Laura Reiley, food critic for the Tampa Bay Times, wrote “Six By the Sea” in our December issue.