Cook's County To Go: Road Food, Road Friends

Cook's County To Go: Road Food, Road Friends

After our first day of escaping death on our bikes Elisabeth and I settled into a good routine.  We pedaled lackadaisically, gawked at the scenery, met some fascinating folks, and ate  well.

 

Here is the second half of our Highway 1 biking story.

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I forgot the fuel.

I mean I didn’t forget it, I chose not to bring it.  It just seemed like something that might explode on an airplane, and after all, surely we’d find campstove fuel in California, right?

We never did.  Another sore point between us.  But still we ate well.  I just had to overcome any natural reticence whenever we arrived at a campground, and approach someone better equipped than we were, which was everyone, and beg for space on their stove.  I had spent weeks cooking and home-dehydrating, packing and labeling our food, and there was no way we were not going to eat it.

We started our days with tea and a heavy bowl of oatmeal which would load us up for a long and leisurely morning’s ride.  Some afternoons we’d stop at a farm stand to pick out some gorgeous California produce, pull out our trusty lump of parmesan cheese (which travels, uncooled, miraculously well), and finish off with a Snickers bar.  All these things became essential, basic building blocks of life on wheels.  What would become of us if we couldn’t restock the parmesan cheese in the next city, or failed to find Snickers bars on the road? Life gets honed down to its most simple form when you travel with all your few goods attached to you and have only the most minimal of daily rhythms: sleep, wake, eat, ride, eat, sleep.  And you become aware of only the most basic needs: water; high quality block of parmesan; chocolate and peanuts.

By the time we’d reached our campsite, it was always nearly dark on account of our excessively leisurely, not to say slow, pedaling, and while my friend set up camp I’d go hustle stove space and fix our dinner. And what meals they were. All from an irreplaceable, indispensable, obscure camping cookbook called High Trail Cookery by Linda Frederick Yaffe.

There she is on the back cover, wearing her backpack and looking tanned and strong, with straight seventies-style hair and a great big smile. I know why she’s smiling out there in the wilderness if she is cooking for herself—the woman’s a genius. Filled with home-dehydratable foods, her book leans toward the earthy-grainy, but also includes unexpected dishes like seafood curry with couscous, vegetable jambalaya, chiles rellenos casserole, and black beans with rice.

The night I prepared the black beans my friend politely did not share with me her hatred of black beans, going all the way back to childhood and a certain bowl of split peas that fomented a rebellion and counterattack, and a counterrebellion, and of course a counterattack, in her home.

So I stirred and rehydrated, in the bliss of ignorance.  Who doesn’t love black beans? Well, Elisabeth sportingly ate them (and also because she like me could have probably eaten an uncooked roadkill squirrel at that point in the day), and found to her shock that she loved them.  She loved all the dishes I had dehydrated and brought along.  My best cooking audience ever, Elisabeth raved, she rejoiced, she thanked me endlessly.  Even given that things taste better when you’re camping, I assure you that no one else in the campgrounds ate like we did.  All thanks to the brilliant Linda Frederick Yaffe, pictured here from the back of High Trail Cookery.

linda frederick yaffe

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We stopped one afternoon in a piney area of the coast at a café.  As is often the case in high summer, there was then raging in our area a forest fire, but so far we had seen no signs of it.  Stops like this one could provide us with news.  A tour bus of very elderly people was arriving at the same time.  My friend and I dismounted our bikes and walked across the parking lot, shades and helmets still on.

One elderly woman escorted an ancient, small leathery companion, arms locked together.  They came directly toward us.  The small woman drew herself up, leaned in close to my face, her eyes squinting fiercely.

She paused, examining, then hollered, “Are you the boy who started the fire?”

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We pedaled through beauty every day.

Everything was shrouded in a golden light.  The ocean, nearly always just on the right, sparkled like diamonds.  Occasionally flocks of gulls or herons would all rise from the grasses at once, startled by our approach, arcing into the sky with their entirely synchronized choreography—and so very close that sometimes a feather or two would spiral down to us.

We could hear sea lions jabbering at the shore, hundreds of feet down at the bottom of the cliffs, their arfs reaching our ears at full volume despite the distance, a trick of acoustics, as if we were in a whispering gallery.

On a detour inland we pedaled through an artichoke farm.  Actual artichokes rested atop sturdy stems sticking absurdly out of thistle bushes.  Thousands of them.  An ocean of artichokes standing erect, four feet high.

We camped at an estuary and paddled canoes.  Sea lions surrounded us, popping shiny sleek heads out of the water one or two feet away.  I was frozen with delight and fear.  Thankfully they were feeling benign towards us and left us to our paddling after a good long look.  If I was in a bold and stupid mood I could’ve petted their heads.

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At the campgrounds and on the road and in hostels we met people.  Lots of cyclists and lots of regular folks. We met regular folks who couldn’t believe what we were doing; little children who thought we were strange and amazing, something like magic snails, traveling with all our goods right on our bikes; and chest-thumping cycle guys who regaled us and all other bike travelers with tales of their long heroic rides.  There were quite a few who balked and sputtered when we told them our plans.  You’ve never done this before?! They’d ask, shaking their heads incredulously. Yeah, well, wow, if I were you I wouldn’t even try that. You oughtta catch one of them buses, load your bikes on in front, they’ll take you right over Big Sur.  That’s too much for you.  It’s just too hard.

I realized when we were on the other side that the reason they didn’t do it themselves, those big-talking tough guy cyclists, was that they were afraid.

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As we pedaled down the coast we searched for the perfect chile relleno. Now this is a dish ubiquitous in Mexican restaurants. It occupies a unique space on the menu, however, as having probably the largest number of possible incarnations of any dish.

There is the omelet style, where a poblano pepper stuffed with cheese is hidden within a large omelet or sometimes simply a pile of scrambled eggs. Restaurants which offer this type pursue great size as a mark of perfection in this dish—I mean like the size of a plate and 4 inches high.

Then there is the fancy-shmancy type, typically filled with a dozen things besides cheese: nuts, mole, meat, dried or fresh fruits. Way too fussy, but typically what you would find in a contemporary cookbook or cooking show.

There is the type that is too hot to eat, made with some kind of evil misanthropic poblano, usually with a few killer seeds left hiding, menacing, within.

And then there is my favorite, the pure form of a chile relleno: a mild roasted poblano filled with white Mexican cheese, rolled in flour then a beaten egg white batter, and fried. When finished it will look about the size and shape of one poblano pepper, golden brown, with a stem sticking out the top, and served with a pale red sauce. It is simple and magnificent, earthy and perfect. To find one of these you must sift through a lot of dross. And so we made it our goal to hit Mexican restaurants every few days in search of chile relleno perfection.

true chile relleno

One day we came upon two fellow female cyclists who wanted to join us in an evening excursion for rellenos and maragaritas.  In the setting sun we pedaled to a Mexican restaurant a couple of miles away.  After a wonderful night of too many margaritas with our new best friends (who, unbelievably, had boyfriends even younger than ours--our 6- and 8-years-younger respectively didn't seem like much to their 10 and 14), we pedaled back to our campground under an enormous, low-hanging full moon on surreal silent roads.

I still regularly search for the perfect chile relleno, and have converted a few others including my husband into seekers of that particular kind of holy grail. My number one is no longer available--it was from a now-shuttered Sylvia’s La Canasta in Phoenix—no, nobody could top that all down the central California coast.  The quest is a lifelong one, but very rewarding. Only trouble is, I can’t order anything else in a Mexican restaurant.

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Sometimes we stayed in hostels.  These could be pretty uneven in terms of cleanliness of room and annoyingness of fellow travelers.  But in general you could tolerate eccentricity or clutter because of the cheapness.

Our last hostel stop was so bizarre that we decided we were done and had my brother from L.A. drive up and fetch us.

This place had been in operation for decades, and the proprietor had photo albums and stories and letters from his many guests which he exhaustively chronicled for us, as if we were looking through the wedding albums of our own beloved aunties and uncles.  We glanced at each other, Elisabeth and I, knowing we could never measure up to these former golden guests, also knowing we did not want to be paraded along at the end of the album to the next visitors.  This was still on the barely-tolerable, but tolerable, side of the scale, but of course we had only been there for the first two or three hours of an overnight stay.

Our host had dozens of signs posted all over the house, like, at the kitchen sink, IF YOU BREAK A WINE GLASS YOU PAY FOR IT!!!!  Or, around the dartboard, DARTS MUST NOT HIT THE WALL!!!!   (For the love of God, let's not play darts!)  Every violation cost between five and twenty bucks.  These warnings were all over the place, making us increasingly frantic about transgressing.  We found it's a pretty good bet that when someone says you MUST NOT break the wine glass, you're going to break it.  We did.

As many hostel owners did, our host assigned random jobs or chores to his guests.  Cleaning your hotel's lobby bathroom would be bizarre, and doing it at your hostel feels admittedly weird.  But hostel chores are supposedly justified by the rock-bottom prices of your stay.   Sensing impending strangeness we each made little silent pledges that we could still say no, we could ask for another chore, or even just leave this booby-trapped house of crazy.  I already knew what was coming when it came time for the announcement of the chores:  I was to type a crazy letter to the editor of the local paper.  Even then, the fact that he wanted me to type a letter in carbon-triplicate was as anachronistic-feeling as the hide of a dinosaur.  I figured that the subject of the letter did not violate my conscience, and I no longer remember what it was about.  I do remember it was three copies of kooky.  As I typed I wondered if my friend was being made to do something unspeakable but since I heard no shouting or glass breaking I shrugged and carried on, counting the minutes until we could get out of there.

Our stay was supposed to be two nights; we had a few more days after that to get to L.A.  Something about the hostel was so dispiriting it jolted us right out of our travel-induced reverie.   Like with a fog lifting and sunlight streaming in, my perspective on what we were doing changed.  We arrived here as magic snails braver than cycle guys, who could befriend pinnipeds and pedal under a full margarita moon.  I now began to suspect that we were two women putting up with a whole lot of crap and placing ourselves in increasing danger out on the highway as we pedaled ever closer to L.A.  More than anything Elisabeth and I wanted to be in comfortable normal accommodations and never have to jump through someone's weird private-hostel hoops of crazy ever again.

So my gallant brother was dispatched and in a matter of a few hours was there to spirit us back to the real world.  Not before, however, he had to endure a half hour of chit chat with the proprietor awaiting our return (we were somewhere, anywhere, pedaling around to be away from the hostel).  My brother was just about at the end of his string of polite and looked rather frantic as we approached.  We loaded up the bikes and our gear, settled our growing debts with the hostelier, and split for L.A.

The spell was broken and just like that our trip ended.

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A last image: the one that stays in my mind still.

Riders we met invariably complained about the RVs. That was the cyclist equivalent of the regular guy’s weather or politics talk. RVs were road hogs, their drivers didn’t notice or care about cyclists, they burned too much fuel, they polluted, they threw trash, they were unsafe, hideous vehicles, emblematic of all that was wrong with America. RVs were vilified, demonized.

Now, I’m as happy to vilify and demonize as the next guy, but the trouble with this was that we simply did not experience any of these things with RVs. We rarely ever even saw them. So we could never join in that angry cyclist small talk, but as the days wore on we knew that talking to these people in general was not always a good idea.  Nevertheless we remained wary of the hated RVs.

One sweltering afternoon near the end of our trip we faced a long, low incline—the kind that simply did me in. As usual my hardier friend preceded me by a few hundred yards. At the very top of the rise, my limbs were doing their shaking thing, my mouth was parched from panting, sweat poured down my forehead and traveled in rivulets around my eyes, and my sunglasses were sliding off my face. If I let go of my handlebars even for a second to adjust them I likely would have tipped over, so I just let them slither down. A large RV was parked on the shoulder right at the top of the incline. We had to pedal quite close to it to get past while avoiding the road. When I reached the shadow it cast on the road, a small arm with a dimply hand shot out the window just above the level of my head. In the little hand was a cookie. I unlocked my grip on my handlebar, reached up, and grabbed that cookie like it was a brass ring, breathed a gravelly thank you, popped it in my mouth all at once, and felt the immediate hot sting of tears burn my eyes and blur my vision.

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Recipes for home-dehydrated camping dinners, chile rellenos, and a preparation for artichokes will be posted when Cook's County returns to Cook County.

 

 

Artichokes of Monterrey County photographed by Ric Garrido for his blog Loyalty Traveler, May 2012.

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