Morale on the Menu

Mar 4th, 2022

I looked down at the sleeve of Oreos in my handlebar bag, the Pop-Tart crumbs embedded in my zipper, and I drank another gulp of chocolate milk. Sometimes it’s fun to indulge in junk food just a bit while you’re expending so much energy bike touring, but this was getting a little ridiculous. Items I wouldn’t normally purchase were increasingly landing in my panniers, my hands operating independently of my mind as I cruised the aisles of another convenience store. Cookies started to feel like a reasonable breakfast, as did spoonfuls of Nutella. My body was not feeling wonderful.

Life is short and angst over a few extra chocolate wafers is not something I have time for, but there’s a difference between a few extra sweets and making them the foundation of one’s bike touring food pyramid. Our muscles work better and recover more quickly if we give them something substantial. Perhaps even more importantly, camp meals can be something to look forward to as a small reward for our tired legs, along with the stargazing and bird sightings. It’s worth the effort of making something that’s delicious, nutritious, and lifts morale. 

In the U.S., there are a plethora of dried fruits, bulk foods, dehydrated vegetables, and pre-packaged foods available. If you’re traveling internationally or going through remote areas, food options might be more limited, but that is part of the fun too. A good strategy is to figure out what local folks most commonly eat and try to do the same. Otherwise, you might give yourself a real headache if you insist on finding peanut butter, pasta de maní, in rural Peru.

Logistically, vegetables are hard to keep fresh stuffed in a pannier without refrigeration, so frequent resupply might be necessary for things like broccoli and fruit, but other veggies like cabbage and zucchini can keep for days. Dehydrated vegetables also work well if you have adequate access to fuel and water. 

Roadside stands usually feature in-season fresh fruit to eat immediately or for the next day’s breakfast, which I usually pair with yogurt, oatmeal, or nuts. Fruit is nature’s candy, but what you buy depends on how far and over what terrain you’re carrying it. I love bananas, but they do not love rocky terrain. If you’re on the pavement though, a gently handled banana dipped in Nutella is a great dessert, and the chocolate-hazelnut spread travels well in the heat.  

A large fruit staff is full of many varieties of mangos, grapes, pineapples, bananas, apples, and melons, all sitting under a yellow tent.
Fresh fruit stalls abound, depending on the season and location.
Hollie Ernest

Keeping morale up is a mental and physical game in tandem. I set the stage for myself with dinners, amping it up in order to keep my trips rolling and fun. I like to actively listen to the animals and birds of the evening — nature’s music, if you will — though downloaded music makes for a nice camp atmosphere. The recorded sounds feel like a companion of sorts, and when I’m traveling alone it’s nice to have a dinner mate who I don’t have to cook for. I often enjoy listening to artists from the region I’m in, deepening my connection with the area. 

When I rode through the arid deserts of Mexico and South America, it took me a minute to figure out what foods I could prepare that required no water. Weighty, water-heavy meals like fruit salads with mango and yogurt were saved for rest days. I listened to Mexican folk music while I heated up my flexible packets of beans. They fit well into any bag, as do the scrumptious, fresh flour tortillas of Baja. A wedge of cheese and a ripe lime can be bought from small shops, large shops, and roadside stands. Quesadillas, beans, a sautéed pepper, and hot sauce made for simple, wholesome, and satisfying dinners that kept me looking forward to the next day as I watched the sun’s tangerine hues fade into the stars. 

We all know pasta dinners are a mainstay of bike touring. Spaghetti with condiments like peanut butter and soy sauce can become Asian noodle night, with as much broccoli and red bell pepper as possible, depending on the distance since the last resupply. Ros Sere Sothya’s Cambodian rock serenaded me during these, and it felt like a small party, even when I hadn’t seen another human in days. Almost any vegetable can be folded into noodles, and sometimes all I could find was garlic, onion, and carrots, which all travel well in their uncrushable hardiness. A side salad of chopped cucumber, dried seaweed (weightless and flavorful!), and roasted peanuts pairs nicely with anything involving soy sauce.

I once upped my theater by downloading Italian opera and adding a whole clove of garlic to a cooked-down fresh tomato, a can of tuna, and a bunch of oregano that an elderly lady gave me on the side of the road. This was Italian night, not to be confused with Tuna Melt Diner Night, where I heated up a similar concoction of tuna, tomato, and cheese on bread and ate a few olives if I could find them. My diner of stone ledges and trees was much nicer than any booth seating. Colombian music accompanied dinners of rice, beans, and leftover soup in Central America, and the folk songs of Chilean Victor Jara accompanied dinners of reheated empanadas the farther south I went.

A bottle of red wine, a pot of peppered pasta, and a pot of fresh tomato sauce sit on an outdoor table, ready to be devoured.
Italian night
Hollie Ernest

Broth with noodles is one of the most satisfying meals when it’s chilly. It doesn’t require frequent resupply, and it’s light and easy enough on the tummy to eat right before bed. Obviously, you could easily make ramen, but I prefer to sauté the ubiquitous don’t-mind-being-in-the-bottom-of-the-pannier garlic, onion, and carrot, mixing in some peanut butter and bouillon cubes while the spaghetti boils. Broth nights are usually accompanied by silence for me. Conversely, sometimes it’s nice to not cook at all, and instead eat peanuts and take sips of whiskey while devoting all your attention to the nightly sunset show. 

I still eat Nutella and cookies, but now it’s dessert and not the main dish. No matter what or how you eat, let it nourish you physically and mentally. In the words of a wise woman, “Be where you are.” Even if we run out of water, scrape the hell out of our shins, and ride into the dark, we’re all lucky to be out there doing something we love. With full bellies and smiles, we get to explore a new place or a familiar place in a different way. Count your lucky stars, or the actual stars, and congratulate yourself on being such a great chef.

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