“Why the hell are you eating that?” asked the handsome stranger.
I glanced down at my sandwich, baffled. I honestly didn’t know. It wasn’t like I’d woken up that morning with a craving for kale and peanut butter. It’d just kind of ... happened.
I grinned up at him from my seat on the park bench, revealing flecks of green lodged in my teeth. “It’s yummy,” I lied.
The man stalked off, disgusted. He hopped into his shiny SUV and sped away, affronted, it would seem, by my lunch. I bit resolutely into my sandwich, peanut butter leaking out the sides. The kale felt like leather in my mouth. Chewing, I glanced at my touring bike propped against the bench next to me.
Kale and peanut butter. There was an explanation, actually. Peanut butter, because it was full of protein and fat. Bread, because I could buy it anywhere. And kale, because any other fresh leafy green would spoil in my bicycle panniers.
During this cross-country bicycle tour, I’d eaten some strange things. With a pace that averaged between 50 and 70 miles per day, I was always hungry. It’d been months since I embarked on this adventure, and my body had adapted to life on the road. My quads were bigger, my legs stronger, and even my arms were bulkier from lifting my heavy bags on and off the bike. My gut, too, had become tougher. It had to.
Snickers bars for dinner? Absolutely. A pint of ice cream for lunch? Check. Fried chicken for breakfast? Yes, please.
For the past few months, I’d been consuming junk food in a way I’d never done before. As a former ballerina and lifelong “health nut,” this bike tour diet was liberating. I could eat anything I wanted. The only trouble was, what I wanted to eat was often not available.
Fresh vegetables were lacking. As I pedaled my way across rural America, stopping in one tiny town after another, I realized that eating a balanced meal wasn’t always possible. Sure, consuming a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey was exhilarating, but I knew my body needed something more nutrient-dense. I needed real fuel. I needed fat, protein, and veggies.
Oh, how I craved vegetables. I carried carrots and snap peas in my panniers whenever I found them, gorging on their crisp freshness. I stopped at every farmer’s market that I encountered, buying more produce than I could wedge into my bike bags. I learned the hard way that spinach, lettuce, and sprouts quickly turn to mush, so I started buying something more substantial: kale.
I’m gonna be honest — kale is hard to eat. The tough green leaves look, and taste, like dinosaur skin. I knew it was good for me, but I needed to make it more palatable. Back home, I’d steam the leaves or sauté them in garlic. That wasn’t an option for me on my bike tour.
Then put on your reading helmet.
In a bold move that would surprise many of my fellow cross-country cyclists, I’d opted not to carry a camp stove. I’d long harbored a fear of anything explosive, and therefore couldn’t abide the idea of carrying fuel canisters in my bike bags. Besides, I rarely had the patience to wait for food to cook. My constant hunger lead me to constant snacking, and I preferred the instant gratification of ready-to-eat foods. Assembling a sandwich was my idea of food preparation.
So, one day in Kansas, about halfway through my bicycle tour, I tried shoving kale leaves into my daily peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Sinking my teeth into my creation, I found the kale was too tough to bite through. I thrashed my head from side to side, ripping off the leaves the way my dog used to tear up her fabric toys. With a successful mouthful, I munched thoughtfully. I tried to ignore the leathery texture and focus instead on the familiar smoothness of peanut butter. I was reminded of how my dog would take any medicine the vet prescribed so long as the pill was smothered in peanut butter or cheddar cheese. As a cross-country cyclist, I apparently was no different.
Maybe I’d try making a kale and cheese sandwich next.