My supervisor has always told me that a good field crew runs on its stomach. I can’t speak for anyone else, but as a veteran of many field seasons in many different places, I personally have to agree with her. When I’m in the field, an excessive amount of my time is spent thinking about lunch or dinner.
When it comes to eating in the field, you have to take the good with bad. On the plus side, fieldwork makes food taste abnormally good. When you’re exhausted and stressed, just sitting down to dinner is a treat, and almost anything tastes fantastic. I’ve had some of the best meals of my life in the field.
I especially enjoy the days when, after working late and returning home worn out and grimy, you succumb to weariness, suspect the normal dinner rules, and take the easy way out. For example, one day near the end of my second field season in BC, my field assistant and I decided to test the theory we’d been hearing from vineyard workers all summer: that the smooth, buttery taste of Chardonnay goes beautifully with popcorn. That night, our dinner consisted of a bag of microwave popcorn and half a bottle of local Chardonnay each, and we discovered two things. First, Chardonnay actually does go extremely well with popcorn. Second, early mornings are considerably more difficult after a dinner of popcorn and wine.
On the minus side, sometimes fieldwork means finding yourself in remote areas where access to food is extremely limited. In these places, as you sit down to your fourteenth meal of rice and beans in as many days, you often find yourself engaging in an activity that one of my field assistants dubbed “food porn”: daydreaming about what you’d really like to eat, and what you’re planning to eat as soon as you get out of the field.
But in the meantime, you’re stuck with what you have with you…which sometimes means eating things that you would not otherwise touch. For example, about seven weeks into my second field season on Sable Island, we were really scraping the bottom of the barrel with respect to food. About all we had left was potatoes, pasta, and some mayo. In a moment of desperation, we decided to see whether you could make potato salad with just mayonnaise and potatoes. After all, we reasoned, those are definitely the most important ingredients. Who needs all that other stuff?
As it turns out, all that other stuff is quite important. No matter how hungry you are, facing a container of mayo-encrusted potato pieces for lunch can kill your appetite.
But perhaps my most epic field food fail happened during my time in Alaska. There were six of us living in a small, lonely cabin in the middle of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The station was actually incredibly well stocked when we arrived, but with six people eating, supplies dwindled quickly. Unfortunately, as our grocery ‘wish list’ grew, it became increasingly apparent that getting restocked was going to be an issue.
The field station was run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and they were responsible for dropping off supplies on a regular basis. In the winter, this was relatively easy, as ski planes could land on the iced-over lake beside the cabin. In the summer, supplies arrived by float plane. But in the spring, when the ice was just melted enough to be unstable, but not melted enough to leave any patches of open water, the cabin was essentially inaccessible. USFWS was reduced to doing low-altitude fly-overs, during which they would drop our mail or some small supplies out of the plane on to our ‘front lawn’.
Unfortunately, there are some things you simply cannot drop out of a plane window. Eggs, for example, do not tolerate a 50 foot drop well. And thus begins the story of the brownies.
We had been in the field for about a month, and had eaten our way through just about every treat in the cabin. But when bad weather trapped us in the house for a day, we all found ourselves on the hunt for snacks. After a great deal of rummaging, someone unearthed a box of brownie from the back of the cupboard.
We were all thrilled. After all, there aren’t many snacks that can beat a warm, gooey pan of brownies. We wiped the dust off the top of the box, skimmed the instructions on the back and quickly determined that we had almost all of the required ingredients. Water? Check. Oil? Check. Package of brownie mix? Check. Eggs? Oh.
Now, you would think that eggs are one of the few ingredients that it’s almost impossible to find a substitute for. So we were briefly stymied. But we were very, very determined to have those brownies…and after a few minutes of staring blankly into the fridge, someone quietly observed, “You know, mayonnaise is made with eggs.”
That was all it took – before we had time to really think things through, we had emptied the brownie mix into a bowl and added the oil and water. There was a brief pause, as we all stared at the container of Hellman’s, but then we screwed up our determination and scooped up a large glob of mayo – which we then dropped unceremoniously into the mix.
Of course, no one knew just how much mayo would be needed to replace three eggs. So we just kept adding it until the consistency seemed about right. Then we emptied the mixture into a baking pan, popped it in the oven, and sat back to wait, already anticipating the first decadent, chocolatey bite.
By the time the timer went off, the rich smell of chocolate filled the small kitchen and we were practically drooling. As we opened the oven and slid the brownies out, we all crowded around in excitement – only to recoil as we got a good look at the pan.
Our initial view of the brownies was obscured by the thick layer of oil that filled the pan almost to the top. Underneath lay a charred and crispy block of something that resembled brownies only in the vaguest form.
It is a measure of just how desperate we were that even considered eating the brownies anyway. However, when we approached our creation to try to cut it, we met with what felt like a block of cement underneath the knife. After considerable hacking, we managed to prise the block out of the pan – but no one could figure out how to cut it up. It didn’t matter anyway; no one was brave enough to venture a bite.
At last we had to admit defeat: there were no brownies for us that day. But only a few days later, the ice cleared off the lake, the float plane arrived, and our cupboards were well-stocked once more. The evening after we received our supplies, we sat down to a warm, gooey tray of brownies. And I can honestly say that I’ve never had better-tasting brownies, before or since.