Sitting here atop a mountain, legs emanating a warm fatigue, I hold a warm, cheap can of beer valiantly in my hand. I pop it open, and the sound is a sound of pure satisfaction. The warm bubbly beverage quenches my thirst beyond any classy glass of anything else cold and classy would. I've just hiked up a steep trail for hours and carried water, beer and snacks with me, though now I am sitting pretty with an incredible view of crinkly mountains, foamy expansive ocean, and everything in between that the eye can see.
Here, on the top of the world, everyday food and drink tastes unreal. These often simple snacks, wrapped in foil or smushed in a Ziploc, satiate the soul in a unique way, filling hungry voids deeper than the rocky valley below. Why is it that the sweaty cheese and crumbly crackers a la backpack tastes finer than many an expensive cheese platter at a fine cocktail party?
Eating and cooking outdoors connects us to nature and removes us, however briefly, from our cushioned, convenient lives. We have to fend for ourselves, carry or forage for our own food, work against inclement weather conditions, and at times harness the primal element of fire. Eating outdoors may involve activities like hiking, backcountry backpacking, or a sweet picnic by the lake, all of which involve some physical activity, fresh air, and planning for a packed meal for later, making the meal itself all the more exciting and fulfilling.
Eating and cooking outdoors connects us to nature and removes us, however briefly, from our cushioned, convenient lives.
Eating and cooking outdoors takes us out of our normal kitchen environment. We take the meal out of the kitchen and immediately our experience with the food is enhanced. Our sense are heightened. The feeling of "roughing it," whatever that means to you or me, makes those simple pleasures all the more pleasurable and delectable. When the protective walls, warm ovens, and fully-stocked cupboards and refrigerators are nowhere in sight, with all amenities stripped away, the food itself, and whatever equipment you may have to prepare it, become luxurious.
We cling to warmth, to comfort, to any tidbit of civilization. When we unplug ourselves and boomerang ourselves out into nature, we strip layers of developed civilization away and leave them at home. We are more vulnerable and more sensitive to our environments. We consciously separate oursleves from nature, even though we are constantly immersed in it in our daily lives, and can feel the difference when we are out in the woods or in the mountains.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”
― John Muir, Our National Parks
This wildness, of which John Muir urges to integrate into a healthy life, helps us open our eyes to the experiences before us. To the sights, the smells, and the tastes. The sight of marshmallows blackening in a bubbly gurgle of heat in an open fire, the smell of freshly-caught fish sizzling in crackling butter, and the taste--oh the taste!--of that slightly squashed tomato and cheese sandy with dijon. My oh my this is what it is to be alive! A somewhat bruised avocado, spilling its gooey green guts all over my pack, is a highly prized meal on a cliff! Or at the beach, if you can keep the gritty sand bits out of the way--bring on the challenge!
This sense of inconvenience, of having to deal with sand and wind and rain and any other environmental force, is a positive thing. In our modern, civilized lives, we find sparks of vibrance in moments of inconvenience, when we have to struggle for something we want. Switching the gas on the burner in a quick flick is no fun. Try sparking an open fire with matches and fluffy kindling collected in the bush, or better yet, no matches!
Oftentimes when I am camping, I only have a certain selection of ingredients to use; half of a lemon, a stray sprig of green onion, a half-melted haggard stick of butter, and a bag of pasta of course. It is a delicious challenge trying to make something not only edible, but deletable with the few, seemingly random ingredients at hand. When the meal does in fact turn out to be good, it is a celebration of creativity. Culinary adversity promotes creation and learning, and can surprise us when we make 'something' out of 'nothing.
Tom Robbins wonderfully illuminates this idea of struggling to promote heightened states of happiness:
“Perhaps a person gains by accumulating obstacles. The more obstacles set up to prevent happiness from appearing, the greater the shock when it does appear, just as the rebound of a spring will be all the more powerful the greater the pressure that has been exerted to compress it. Care must be taken, however, to select large obstacles, for only those of sufficient scope and scale have the capacity to lift us out of context and force life to appear in an entirely new and unexpected light...Difficulties illuminate existence, but they must be fresh and of high quality.”
-Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues
Eating and cooking outside in nature may provide fresh difficulties to overcome, or at least remove you from the comforts of the kitchen table long enough to taste the benefits of the great outdoors. Integrating some high-quality nature struggling into the daily routine is a healthy part of life. Go gather some wood and make a fire, in the rain, with no tools! Ok, maybe you can have some matches, and yeah alright, we can turn off the rain. Now go and struggle for that bonfire dinner!
Another aspect of eating in nature usually involves some kind of physical exertion. Hiking is my favorite form of interacting with wild spaces, but cycling, running, swimming, and climbing, to name a few, will get your tummy rumbling. Food always tastes better when we are actually hungry, and oftentimes in "modern life" we are clocked in and out of our meals without first feeling our bellies rumble a bit. What better after a huge day of hiking than a warm miso soup with noodles? Simple, yet warming and nourishing. And yes i'll take some steaming hot chocolate after a hours of skiing in a blizzard, thank you.
Cooking and eating outdoors, whether it is ten feet from the house in the backyard BBQ, or if it is the deep backcountry with no other soul in sight, is a healthy habit. It doesn't need to be a part of everyday; in fact, the very richness of these experiences come with the infrequency with which they are a part of our lives. Doing it all the time would make it too normal. The mushy PB&J would taste just like a mushy PB&J rather than the sparkling vibrant sandwichal masterpiece that it is when we valiantly hold it up against the backdrop of jagged buttes on that weekend trip to the desert.
Eat outside. Cook on a tiny camp stove out in the woods. Fire up the BBQ for on a hot summer's day. Go on a picnic. Hike up a mountain, and don't forget the beer, or chocolate, or whatever gets you going on the top of a mountain. For me it's beer and chocolate. And up in there above the clouds, it tastes oh so good.