Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Canyon Gourmet

In 2009, my dad invited me to join him on a 21-day river trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I knew there were treacherous rapids, dangerous hikes, and no escaping the river or the people in your group for three whole weeks. I also knew this was as close as you can get to one of the wonders of the natural world, and that my dad had done this trip eight times, each time wanting to go right back to the beginning and start all over again. So when he won a coveted permit through the lottery system, I did not hesitate; this experience may be once in a lifetime, and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity.
Well... it turns out I got bitten by the Canyon bug as well. As soon as I got back, I entered my name into the lottery system for a permit of my own. And I won! The responsibility of coordinating and planning a trip now fell on me. I knew it was incredibly important to have a group with whitewater experience, to keep us all safe, and that everyone had to be hardworking, positive and easygoing. The real risk of having a bad trip isn't in the elements; it's the people. So I put together a group of older men who have done this trip dozens of times between them, and my younger friends, a few of whom had almost never camped a day in their lives. With a group in place that I felt confident about, I could turn my attention to the most important of matters: the food!
When I returned from my first trip, I had many people ask me if I was okay with the food... was I eating enough? My answer was that I had never eaten so much in my entire life. The difference between river rafting trips and other camping trips is that you can carry everything you need for a gourmet kitchen on your rafts. We had pots and pans, chef's knives, crates of root vegetables and citrus and melons and coolers and coolers full of any ingredient you may ever need. For an average lunch, I would eat: two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, several handfuls of nuts, some chips, an apple, an orange, as many cookies as I could eat and wash it down with a beer or two or three. And a few hours later, I was hungry for dinner!
So when I first got my own permit, I was so excited to plan the food for the entire group. Initially, I thought I could happily force everyone to eat vegan for the whole trip. Later, I backed away a little bit from the idea, saying that I would take care of everything we might need for breakfast and lunch (and of course it will all be plant-based and very delicious) and that we would be split into cooking groups for dinners: as long as they were making vegan food that I and the other vegans could eat, I wasn't going to forbid them from adding animal products too. To my delight, most dinners we had were completely vegan! And so delicious! Even the only cooking group made up entirely of omnivores, affectionately named TEAM MEAT, made delightful vegan meals, including campfire-baked potatoes with make-your-own mushroom shish kabobs and desserts like pineapple upside-down cake and fudgy brownies. Everyone happily used the egg replacer I placed in the "BAKE - SWEETENERS" box of ingredients in their desserts. And no meal was lacking in flavor, as we had an excellent flavor toolkit in the "STAPLES - SPICES" box.
Cooking in the Grand Canyon is not what I'd call easy... the first task is lugging all the heavy equipment from the rafts into a flat section of camp designated the kitchen. Tables, stoves, propane tanks, metal boxes full of pots and pans, lanterns, utensils and all the ingredients for your meals are carried up the beach. Then you get to "go shopping" on the rafts using a bucket, searching in the produce crates and coolers for the ingredients for your planned meal. Then it's a race with the sun to try to make the meal as quickly as you can because everyone is hungry and wants to eat.
But it is also an incredibly rewarding experience. Firstly, this is the Grand Canyon! It is the most beautiful kitchen in the world! The golden light of dusk dances in the reflection on the surface of the river as it flows past, the towering walls of stone up above, sometimes red, sometimes black, sometimes green. Some camps have streams flowing down the middle, others lead back into side canyons, ancient creek beds that carved their own mini Grand Canyons. The air is clean and smells like campfire or blossoms. Furthermore, the whole group has worked up an appetite together every day. Any food is good food at the end of a long day on the river. In the real world, we often take meals for granted, but in the Canyon, every bite is a revelation. That said, my group, TEAM VEGAN, led by me and Ashley, sometimes took the camping gourmet idea a little too far. We made feasts that led our group on a tour around the world: First we did Chinese, then Mexican, Thai, Indian and finished it off with a European feast based around 5-mushroom stroganoff and roasted pumpkin. But boy, was the food good! An example of when we went overboard, here is our Indian menu:
Basmati Rice with Bay Leaves
Aloo Jeera (Potatoes with cumin seeds)
Cabbage Thoran (Cabbage with mustard seeds and grated coconut)
Gingered Cauliflower Curry
Vadouvan Dal (Red lentils with garlic and chiles)
And for dessert:
Giant Cowboy Cookie 

It was St. Patrick's Day when we made that meal and everyone was passing around a bottle of Irish whiskey, with a crate of Guinness by the campfire. By the time I finished cooking, by lantern light, all the Irish alcoholic beverages were gone! I enjoyed my Indian food with a Budweiser. But no regrets... deliciousness was enjoyed by all, and I know the non-vegans of the group left knowing that vegan food can be scrumptious and very satisfying as well as healthy.  I am already thinking about my next trip to the GFC (Grand Fucking Canyon!) and cooking in my favorite kitchen in the world.

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