(Or, given the timing of this post and today’s holiday, Happy Thanksgiving to all!)
Initial Camping Kitchen Set-Up
You will recall that when we left Maryland on December 26, 2016 on this road trip, we were tent camping. At the time, we were carrying a fairly sophisticated arrangement of camping “rooms” – a traditional dome tent for sleeping, a screen tent for our outdoor living area and tarps to frame and shield our outdoor kitchen, usually “built” around a park-supplied picnic table. We had long before dispensed with the traditional Coleman-type 2 burner camp stove and had upgraded to a more powerful 2 burner Mr. Heater Basecamp camp stove which is rated at 15,000 BTU per burner.
In addition to the camp stove, based upon an ingenious idea obtained from Pinterest, our camp kitchen was housed in a Stanley Tool Fatmax rolling toolbox. Within it were utensils, foil, baggies and plastic wrap, spices, cutlery and silverware, pots and dishes alongside our dishwashing and drying necessaries. We also had one large bear-proof box (creatively named the “bear box”) that housed other kitchen items such as charcoal and fire starter, larger pots, cutting boards, pantry items, etc. We were traveling with a 63 quart ARB 12-volt refrigerator which we powered using the cigarette lighter adapter while driving and our 100 watt solar panel and Goal Zero Yeti 400 solar “generator” while stationary.
We brought as many spices, sauces and pantry ingredients as we could fit into the Kitchen and Bear Box because we wanted to continue to cook and eat as we did in our brick-and-mortar home. While it is not completely clear how other overlanders cook and eat on the road –- whether they stick to basics or bring a little of home with them – we thought that since we planned to be on the road for well over a year, we wanted to eat the same (or similar) broad range of foods that we ate before we left on the trip. This included cooking with flavors from the Mediterranean, Asia, India and elsewhere.
This all worked pretty well. It was cumbersome but workable. We packed an amazingly large amount of sauces, condiments, spices and pantry items as well as kitchen utensils, including an electric coffee/spice grinder and a small electric chopper/food processor (in addition to a manual coffee grinder). We scaled down to several pots and pans – a cast iron skillet, cast iron Dutch oven, cast iron plancha (grill/griddle combo) and small pot with lid.
Before we left on the trip, we added frequently used recipes to the Pepperplate app for easy access along the road. Pepperplate is a website/app that allows users to upload recipes (user generated or obtained from other websites) and create menus, from which shopping lists can be generated and more. It’s a powerful and handy app for anyone who enjoys cooking, recipe collecting and entertaining (the shopping list feature is worth its weight in gold as it aggregates ingredients — so handy for holiday meal preparations!).
Life After Wolfie
When we acquired Wolfie, we moved our kitchen from the Kitchen and Bear Box inside. Wolfie’s kitchen has a 2 burner propane stove, a small sink, a microwave and a small fridge that runs on propane or electric. Of course, the microwave works only when we have electricity. (More on electricity below). We also have a small counter space next to the sink and a couple of storage areas above, below and next to the sink/stove areas.
Roque very cleverly used one of our 3 door plastic “dressers” (previously used for clothes when we were tent camping) inside one of Wolfie’s storage cabinets which now houses spices, pantry items, some canned goods and sauces. A $2 tin bucket from Michaels’ houses our most frequently used utensils – wooden spoons, spatulas, whisk, knives and cutting boards have a place alongside Wolfie’s 2-burner stove. We house our pots and pans under the sink with our dishes (plastic and paper) and our additional pantry items are in a cabinet or under the benches at the dinette (together with all sorts of other stuff). Prep space in Wolfie is extremely limited now that we are using our counter space for a dish drain so most of our food prep is done on a cutting board placed on the sink.
Despite the compact space we live within, we have added a couple of kitchen gadgets along the trip including a dehydrator for making jerky (ours is better, more healthy and less expensive than from the store), a small electric drip coffee maker (the French press uses too much water to clean when we are wild camping), dish drainer and a couple of extra cups for when we have “company” but otherwise we are using the same equipment as when we were in a tent. The Stanley Fatmax tool box was returned to its originally intended function as a tool box and the bear box is being used for hoses and Wolfie-related items. Wolfie’s fridge added a tiny freezer that allows for some ice and additional fridge space.
Note on Electricity:
Electricity for us is a bit like other technology in that it’s a work in progress kind of thing . . . For those familiar with RVing, you know that RVs have a “house” battery (usually some form of 12 volt car or marine battery) that charges when you are driving and that runs some of the RV’s essential functions such as lights, water pump, USB power outlets (for newer models), RV fridge, hot water heater, kitchen and bathroom fan and perhaps a little more. The battery does not supply sufficient power to run AC, microwave, or “regular” power outlets. You can add batteries to the RV battery bank but that will only extend the amount of time you can run essential functions without recharging UNLESS you also add a power inverter that will “convert” (which is really inverting) 12 volts power into AC power to run small appliances such as drip coffee makers. Many modern RVs are sold with solar connections that allow for solar panels to connect into the RV electrical system and then recharges the battery when the RV is stationary and not hooked to electricity.
In order to run a powered appliance, you need either an inverter (which simply converts stored power from DC to AC) or a generator, which actually creates usable electricity for power-hungry functions like the microwave or air conditioning.
Many in RVs never sweat any of this because larger RVs usually come with generators built into the rig, drawing gasoline directly from the gas tank of the rig, or they just rely on campground-supplied power. It’s great to have power supplied at a campsite but camping only in campgrounds supplying power limits you to certain kinds of camping.
Our Goal Zero solar “generator” is really just a beautifully packaged battery with an inverter attached . . . The model we bought was the Yeti 400 and the “400” denotes the watts that are “generated” by the inverter. Our Goal Zero produces enough power to power our ARB fridge and to recharge our phones and tablets. It can also be used for our small coffee grinder or tiny food chopper but that is about its limits.
After we wild camped a few times, we realized that there were times when we were going to want more power so that we could recharge the house battery, or we could run the coffee maker or we could run the air conditioner. For these needs, we knew we needed a generator, which we decided to purchase while on the road to Alaska, ordered online for store pick up in Anchorage.
We opted to purchase a Champion generator that can produce sufficient watts to run the air conditioning in Wolfie because it seemed to make little sense to have a generator that supplied some but not all of our needs. We believed, as well, that the generator might come in handy for future non-RV applications and we could, therefore, justify the purchase for several reasons. The one we bought works well but it is quite loud – the much quieter Honda generators are extremely costly so while we would have loved less noise, we couldn’t justify the additional cost.
To counter the generator noise issue, we later decided to add a 1500 watt power inverter into our set up. The inverter is silent because it is not generating electricity but just inverting power from 12 volt to AC. It is connected to Wolfie’s house battery (which is now chained to an additional AGM marine battery that we were using with the Goal Zero in Gertie) and allows us to run an extension cord to the coffee maker or coffee grinder in the morning without starting up the generator.
Most Pan American Highway overlanders do not appear to be traveling in any sort of RV and are likely doing just fine with a solar panel and battery plus some type of inverter. Most RVers are likely fully self sufficient with factory-supplied generators connected to the RV’s electrical system and gas supply. We are kind of in between. The sort of “hit and miss”-learning by experience that has emerged over our time on the road has probably resulted in a hodgepodge of solutions that might make others howl with laughter but it seems, finally, to be working for us.
Our Eating Repertoire
Our breakfasts and lunches are simple affairs – most of our thought and energy go into planning and making our dinners. On average, we will cook 6 out of 7 dinners – or 20 out of 21 weekly meals. They are also mostly simple affairs consisting of a grilled source of protein and a vegetable or salad or a fruit. Keeping fresh veggies and fruits around is a challenge – they take up a LOT of refrigerator space and spoil easily so often we have one or the other with dinner but rarely both. Roque is a master at grilling, whether over gas, charcoal or firewood and we have enjoyed many meals of grilled whole fish, steaks, racks of lamb, pork of all sorts and more. Grilling is not always possible, particularly when parks restrict fires and charcoal grills and grilling over a propane heated, cast iron plancha does not always produce excellent results. So, when we are not grilling, we have enjoyed pan seared Pacific halibut, pan seared steaks, freshly shucked local oysters and more. We have learned how to “bake” mini pizzas in the Dutch oven, made stews, prepared curries, scrambled eggs, blackened salmon, stir-fried Asian meals, “doctored” ramen packets with veggies, pork belly and aromatics, and created chicken lettuce wraps just like when we lived in DC. On Passover, we prepared a small sedar, complete with gefilte fish (store bought), hard-boiled eggs, matzo and homemade matzo ball soup. We have learned that much is possible with a bit of thought and a healthy dose of creativity. Still, we have also de-emphasized meal prep over the course of this trip largely because the therapeutic value of cooking was significantly reduced after retirement and because we just didn’t feel the urge to spend a lot of time in the kitchen/fire pit when there was so much other stuff to do.
Our Shopping Regimen
A friend asked us about our shopping routine one day and the question stopped me in my tracks: what WAS our shopping routine? Earlier in our trip, we learned from shopping trips to grocery “stores” in Terlingua, Texas (on the western edge of Big Bend National Park) and in Springdale, UT (on the western edge of Zion National Park) that while there is often some source of grocery items, the selection and cost for “our” staples made it essential that we ensure these items were stockpiled, when possible.
After passing through tiny towns with little more than convenience stores within gas stations as a source of procuring grocery items, we learned to take mental stock of “meals” on hand – eggs and cans of salmon and tuna as well as PB&J were always in our pantry. After spending substantial time in Canada, we learned that sugar-free beverages were scarce and that we had to make adjustments when it came to our preferred non-alcoholic drinks. (Note: alcoholic beverages in Canada are HIGHLY taxed and much more expensive than in the US – we learned to stock up on liquor in Alaska before heading back through Canada). In short, as long as we could count on at least 2 meals within our pantry and fridge, we knew we wouldn’t go hungry.
When in new towns, one of our great pleasures is to visit new grocery stores. Within the US, grocery store chains are often more familiar than not and we learned that our store courtesy card/phone numbers worked in stores where we had NEVER shopped before, making clear that some chains are linked whether we are aware of this or not. For example, Albertson’s, which we have visited throughout the western US, is a chain related to Safeway in some manner.
In short, we shop when necessary – when we are out of essentials or when we have “nothing to eat.” This pattern is not unlike how we shopped when we resided in a brick-and-mortar home – we shopped nearly daily for dinner items and bought our staples at the same time. While we cannot, as a general rule, purchase Costco-sized packages, we buy our racks of lamb only at Costco and have made many batches of curried chicken salad from the rotisserie chickens we buy at warehouse clubs.
What We Crave
Despite our expansive cooking repertoire, broad palate and willingness to eat what the locals eat, there are things we don’t get to eat often enough to fulfill our inner (eating) souls. Among these things are good sushi. Bagels. Dim sum. Good fried chicken. Chopped liver. Anything braised. And a delicious piece of cake or pastry. The take-away is that it is worth waiting for the right place (or kinda-right place) before trying to satisfy the craving, even if it means waiting 6 months for sushi. Or learn how to make it yourself. (Ask Roque about shucking Pacific oysters – a topic for another day.)
Cooking in Mexico
Since we just arrived in Mexico, it is not clear how our eating and cooking will change. The first several days felt like we were on vacation and we succumbed to the temptation to eat out – one late lunch at a beautiful vineyard, El Cielo, in the Valle de Guadeloupe, an early lunch of tostadas on the street at La Guerrerense, and a fabulous early dinner at Manzanilla in Ensenada. The meals were each memorable and, frankly, better than most of the restaurant meals we’ve eaten along this trip. They were also, predictably, much less expensive than most of the meals that we have eaten (in or out) over the past year of travel and so, the dilemma, both in terms of pocketbook and waistline, for us will be in finding some balance.
We have already learned, from visits to local markets and grocery stores, that we will not be without good (and familiar) food, however, meat is butchered differently in Mexico than in the US and the broad selection of cuts and types (lamb has been absent from all of the stores we have visited including Costco and Sam’s Club) may limit what we purchase until we become more familiar and, perhaps, more adventurous. It is exciting to find huge bins of different dried chilies, unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, and ones that we recognize but do not know how to cut or prepare (prickly pear being among them). And the spices! We replenished our ground cumin the other day with a 40 gram packet that cost under $1; the same was true for aji molido (garlic powder).
Our favorite beverages are not available in any store so we will need to make adjustments but we are flexible and are sure we will adapt. And when we are able, we look forward to cooking classes and more research on how to use some of the local ingredients and, perhaps, will find the courage to learn to cook things we love to eat but have never cooked. Pulpo anyone?
In case you are interested, here is a list of what we have and try to keep on hand:
Salt, white pepper, black pepper (whole and ground), garlic powder, onion powder, cumin (whole and ground), Montreal steak seasoning, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, mustard powder, Old Bay, curry powder, garam masala, sumac, ras el hanout, ginger powder, cinnamon sticks, ground cinnamon, whole nutmeg, allspice (whole and ground), cayenne, bay leaves, fennel seeds, and celery seeds.
Sauces and Pantry Items
Oil (canola and extra virgin olive oil), soy sauce, vinegar (champagne and balsamic) chicken and beef bouillon, Tabasco and 2 other hot sauces, Worcestershire sauce, sesame oil, oyster sauce, Asian fish sauce, Chinese rice wine, hoisin, flour, white and brown sugar, splenda, dried whole milk, baking soda, baking powder, vanilla, rice, canned sardines, canned tuna, canned anchovies, canned salmon, Rotel, peanut butter, maple syrup, mustard, ketchup, mayo, grape jam, Naomi Benzil’s mango chutney and peach mango honey, fresh garlic, minced ginger, lemons, limes, tomato paste (in a tube), panko, bread crumbs, various dried beans and legumes and some other items that we’ve likely overlooked.