When planning meals for a three-day, 16-mile hike into the high country, most people think in terms of ounces, not 2-pound porterhouse steaks.
Seasoned backpackers are trained to scrutinize every bit of gear they'll be lugging through the wilderness, trimming away superfluous packaging, squirting 2.2 days' worth of sunscreen and body lotion into itsy-bitsy bottles, rationing the crackers and instant-cocoa pouches ("Whadda-ya mean, you want TWO hot chocolates after dinner? This isn't Club Med, you know."), forsaking the down pillow for a rolled-up fleece.
So when my hiking partner suggested we pack for a barbecue on our first night out, I just laughed.
But he wasn't kidding. At the time — a very long time ago — we were both working for a luxury hotel. This fellow was chummy with the chef.
"I'll have Chuck order a good steak and freeze it for us," he said. "It'll be fun. By the time we reach camp, it will be thawed enough to grill."
Which, of course, meant bringing along a grill. And charcoal. And starter fluid. And wine. And fresh vegetables. And potatoes for baking.
I don't even want to tell you how much our packs weighed. It was too embarrassing, particularly when we had to fess up to other hikers along the trail that we were only on a two-day trek.
But my friend was right about one thing: After eight miles and several hours, the steak was almost completely thawed. It also had kept the bottle of Champagne that the chef tucked in for good measure — 3 MORE pounds of unnecessary baggage — nicely chilled.
It was about 4 o'clock when we made camp. We dumped our gear, gave our trail-weary feet a brief soaking in the nearby stream, then set about preparing a barbecue of immense proportion.
While the grill chef bustled about creating the least environmentally damaging way to construct a grilling pit, I speared chunks of fresh zucchini, mushrooms and onions onto bamboo skewers, plopped a zip-locked bag of marinating cucumber slices down in the water to cool and wrapped potatoes in foil. Finally, with the sun only three fingers off the horizon and the potatoes snuggled up next to the charcoal, we headed down to the water's edge to relax while the coals worked up a fine coating of ash.
It was well past sundown before we finally sawed into our steaks. They were superb. Sitting on my rock, munching delicately charred, fresh vegetables between sips of a pertinent Bordeaux, I savored the moment. The myriad stars splashed over the velvet, alpine sky seemed too few to rate this restaurant.
Elegant repasts aside, my theory regarding trail food is simple: Anything considered edible at the beginning of a hike will be downright exquisite by the fourth day. So it's always a good idea to eat most of the good stuff at the beginning of a journey when the palate is most discriminating.
Consider this meal for your first night on the trail: trail-thawed salmon (still frozen at the trailhead, thawed by the time you've settled on a spot for the night and set up camp), nestled into a foil pouch with a bit of fresh lemon, fresh herbs, a splash of the house pinot gris and a little salt and pepper, then placed in a dry frying pan over a backpacking stove. Heavenly!
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.