Alimentary, My Dear
Take a Break!
A Box Lunch Primer
By Tamia Nelson
July 15, 2008
On the dot of noon Charlie signaled that our lunch stop was just ahead, right around the next bend. We all got the message, and there were no voices raised in opposition. It was the first club trip of the spring season, and the little Catskill creek was running high and fast. We were ready for a break, delighted to have a chance to get out of our boats, stretch our backs, and unkink our knees. Before long, ten tired paddlers were sprawled on a sun-warmed boulder. Charlie didn’t waste any time. Gingerly, he pulled a plastic-wrapped peanut butter and jelly sandwich from a recess deep inside his wetsuit tunic. Yet despite his obvious care, his sandwich looked like it had seen better days. Charlie had put on quite a few pounds since he’d bought the wetsuit. There wasn’t much room left for his lunch.
Farwell and I also had PBJs. They’d bounced down the river in the bottom of our Bill’s Bag, and they too had suffered serious deflation. To make matters worse, our M&Ms® had melted (it happens), and our apples looked like they’d been through a rolling mill. We weren’t alone. Most of our companions fared little better. They lunched on soggy sandwiches, shook handfuls of potato-chip crumbs from plastic bags, and searched for the best bites left in badly bruised fruit. But there was one exception, a guy who’d obviously thought ahead. While the rest of us resigned ourselves to a quick refueling stop, the smile on this dude’s face told a very different story. It was obvious that he was looking forward to making a real meal of his lunch.
We watched in sullen silence as he loosened the latch on the gasketed lid of a rectangular aluminum box, disclosing the contents to our envious gaze. Cold fried chicken, its crisp coating still intact. Corn on the cob, the kernels yellow and plump. Crisp celery. Round, red radishes. And for dessert, a generous slice of apple pie. I chewed disconsolately on my PBJ, unable to take my eyes from the moveable feast that was being unwrapped before me. My sandwich—dry, stale, and smashed as flat as a tortilla—turned to ashes in my mouth. It seemed to take forever to go down. Meanwhile, a mental image of my first lunchbox filled my brain. It was steel, with a domed top, just like the lunchbox that my uncle had carried with him to the plant where he worked, except that my lunchbox wasn’t black. It was lithographed to resemble a red barn, instead. But like my uncle’s lunchbox, mine also boasted a metal-jacketed thermos. (His wasn’t painted to look like a silo, though. Mine was.)
Meanwhile, the show on the stony shore of the little creek continued. Our foresightful companion—let’s call him the Paddling Gourmet, shall we?—wasn’t done. He unfolded a large bandanna and spread it over the rock beside him, where it served as a colorful table cloth. Then he laid out his lunch. Next, he extracted a bottle of sparkling mineral water from a neoprene sock and poured the contents into a plastic tumbler. The scene was set. He lifted his glass to each member of his dumbfounded audience in turn and sipped appreciatively. His smile grew even broader. For our part, we could only turn away, feeling and looking sheepish, each of us embarrassed to be caught staring. But even as I choked down the final fragments of my dry sandwich, my eyes resolutely averted from the Paddling Gourmet’s riverside banquet, I couldn’t get my old lunchbox out of my mind. It had been a faithful companion on many of my earliest explorations through the wild fields and woodlands behind my grandparents’ old farmhouse. Why had I been so foolish as to abandoned it? Clearly, it was time for a rethink.
It’s in the…Box
Boxed sets have an enduring allure, no matter what the contents. Farwell, who’s never wielded an artist’s brush in his life and who has no wish to start now, is nonetheless infatuated with the Windsor & Newton Watercolor Field Box, described in the catalogs as providing “everything needed for successful outdoor watercolor painting,” including a “clip-on water container and handy instructional leaflet.” Maybe this (somewhat irrational) fascination helps explain the attractiveness of the box lunch. It’s handy, complete, and packaged for travel, its contents protected against crushing, tumbling, and soaking. You could call it the ultimate takeout, I suppose. In fact, in the guise of the bento, the box lunch is a venerable culinary institution, dating back to 16th century Japan and still going strong today. The bento box is an elegant illustration of the principle that form follows function, combining storage container and serving dish in one artful package.
Of course, if all you ever want for lunch is a handful of peanuts and M&M’s®, you don’t need anything more elaborate than a plastic freezer bag tucked into a pocket of your PFD. But if you like the idea of making a meal of your lunch, a rigid container of some sort simply makes sense, particularly for day trips. Then again, as I’ve already suggested, there’s more to box lunches than practicality. Boxes invest even the most prosaic articles with an air of mystery. They also heighten pleasurable anticipation. Call it the “Christmas present effect.” Even if you already know what’s inside, your heart beats a little faster when you undo the wrappings and lift the lid. So a box lunch is something special, even when it’s only a humble sandwich and an apple.
That said, there are better choices for paddlers than a metal lunchbox painted to look like a barn. Nowadays we have…
An Embarrassment of Riches
What makes the perfect lunchbox? Easy. It has to be rigid, so the contents won’t be crushed in your pack. It has to be the right size, neither too large nor too small. And it should be watertight. This last isn’t an absolute requirement, however. Freezer bags or dry bags can supply the need if the protective box is found wanting. In any case, chances are good that you already have something suitable lying around your house. The photo shows four examples scrounged from my own cabinets and closets. At the bottom is a clear plastic box large enough to hold a feast for two, or a normal lunch for three or four. On top of that is a red Tupperware® box that holds more than enough for one—or a simple lunch for two. The long, narrow yellow box beside it once contained a dubious selection of cheap household tools. With these removed, it’s great for a solo lunch. And the Otter Box on top is the ultima Thule of aquatic lunchboxes: bombproof and waterproof. It could be a little larger, though. The beavertail paddle in the background gives the scale. If you’re a heavy eater, or if you’re planning on sharing, you’ll need to choose a bigger Otter box.
Not satisfied? Do you want something made expressly for the purpose? Something traditional, perhaps? Then you’re in luck. Target® sells contemporary bento boxes, and a brief online search will turn up many other sources, as well. You can’t get more traditional than a box with five centuries of history, can you?
Of course, when all is said and done, the box is just a container. It’s what’s inside that makes your lunch a meal. This being the case, you’ll need to give some thought to…
As always, you’ll want to keep your food fresh until you’re ready to eat. Cold foods can be kept that way with a frozen, non-toxic freezer block like the one on the right. Another way to keep your cool is to carry part of your lunch in frozen form. Hand-packed Italian ice, frozen gazpacho, or some other cold treat will thaw while you paddle, keeping everything else cool and safe—till lunchtime, at any rate. On the other hand, if you prefer hot foods, consider buying a bento box with a fitted, insulated cover. Or make one yourself.
Now comes the fun part—answering that perennial question, “What’s for lunch?” Here are just a few suggestions:
The Not-So-Humble Sandwich Most paddlers have the makings of simple sandwiches on hand, and it’s easy to slap something together at the last minute. Generous dollops of peanut butter and fruit preserves spread between slices of bread are always a favorite, as are sandwiches made with lunch meats and cheese. But with just a bit of planning, it’s possible to do better than this. Buy a different nut butter for a change, or use sliced fresh fruit instead of jam or jelly. Lunch meat can be paired with Jarlsberg, blue cheese, or goat’s milk cheese. Substitute fresh spinach for iceberg lettuce, and use slabs of artisan bread or a split French baguette instead of sliced sandwich white. Or make a club sandwich with the same ingredients you normally use, but with the addition of bacon slices and an extra slice of toasted bread.
Leftovers, Anyone? Cook a little extra for dinner so there’s enough left over for lunch the next day. Individual calzoni are great when eaten cold, and just about everyone loves cold fried chicken. Or build a sandwich from leftover fried mushrooms and onions. Pair them with soft goat’s milk cheese and spread between toasted halves of a whole-wheat or poppy seed Kaiser roll. If your lunchbox has room, bring along chilled dressing (ranch is my favorite) to use as a dipping sauce for cooked—or crispy fresh—veggies. Green beans, celery, carrots, broccoli, radishes, brussels sprouts…all are delicious.
Ploughman’s Lunch The ultimate in hardy simplicity. Pack a thick wedge of your favorite cheese, some pickles (sweet or sour), a crusty hunk of whatever bread you fancy, a hard-boiled egg, a wedge of iceberg lettuce (maybe with a packet of dressing), a hot pepper or two, and an apple. Now you’re good to go. How easy can a meal get?
East Meets West The day before your trip, order a takeout from your favorite Asian restaurant. Pick foods that will pack well. Egg rolls with dipping sauces are good bets, as are fried rice and stir-fries. You can even bring egg drop soup in a small thermos. But don’t neglect elementary food hygiene. Keep the cooked food from your takeout refrigerated until you’re ready to leave for the put-in, then keep everything cool under way. And don’t forget the chopsticks!
That’s enough to get you started. But what about afters? No meal is complete without dessert, is it? Luckily, you’ll have plenty to choose from: cookies, brownies, cakes, pies, fresh or dried fruit, chocolate bars, cups of shelf-stable applesauce or gelatin, even frozen ices or sherbets. Once your lunch is in the box, roughing it just got a whole lot easier.
Lunch on a paddling trip doesn’t have to be limited to a rock-hard energy bar or a soggy sandwich crammed into your mouth as you squat in a patch of poison ivy. Give yourself a real break, instead. You’ve earned it. Make lunch something to look forward to. With a sturdy lunchbox and a bit of prep work, you too can dine in style. So move over, Paddling Gourmet. There’s room on this rock for everyone’s bandanna!
Copyright © 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.