Stuck Without a Spork: 10 Workarounds for Eating in the Outdoors

The classic: biner as beer bottle opener. Photo: K. Marine

I was seated on a rock amidst the loosely consolidated dirt of the southern-Utah desert after a long morning of climbing, and I was feeling mighty hangry. The only sustenance I carried in my chalky old pack was a cup of delicious strawberry yogurt. Eagerly, I peeled back the foil lid and reached for a spoon, only to discover there was no spoon! I felt stranded, with no way to stir that fruit-on-the-bottomy goodness or convey it to my pie hole.

How little we appreciate the simple functionality of a spoon until we find ourselves without one! And while foods like sandwiches, fruits, and trail mix yield handily to manual eating techniques, others, like yogurt, soups, and saucy pastas, pose more of a challenge in the absence of proper utensils.

Science has shown that our nearest evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee, is quite deft in the use of tools for accessing and ingesting food items. So, too, have modern climbers and other outdoors people devised ingenious eating implements out of necessity. I, for example, was able to fashion a primitive scoop from the flimsy foil circle I peeled from the top of my yogurt cup, giving me the precious energy needed to finish out the day and perhaps live on to spread my genes.

Following are a 10 clever cutlery workarounds spotted in the wild. What tricky tactics have you employed when caught without a spork?

Sticks – Among the most obvious improvisations, a well-selected stick, de-barked and whittled to varying degrees, can be used to spear and roast foods like hotdogs and marshmallows, scoop messy foods, and even to stir things like cocktails or coffee.

Vadim using toothbrushes as chopsticks
Toothbrushes chopsticks. Photo: Gail Rothschild

Toothbrushes – Most climbers carry old toothbrushes for banishing excess chalk from handholds. The rigid plastic stems can double as chopsticks—particularly handy for noodles or salads.

Rocks – A good sharp rock can serve as a knife, while a slightly scooped stone takes on spoon-like properties. Large, flat ones can even be used as makeshift frying pans or plates. Pro tip: brush off dirt, lichen, or bugs before using.

Carabiners – The quintessential climber bottle opener. There are many ways to pry open your favorite non-twist-off bottle of suds with a biner—just be sure you don’t cause any sizable gauges in the rope-bearing surface, as it could end up snaggletoothing your rope’s sheath.

Shoes – Hard to open without a purpose-made tool, a wine bottle can be made to give up its cork with repeated blows against a wall using a shoe as padding. Behold, this instructional video stands as proof:

Knives – An advanced technique known as “the lip splitter” involves using the blade of your Swiss army knife not only for cutting, but also spearing and scooping food into your mouth. Zen-like focus is required to avoid terrible injury.

Nut tools – Sometimes all you need is a way to shovel stuff out of the container and into your hungry face. A climber’s nut tool, with its flat metal end, can tackle this task quite handily. These tools can even be used to cut or spread soft cheeses or similar.

Tin foil – One friend of mine commented that he has used tin foil to make a cup, bowl, shot glass, and spoon. The origami skills required here are not as advanced as they might sound, depending on the food substance you’re looking to contain or manipulate. Getting peanut butter out of the jar with a foil tool, however, requires a working knowledge of engineering principles.

Here have a tin foil hat.
Tinfoil: you’re using it wrong.

Bread – In Ethiopia, the Middle East, and various other cultures, flatbreads are used to pinch and scoop deliciously messy foods. If you have a slice of rye, crackers, or a tortilla among your rations, you have with you an edible utensil! Pro tip: the under-appreciated heel of the bread loaf here becomes the hero, offering superior scooping power.

Fingers – When all else fails, we return to the original eating implement: our fingers. These marvels of engineering can manipulate a vast array of objects, including those stinky tinned sardines in oil you brought because someone told you they were high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Hopefully you didn’t forget your wet-wipes, too.

Go Ahead, Eat the Mystery Meat

Mystery Meat at Petzl RocTrip Mexico

“Good Luck,” said the skinny French waiter with bulging eyes and a bad comb over. His accent was thick, so it came out sounding more like “Gewd lock,” but the meaning, and the meaning behind the meaning, was clear. We were screwed.

We’d walked into the uninspiring back alley restaurant in the tourist/climbing town of Fontainebleau, France, with low expectations, but it was late, and as my traveling companions and I had just arrived via plane, train, and automobile from the United States, we were well past picky.

Four of us, there were: my friend Jack, his girlfriend Wendy, and Wendy’s sister, Katy. The girls ordered salads Niçoise, while Jack and I scanned the manly meat section of the menu. I’d studied French for years and was ashamed to admit I had no idea what the hell I was looking at, so I just ordered the agneau, which I knew was lamb. Jack got the bœuf. We sipped cheap Pinot noir and waited for the food to arrive, mute with hunger.

At long last, the server dropped our plates on the table and quickly departed. Before me lay not the glistening, browned rack of lamb of my dreams, but an array of pink, flaccid, strips of raw meat, arranged in a soggy semi-circle around the plate. No garnish or sides. Nothing to trigger my already primed Pavlovian salivation response. Jack’s plate looked much the same.

“So is it, like, tartar?” I asked, hoping someone at the table had seen something like this before. Blank stares from the girls.

“I think so,” Jack said, sounding unsure.

“Shit.”

We gazed down, weighing our hunger against the likelihood of food poisoning. Jack ate a bit of his beef first. Then I tasted mine.

“Hmmm… It’s pretty good!” he said, relieved. It was good, or at least good enough. We began to dig in.

I’d eaten about half the plate of uncooked lamb when the waiter returned, carrying a heavy black block. He looked at Jack and me as he set the block down on the table and then proceeded to reach across and tong a strip of my lamb, laying it across the block’s surface. The meat sizzled merrily. It was now clear that the hot stone was meant as a cooking surface, with which we would add flavor to and kill the colonies of food-borne bacteria cavorting on our meat.

“Ahhh!” our table collectively cooed with embarrassed agreement. “Or course! We get it!”

The waiter’s eyes seemed to bug a little farther from his skull as he saw my half-empty plate. “Good luck,” he said, and then turned and walked towards the kitchen, where the busboy and another waiter loitered. They huddled together to exchange bets on the fate of the foreigners who had just consumed the uncooked and heretofore unrefrigerated meat dishes of dubious provenance. Jack and I could only cook and eat our remaining meat strips and then brace for what I assumed would be a night of intestinal pandemonium.

Back at our gîte, I had a hard time falling asleep. I lay in bed, head spinning with hypochondriacal anxiety, monitoring my stomach’s every gurgle like a volcanologist examining the peaks and troughs of a seismograph readout. Eventually, exhaustion overtook me and I sank into a listless slumber.

Sunshine, birdsong, the smell of a coffee and baguette with jam, no wrenching stomach pains — this is what greeted me as I awoke the next morn. I felt fit as a French fiddle and ready to climb on some of the finest sandstone ever formed. The waiter had wished us good luck, and good luck we had. All my worries had been for naught. Looking back, I mark this experience as the beginning of the end of my longstanding food neurosis.

* * *

When asked how many times he’d had food poisoning, writer, chef and host of my all-time favorite food & travel show, No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain answered thusly:

Just a few. Nothing too serious. My crew — who are more careful and fussy about street food, get sick more often — almost invariably from the hotel buffet or Western-style businesses.

Likewise, I’ve visited rural Mexico and rural China, eating whatever was put in front of me, and managed to escape Montezuma’s Revenge and its equally debilitating Chinese corollary. In my travels, I’ve learned that there’s an important difference between thinking something looks or smell gross, and the likelihood of that food actually causing you harm. This bears out my belief that it’s surprisingly hard to predict when food poisoning will strike. Alongside the expected poultry and ground beef on the CDC salmonella-outbreak list, you’ll find such unusual suspects as mangoes, cantaloupe, pine nuts, alfalfa sprouts and even turtles and hedgehogs (I do not believe the last two were ingested, but you never know…). This year, nearly a dozen people were sickened by, and one has already died from, a listeria-tainted ricotta cheese. Ricotta cheese, for Pete’s sake! You just never know.

And like Bourdain’s camera crew, every time I’ve gotten really sick from food, it’s been at some run-of-the-mill American establishment, the most notable instance being a Wendy’s in Athens, Ohio. My cheeseburger, a tad pink in the middle, tasted fine, but that night I was gripped by the irresistible need to purge my stomach contents. I spent the next six hours shivering and groaning on the floor of a toilet stall, taking turns sitting on and driving the proverbial porcelain bus. So weakened was I by the unforgiving onslaught of beef-bourne bacteria that my friend had to drive me home in my own car. It was years before I could bring myself to eat another Wendy’s burger. Bourdain, who identified the most stomach-churning thing he’d eaten in his travels as “lightly grilled warthog rectum,” avoids American fast food whenever possible. And he never eats chicken nuggets.

All of this is just to say, there’s not much point in worrying.  One of the wonders of the climbing lifestyle is the many places it takes us. Foreign lands, forgotten backwaters, wild deserts — the dedicated climber will often find herself in places that she otherwise never would have visited. And in those places, she will have to find food. What is available, what the locals are eating, will not always be familiar or appetizing — heck, it might not even meet the most basic food-safety guidelines — but it is part of the adventure. All the hand wringing in the world won’t sanitize that street taco or that mystery-meat kebab, so either don’t eat it and live with your gustatory boredom and ravenous hunger, or chow down with your friends and relax, knowing the chances are good that you’ll be fine.

Still, I’m going to have to pass on that warthog rectum. Thanks.

SLC Eats: Tulie Bakery

Tulie Bakery, one of the finest establishments in Salt Lake City.
Tulie Bakery, one of the finest establishments in Salt Lake City.

Compared to New York City and Boulder, Colorado, my two previous places of residence, Salt Lake City’s choice dining options are, for the most part, few and far between — a handful of jewels scattered in a gravel pit. The gravel, in this case, is the mostly bland urban and suburban neighborhoods, strip malls, chain establishments, and restaurants with the moto: “Quantity over quality.” To find the treasure, you have to go a-hunting. Which is good and bad. Good because it makes the moment of discovery all the more satisfying. And bad because it means extensive research and car (or bicycle, if you’re into that kind of thing) mileage is required to find the really killer spots. (In the future, I plan to blog about more of the places I’ve discovered to eat, drink, and be merry in Salt Lake City.)

One of the first gems I discovered upon moving to Salt Lake two years ago is the Tulie Bakery, on the edge of the trendy 9th and 9th neighborhood. Winner of many awards and recognitions, I was surprised to find that few of my friends, who have lived here for years or even their entire lives, had been to Tulie. Admittedly, you might not stumble across it if you didn’t know it was there. Tulie sits in a suburban setting, along one of Salt Lake’s extra-wide landing strips roadways. You could easily visit the excellent Café Trio (680 South 900 East; triodining.com), which occupies the corner real estate a few doors down, and not notice its glass façade.

Keep your hands out of the cookie jars.
Keep your hands out of the cookie jars.

The French-inspired Tulie is approaching its fourth year in business and continues to draw crowds to its clean, well-lighted, rustic/modern interior. The usual suspects at the bakery comprise a relatively diverse mixture of young parents with smartly dressed toddlers, well-off empty nesters, the obligatory foodie hipsters, and a random smattering of difficult-to-classify individuals willing to pay a premium for the “pure, high-quality ingredients that flow seamlessly with the decor,” as it says on the Tulie website.

A mild crowd for a Saturday morning at Tulie.
A mild crowd for a Saturday morning at Tulie.

According to their menu, the Tulie Bakery has five core culinary offerings: breakfast pastry, hot pressed sandwiches, pastry ( for other times of the day, I gather), cakes, and the catch-all “cupcakes, cookies, and bars.” Of these, I have found the breakfast pastry to be the most superlative. Everything I have tried, from the morning bun to the pain au chocolat to the crème fraîche coffee cake has been worthy of recommendation.

Yes, everything is good — great even — but floating above it all, like a plate of ethereal, golden, powder-caked balloons, are the beignets, which are baked only on the weekends, at some time around 8 or 9 in the morning. Sold individually or in sets of four, these French-style (via New Orleans) “donuts” bear hardly any resemblance to their denser, tire-shaped cousins. I have missed the “golden hour” — from when the beignets come out of the oven to the time they sell out — on several occasions, which never ceases to fill me with disappointment. Another plus, and one that richly compliments the beignets: Tulie Bakery has trained their employees to pull excellent espresso drinks.

Tulie's famous beignets, fresh from the oven.
Tulie’s famous beignets, fresh from the oven.

Yes, the sandwiches, cakes, pastries, cookies and tarts really are among the best in Salt Lake City. Personal preference will vary, but there is no denying that the overall quality of the food at Tulie is second to none. Were I a wealthy man, I might stop in every day, but dietary and pecuniary limitations restrict me to weekly visits. That’s just enough to leave me always wanting more, which, I think, is really the way it ought be to allow for maximum appreciation of any food this good.

Tulie Bakery is located at 863 East 700 South, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Contact information, hours of operation, a complete menu, and more can be found at their website: www.tuliebakery.com.

What’s for Breakfast? Sunday Super Sandwich

what's for breakfast?

A brief commentary on the state of eating habits in America:

The more I cook, the more ridiculous I find the idea of going to a restaurant to purchase an egg sandwich or a hamburger. If you’re at a sit-down spot, you’ll almost certainly pay four or five times more than you would just making it yourself. Plus, if you put any effort into cooking at all, you’ll probably make something better (or more to your liking, at least) than what they’re charging a premium for at a restaurant.

Not to mention the fact that cooking is an art form and an activity that brings family members together.

Do you have kids? Get them involved. Teach them what real food looks like, where it comes from. This is the topic that food crusader Jamie Oliver has been hammering away at for years now. (Skip to 11:15 in the video link preceding, if you want to see how much some kids know about real food.) If you cook with fresh ingredients (stuff that doesn’t come in boxes and last for months or years without being frozen), you’ll be hard pressed to make food as bad for you as an average fast food meal. Plus, the more time you spend doing something creative that doesn’t involve watching a screen with your kids… well, I don’t even have kids and it seems obvious to me how important this is.

And if you have a significant other, cooking is a great way to spend time together. Shopping for fresh ingredients, cooking, and eating are all sensual acts. The texture and smell of aromatic vegetables and herbs being diced and chopped on a cutting board. The synthesis of flavors that a well-prepared meal offers — each one standing alone and yet complimenting the others. The intimate moment of eating in your own home something you worked to create together. It’s far less pretentious and stuffy than a meal at Del Posto, and far more affordable, too. It’s the simple acts, really, that are the most profound. Cooking is one those basic human actions that have shaped and defined cultures and families for millenia. For god’s sake, just do it.

And while you’re at it, read this book, before it’s too late.

Now, the answer to the question: What’s for Breakfast?

Today, my fiancée and I constructed a luxurious breakfast sandwich (see picture at top). Not healthy, per se, but a nice Sunday morning indulgence after a long work week of yogurt, oatmeal, turkey sandwiches, salads… Today’s sandwich was a play off of the classic bodega bacon, egg, and cheese I ate three days a week while living in New York City. I thought it would be nice to mix in some Southwest flavors (guacamole and jalapeno). Only after we finished making it did I realize how much it resembled The Southside Walnut Café’s Sunrise Sandwich, which we ate regularly while living in Boulder, Colorado.

Making this sandwich was simple (as sandwiches tend to be!). Here, step-by-step instructions to get your through the first time:

  1. Make or buy guacamole. We happened to have a container of Whole Food guac in the fridge and we wanted to use it up before it went brown
  2. Start some dry rubbed, thick cut, nitrate free bacon in a skillet over medium heat
  3. Warm another skillet over medium and coat with butter or oil, depending on your taste (careful not to burn!)
  4. Slice as much good, sharp cheddar cheese as you think you’ll want on your sandwich
  5. Put two slices of your favorite bread in the toaster, but don’t push them down yet… (We used slices of a French boule, which is an airy, crusty white bread)
  6. Crack some eggs (I had two on my sandwich) into the buttered or oiled pan, which should be hot by now. I broke the egg yolks to get more even coverage, mixing them around in the whites with the corner of my spatula.
  7. Flip your bacon, if it’s ready.
  8. When the tops of the eggs are starting to firm up, but well before they are dry, fold them in half, so you have semi-circular shapes in the pan… like mini omelets.
  9. Wait a minute and then place your cheese slices atop the egg semi-circles
  10. Push down the bread in the toaster
  11. Check the bacon. If it’s done, put it on a plate lined with a paper towel, to absorb a little of the excess grease
  12. When the cheese is melted, put one of your eggs onto the bread (it has popped up by now, hasn’t it?)
  13. Then break a slice of bacon in two and put the pieces on to of the egg on the bread
  14. Slide the other egg on top of the bread, egg, cheese, and bacon stack
  15. Put another slice of bacon on top of all this
  16. Coat the other piece of bread with guacamole (freshly sliced avocado will do, too)
  17. Embed the guac with as many jalapenos as you see fit (their bright, spicy flavor really balances out the sandwich!)
  18. Put the two halves together, serve and enjoy.

We ate ours sans sides… just some coffee and some seltzer with lemon. Nearing the limits of sandwich perfection! What about you? What do you love to make for breakfast?

The Anti-Tourist: LA Recommended

Growing up as only child, my parents kindly took me with them on their many travels. Without fail, the most exciting thing about our destinations was the food. France, Greece, Northern California, New York City… before our trips, I recall mom and dad clipping reviews from papers and magazines (pre-Google! pre-Urban Spoon!), plotting out our culinary itinerary to the meal. It’s only logical though — nothing gives more intimate connection to a place and a people than food.

This past weekend, my fiancée and I headed to Los Angeles to meet up with my folks and enjoy a brief vacation. Again, meals provided the anchors around which the rest of the trip would flow. Admittedly, three nights in LA are not enough to scratch the city’s strange, smoggy surface, but my special lady and I certainly came away from the trip with a few food and entertainment recommendations. If you’re heading to LA for a day or a week, or (I suppose, if you live in LA and just need an excuse to try something new) consider adding these to your list. They’re places worthy of planning a trip around.

Check out a photo gallery from my LA trip, here

The main dining room of Gjelina, on Abbot Kinney
The main dining room of Gjelina, on Abbot Kinney

Gjelina – Located amongst the pricey eclectic boutiques of tragically hip Abbot Kenny Road, Gjelina offers a high-end rustic setting with fresh, well-thought-out food: raw wood planks and beams, bare light bulbs with bright orange filaments aglow, rusted metal fixtures, a monumental steel I-beam exposed on the ceiling. We sat in the back patio, where patina-colored tables rested on antique bricks. Every dish we tried was superb: grilled brussels sprouts with bacon, dates, and vinegar; a mixed cheese plate with goat, cow, and sheep’s milk cheeses; a flatiron steak sandwich on a baguette with chili peppers, arugula, and a sinus-infiltrating (in a good way) horseradish aioli; a fried egg sandwich with roasted pepper, mozzarella, prosciutto, arugula, and harissa aioli; and a lamb burger with the same harissa aioli, roasted tomato, and arugula. Next door is Gjelina GTA, a take-out specific space for those looking to save a little money and a lot of time – gjelina.com.

Mixed cheese plate at Gjelina
Mixed cheese plate at Gjelina

Intelligentsia Coffee – Also on Abbot Kinney, this spot takes coffee dorkery to its logical extreme. The first and most noticeable trait of the large, airy café is the layout. Instead of the typical straight block of forward-facing counter space, Intelligentsia features a circular counter, penning in the four or five tragically hip knowledgable baristas working the gleaming coffee machinery. The theory behind the counter circle, our barista informed us, was to reduce the distance between barista and customer. In the rear of the shop was an area labeled “slow bar.” Here, a coffee expert will take you through the origin story of the particular coffee you order. Whether you enjoy Intelligentsia’s ambience or not (I did), it’s hard to argue that the high-quality, fresh coffee was expertly prepared. The cappuccinos and lattes were artful blends of well-pulled espresso and what I can only presume was local, organic milk. A small, moist red velvet mini cake sported a layer of raspberry cream and a delicate chocolate coating. While enjoying our Intelligentsia experience, we were also stoked to see our favorite ex-IRA weapons expert, Fiona, from the TV series Burn Notice (her real name is Gabrielle Anwar). Our LA experience felt somehow more complete for the television-star sighting – intelligentsiacoffee.com.

Note: Our barista at Intelligentsia was practiced in the art of latte “leaf” creation (see below). For a very cool piece on this frothy medium, check out The Art of Judging Latte Art on Slate.com

 cacA barista pouring a near-perfect latte at Intelligentsia
A barista pouring a near-perfect cappuccino at Intelligentsia
A barista at Intelligentsia Coffee
A barista at Intelligentsia Coffee

The Lazy Ox Canteen – Located in one of my favorite downtown LA neighborhoods, Little Tokyo, the Lazy Ox isn’t a Japanese restaurant. The owner, Michael Hide Cardenas, however, was raised in Japan, and Japanese notes definitely infiltrate many of the eclectic dishes. Our party of four waited a solid hour to be seated sans reservation, but luckily a walk through Little Tokyo burned most of that. At one point, we came across an awkward outdoor karaoke session in a little plaza full of bakeries, noodle shops, and fashion boutiques. We spent the final twenty minutes of our wait sipping sake and big bottles of Kirin at the Japanese restaurant next door to the Lazy Ox. Once seated, we ordered four small and four medium-sized plates, not of a single one of which was less than amazing. Still, some standouts included barbecued short ribs, polenta with mushrooms, the tempura artichoke hearts with a citrus mayonnaise, and the ricotta fritters with honey. I can only assume the rest of the items on the ever-changing menu would have been as exceptional, too. For desert, a seasonal fruit crumble, and butterscotch pudding were among the party favorites, but again, nothing was disappointing. The Lazy Ox philosophy is “to bring exceptional ingredients prepared artistically at an approachable price.” The first two items I can see, but the approachable price thing seems like a bit of a stretch. Maybe I’ve forgotten how much things cost in the big city… – lazyoxcanteen.com

Also highly recommended are LA’s many food trucks. We only ate at one, which served killer Bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches on baguettes),  so you’ll have to experiment to find your style. Totally worth it. Find them at findlafoodtrucks.com

A food truck in LA
"Cool Haus," one of many food trucks in LA. This one was parked across the street from the LA Country Museum of Art, which has a great show on California modernist design from the 1930s-60s.

And here are a few places we didn’t get to go but that were highly recommended by trustworthy sources:

Photolog – LA | Santa Monica | Venice

Travel report to come… For now, enjoy some photos.