Saturday, August 6, 2011

Eating on the Road

Well, it's August, the tail end of the travel season in summer.  So this might be a little late for some of you but my wife and I do most of our traveling before and after the heavy tourist season.  We do this for a couple reasons:
  1. It is generally cooler.  Neither of us like hot weather and April-May and September-October are much more pleasent times to travel.
  2. It is generally cheaper. The heavy tourist season brings with it higher prices for everything.
  3. It is generally less crowded.  Who enjoys crowds and long lines?
I just came back from a one-week TDY (Temporary Duty) in Heidelberg, Germany.  It is only a four-hour drive under normal conditions but accidents and construction always add to that.  Many years ago when we lived in Stuttgart, Germany (1988-1992), we looked forward to driving the Autobahn because the  roadside Reststop restaurants were a great place to get good, cheap food.  At that time, these snack shops and restaurants were family owned and run.  They took great pride in offering local specialities, competative prices, and good customer service (like feeding and watering your dog).  Now these restaurants are all franchised; they serve the same stuff, no variety, and there is no competition so the prices are much higher. The food is still good, Germany has strict food laws, but I cannot justify the price of a meal there.  I can get that same meal off the Autobahn for at least 25-30 percent less.  So while it is tempting I have to take a pass.

I long ago got in the habit of throwing an ice chest in the car with a good selection of energy drinks (I don't like coffee and I need something to keep me awake), snacks like peanutbutter crackers and fruit, and stuff to make a sandwich if I really get hungry.  When we lived at Fort Belvoir, VA and Fort Meade, MD we used to drive home at least one weekend a month.  This required at least one meal on the road.  Feeding five (six once our future daughter in law became part of the family) at a restaurant near a highway was just too expensive.  We did it in the winter out of necessity but in the warmer months we packed an ice chest and had a picnic on the way.  Would the kids rather have a McDonalds hamberger?  Yeah, probably.  But they also enjoyed the break from driving, walking the dogs, and sitting together to eat a picnic lunch out in the open.  And dad wasn't grumpy from wasting money on crap food.

My wife would put together snack bags of pretzels, those chedder cheese fish, or something using sandwich bags.  This is far cheaper than buying single serving snacks.  Drinks were usually Capri Sun drinks, which we could buy fairly cheap at the commissary from time to time and when they were empty the package didn't take much room in the trash bag.  You will pay a minimum of $1.50  and it is more common to pay up to $2.50 for a drink out of a roadside rest vending machine.  No room for a cooler?  Ok, put your drinks in the coldest part of your refridge and just before you leave wrap them all together in a towel and stick them under the seat.  They will stay cold for at least an hour (if your floor isn't a hot spot from the exhaust); longer it you put a "Blu-ice" block in with them.

On my trip last week I made my own ice blocks in large tupperware type containers so I would have cold drinks during my week-long trip.  As it turned out I had a refrigerator in my room but you never know.  I packed enough drinks for a week, stuff for sandwiches, and apples.  I always put a towel on the top of the food to keep the cool air low in the cooler.  I stopped once after 90 minutes for a bathroom/leg stretch break and got a drink and stopped again for lunch at a scenic roadside parking area.  I ate my large meal at lunch most days on the trip and had a sandwich or leftovers for supper.  I bought some food items in Germany to bring home and packed them in the cooler.  My ice blocks were still good after five day.  I bought a Subway sandwich for the ride home and had another cheap lunch on the road by supplying my own drink, chips, and dessert left over from a previous meal.  Sitting out in the sun and enjoying the view, solitude, and meal makes for a pleasent and refreshing stop.

Something I used to do on long trips, mostly before I got married, and even more often while in the field on training exercises was engine block cooking. This was far easier with pre-1990s cars and trucks than modern vehicles but you could probably still do it with certain models.  Internal combustion engines are only about 18-20 percent efficient.  The vast majority of the energy is wasted as heat.  You can use this wasted heat to cook or reheat food.  This was a huge fad at one time in the early years of cars.  I won't go into this in any great detail because there is so much out there on the internet and some books.  I'll just add some key points:

  1. Never attempt to heat canned food of any kind.  The can will explode if if gets hot enough.
  2. Use only Heavy Duty aluminum foil.
  3. Cook dry foods like meats, vegetables, etc.  Don't try to seal foods with lots of liquids like stew, soup, chilli.  The steam will open up your package.
  4. Reheating is far easier than cooking from scratch.
  5. The old Boy Scout foil pack meals work great.  Just do a search for "Boy Scout Foil Dinner"
  6. Make sure all seams are well sealed when you foil pack a meal.
  7. Be careful, the engine and your meal will be REALLY hot.
  8. Always turn off your engine and be careful around thermostat controlled fans.

This does take some preparation of course but once you do it a few times it is pretty easy.  You can cut your travel food costs by close to 75% doing this. Wrap a couple low-fat hotdogs and chopped onions in foil, place them on the engine, start driving and two hours later you can enjoy delicious steamed hotdogs at a roadside rest. Add your own chips, sliced raw carrots, drinks, etc. and you have a fine meal.

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