During summers of the 1980s, I attended many sailing regattas on the Eastern Shore. In those days, we would sail a race or two in the morning, sail back to land for lunch, and then reconvene on the water in the afternoon for another race; but that was soon to change.
When I was 13, I attended the Miles River Yacht Club Junior Regatta in the heat of the summer. It was blowing about 10 knots from Long Haul Creek that day as we headed out to the Miles River. The race committee consisted of one 13-foot Whaler with the iconic aqua blue interior, Miss Diana with a bullhorn, and her assistant. After one race, she whistled for all of us to circle the boats. We did and were tossed apples, Hershey chocolate bars, and a cold soda. Bottled water wasn’t really a thing in 1983 as we were in the height of the Pepsi challenge so just go with it. We didn’t sail in for lunch, but instead sailed all day and completed five races – two more than the status quo.
For many regattas, especially the weekend long ones, we continued to sail in for lunch, which was often burgers and hot dogs grilled outside on club grounds. But little by little the lunch on the water concept began to take hold at many clubs, especially with junior regattas that were only one day. Lunches became more intricate to include a sandwich, a piece of summer fruit like plums, chips, a pack of Oreos, and two drinks – a Gatorade and a water. Tossed from the now “official” lunch boat while you sailed past, you had to be a good catcher, a zip-lock lunch was at stake. While we lost the noon time camaraderie on land, new boat rafting packs were formed, which was great unless your hands were full with a drink and sandwich and the wind caught your sail. A third hand would have been nice to hold the tiller steady into the wind, but that’s what knees are for, right? The challenges of on the water eating proved to be a source of comedic bonding for some and mealtime misery for others, but we were able to sail more races. Was it a good trade? I don’t know. I do know many a plastic bag and bottle blew away out of the grasp of our outstretched hands; caught by the wind and sent to an unknown destination.
Convenient to-go packs and individually wrapped single servings are often part of our travels. Gas stations, or “filling stations,” as my Nana called them, were just that many years ago – a place to fill your tank, pump up your tires, buy a quart of oil if you were low or maybe some windshield wiper fluid. A soda vending machine might be found outside or some Lance crackers at the register, but that was about it. Now gas stations have become mini marts, even restaurants. With quick to-go meals – some gas stations are known more for their fried chicken, hoagies or coffee than they are for their gasoline. Or maybe people aren’t stopping for gasoline after all. When Food and Wine features an article ranking the best roadside convenience stores for meals – gasoline isn’t even part of the discussion.
Before there were Wawas and Royal Farms every few miles, people made plans. Travel food wasn’t really a treat, it was packed to sustain you on a long trip. Rest stops were constructed as part of the U.S. interstate highway system that was created in 1956. They were envisioned as off-road spaces where motorists could take a break. Easy to access, they offered clean bathrooms, drinking water and picnic grounds. On a family trip to Western Maryland last year, we pulled over at a rest stop. It was quiet, surrounded by trees, had two bathrooms, some picnic tables and a water fountain. My teenage boys were confused. “Where’s the store?” they asked. My husband and I giggled realizing we had stepped back in time. Although we had been at rest stops many times in our lives, our boys had actually never been to an “old fashioned” rest stop. “No place to buy bubble gum?” they quipped again. I reached into our cooler and threw two apples their way, and my husband and I laughed.
Right around the time rest stops were being built along the interstates another building sprung up among the trees – Howard Johnson’s. Strategically placed along major interstates, Howard Johnson’s was the largest American restaurant chain in the 1950s and 1960s. It seemed that just when you were hungry a Howard Johnson’s would appear – easily recognized by its blaze orange roofs and neon signs. Now, you can’t drive too many miles before seeing a restaurant or convenience store. The word convenience being at the heart of the matter.
Restaurant roadside meals notwithstanding, what about the rise of individually wrapped convenience foods for sale at every store along your travels? What impact do those single serving glossily packaged goodies and bottled refreshments have on our environment? Are the continual manufacturing and purchase of such items a sustainable endeavor? I’m thinking deep down we all know the answer to this. I ask, “Is convenience a circular problem?” Does convenience packaging exist because we need it to, or have we changed our routines because of its extensive availability?
Culturally speaking, Americans love to travel. Whether internationally, state to state or a visit to the next town over. We are on the move, and we are hungry. So, what can Americans constantly on the move and hungry do to curb their insatiable love of convenience? In the near past we somehow made it from one destination to another without individually wrapped convenience foods. We as a society didn’t need it before, why do we need it now? In your travels, take note of how much individually wrapped and packaged items you see along the way. They are everywhere, and I don’t just mean in the stores, all you have to do is look along the roadside and, in our streams and ditches to see how our love of convenience has left its mark.
I love a good cooler. I love them in all shapes and sizes. So much so that my birthday gift last year was a retro picnic cooler in bright 80’s colors. I use it to pack snacks and picnics. Last year, while taking our daughter to school, I vowed we would not buy anything on the highway and I packed lunch in said cooler. We broke down on the interstate around noon – not near any rest stops, or restaurants. I proudly pulled out my cooler filled with lunch and felt like a super hero. It helped that the sandwiches had bacon on them.
When it comes to wrapping sandwiches – zip lock bags are very convenient. I’ll admit I do use them, however, I’m working on ways to use them less. Here are a few ideas for your packed food:
- Use wax paper to wrap sandwiches.
- Bees wax food wraps can be used over and over.
- I’ve wrapped sandwiches in a paper towel, which duels as a napkin.
- Remember the thermos? Great for soup, hot chocolate and coffee.
- Reuse – plastic containers that were single serve can often be washed, dried and used again.
- Pyrex glass containers with lids work well.
- Cloth napkins anyone?
So, back to whether those on-the-water plastic bagged sailing lunches were worth it. What do you think? Next month I discuss boat food and share recipes.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.