In May of 2020, amidst a world that seemed out of control, a phenomenon occurred. During stay-at-home orders, many of us took to our kitchens and backyards to create meals, source food and plant new seeds. People began to find connection, gratification and a sense of purpose in flour-spattered countertops, dirt-covered hands and seed-sprouted earth.
Our brain and muscles find space to rest when we slow down and focus in on one of our basic needs for life—food. It creates space for our brain to process everything it has taken in—to digest events and experiences. Turning the TV off, closing out Instagram and rolling out sourdough creates space for us in the present moment. On an Outward Bound expedition, boiling water, chopping vegetables and rehydrating beans does the same for our minds and our beings.
Food is an intimate part of each of our stories. What we eat connects us to our ancestral heritage, has the power to create lasting memories and fundamentally draws us back to the land we rely on.
Pandemic Gardens: A Look Into Our Desire for Connection
In this NPR article, Jennifer Atkinson, a senior lecturer in environmental studies at the University of Washington, said in response to people gardening during the pandemic—nicknamed pandemic gardens: “People have always gardened in hard times, but food is only one part of that story…what people are starved for right now isn’t food, but contact with something real.”
On Outward Bound expeditions, we often see this same starvation for connection in the eyes of our students whether they recognize it or not. We all have a longing for true, authentic connection—with ourselves, with others and with the world we live in. As an organization whose educational model includes deep roots in experiential growth and strong group dynamics, we have the privilege of seeing students come in contact with these various forms of connection in new ways.
One way we see this is similar to the way we’ve all found connection recently is through the simplicity of food sourcing and a shared meal. It sounds simple and insignificant in the grand scheme of an outdoor expedition, or in the magnitude of a pandemic, but as Jennifer Atkinson pointed out, it’s the junction that occurs in our being that we crave, when our hands meet dirt and our eyes take in the people around us. This is especially true when the present and future seem unknown.
Food for Thought
In 2018, I spent 50 days on an Outdoor Educator expedition. I saved up for the expedition by working in a kitchen for nine months leading up to it. I found a sense of peace in the simple rhythmic pattern of chopping vegetables, mixing soups and creating dishes for others. That same pattern transferred into my life when I was on my course; each time I stepped into the role of backcountry chef, I discovered a place of thought to sit, process and take in the extraordinary, hard, beautiful days I was living out in the wilderness.
Expedition meals come at times of weariness and exhaustion, and because of that they tend to hold distinct memories for each student. They’re modest—breakfast usually resembles a warm bowl of oatmeal, lunch: PB and Jelly or tuna wraps, and dinner: a fixing of pesto pasta, spicy Thai noodles or rice and beans. Ask any Instructor or alum, and they’ll tell you those meals hold a special place in their hearts. Why? Because it was those meals that the rest of the day revolved around—the moments of risk, decision, leadership and hard work. Those meals, literally and figuratively, nurture students with the ability to embrace a new day’s adventure and create space to process a day’s accomplishments and journey.
Between the summit attempts, the early morning portages, the trust belays, camp set-ups, and every new experience there is to be had, expedition meals provide moments of comfort, community and growth in students and in a crew.
Tables of Connection
The last night of Finals is one of my favorite memories from my expedition. During Finals, Instructors step away from the scene and task crews to work together to navigate, lead and arrive at their final destination using all the skills they’ve learned. Instructors trail behind to make sure everyone is safe but don’t engage with the crew. It’s a hard and rewarding experience for crews that bond them deeply to each other.
On my crew’s last night of Finals, we arrived at the designated shoreline we had mapped out as the final campsite of our time in the backcountry. We were blistered, dirty and needless to say…exhausted. After setting up our tents, putting on fresh socks and passing around handfuls of Sour Patch Kids, we started cooking on the rocky shore together. It was bittersweet. We were ready to be done with our last miles, but we also were savoring our last moments as a crew. We had gotten to camp early, which allowed us to watch the sun set over the lake as we cut veggies, stirred noodles and dished out our final helping of Pad Thai. As we sat circled together, on that pebbled beach, we soaked in the present. Our bellies filled with the warmth and nutrients our physical bodies needed, while our emotional and social beings were filled with the connection we had grown to find in each other. We sat reminiscing on the frustrating, hard, low moments and the extraordinarily, joy-filled, sun-soaked high moments of our time together. As the sun sank down into the horizon, that pebbled beach became the dinner table of connection for our crew that had become family.
Preparing, serving and sharing food has a way of doing that. A way of inviting space for people to feel at home wherever “home” might be for the night. It breaks down walls and creates a sense of connection that’s hard to replicate at a restaurant. A dinner table prepared for the exact people who are there in that moment, to be there, to be seen and to be heard.
For many of us, our dinner table changed back in March. Our guest lists got smaller and in that, deeper. Around tables we were forced to process the hard and the good with ourselves and our closest people. An experience not to be lost in the midst of change.
Sources of Growth
One final way food connects our students is by nature. Whether if it’s in the sourcing of stream water to boil dehydrated dinners, discovering fresh berries along a trail to create a crumble or by harvesting vegetables at a local community garden as part of a service project—students become more intertwined with the natural world. Not only are they spending every day amidst it, but they’re also spending fundamental time rooted in it—sourcing, harvesting. They learn the relationship between humans and nature.
For many students, these interactions become fundamental experiences that impact the way they interact with the environment for years to come. A connection all of us could benefit from but often hard to come by in everyday life…until recently.
As you know and as the world has seen, we’ve begun to return to the kitchen, to the table and most importantly, to the land. There’s so much hard, necessary work to be done in the world, but I’d like to argue we’re on the right track when we take time to connect with ourselves, our communities and the land around us. There are a lot of lessons to be learned and I think a few of those can be learned over food, around a dinner table and quite possibly in the backcountry.
About the Author
Charis Nichols is the Content Coordinator for the Outward Bound Services Group. She thrives on four key elements: community, adventure, strategic design and breakfast burritos. During the warm months she can be found floating down rivers and when it’s cold, hiking and skiing in the mountains.
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