Why I Write About Food 013: Michael van Vliet and Megan McDuffie of Fresh Off the Grid

Michael and Megan quit their day jobs, sold their belongings and packed up their hatchback to embark on a year-long road trip across North America. And they are writing about it along the way, specifically about what they eat and cook, giving us a glimpse of what life is like on the road and how tasty nutritious food is possible even with limited resources.

Tell us about Fresh Off the Grid. 
Fresh Off the Grid is a camp cooking and travel blog written from the road. We are currently on an indefinite road trip across the US and Canada, and we're using Fresh Off the Grid to document our culinary creations and outdoor exploration. We hope to build a practical and inspirational resource for anyone who enjoys eating well underneath the starry night sky. After working traditional 9-to-5 jobs for the past seven years, we spent a long time wishing we could figure out a location-independent form of work. We absolutely love traveling and can't imagine spending our lives working behind a desk in the hopes of exploring the world once we retire. This blog is our attempt to take back our lives and spend our time doing what we love: cooking delicious food and exploring new places together. 

Why do you write about food? Why is it important for you to keep a blog about cooking while on the road?
When we're exploring the outdoorswhether we're backpacking, car camping or going on a day hikeyou'd be surprised how much time we spend thinking about food. Being out in nature can provoke a lot of deep existential thoughts (and we do plenty of that too) but if you could see the thought bubble floating over our heads, it would probably be of a slice of pizza or a taco. When you remove the routines of modern life and get back to a very simple way of living, you uncover a completely different way of thinking about food. Back when we lived in an apartment in Los Angeles, food was abundant. We had a fully stocked refrigerator, freezer and multiple cabinets full of food. We lived a walking distance from a Trader Joe's and had literally hundreds of take-out options. 

Life on the road is different. We're operating on a limited budget and with limited supplies, which makes food somewhat of a scarcity. When we are out camping and we burn whatever we were planning on having for dinner, we can't just order delivery. In this way, the true value of food as an essential form of sustenance has become a lot more apparent to us. At the same time, we have also developed a new appreciation for cooking. When we used to cook at home, we would only be excited when we were trying out some new creative recipe, but most of the time cooking dinner was just something that had to be done. Now, every meal is something we eagerly look forward to. And sitting down at the end of the day to share a meal together has never felt so satisfying. 

Describe your outdoor cooking station.
We sort of have two "kitchen" setups, one for car camping and one for backpacking. For car camping we use a two-burner Coleman stove, a 10" cast iron skillet, a 10" cast iron camping dutch oven, and a variety of household kitchen tools like knives and measuring cups. Meals from this kitchen tend to look similar to things we used to make at home, but they are usually stripped down a little, use fewer ingredients, require fewer steps, and minimize the number of dishes we need to clean afterwards! 

For backpacking, we have a one burner MSR pocket rocket stove and a lightweight Snow Peak titanium pot. These meals are stripped way, way down. Typically they involve some quick-boiling grain or starch (like couscous, ramen noodles, instant mashed potatoes) along with some form of protein (jerky, canned fish, nuts). Everything must be made in a single pot and use as little fuel as possible. We love to eat, but we also love a light pack when hiking to the top of a mountain!  

Do you have a meal plan? 
Since we carry limited supplies with us, our "meal plan" only extends out about two or three days. Even then, it can be pretty loose. We are traveling without an ice chest (they are fine for weekend trips, but not worth the hassle for extended travel) which means any fresh ingredients we pick up, we have to cook immediately.

Do locations influence the recipes you cook? 
What's truly amazing about Fresh Off the Grid is that we're constantly traveling (albeit relatively slowly). So our experiences in a location really guides our recipe development process. The country is so vast and the regional food so diverse, it only makes sense to make the most of what's around. We made marionberry s'mores when we were in coastal Oregon and a no-bake apple cobbler during the apple harvest in Washington state. We are currently traveling through the American southwest and plan to eat our weight in green chiles. We really want to immerse ourselves in an area, and one of the best ways we've found to do that is through food. 

What are you currently reading? 
For a couple traveling on the road, we read a lot of blogs. There's just a ton of inspirational stuff out there, and our cell batteries are usually dead before we have to chance to check all of it. Currently we've been following Tiny House, Tiny Footprint (they have a wonderful perspective on life and alternative living), She Explores (her interviews of female travelers are a constant source of inspiration), My New Roots (Sarah's focus on ingredients and their impact on health have us constantly re-examining the building blocks of cooking) and Natural Girl Modern World (the photography is absolutely beautiful and Brianne always has a unique take with her recipes).  

As for books, Megan is currently reading Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. Not one typically for self help books, Megan listened to a TED talk by Brene Brown and picked up this book the next day. It's a challenging book about authenticity, vulnerability and courage, which has really been a great read during a life change like we recently went through. Michael is currently reading A Sportsman's Sketches by Ivan Turgenev because he's weird and likes heavy 19th century Russian literature as thick as blackstrap molasses.
What's your favorite recipe on Fresh Off the Grid?
We have a lot of favorites depending on what mood we're in, however we're currently pretty jazzed about this Sweet Potato and Peanut Stew. We originally saw this recipe in the Oh She Glows cookbook, but we had to make a couple of adaptions in order to make it more camping friendly. The chunky sweet potato, creamy peanut butter broth, and a smoky chili aroma has been the perfect dinner for us out here in the desert at Borrego Palm Canyon.

Question from Nancy and Amber of The Whisk and The Spoon: Food blogs are a time gobbler. What are your tips for time management? (Click here to read Nancy and Amber's interview)
Dear Lord, we wish we knew the answer to this! Given our current "on the road" mobile lifestyle, it feels like we're running a food blog on Expert Mode. We don't have room to buy supplies in bulk, we're often miles away from a store if we forget something, any recipe we cook we have to eat (even the epic fails), we can only carry five gallons of water with us at a time, the weather frequently doesn't cooperate (rain, wind, harsh lighting), WiFi is something we have to search for, cell service is spotty, and we are constantly running out of battery on our laptops, the list goes on and on. 

So how do we deal with all these challenges? We're getting better and better at time management, but we've by no means perfected it. While it can be helpful to make a detailed schedule, when the unexpected happens (for example, "Great, now it's raining" or "I just spilled the last of the xyz") we need to be able to adapt. There are just so many variables, so many ways for the day to go wrong, we'd be lying if we said we had a system to account for all of them. We schedule what we can ("Today's a shoot day"), we come up with contingencies when we're able ("Okay, maybe today's not a shoot day after all. Let's go to a coffee shop and work"), but the important thing is to at least track what needs to be done, at least write it all down. When you commit to tracking something, you'll find a way to get it done. We've tried a few different systems, but the one we're currently loving is Trello.

Visit Michael and Megan's website at www.freshoffthegrid.com
Recommended Recipes:
Hazelnut Marionberry S'more

No Bake Apple Bourbon Cobbler
Sweet Potato and Peanut Stew

INTERVIEW BY CHRISTINE LEONG. PHOTOS BY FRESH OFF THE GRID.

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