I can go two weeks without sleeping in my own bed, but I can’t go two weeks without cooking.
I’m a budget traveler, so I prefer staying with friends or, at the very least, an Airbnb with access to a kitchen. I feel pampered in a hotel, but after a few days without the ability to prepare food for myself, I start to get a little blue.
Having a stove and a fridge when you’re traveling is convenient and saves money, and cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen is a challenge I’ve come to enjoy when I’m on the road — not unlike that scary-excited feeling when I get turned around in a train station and must ask someone for directions.
In that light fog of uncertainty and newness, you have to dig into your mental toolbox to solve the familiar problem of feeding yourself in a new way.
After you figure out where the kitchen’s primary mathematician stores his or her utensils, pots, pans and the like, not to mention which appliances are hidden under the counter and how much shelf space is available in the fridge, then comes my favorite part of the equation: hitting up the local markets to buy ingredients that might not look anything like they do at home or entirely new ones that you just can’t resist trying.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy eating out at restaurants in any given city. As my colleague Matthew Odam writes in his Feed to Go travel series, you can’t really get to know a city without eating at its food trucks, coffee shops, food halls and ice creameries. But I don’t really enjoy a vacation until I have access to a kitchen and a market and can reclaim some of that personal agency over feeding myself.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been on the road for Camp Mom, an adventure with my kids to visit friends and family in the Pacific Northwest.
I cooked quiches in my friend Rachel’s Portland, Ore., kitchen, where the window above her sink frames backyard roses, raspberries and a hammock hung between two trees. After a few days in the city, I knew the neighborhood — and the contents of her fridge — well enough to borrow her car to hit the grocery store for milk, bread, eggs and enough Washington cherries to feed her kids, my kids and all the adults coming through their house over the course of the week. (We weren’t their only visitors last month.)
A few days later, while we camped among the lush ferns and towering pines of Mount Hood National Forest, my other sister-from-another-mother, Erin, and I made foil-wrapped potatoes, carrots, onions and veggie sausage, and by breakfast the next day I was using her camping gear as if it were my own.
My biological sister’s tiny kitchen in Boise, Idaho, is well-used by her family of four, so when my two sons and I showed up, we got along like the seven dwarfs. (One of the kids is always Grumpy, and I’m usually Sleepy.)
After nearly half a dozen trips up there, Chelsea and I stepped back into the familiar dance of feeding all four of our children, ages 3 to 10, who might as well star in their own version of “Seriously, You Have to E at.”
Outnumbered by kids, we usually defer to their tastes, making macaroni and cheese with broccoli, frozen pizza, garlic chicken and buttered spaghetti. As long as we have Parmesan cheese and endless granola bars, we are happy campers.
On this trip, we headed up into the mountains to stay at a cabin whose kitchen was nearly the size of my sister’s living room. We took advantage of it, spreading out in ways we can’t at either of our homes.
But standing there, washing yet another bowl with a halo of dried milk near the bottom, I realized that even the not-so-fun parts of cooking while on vacation have, for me, become an integral part of picking up and hitting the road.
When traveling abroad, especially when I’m on my own and can clock 8 miles of walking in a day, I relish having a place to store leftovers and novel grocery products I discover in the supermarkets and where I can cook late-night meals or early breakfasts when I’m fighting jet lag.
The whole point of a trip is to get outside your comfort zone and learn how to find ease and enjoyment in a new environment, no matter the circumstances.
That’s a hard task for families with young kids, but every summer, millions of us do it, cramming into hotels, RVs, overnight trains and vacation rentals on the beach. We give up our creature comforts, and I couldn’t imagine doing it without a fridge and somewhere to fry an egg.
Sometimes this means you have to take your coffee with someone else’s creamer of choice or burn a few bagels before you figure out the settings on the toaster oven, but it gives you a new appreciation for the wonky blender, your beat-up saute pan, that one funky spatula and even the expired milk that greet you when you get back home.