Jackfruit coconut oatmeal, vegan dan dan noodles, hazelnut marionberry s’mores. Sounds like R&D for a globally-inspired pop-up, right? Turns out these dishes are just typical fare for Megan McDuffie and Michael van Vliet, the food-obsessed, mad scientists behind Fresh Off The Grid, a camp cooking and outdoor lifestyle blog. And the newest contributors to Fireside’s spring camping menu!
Megan and Michael have been on the road for seven months now, running their gastronomic experiments while zig-zagging across America’s campground in their plucky, forest green Ford Focus. We asked them to tell us a bit more about Fresh Off The Grid—what inspires them, what determines their next move, and, naturally, how the heck they produce such culinary feats while camping in the middle of nowhere.
Let’s start with the basics. How did you get into camp cooking?
Megan McDuffie: We really enjoy cooking at home. Food is what fuels us—it gives us energy to do all the things we love, whether that’s biking, hiking, or climbing. We got into camp cooking because we’d be out exploring and didn’t want to radically change our diet. Unfortunately a lot of the resources we found were kind of junky. The recipes were great for a weekend, but if you were planning something longer, like what we’re doing now, it wasn’t sustainable.
Michael van Vliet: If you’re a regular camper, you get tired of the classics: your chili mac, beans and franks, and so on. You want to branch out. We’re trying to come up with meals that you would eat at home but we’re adapting them, stripping them down so they work in the field. They could be made by backpackers, car campers, people staying in cabins, on boats, even just folks who have small kitchens.
Was that the driving motivation to create the Fresh Off The Grid blog?
MM: FOTG was born at end of a road trip we did in April 2015. We drove from LA to Portland and back in 10 days, and had a really hard time figuring out what to eat. We were camping the whole time, and we had to get creative with our meals. At home we’d turn to food blogs for inspiration, but there weren’t a lot of recipes that didn’t involve a cooler. That’s when we got the idea for the blog: How can we make creative camp meals that don’t involve a cooler, that are low-tech?
MV: Right. With food blogs, there was always a caveat. You need an oven. This dish requires 17 ingredients. We saw an opportunity to create something camping-focused with real world limitations in mind.
MM: Food is the great unifier. Everyone’s got to eat, and most people get excited about their next meal, especially if they’re camping or backpacking.
FOTG has grown quickly and gained quite a following. How has that impacted your life?
MV: People are connecting with the real world application of the meals we’re making. The best part of this trip so far as been meeting people, folks who start off commenting on a post, then switch to messaging us, then emailing… then it turns out we’re driving through their neck of the woods, so we’re going to stay at their place and hang out. The beautiful part about social media is when you make it real, when you transcend the numbers, the stupid metrics, and get to connect face to face.
Tell us more about the trip.
MM: We left our jobs at the end of July, sold most of our possessions, and hit the road form LA. We went up the coast, visited San Francisco, Mount Shasta, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Jasper National Park in Alberta, Banff, and then came down the Rockies, circling back to LA for the holidays. Recently, we’ve been tooling around the southwest.
MV: It was a pretty fast pace, but we’ve slowed down a lot since coming to Arizona.
How much of the trip was planned and how much did you leave to chance?
MM: We knew we wanted to see Jasper and Alberta, and that we wanted to get there before it got snowy. That was the main driver. Other than that, we got a lot inspiration from friends.
MV: And recently, from followers on Instagram! We’ve been crowdsourcing a bit, and it’s really where you get some interesting insights. There’s only so much you get from a Google search. We got a tip to go to Borrego Springs, then were told we had to stop at a hot springs outside of Brawley. From there, we were advised to drive to the Organ Pipe Cactus in the Sonoran desert. Then we headed to Tucson, to Saguaro National Park, then up to Sedona.
What does an average day look like, if there is such a thing?
MM: There is, actually! We have three kinds of average days. The first is a travel/relocation day, where we’re just trying to get from point A to point B. Involves a lot of driving, looking for a campsite, that kind of thing. Then we have exploring days—hiking, walking around a city, or doing something active. Finally, there are work days, where we write the FOTG blog, freelance content creation, shoot photos, test recipes, etcetera. These are the times where we’re holed up in a coffeeshop all day. For a while we tried to do all three activities in one day, but that got stressful. Now we try to focus on doing one thing every day, and doing it well—whether that’s exploring and playing, moving, or working.
MV: The one unifying factor is coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.
Speaking of which, let’s indulge in some snobbery. What’s your preferred method?
MV: Ha. We’re currently using an Aeropress with a Porlex coffee grinder. We grind our beans first thing, then use Snow Peak insulated mugs to keep our coffee warm throughout the morning. We had those enameled coffee mugs, before, but the coffee got cold really quickly.
For folks who are just started to get their feet wet with camping, what are some of your top tips for cooking in the outdoors?
MM: My number one tip is to try whatever you’re going to cook at home first. Camp cooking is higher stakes. You can’t order take out if it all goes horribly wrong. Focus on a couple of dishes instead of a multi-course meal. Maybe some of those dishes are really simple—grilled vegetables for example.
MV: And you can’t predict the conditions—sometimes it’s windier than you anticipated, or colder, or you don’t have enough water—so if pays off to have a strong foundation of making things at home. When you get out there, you’ll be able to adapt. Try to identify one pot meals. You get a big bang for your buck if you make everything at the same time, the overall cook time is reduced, and you’ve eliminated extra dishes.
MM: I’d say it’s also important to keep your own tastes in mind. Just because you’re going on a camping trip, it doesn’t mean that your palate is going become more adventurous. Try and adapt what you love at home for the outdoors. Your tastes won’t change just because the scenery does.
What’s happening in the FOTG lab these days?
MV: We’re tinkering with a couple of backpacking-friendly recipes—lower weight, higher calorie stuff. We’re also trying to demo a few things that you can prepare the night before so the meal is ready for you at lunch the next day.
You quit your jobs before starting this journey. How did you get to the point where you could afford to live on the road? How are you guys funding this?
MM: We definitely saved up to go on this trip. We met three years ago, and that first day, we had an hour-long conversation about how we both wanted to travel and for an extended period of time. I don’t think we planned on a road trip, but we’ve been saving for a couple of years. That being said, we were trying to make a plan to continue making money while on the road. We were not planning on just burning through our savings.
MV: We’ve been experimenting with making money on the road and FOTG has helped with that, but it’s been a bit of a “jump in the water, then figure out how to swim” situation. We’re actively trying to make this work, and we’d like to keep going as long as we can. We recently starting publishing resources that explain more on how we’re doing this.
You mean like how you’ve just started sharing your expenses publicly, right?
MM: Yeah, one of the things we hadn’t expected was the significant social following we gained. We’ve had a lot of people saying, “Hey, you guys have inspired me to do this big trip.” We realized that we were publishing a lot of aspirational content, showing our lives on the road, enjoying the outdoors, etcetera. We decided if we were inspiring people to make life decisions, we needed to give them the full picture.
If you’re looking through Instagram, it’s easy to see the beautiful, bright side of things, but there’s a reality that things cost money—you’ve got your living expenses, food, health insurance and so on. We wanted to bring some realism to the picture, but to also show how life on the road is an attainable goal if you have either the savings or an income you can maintain.
MV: We wanted to give people inspirational views and practical information to empower them to make good decisions. Sometime these wanderlust or travel accounts are misleading, like, hey, you can just quit you job and live on the road, everything will just fall into place! And that’s not the case.
We’re thrilled that FOTG has created so many new recipes in our spring camping menu. What’s your favorite addition to the Fireside menu?
MV: For the car-camping menu, we have this beef stroganoff that I took the lead on. It’s a one pot dish, a meal made in a cast iron pan. When you get into dehydrated meals, there’s this lore around what constitutes the best version of beef stroganoff. I wanted to come up with recipe that was simple, but actually used real, fresh ingredients.
For the backpacking menu, we came up with this pork-fried rice that I love. It’s got this delicious pork jerky, quick cooking rice, veggies, and a little bit of rehydrated eggs that are pre-scrambled. That one was really flavorful and fun to test. We wanted to bring some variety to the traditional backpacking fare and move away from the the overly salted stuff.
What is the one piece of cooking gear that you can’t live without?
MV: The dutch oven! We use it for everything—pancakes, baked chicken, cobbler. It opens up a lot of options.
You’re cooking an impressive variety of meals but you’re somewhat restricted on storage space, right? Tell us more your current mode of transport…
MV: So, most people, most reasonable people, do road trips like these in a van or something with a trailer, something that has a little living space in it.
But you chose a different path.
MV: Yes. We’re doing it in my Ford Focus Hatchback from 2000.
MV: It is not the most reasonable vehicle. However, it was the vehicle we had. I’ve owned this car since I was sixteen. It’s got 222,000 miles on it.
In planning the trip, we kept getting held up by the amount of money needed to buy the right vehicle—a VW Westfalia or a Mercedes Sprinter van or something with this whole build-out on the inside of it. Because that’s what people say it’s all about. But when we looked around, it was all really expensive, even the old VW vans from the seventies that have a million miles on them and are falling apart, even they still cost a lot!
We started thinking, well, if what we really want is to have the experience of traveling and seeing new places, and not just have the coolest, rolling apartment on four wheels, then maybe we could do it in the car.
So we looked at different ways of making it work and came up with a solution. We’d remove the backseats and replace them with these boxes, then put down a four or five inch foam mattress. I’m 6’5” and I’m able to lay down completely flat in the back. It takes about five minutes to set up, less time than a tent. Sleeping in car actually has been really nice. If it’s windy or cold, or if you’re in bear country, it’s very comforting to be in a vehicle.
Does your car have a name?
MV: It does not. My running theory is that if I personify the car too much, if it has a name, that’s when it’s going to die. It’ll become this huge emotional thing. It needs to remain The Car and it will keep running… maybe forever.
We’ll cheers to that. Our new spring camping menu, which features FOTG’s amazing contributions, launches this Monday. Better get those sporks ready.
About Fresh Off The Grid
Fresh Off The Grid focuses on minimalist recipes with maximalist flavor. Their dishes take little time to prep, and rarely require bothersome equipment like coolers. Have a look at the fruits of their exhaustive culinary experiments on the road. It’s impressive.
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