Thursday, February 12, 2015

Feeding the Musher, meals for the Iditarod

Travis Beals of Turning Heads Kennels is getting ready for the Iditarod and for most of our small minds, "getting ready" means training hard with the dogs, covering miles and miles of trails, followed by campouts under the stars for practice.  In reality, there is lot more to it than that.   Sarah Stokey's great blog on the Turning Heads website can give a good look at what's involved in gearing up for a thousand miles and two race starts for sixteen dogs and musher.  Madelyn and I are all excited about our friend Travis' third go at the trail, and we put our kitchen where our mouth is and took over feeding the musher during the race.
     We have noticed over the years that although the mushers plan every detail of their dogs' diet, the musher's food is often a last minute thrown together collection of whatever is handy.  Not good.  Madelyn decided that this year we needed to help out with feeding Travis on the trail and then few weeks ago, she decided that we needed to take over the musher food altogether.  So, the Walker kitchen has been rockin' rollin' this week.  
      First we met with Sarah and Travis to talk about menus and packing and the eating routine on the trail.  It turns out that the mushers usually pack sealed meals that they can drop in the heating dog water and then open and eat after their dogs are fed and resting.  This meant cooking, freezing then vacuum sealing high calorie, appetizing food this is easy for a tired, dehydrated, trail-worn musher to consume and digest.  
       If you haven't watched mushers work or driven a dog team yourself, you might not know what a physically demanding activity it is to be a dog driver on the the Iditarod.  These athlete have to be tough as their dogs, operate on less sleep, and perform with no one to feed them massage their aching joints, pull of their boots and tuck them in like the dogs do.  When they reach the checkpoint, the dogs lie down and wait for food while the musher without so much as a drink of water or a trip to the head spend the next hour more tending their dogs like a personal butler.  I think many a musher has fallen back or had to drop out because he/she was the weak link on the team.   Anyway, Madelyn wanted to make sure that Travis have plenty of high powered tasty food waiting in each of his drop bags that was easy to get to eat and with some snack to stick in his pockets for later.
       We made a plan to produce or collect 35-40 meals which we would freeze and vacuum seal then pack in gallon plastic bags with additional snacks so that each time Travis pick up dog food he also had food for him,  some of which could be eaten immediately like a Madelyn's cookie bar or Christan McLain's peanut butter fudge.  Others, like Trio bars or Snickers, (courtesy of Major Marine Tours) could be stuffed in a pocket for trail snacks.  Mushers all pack drop bags that are delivered to the checkpoints along the trail.  These bags have things like dog food, extra booties,  headlamp batteries, and clean socks.   They will also have packages of food Travis can prepare when he feeds his dogs or keep in the sled bag to use later.   When the dogs are chowing down on kibble and salmon stew, Travis can dine on Chinooks smoked scallop mac and cheese, Moose Muse seven layer bars, homemade lasagna, or his favorite, a couple slices of pepperoni pizza.  

        The pizza was a challenge because all the food has to be frozen, and the only dependable way to reheat food on the trail is in the dog food cooker.  This means the pizza has to live through freezing and rewarming in a vacuum sealed retort.  I was sure there was a way to make this work, and I opened my own personal test kitchen.  With a fresh baked pizza to experiment with, I cut and froze the pizza then wrapped pieces in foil or cellophane and vacuum sealed them and stored them in the freezer.  Reheated in boiling water for a few minutes the foil wrapped slice came out quite nicely.  The dough was firm and tasty and the sauce intact and not messy.  The cellophane pieces tasted fine but the cellophane formed a skin that had to be cut into with a knife making that a messy hassle.  The foil method is a success, and I am confident now that somewhere down the trail, Travis is going to enjoy a tasty treat of hot pepperoni pizza and be envy of the dog lot.  
      But, as they say on TV, Wait, there's More!  Beside pepperoni pizza, Seward's Eureka Pizza donated wonderful chicken and spinach stromboli, and meaty pasta salad; Peking Restaurant gave fried rice and their famous Mongolian beef.   Travis will feast on  breakfast sandwiches and energy bars, meatballs with pasta or sausage and potatoes, he'll snack on smoked salmon and seven layer bars, and, of course, the old dependable peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  
       At this point, we have to admit that this is a big experiment and Travis is our Guinea pig.  Only after the race will we know if we picked food that would entice him to eat, if we packed in a way that may it easy to stoke his furnace,  and if we really can serve pizza on the Iditarod trail.    More on all of this later when we debrief the Iditarod food fest.