One Year Ago: Reminiscing on the Vantastic Voyage


Last November, Jan and I (and our dog Benny) embarked on a month-long cross-country road trip in a van Jan converted into a mini RV. It was the trip of a lifetime—we experienced new things, places, activities, sights and tastes. We lived out of our van and stayed mostly in campgrounds of the national parks. We ate at restaurants and with some friends we visited along the way, but mostly we visited unfamiliar grocery stores and Jan cooked our meals on our wonderful Weber Baby Q.

Our route started in a clockwise direction from Fresno, CA.  A total of 5,341 miles were driven. We returned home the day before Thanksgiving with many good memories and hundreds of photographs.

At camp in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Pizza bread made on the grill
Potato, egg and bacon skillet in Arches National Park, Utah

Fast forward a few months after our return, the trip had a big part in the formation of this blog. Being on the road boiled life down to the simplest things: being with family, enjoying good food, and experiencing new things. When you’re on the road and living out of a van, there isn’t room for much else. Even now that we’re at home, these things remain important to us, which is probably how they transformed themselves into the focus of Our Life in Meals.

Bacon for breakfast in Zion National Park, Utah
Brussels sprouts in the skillet, sausage, and bacon-wrapped pork chops

A discussion of the trip came up recently, as Jan and I stared out our front window and at the van, agreeing that we needed to take another trip with it, and soon. But before we could do that, some reminiscing on the Vantastic Voyage was in order. Here are some highlights in photos:

Barbecued bison for dinner

The plan: In 2004 I drove with a girl friend from San Francisco to Boston in five days. Ever since then, I’d wanted to do another road trip, but this time, taking time to visit all the places off the interstates I’d missed. For a while, I’d thought the best vacation would be to rent an RV and hit the road for a month. I told Jan about my crazy idea and he was game.

Stopping to pick apples outside of Zion National Park, Utah

The van: I started researching RV rentals but found the cost to be ridiculous. Nearly $100 per night plus $.32 per mile in addition to gas for the thing? Jan and I decided a better option would be to purchase a used van to use for the trip, then sell it afterwards. This became Jan’s project. He found a 2002 Dodge Ram Van and proceeded to build the best mini RV I’d ever seen. We did check out the Sportsmobile factory in Fresno to copy their best ideas for a tiny fraction of the cost of the 4×4 Sportsmobiles.

Night before departure, the van is coming together
In the van with the essentials: solar-powered mobile kitchen, bedroom complete with mini blinds, Benny's bed, and barbecue

The trip: I’m a planner. Jan hates having a plan. I acquiesced to the idea that nothing about the trip would be planned except that our turnaround point was going to be the Jack Daniel’s factory in Kentucky, and we had a month to get there and back. We’d just drive and take in the country at our own pace.

Following the laws of the land -- different for each of the seven states!

Of course there were some bumps along the way. We didn’t make it cross country. After driving about a third of the way to the other coast, we realized we’d be driving all day and night while seeing nothing if we were going to make it there and back within a month. Despite the fact that Jan never got to Lynchburg, we did make it one of the best vacations we’ve ever had.

Making s'mores outside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Best burger I've eaten in my life: barbecued by Jan outside of Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
It wasn't just us focused on food: The guide at Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada, called these cave formations "bacon"
Jan assured me more calories were burned in colder temperatures, hence bacon for breakfast daily was not only OK, but necessary

Did we last a month? No. We thought about celebrating Thanksgiving in Las Vegas and slowly making our way back home for the remainder of November, but decided a bigger, better adventure would probably be hosting our first Thanksgiving dinner at home (which we ended up doing, very successfully). Besides, after all the great food we’d eaten along the way, the all-you-can-eat buffet was a bit anticlimactic.

At the Mirage in Las Vegas

Did we get ever mad at each other living in such close quarters? Yes. I really don’t need to say much besides: men, women, and directions. They do not mix well. But then again, if you don’t really plan where you’re going, you can’t ever be lost, right?

The navigator

Would we do it again? Yes. When you sit back and let the road take you where it wants to take you, some fun discoveries are made along the way. For example, Super Wal-Marts were our savior. With grocieries (including bison steaks in Utah!), camping supplies, and a McDonald’s all rolled into one, I changed my standards for what made a good town—if it had a Super Wal-Mart in it, it was a happening and awesome place. After driving for miles and miles and seeing not much besides the desert, the glow of its neon sign became a welcome sight.

Another lesson learned? Throw out the guidebook. I’d scan it on the way to our next destination, excited to see Site A, Museum B, and Restaurant C, only to be disappointed. We’d just happened by the places the ONE day they happened to be closed, or the author made something out to be different than it really was. The best discoveries were the accidental ones, the places we stumbled upon, and the meals we threw together.

Notice the snow behind the Baby Q: Camping in the snow in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Fajitas at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
At the Coors Factory in Golden Colorado, they give you lots of free beer!

One year later, we still have the van. We want to go on one more trip with it before letting it find a new home. Of course, Jan’s got big plans for his next vehicle project. He says four-wheel-drive is required. The only thing on my list is a GPS.

Lederhosen and Lebkuchen

It only started to feel like autumn in Fresno about two weeks ago, and we’ve still got 70 degree days, so it seems only fitting to wait for fall to celebrate Oktoberfest. Since Jan and I knew our attempts at authenticity would just end up as kitschy misrepresentations, we just decided to embrace the silliness and host an Oktoberfest party in November, which we dubbed “Noktoberfest.”

The theme was completed with the perfect outfits – I went to the Halloween store the day after Halloween to score 50 percent off on a costume simply named “Gretchen.” For Jan, we found him some plaid shorts and green suspenders, to which I sewed on ribbon with a heart and flowers pattern, along with a horizontally sewn thick green ribbon to complete the Lederhosen look. And some of my good sport friends joined in the chance to get another wearing out of a former halloween costume.

Pouring Jägermeister, of course

On the menu were sauerkraut potatoes and German sausages. To round out the meal with a good dessert, I decided on German chocolate cupcakes (which I learned weren’t actually from Germany, but instead popularized by a man from England named Sam German. Since we’d already given up on any authenticity with our outfits, this discovery only seemed to fit into the theme perfectly).

Potatoes with sauerkraut, cabbage, sausage, and dark rye bread
German chocolate cupcakes

I also thought it would be fun activity to decorate our own Lebkuchen during the party, which are decorated gingerbread hearts that can be worn during Oktoberfest celebrations. (And yes, I am the nerd who printed out the Wikipedia article and placed it at the decorating table along with some pictures for inspiration.)

I’d never made gingerbread before, so I looked up recipes and settled on one from Paula Deen, to which I made a few modifications. Since I love the lemon flavored Swedish Anna’s Thins, I added some lemon zest to my batter to try and get a bit of that flavor. And since I wasn’t sure how they’d turn out, I did a test run of the cookie dough the weekend before, baking only about five cookies. They were great, so to save myself some time in the next week when I knew I’d be busy, I wrapped the dough in saran wrap, placed it in a zip top bag, and put it in the freezer.

The night before the party, when I was ready to make the cookies, I thawed the dough by placing in under a bowl of running water for about 20 minutes. On a heavily-floured board I used a rolling pin to roll out the cookies to about 1/8” thick. I used a heart shaped cookie cutter, and even though it was smaller than the pictures of Lebkuchen I’d seen online, I figured it would do. I took apart a Bic pen, rinsed the pen body, and used that to make two holes where the string would go in order for us to wear our cookies.

I tested out using my new Silpat silicone mat for the first time, baked the cookies for 10 minutes, and they came out perfectly, sliding off the mat with ease. After cooking on a wire rack, I set them aside for the next day.

Ready for baking
Cooling on a wire rack
Couldn't squeeze "Oktoberfest" onto a cookie, so settled for polka dots

When it came time for the party, we laid out our spread of German, English (the German Chocolate Cake Cupcakes), and Czech food. Our Czech additions were the open-faced sandwiches called chlebíčky (kleb-eech-keh), which we included not only because they’re a part of every holiday celebration in our family, but the Czech Republic does share a border with Germany, so considering all the other themed items, wasn’t too far of a stretch.

Chlebicky = Czech open faced sandwiches


And even though I felt silly for asking my guests to decorate their own gingerbread jewelry only minutes after welcoming them into our home, it seemed that the Lebkuchen hearts were a hit. Suddenly, there was a plate of cookies with icing drying, just waiting to be worn. Later, I looked across the room to see one guest playfully (or hungrily?) taking a bite out of her date’s heart necklace. Everyone was joyful, and I had one guess to why: we had the best of both worlds, transported back to being a kid wearing candy necklaces and playing with our food, but with a cold beer in hand.

Lebkuchen hearts: inspiration and execution

Homemade Hummus

Certain dishes hold an almost legendary status. Everyone probably has a different one that their grandmother, friend, or family member makes. They’ve shared their recipe with you, and yet, your attempts at recreating the original never quite turn out like they should. For me, this recipe has been hummus.

A few years ago, my dad got hummus down to an art. I’d only had restaurant and store-bought versions until he decided he was going to find out the secret behind great hummus. He found it – garlic, and it didn’t take long for us all to start chopping up carrot sticks and pita bread to enjoy it with. Soon, everyone was asking him to make up a batch for parties, bring some over as an appetizer, etc. He even bought a bulk package of these cute little disposable containers to put the hummus in he was giving so much away. And with it, he included the simple recipe on a yellow post-it note each time.

But it didn’t seem to make any difference. I tried to make it on my own, but it never turned out the same. Instead, I’d go over to visit and wait around until he suggested making some for me to take home.

Usually, this method sufficed, but with my dad on vacation, I couldn’t wait any longer for my hummus. I had to give it one last shot. This time, I followed the recipe like I thought I had before. And to my surprise it came out great!

I realized what had been happening in all those other attempts: I’d balked at the sheer volume of garlic in the recipe, and made my own modifications without really realizing it. This time, I squeezed the cloves of fresh garlic through the garlic press one at a time, and threw them all in. (I was desperate for some good hummus!)

The surprise result? It turned out just like dad’s famous hummus. He always swore that the secret was the garlic, but I think I was holding back, afraid of overdoing it. The garlic is needed to add some bite to the earthy flavor of the garbanzo beans and tahini (a paste of ground sesame seeds, available at Mediterranean food markets). And the addition of the sumac (another Mediterranean spice) gives it a rich, authentic flavor.

I got out some crunchy pita chips to enjoy the result: smiles served up with some serious garlic breath.

Dad’s famous hummus

print recipe

  • 16 oz can garbanzo beans (chick peas)
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon tahini
  • 1/4 teaspoon sumac
  1. Drain and rinse garbanzo beans in a colander.
  2. Use a garlic press to crush the garlic cloves.
  3. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth.

Girls Gone Camping

I recently got a valuable lesson reinforced to me: girls can do anything! Ok, well, I suppose I knew that already, but when it came to camping in the woods, I wasn’t convinced until a friend said she wanted to forgo the traditional bachelorette party in favor of a girl’s camping weekend. I love camping, and go whenever I get the opportunity, but could us girls do it on our own? Would we want to?

I campaigned to the girls, citing the best part of camping was having the guys do everything for us, set up the tents, make the fire, scare away bears, etc. Continue reading