Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

We weren’t supposed to be there, neither were most of the others.

But there we were early in September at the bottom of the Grand Canyon rocking and rolling through the famous rapids — two dozen in one day — during our week-long Western River Expeditions raft trip, setting up cots to sleep under the stars, breakfasting on pork chops one day (a company tradition) and chowing down on grilled trout and asparagus another night. There was even a chocolate Dutch oven cake for my birthday.

Pork chops for breakfast? Who knew?
Pork chops for breakfast? Who knew?

We were relieved not to hear any news and laughed about being on “river time.” But we sure did care about what and when we were eating, suitably impressed when the guides served up homemade coffeecake for breakfast; shrimp cocktail and steaks on our last night for dinner, tuna salad fashioned into tortilla “cones” for lunch.

One of our guides joked that guests seemed more impressed by their wilderness cooking skills than their ability to navigate the rafts through the tricky rapids, which required tremendous skill.

Why was it this year that food seemed to take on special importance? Perhaps because so much else was canceled and out of our control. Certainly, people say where and how they eat is a memorable part of a vacation. But this pandemic year, of course, that didn’t mean trendy bistros or the latest themed options in theme park lands.

Vacationers we met felt safer opting for take-out, cooking for themselves, as we did (our Yeti cooler came in especially handy on a 3,000-mile road trip), seeking out local farmers’ markets where it was often necessary to wait on line to prevent crowds.

Carlos Cardova produces two nice-sized conch from Belize's barrier reef
Carlos Cardova produces two nice-sized conch from Belize’s barrier reef

Likely because we are stuck at home, I’ve been thinking about once-in-a-lifetime outdoor meals we’ve enjoyed on vacation. For example, in Belize, a few years ago, we were privileged to stay at the private island resort Cayo Espanto, a good bet for social distancing at any time as you stay in private villas catered to by your own staff. Belize is famous for its immense barrier reef and at the edge, in the clear water, we went fishing for snapper and looked for conch, passing. all varieties of tropical fish. When we had some, our 22-year-old guide, Carlos Cordova, gave us a lesson in making conch ceviche, the island’s most popular appetizer, cutting off the meat in small pieces, soaking it in lime to “cook.” He added peppers, onions, tomato and cilantro before adding spices – salt, pepper, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, maybe a little hot sauce. “Everyone makes it differently,” he explained. The snapper my husband caught was prepared by the chef for our private dinner later. Nice!

Just before the pandemic, last January, I met my oldest girlfriends for our annual getaway, this time to a beach front villa in Discovery Bay, Jamaica, owned and used by the Stewart family who own Sandals Resorts International. The villa is rented through the Sandals-owned Your Jamaican Villas and couldn’t be further from the experience of the popular all-inclusive Beaches and Sandals resorts.

Even before the pandemic upended our lives, families were seeking a more intimate experience, our meals prepared and served outdoors by our chef, Shanque Witter, trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. She treated us to the local fruit Ackee for breakfast, prepared with peppers, onions and bacon. There was also jerk chicken and shrimp, an assortment of freshly baked bread and traditional bread pudding for dessert. I’d love to return with my family. They would love all the watersports, as well as the food.

Ackee for breakfast
Ackee for breakfast in Jamaica

There is nothing better than a breakfast of extra-crispy bacon, eggs and pancakes cooked outdoors in a clearing, complete with chuckwagon and campfire. We experienced this pleasure after an early-morning horseback ride at Flathead Lake Lodge in Montana, which has been run by the Averill family for the past 75 years. “The breakfast ride is my favorite thing at the ranch. Breakfast tastes so much better,” said Sydney Byrne, 17, here with her family from Las Vegas.

Sadly, many families won’t be able to gather for that special Christmas meal, Hannukah latkes, cookie swaps, parties or special holiday restaurant brunches or that annual visit to take in the decorations at Disneyland or New York. But with the vaccine coming, we can think about where we have been — and where we hope to go in the future.

And like other families, we did have unexpected adventures and memorable meals — though not in restaurants — like in the Grand Canyon. Typically, these trips book more than a year in advance. (Western River Expeditions is now taking reservations for 2022.) Because of the pandemic, many had to postpone their long-planned trip, leaving space for those like us and others who jumped at the chance to return to raft the Grand Canyon again. “It’s different every time,” explained Californian Larry England.

In the end, no one minded switching vacation plans or the additional health and safety protocols for the chance to get outdoors away from home having someone else cook for them in remote settings. I’m still thinking about the fish boil and veggie paella prepared over an open fire at a hilltop cabin at Flathead Lake Lodge. The kids were happily engaged elsewhere.

“The best vacation I’ve ever had,” enthused one of the riders.

Here’s to lots more memorable meals in 2021.

©2020 Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.