Off Track

The Omnivore’s Real Dilemma:
Eat to Ski or Ski to Eat?

by Jimmie Vanden Brook 

Middle of the pack, middle American boomers like me remember a childhood when food was primarily fuel. How my mother, who is really quite a good cook, kept seven physically active kids fed is a real wonder. Her talents were largely lost on us at the time. Quantity trumped fine cuisine especially given my five fast-forked brothers. My sister was mostly just bemused by her voracious siblings.

The only gourmet chef on TV was Julia. No Rachael Ray and no Emeril. The Galloping Gourmet, who showed up later, mainly just sloshed wine over everything, including himself. Vegetarians existed but we didn’t know any.

At that time my undiscerning palate put food into two classes: the edible, and the inedible, which consisted of one item that recurred on Fridays, tuna noodle casserole. The idea was to eat, eat fast, eat a lot, and get out the door to play.

Cross country skiing was simpler then, too. Skis were made of wood or … wood. And who knew about technique? An entire day of skiing could be fueled by peanut butter and jelly.

Just because we could survive on ketchup sandwiches as students didn’t mean we wouldn’t have liked a few more choices. Happily, most of us have been fortunate enough to land decent jobs and pad our wallets a bit. Dormant taste buds were finally awakened and indulged. Food was no longer just something to fill the gastrointestinal void, but rather something to be savored. The pot roast gave way to filet mignon, the seriously over-baked chicken to a moist and tender coq au vin, and international cuisine expanded beyond egg foo yung.

Our market economy responded to our expanding culinary palate with endless opportunities to devour our discretionary dollars. Specialty foods are everywhere. My little state of Wisconsin produces more varieties of cheese than those foodies in France, and my hometown of Mount Horeb is the site of the Mustard Museum, with literally thousands of different condiment concoctions based on the humble mustard seed.

Skiers are more adventurous eaters now, too. One of our recent ski club outings featured an après ski snack of sushi, which wasn’t bad recovery fuel actually. A club potluck last year included brined grasshoppers, which were okay between a couple of crackers, although the legs were a tiny bit scratchy on the way down. This isn’t the food of Ozzie and Harriet.

The luxury of all this choice leaves me with a little angst about the relationship of the two passions in my life: eating and skiing. Am I consuming food to fuel my sport or am I skiing so that I can indulge my tendency toward gluttony? Is it more important to be motivated by kilometers than kilocalories? Should I worry about anything beyond the immediate gratifications of gastronomy or a sweet spin in the snow?

From the food angle, that’s the gist of Michael Pollan’s latest book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which discusses how food gets to our tables, TV trays or, as we rocket down the highway to our ski destination, in our laps. And the book gets into the moral questions that arise from our choices about what to eat. Do we vote with our stomachs on the merits of supporting local farms, organic production methods, vegetarianism and slow food preparation? Can we save the planet if we just buy the right granola?

I won’t opine on the global ramifications of our food production systems, but I will crack wise about how skiers can righteously eat their way from one K marker to the next. Skiers as a group tend to eat very healthy foods and don’t spend an inordinate amount of time selecting items from the top of the food pyramid. The Surgeon General would be quite proud of them.

If they are what they eat, skiers are relatively unrefined, not too sweet, and therefore not as corny as their non-skiing comrades. That’s not to say that skiers are doleful, grim eaters of gruel. They can be quite inventive, unpretentious and fun -- grasshoppers aside.

One of my skiing buddies who explores the outer realms of Asian and Mexican cookery also produces a remarkable appetizer of hot dog rounds suspended in root beer aspic. Yum. His wife, familiar with the finer eateries in Chicago, could also be motivated to complete a long ski with the promise of a squirreled-away Twinkie. Adaptability beats bonking.

If my argument is holding, skiers have no reason to feel guilty about what they eat. The calories are largely earned. As far as sustaining the planet goes, just getting humans outside may be the ticket. Folks in tune with a winter landscape know it is best to leave only tracks. If some group has to figure out the best balance of food sources to power those tracks, I’ll bet on skiers to select the appropriate blend of tofu, Twinkies and grasshoppers. Enjoy, without qualms, your holiday dining and skiing.