If one lives too long on cranberries, he loses all self-assurance.
From the journal of ataman Yermak, 16th century conquest of Siberia
Do you hear the call, my voracious little brother? It is hunger’s yearly cry. The hungry wolf-days of summer once again creep down from the mountains, days when you eat gratefully things you wouldn’t touch in times of plenty. Do not complain, do not howl at the summer moon, it is you who put your head into the wolf’s snare. With anticipation and anxiety, you wait to see if you will endure. You fear your appetite, yet are glad to be, if but slightly, more like the rest of humanity. To merge with the hungering millions. From the corner of your eye, you glimpse a life of scarcity. On journeys, eat to live, eat to be.
Without food, there’s no going on. The traveler’s pride – bearing ten day’s rations on his back. A long, meaningful, but arduous game. Food is heavy and cumbersome, it turns runny and goes bad. At our latitudes, victuals and not subzero temperatures, monsoons, beasts of prey, stormy seas, natives or disease, play the deciding role in summer journeys. On real expeditions – like to the Romanian Carpathians – where civilization is distant and people are days away, food is the most important of all belongings. It hangs like a specter over campfires and sunbaked marches, it is on everyone’s tongue, and visions of bounty pass before all eyes as each imagines when next he’ll eat his fill. Good luck depriving us of that. Food, like life, is a gift. How easy at home to go hungry for three days, I have tried it. Sitting by an illuminated window at the end of the second day, I feel no hunger as I grow sweetly weaker, inwardly brighter. My soul lightened of flab and lust. Fasting is liberating, releasing within different, better forces. Yet one might come to erroneously believe that matter, food, the senses hold no sway over him, he is their master. But no one is ever rid of the burden of the senses, no one can easily escape their embrace, and eluding one, you fall straight into the arms of the other. What we overcome in appetite, we make up in sensuality.
Three days of hunger in the mountains can be disastrous, however. Stumbling listlessly beneath a heavy pack, ears roaring, heart throbbing, legs buckling, you curse the day you set out on your journey. Things do not often become so severe, though. There is always something that can pass for food lying at the bottom of the pack – a few damp grains of sugar, some rancid bacon, the dusty remnants of oat flakes, a bit of slimy cheese, a cube of bouillon, some cocoa powder. A unique palate of tastes to be sure. Knead it all into a barely edible ball, and your life has been saved. You can survive another day. Travelogues from lands of adversity and hunger have always fascinated me, as have the diets of Eskimos, Nambikwara, and Tungusic Peoples. Everything, or nearly everything, is edible. As a boy, I learned to eat all things, determined not to be choosy or repulsed. I believed the Czech wilderness would feed me. I ate earthworms and dined on May bugs, and was able to discern which had lived on oak leaves, which on maple – maple eaters were sweeter. I did worse things too, but quit soon enough because my classmates thought me disgusting. Try to survive on insects in Europe, and people think you’re crazy. The habit of smelling and tasting everything has remained with me since, however, along with the realization that the European wild cannot provide for all the traveler’s needs. It is too small and too inhabited a continent! Game, fruit, eggs, potatoes, fish, corn, squirrels, it all belongs to somebody. Mushrooms do not satiate, I’m sorry for frogs, and an omelet of worms and seagull eggs served with a bowl of water flea soup repulses most people. I began to eat more normal food. But each time I went a-roving, I played a different eating game. Sometimes gladly, other times not. A week long ago in South Bohemia: seven days on bread rolls and red, war-era jam. Out of necessity. Another week many years later: white south Slovak bread, bacon, and a few drops of plum brandy. What joy! Those fiery drops washed the dust off my soul. Another time in Polana: seven days on salami, which grew blacker each day; when it was blackest, I fell ill. I had no cure for my “salami sickness” until I reached Rimavská Sobota and drank plenty of bitters. Afterwards, the dresses of gypsy girls seemed brighter, more colorful, and their teeth gleamed like silver. But beware, little brother, a small amount usually suffices; the saints did not drink at all. Have you heard the Scandinavian saying about Saint Olaf, who felt as good without liquor as a drunken sailor felt with it?
But none of that is food fit for the roaming pilgrim. His provisions must be as light and dry as possible. Flour, rice, noodles. There was the era of gruels – corn, semolina, barley. The age of soy flour flatbreads. The years of oats. The months of rice. The weeks of noodles. The days of buckwheat. Always combined with salt or sugar. Dried apricots, ears of Chinese princesses, can be nibbled with anything.
A little food is all you need, carry only what is truly essential. Supper takes ten minutes to eat, but ten hours to bear on your back. Do not take food that is too tasty. Unpalatable, repetitive meals will help you eat in moderation. You’ll eat only of necessity and hunger. That is good. You didn’t embark on your journey to experience gastronomical heights. You’ll soon forget your misery and later take pride in it. Hunger will leave you. Knowing you ventured where you couldn’t have with a knapsack heavy with victuals – that remains. What you see, you’ll remember forever. But food, both good and bad, swiftly vanishes from memory. Fear not, little brother, you will still enjoy your meals. When the angel of hunger passes over you, each bite is blissful. Bread tastes like cake and water like wine – those are moments to savor. Celebrate, for you are living life to the fullest! Such a diet keeps you healthy and not overfed. Hardy as a wolf. You’ll learn many things. That garlic goes with every meal. That cheese, the product of rotting milk, is always a welcome ingredient. That bacon is the only fat that doesn’t spill. That teas from certain herbs force you often from your tent. That stale bread can be broken with a stone and boiled. That when staying with shepherds, you eat what they give you. That there are better provisions than canned food, which is heavy, cumbersome, full of water, expensive, unhealthy, and pollutes the forest. That russulas are the only mushrooms whose edibility can be determined by taste: if sweet when raw, they are not poisonous. That the simpler the meal, the more delicious it is. And hundreds more!
When I prepare food for my summer journeys, calculating sugars, carbohydrates, weighing out raisins, and measuring out powdered milk, I often think of a Romanian shepherd I met in the Godeanu Mountains, a wizened old man. Every morning at sunrise, he took his sheep to the summit of Gugu peak. In his hand, his day’s provisions: a cold lump of corn mamaliga, food most of us wouldn’t touch. That was his way of life. I think of him and feel ashamed. I yearn to roam the Southern Carpathians with a handful of flour and less food in my pack. And even if I removed most of it, I wouldn’t die – hunger is not a hasty killer!
Once, as I sat on the shore of the Georgiiski Lakes in the Pirin, nary a bite to eat, the nearest settlement a long journey away, I thought of all those who had found themselves in much greater misery. In particular, Huc and Gabet, two French missionaries, whose plight a hundred and thirty years ago was distressing indeed: “For two years we ate nothing more than black barley cakes cooked on fires of dried cow dung, drinking nothing more than salty tea and rancid butter. But even for that, we were grateful. God gave us strength and a joyful spirit. With His guidance, we safely crossed the terrible, barren lands of Mongolia, Manchuria, northern China, and Tibet.”
My thoughts on the two French friars, I folded my pinions and fell peacefully to sleep.