By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist
It’s been nearly two months since the visiting grandkids and I delivered a trunkful of firefighter provisions to Thorne Research, to be delivered to the Bayview Fire, and until the past weekend of rain, there had been no let up. Those men and women have all my admiration for the brave, tiring and dirty work they do. I have fed many a firefighter, and I can tell you firsthand they never sent their plate back because they found a bone in the fish or the meat was not a perfect rare. They were always hungry and ever grateful. Feeding them was an honor.
For the five years I operated a restaurant in Missoula, I had a meal contract with Montana Department of State Lands.Meals were mostly prepared for pick up, but we also delivered and served via pickups and helicopters. When time allowed, we threw in a tablecloth and a floral arrangement or two (remnants from a previous wedding reception) and a hastily scrolled thank you sign for the fire-line buffet. The fire crews always seemed to appreciate whatever gestures of appreciation and thanks we threw their way.
The real bread and butter of the contract was sack lunches.Over the years, we prepared thousands upon thousands of them, and the first call for each fire seemed to involve my Irish namesake, good old Murphy. I remember one especially long weekend; it was UM homecoming and we’d had an in-house dinner for nearly two hundred as well as several smaller, off-premise events. After we finished the basic cleanup about 1 a.m., I sent my exhausted crew home for a few hours of sleep before we planned to tackle the final cleanup in the morning. I was nearly home and almost out of cell range when I got the call, requesting twelve hundred sack lunches, needed by 7 a.m. Could I handle the request, the caller asked. When you’re the boss, you do whatever it takes. “Of course,” I replied. What followed was six hours of panic, pandemonium and finally, twelve hundred packed, sack lunches.
My first calls always went out to the twenty four hour grocery store managers, who would start slicing meat and pulling stock. Twelve hundred sack lunches equates to about five hundred pounds of deli meat and more than two hundred loaves of bread; plus for each lunch a piece of fruit, cookies, mints, gum, condiments, napkins and moist toilettes. And more cardboard boxes (and cold storage) than you can even imagine.
My next calls went out to mobilize a fresh crew. It’s hard to find a crew at 2 a.m., and while my kids have not been on the front lines of a fire, they have been on the front lines of preparing sack lunches. My first shift was compromised of the junior set and they could assemble a sandwich in seconds. While the government contract clearly defined no one under eighteen years of age could assemble food, I was pretty sure I had an informal waiver (though I always hid the children when the government workers came to collect the lunches). After nearly twenty five years, I feel like the statute of limitations has run out and I am free to finally give those kids a big round of recognition. Hopefully they won’t be looking for any back pay, though in retrospect, they clearly deserve it.
I’ve always believed it more prudent to beg forgiveness than ask permission, and never did that ring truer than the time I showed up to cook for a week at Bend Guard Station, a remote training camp in Northwestern Montana, with a nine and ten year old in tow. Though the camp boss looked a bit wary, neither of us said a word as I unpacked the provisions. Besides dishes, the kids’ main chores were washing vegetables and cracking a case of eggs nearly every morning. By day three my young helpers had the run of the camp and the respect of the camp boss. They’d also mastered the skill of setting a respectable gopher snare.
Looking back over more than twenty five years of notable food memories, the one that resonates in my mind and still satisfies me the most is the night of twelve hundred sack lunches. Though I prepared many more after that, I never did so many, on such short notice. Often I’d make lunches for the same crew from the beginning of a small fire through mop up, so there was time to plan ahead and make a homemade dessert or two. A favorite with the crews was fruit bread, they reported, because it stayed moist and didn’t crumble like a cookie. Wish I had kept track of the number of sweet bread loaves I baked over those five years, especially Blueberry Lemon Loaf.
You can easily double this recipe and if your bread is not ‘traveling,’ you can finish it with a drizzle of pretty and tart lemon glaze.
• 1½ cups white, unbleached all-purpose flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 medium lemon to be zested, then juiced
• 1 cup sugar
• ¾ cup plain whole-milk yogurt
• 3 extra-large eggs
• 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
• ½ cup cooking oil
• 1 cup sliced almonds
• 1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries (if frozen, do not thaw)
•Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
•Generously butter and flour a 8½ by 4¼ by 2½-inch loaf pan.
•In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
• Pour the sugar into a separate medium-sized mixing bowl. Grate the zest from the lemon. Rub the zest into the sugar until the sugar blended and fragrant. Add the yogurt, eggs and vanilla to the sugar mixture. Whisk well, until the ingredients are combined.
• When the mixture is well blended, gently whisk in the dry ingredients, just until incorporated. Switch to a spatula and fold in the oil, making sure it’s well blended. In a separate bowl, lightly mix the blueberries with about one teaspoon flour (this will help prevent them from sinking while baking).
• Gently fold the almonds and the blueberries into the batter.
• Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and smooth the top. Bake for 50 to 55 minutes, or until the top is golden and the sides just start to pull away from the sides of the pan. A toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean.
• Let cool in the pan for 30 minutes, then run a knife between the bread and the sides of the pan to loosen. Unmold the bread by placing a large plate or cutting board upside down over the loaf pan and carefully turning it over. Turn the bread back onto a flat surface to cool completely.
Optional glaze after loaf is cool:
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 1 teaspoon lemon zest
• 1 cup powdered sugar
Stir until smooth and shiny and then drizzle onto loaf
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