Morning Story: Memorable meal Christmas seasoned

By Mark Story


About 15 summers ago I grossly misjudged an ascent of Wairarapa's Mount Holdsworth.

The better half and I set a cracking pace, hoping to arrive at Powell Hut from base in fewer than four hours - she with a petite day pack, me with everything we owned strapped to my back.

We were tramping dilettantes. The idea of going bush in the Tararua Range tempted us beyond our skill set.

Close to six hours on, struggling under a crushing weight, no sign of the hut and in fading light, we were close to exhaustion.

The beech forest thinned out as we threatened the summit. This gave the wind a chance to hit its straps which, having sweat through my clothes, was frighteningly chilling.

Despite the toil of climbing we started to freeze. The first bells of alarm began ringing in my head.

Mercifully we heard the sound of human voices as a hut materialised from the scrub.

Famished and frozen to the bone, we opened the door to discover a room chocka with trampers obviously intent on staying the night.

There was neither a spare bed nor floor space for stretching out. A hungry queue of hunters waited their turn on the gas hobs.

Dinner was a long way off.

Drawing on our vast experience and exercising sound mountaineering judgment, we opted to flag the warm sanctuary.

We continued up the range in an unlikely quest to find a flat area in the steep alpine terrain to pitch our tent.

Fortune favoured the foolish. The windy skies now almost completely dark, we stumbled across a near-flat tussock-covered area the floor-size of a VW Kombi.

Perfect.

The wind bullied the tent like a windsock yet the tussock acted as a natural mattress underneath us, cushioning sore and cramping bodies.

Then came the highlight of our desperately romantic evening (one's energy levels were miserably low, so no, not that).

I mean dinner.

With my wife wrapped and recovering in her sleeping bag, I kicked our nuggety little gas primus into action.

Into a saucepan I threw a pasta pack and a few cups of water. Gently boiling, in went a handful of rice. A couple of sausages were cut into chunks and added to the hearty brew.

Bliss.

We hunched over the pan forking piping hot contents into our mouths. Painfully starved, it was indescribable.

It was better than the superb Peking Duck I gobbled in greedy quantities in Beijing earlier this year, better than my mother's roast pork, better than Bluff oysters.

Generic rice, preservative-laden pasta and tasteless pre-cooked vacuum-packed sausages morphed into the most enjoyable food experience of my life.

I regret to add my culinary standing literally went up in smoke the next morning after trying to treat my wife to a breakfast of pre-mixed pancakes a la primus.

Without butter to grease the base the mix stuck like you know what to you know what. You're only as good as your last meal.

That said, to this day neither of us has forgotten that dinner. It's our favourite ever dining moment bar none. Singularly our most memorable meal.

After penning this, it occurred to me the story is somewhat of a biblical allegory: A tired, long-journeying couple having been refused entry at the inn, sleep atop alpine hay.

I doubt Mary and Joseph scoffed pasta that night, but the parallels are fitting given Christmas is the day we Kiwis deify food.

It makes me wonder that perhaps those of us without the means (or inclination) to spend weeks planning the feast and Christmas Day cooking it, are on to something.

It's always struck me as a little odd that we designate this day to drink and eat (to excess) to celebrate a moment that boasts the most austere of origins.

Either way, the simple sausage and starch number was better than any Christmas dinner I've eaten, bar none.

Primus or prime rib, little miracles will happen regardless.

* Mark Story is assistant editor at Hawke's Bay Today.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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