On a recent trip aboard Amtrak’s California Zephyr train, I found myself longing for a good portable food. Something that I could bring along with me on the 33-hour journey from Emeryville, California, to Denver, Colorado, and then enjoy, say, while watching the sun set slowly behind north Nevada’s hills. In fact, the kaleidoscope of purple, pink, and yellow colors appearing in the sky that evening was the perfect backdrop for a flavorful meal. Amtrak’s dining car was off-limits to coach class passengers like me, due to the pandemic. But while the microwavable cheeseburgers and pizzas of the train’s cafe remained available for purchase, I was craving something a bit more substantial. Not to mention something tasty.
Throughout history, homecooks have come up with ingenious ways of making foods easily transportable, without the need for preservatives or in many cases even Tupperware. These were foods so hearty that they could accompany miners underground, soldiers into war, and farm workers across the fields. While not always palatable (I’m thinking specifically of hardtack, a long-lasting, bone-dry biscuit carried regularly by sailors, soldiers, pioneers, and explorers), they were unquestionably convenient. These portable foods could provide a bit of homemade comfort on a lengthy expedition or in the darkened recesses of a mining tunnel. Hardtack aside, with just the right amount of meat, carbs, vegetables, and/or juiciness, they could also be quite delicious.
What is a Portable Food?
Sandwiches are often seen as the ultimate portable food. You can eat them with your hands and they are easy to transport, as long as you have some plastic wrap or resealable plastic bags to keep them contained and fresh. But while the sandwich is great for picnics and leisurely lunch breaks, fields, mines, trenches, and long-distance journeys require heartier dishes.
History’s portable foods were built on utility and ease. They were utensil-free, self-contained dishes meant to hold up well in travel and, once consumed, leave nothing behind but a bit of organic waste, if anything.
Although many of these dishes were quick to eat, they were not always so easy to make. Tamales, a celebratory food that’s been around millennia, were a favorite among Mexican migrants who came to the U.S. to work in the cotton fields. They’re undoubtedly easy-to-transport, but also quite labor intensive to prepare. There was also ‘portable soup,’ a dehydrated broth (and forerunner to bouillon cubes) that involved a seemingly endless process of reductions and culinary fine-tuning, resulting in a pocket-sized piece of what resembled edible leather. “Once prepared, portable soup was something small and light and easy to carry,” says British food writer and blogger Linda Duffin. “And, all you really needed was water to make it into something nutritious.”
Native Americans had their own portable foods, including pemmican: dried meat that was pounded down into a powder-like consistency and then mixed with suet (often as well as dried fruits like cranberries and blueberries), before being cooled in rawhide bags where it would harden for travel. It later became a favorite form of substance among Antarctic explorers.
Over the past centuries, other well-known portable foods have included onigiri: nori-wrapped rice balls filled with such ingredients as tuna mayo and umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum). Now a popular Japanese street food, onigiri were once the battle snack of the country’s Samurai warriors. There’s also the Bedfordshire Clanger, a British suet crust dumpling that began as a mid-day meal for local agricultural workers in the 19th century. These days it’s often prepared with savory ingredients (eg. bacon, potatoes, and sage) on one end, and sweet ingredients (eg. apples and brown sugar) on the other. The Jamaican patty, Galician empanadas, and Chile’s tortilla de rescoldo, a smokey, unleavened bread that rural travelers have long prepared in the ashes of a campfire, all fit the portable food bill, as well.
Still, one of history’s most enduring portable foods is the aforementioned hardtack, a flour and water biscuit that has sustained all kinds of travelers. It goes by names like dhourra cake, buccellum, sledging biscuit, sea biscuit, Maryland beaten biscuits, and even pilot bread; and stripped of all moisture, it could remain ‘edible’ for decades. But while it’s a good source of energy, hardtack lacks any sort of flavor. Some say the only way to make it even remotely edible is to soften it. For instance, by floating it in coffee, milk, or beer.
Portable Food Favorites
While some portable foods have been lost in obscurity, others have withstood the test of time: not only becoming part of their local lexicon, but often globally recognized, as well. Here are a few enduring favorites.
At her 16th century Tudor farmhouse in the English countryside of Suffolk, Linda Duffin (aka Mrs Portly’s Kitchen) hosts classes in everything from pickles and preserves to pastry and pies. Participants utilize ingredients from Duffin’s own garden, as well as, those from local purveyors. One such purveyor is Truly Traceable, a husband-and-wife team that supplies the game for Duffin’s venison pasties.
“A pasty is a round pastry that’s topped with ingredients like crab, venison, or beef and veggies,” says Duffin, “and then folded over, sealed, and baked. It’s like a pie without the effort.”
The first known mention of pasties dates back to 1300, appearing in Le Viandier, a collection of Middle Ages recipes. While pasties are often referred to as hand pies (individually sized pies that can fit into your hand), not all hand pies are pasties. Empanadas are considered hand pies, though their flaky, layered dough differs from traditional pasty dough, which is typically firm and sturdy. Calzones, Italy’s version of the hand pie, utilize pizza dough and are often bursting at the seams with a ricotta cheese filling. Although mouthwatering in taste, they don’t hold up well in transport.
Then there’s the Cornish pasty, which is its own entity entirely.
As the national dish of Cornwall, England, the Cornish pasty is legendary. “A very large portion of Cornwall’s population worked in the local tin mines in the 17th and 18th centuries,” says Joyce White, a food historian and journalist based in Annapolis, Maryland. “Once down there, they couldn’t really come up for lunch, so they’d bring their pasty. The pasties were not not only convenient because they were portable, but they were also a safer way to eat.”
White is referring to the Cornish pasty’s unique crimp, which not only seals in its juices, but supposedly also provided miners something to grasp, hold, and discard of after they’d consumed the rest. This way, if the miners had any arsenic on their fingers from the tin mines, that arsenic would never make it into their stomachs.
According to the Cornish Pasty Association, the crimp is just one of the characteristics of an authentic Cornish pasty, which is made with a mix of diced or minced beef, potato, rutabaga, and onion, and a little salt and pepper to taste. These ingredients then are added as a raw topping and cooked right along with the pastry. This can be a shortcrust, rough puff, or puff pastry, but it must be both savory and hearty to adhere to the Cornish Pasty’s Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, which it earned in 2011.
If all goes accordingly, the pepperoni roll—a soft bread roll with pepperoni baked right inside—will become West Virginia’s official state food by mid-2021. Even without a designation, the pepperoni roll remains a statewide icon. But before this portable food became the go-to snack of every local sporting event, fundraiser, and wedding, it was its own underground sensation.
West Virginia’s pepperoni rolls can trace their roots to the Italian immigrants who arrived to the state’s north-central region in the early 20th century, looking for work in the mines. In the years following, these miners often carried along bread and a stick of salami or pepperoni to snack on mid-shift. “Somewhere along the line someone thought to combine the two,” says Candace Nelson, a West Virginian native and author of The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll. Miner-turned-baker Giuseppe “Joseph” Argiro was the first one to do so commercially, says Nelson. “Although, it’s likely that the wives of coal miners were making pepperoni rolls in their home kitchens long beforehand,” she says, “so that their husbands would have something to take to work.”
Nelson grew up eating pepperoni rolls, and admits that not every pepperoni roll is the same. “There’s a certain hierarchy,” she says. “For example, if it’s late and you need a snack, a gas station pepperoni roll will do the trick. It’s utilitarian and likely pre-frozen, but it’s also convenient.” There are also the pizza shop and food mart versions. However, “For the truest, freshest, and ‘pinnacle’ of pepperoni rolls,” she says, “a bakery [including the Country Club Bakery, where Argiro’s roll was born] is the way to go.”
Today, pepperoni rolls come as bite-sized snacks, are filled with delicacies like gouda and mozzarella cheeses, and are even served as enormous ‘buns’ topped with meat sauce, provolone cheese, and banana peppers, like those at Colasessano’s Pizza & Pepperoni Rolls in White Hall, WV.
Another bonus of pepperoni rolls: unlike stromboli, they don’t require refrigeration. They also have a shelf-life of two-to-three days, making them the ultimate portable cuisine.
On a weekday night in Tupelo, Mississippi, Irma Cubillo is teaching a small group of participants how to make foods from her native cuisine. The class is part of the larger Cooking as a First Language, a series of culinary workshops that builds community through food and cooking. Korean, Ecuadorean, Japanese, and Moroccan food have all been showcased in the past. On this particular night, Cubillo, who originally hails from Jalisco, Mexico, is highlighting one of her signature dishes: chicken tamales with green and red salsas.
Tamales are one of history’s oldest portable foods: an easy-to-transport dish that dates back thousands of years, to somewhere between 8,000 and 5,000 BCE. Ancient civilizations such as the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec peoples often carried tamales with them on long journeys and sometimes into battle. Later, they became a food of choice among Mexican laborers brought to the U.S. to work in the Mississippi Delta. Despite the many labor-intensive parts that go into making tamales—soaking the corn husks, preparing the masa dough, wrapping the fillings (which might be pork, beans, cheese, etc.) inside the dough, and then assembling it all before steaming—they can easily be made in bulk. It’s one of the reasons that tamales are such a staple during holiday festivities. It’s also convenient for farm workers, who these days can simply freeze what they can’t eat immediately and have them as nourishment for later.
Longtime chef and restaurant owner William Dissen likes to bring tamales with him on hiking trips. “Like I would a pepperoni roll,” says the native West Virginian. “Although tamales aren’t shelf-stable like a pepperoni roll, they’re definitely one of those things that make a good portable lunch.” You can even reheat them over an open fire or a camping stove.
However, if you’re traveling by train like me, a pepperoni roll may still be the best way to go..
Making Your Own
“I make pasties quite often because of their convenience,” says Duffin “You can size them up or down, depending on how hungry you are, and then fill them with all sorts of interesting things,” like tuna and onions, or walnuts, blue cheese, and pears. For additional ease, Duffin suggests buying a store-bought puff pastry.
Tamaladas (tamale making parties) are a great way to spread out the prep that goes into making tamales. Online platforms such as Cozymeal also offer remote classes in tamale making, as well as, in-person options, depending on your location.
Whichever dish you decide on, remember that you’re taking part in a larger history. “At the root of it,” says Dissen, “these are all foods created for someone that was working in a mine, a field, a plant, etc. People who didn’t have a long time to eat lunch, and they needed to be able to eat it quickly. They are the reason these portable foods exist.”