By Peta Owens-Liston
The old Virginia Slims line, “We’ve come a long way baby,” comes to mind when Sue Holladay recalls the bare-bones meals on the river in the sixties. Dinner? Canned ham, canned yams topped with marshmallows, and canned sweet bread for dessert. This fare was before massive coolers, water- and air-tight bags, oxygen-free ice, and discriminating outdoor diners. It was also before Sue had decoded and perfected what meals work best on the river—an evolutionary process that ebbed and flowed with the dietary trends and preferences of each decade.
The steady stream of positive feedback from guests assured Sue that her plan to appeal to guests taste buds was working. Yet, satiating the appetite of their guests has been a 40-year learning curve, primarily spearheaded by Sue, who founded Holiday Expeditions with her husband Dee.
While Dee figured out the gear and river logistics, she oversaw the food quotient—Figuring out the practicalities of what to serve, learning from trial and error, researching, and meticulously calculating amounts. She tested everything in her kitchen first. Those on the frontlines, slicing, stirring and serving, provided invaluable feedback as well. “I value and rely on the guides input and have always been open to new ideas to make our dishes better,” emphasizes Sue.
What was it like in the early days?
Sue: “Well, we worked out of the garage because we didn’t have a warehouse then. Dee would be working on the boats and I’d go to the grocery store with a list. I always wrote the list in pencil because I constantly was reworking and tweaking the list to figure out which meals worked best. This is where our menus evolved from—those lists. In the sixties a big part of the food was canned items and over time with innovations we’ve been able to provide fresher and fresher food.”
What were some of Holiday’s first meals?
Sue: “Our overnight trips were the easiest, and we’d always serve a steak and potatoes dinner on that trip. Our five-day Canyonlands River trip took more thought. Some of the meals we had then, we still have now like cold cuts for lunch and big drop omelets for breakfast. We used to serve a river spaghetti dinner with a bunch of vegetables and now that has evolved into baked lasagna. We also had barbeque chicken and fish, and we still grill fish.”
What were some of the early challenges?
Sue: “Right before a trip, we would leave real early in the morning and hit the road, racing down to Green River with a 300 lb block of ice in the back of the pick-up truck. We would always be experimenting how to keep the ice from melting so we wouldn’t have to use dry ice. Dry ice was was more expensive and hard to pack around, plus it would often freeze items we wanted fresh but not frozen. We would try putting it on cardboard or lay a bunch of tarps over the top to slow down the melting process.”
Dee: “We found out that the fastest way to melt ice is to create a warm breeze as you travel 60 mph on a 90-degree day.”
Sue: “Then we bought our first ice machine in the late eighties and it would take out all the oxygen and air bubbles, so now the ice lasts a lot longer. This was placed in Green River and a few years later we got one in Vernal.
What standards did you have in mind when you started creating meals on the river?
Sue: “I knew we always wanted to have a really good last meal, which is still the steak and potatoes au gratin but now we also offer fish that same night too. Each meal had to have healthy items, so including salads with each dinner, and fruits and vegetables with all meals was key, as well as offering quality meats and fish.
I wanted some local flavor, especially for those guests who were not from the West, so I wanted some kind of Mexican meal. It started out as tacos and now it has become chicken fajitas. The first guide to participate in making a meal better was Bret Jameson, who decided to make chile rellenos.”
Is there a dish that Holiday is most known for?
Sue: “Probably our Dutch oven potatoes au gratin—our recipe ended up in the Salt Lake Tribune at one point. It started out with powdered milk, cheese and butter, then some guides started experimenting with it and sour cream replaced the milk, then onions were added. The recipe has sort of evolved over the years; we started making a healthier version as people become more conscientious about their health. We used to cook our potatoes without the skins, now we include them because they’re good for us.”
What is unique to Holiday’s meals?
Sue: “We truck everything in from Salt Lake City so we can get more of the specialty items and higher quality meat and produce. We can be picky. We also have a great relationship with the grocery store in Vernal to get what we need. In Green River, which is the watermelon capital of the world, we get all kinds of freshly picked melons for our trips.”
How do the guides learn to cook?
Sue: “I go on all the training trips and show the guides how to prepare and make the food. Most of it is done in a Dutch oven (including cakes), unless there are fire restrictions, than we need to rely on the stove and grill.
Our guides used to do all the prep at camp but cleaning all the food really wasted a lot of drinking water and was labor intensive. So in the early nineties, I started teaching them how to do prep before a trip like partially cooking the noodles for lasagna ahead of time and then oiling them and laying them carefully in bags. Cleaning the lettuce and drying it thoroughly with a lettuce spinner and then using paper towels with it in air tight bags. Now we have someone whose sole job is to prep food for the trips.
Some of the meals still require plenty of on-site prep to do like dicing all the peppers and onions for the fajitas.”
How do you prevent wasted food on the river?
Sue, “Over the years I’ve put together a detailed master menu and a pack sheet to tell the guides all the numbers they need to make enough food for everyone. Everything is broken down into exact amounts—how many cans, scoops, slices—they need based on the number of men, women, children and senior citizens on the trip. Some meals, like the fajitas, we use the extra tortillas to make sopapillas for dessert. We use canola oil though since it is healthier than other oils.
The guides are creative. One used chile relleno leftovers and turned it into a chile relleno quiche for breakfast—which our guests love. Another guide saved the juices from the fruit and made a special punch.”
How do you accommodate specific diets?
Sue: “Well thanks to our staff, we know the special diets of our guests before hand and can provide appropriate food for them. It seems like we’re always in a phase where something is popular—we went through the no-red-meat stage, then the Atkin’s Diet where you avoided carbs, and now we’re in the gluten-free phase. Over the years, it has been a fun experience for me to research and learn about these things and to find good food that matches the diet restrictions. Almost everything we make can allow for a vegetarian version as well.
On some of our trips the food is based on whether it is an all women’s trip or an all men’s trip. Our women’s trips tend to have a lot of lighter fare, plenty of chocolate desserts, and no red meat.”
Any fun food disaster stories?
Sue: “Well, there was the time the Dutch oven floated away in the river when it was left too close to the river’s edge and the water levels rose during the night. The guides once forgot to pack plates and occasionally certain kitchen items were forgotten. This required some clever improvising, which the guides are great at like using the tops of pot lids for plates or empty cans for measuring and as cups. We’ve run out of propane before and had to prepare the food on a grill over an open fire and carry the charcoal out. To avoid forgetting stuff, I’ve made a detailed checklist so guides can now double check everything.”
What is your favorite Holiday meal?
Sue: “The steak dinner and potatoes…and the halibut on fish night. I’ve got two favorites.”
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Sue: “Fixing something everyone will like. It is the same as being a mother—you want everyone to eat healthy and enjoy it. The food on our trips is part of the whole experience and provides warmth and comfort.”
Peta Owens-Liston is a writer and editor with extensive experience in magazine writing and marketing communications writing. Publications she has written for: TIME Magazine, Sports Illustrated for Women, Organic Style, Paddler, Redbook, Via, KUER/NPR affiliate (radio essays), Park City Magazine, Salt Lake City Magazine, The Salt Lake Tribune to mention a few.