In praise of the humble Pop-Tart, the ultimate backpacker breakfast

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Originally Posted on Outside

The grocery bag full of Pop-Tarts by the Appalachian Trail made me wonder if I had been wrong about God all along. It was late August 2019, and I was 60 miles from the 100-Mile Wilderness, Maine’s dreaded remote high point where supplies, resources and human contact barely exist. Three days earlier, she had left Monson, Maine, the last stop before reaching the base of the trail’s northern terminus, Katahdin, needlessly angry, hastily buying very little food for the arduous route between and over rugged mountains.

Glancing under the lid of my can of bears, I saw my meager supplies and began to consider a 40-mile run to the finish, to stave off the hunger I could already feel. But then, there they were by the shore of a lake of sand, silvery wrappers glistening in the August sunlight with all the accumulated opalescence of the universe: half a dozen unopened packages of Pop-Tarts, waiting to make me happy. feel complete.

Within 15 minutes, every one of those 12 cakes was gone, devoured in a trance more transcendent than the idyllic lake that stretched out before me like a precious stone. Who had put those Pop-Tarts there? I wondered. Any hikers carrying too much food? The ghost of John Harvey Kellogg? God? I shrugged, stuffed those wonderful, now-empty, space-age wrappers into my pack, and continued north. Within 36 hours, with the taste of Pop-Tarts still on my tongue, I finished my first hike.

This was not, as you might guess from my gustatory zeal, neither my first encounter with Pop-Tarts on the Appalachian Trail nor my last. Although I began that winter by diligently boiling grits or oatmeal, I soon realized how much time I was wasting, shivering each morning in my tent for the chance to eat something hot. After grabbing my first box of Pop-Tarts a week later, I haven’t gone back once since 2019. Every morning I’m on a long way: 14 cumulative months in less than four years now, I eat at least one pack of Pop. -cakes. They are, after all, the best breakfast that exists for endurance athletes, manna for masochists who prefer to be burning calories at dawn than thinking about them.

I duly acknowledge and respect that there is an entire industry dedicated to properly fueling breakfast, to ensuring that athletes start with a scientifically reasoned balance of macro and micronutrients, with their calories ensconced in some dense compound of, say, peanut butter and spirulina. I absolutely don’t want any of that. Many of these breakfast bars make me feel like a ruminant, the cow that chews, swallows, and vomits into its mouth for even more chewing, all in the blind hope of turning that into usable fuel. If it sounds awful, that’s because it is. This is especially true on a frigid morning, when the first bite of the breakfast bar evokes the strain of an icebreaker crawling across the Arctic.

But Pop-Tarts are compact and somehow almost mushy, they can be savored with a cup of camp coffee or eaten whole in a minute, even while hiking. Its multiple flavors are also a blessing in this department. On cold mornings, I prefer Chocolate Fudge, Frosted S’mores, or Apple Fritter, pretending I’m sitting in a cozy patisserie back home; when it’s hot, give me something lighter, a strawberry or even a cinnamon with brown sugar. (But never, ever Cherry, the scourge of the Pop-Tart world, cough syrup ruinously trapped inside puff pastry goodness.) Anyway, days on the road are work days; Why would I want to push myself for breakfast too? Pop-Tarts—frosted only, because non-frosted ones are heresy—are the fast track to a splendid 420 calories or so per brilliantly shimmering package.

That these calories are generally the empty calories of the corn syrup variety is the point. I want a morning jolt, a blood sugar spike so fast and absolute it sends me careening down the trail like a race car screeching new tires out of pit lane. After an hour or so of moving in, I move on to the fancy snacks, the clean protein bars or organic dates or sports gels that start the days of those souls unlucky or foolish enough not to have given themselves over to pleasure and salvation of the humble Pop. -Tart. Blessed are these tame, for there are plenty of Pop-Tarts.

In fact, the ubiquity and accessibility of Pop-Tarts—our “true American cupcake,” as a friend recently apologetically put it to Proust, capable of conjuring up so much about our past in one bite—are two of their essential advantages. When Kellogg’s first shipped its revolution on hold in 1964, they sold out so quickly that the company ran blinking ads admitting, “Oops! We were wrong. For better or worse, our national enthusiasm hasn’t waned, and Pop-Tarts they lurk more or less everywhere they sell non-Whole Foods, like they grew out of gas pumps (Sorry, Nature’s Path and Bobo’s, but if I want to eat cardboard disguised as a Pop-Tart, I’ll buy a Sharpie, find a recycling bin, I’ll scribble Pop-Tart on something corrugated and save several bucks forever.)

Run-down convenience stores in Florida, Dollar Generals in Appalachia, Cascadia hideouts in Washington state—I’ve never walked anywhere I’ve found people other than Pop-Tarts, a package of perfect twin pieces ready for about a dollar. . Breakfast for a dollar during a month-long adventure where the budget will make or break it? Count it.

I know the latter, heck, everything I’ve written here, will invoke anger. Jeremiads are being mounted right now that alternately punish Pop-Tarts as a firm gateway to childhood obesity, an early symptom of a progressively broken food system and an enduring byproduct of capitalism’s careless excesses. I can hear the click of the keys, my fingers still sticky from the morning’s country shake.

Did you know? Those incoming missives are right! That you can get over 400 calories of processed junk for a dollar from a $22 billion company when a Big Apple typically costs twice as much, that’s nonsense, the bottom line of an economy built on customer satisfaction. investors instead of sustainable results. The ubiquity of Pop-Tarts is emblematic of an American moral failing.

But redirect those words to Congress or the Department of Agriculture, not to the hiker trying to exploit the fruity or chocolaty deliciousness or (get this) snickerdoodly delights of those fault lines just to get from Georgia to Maine or whatever. I understand. I only eat Pop-Tarts when I walk or occasionally run long distances early in the morning. (At least in my experience, they’re also infinitely easy on the stomach, their light weight much more conducive to speed than toast, just another element of their mastery, systemic issues notwithstanding.) Otherwise, they’re banned from my life, stowed away with bags of dehydrated food until it’s time to walk again.

Two weeks after I found and smashed that bag of Pop-Tarts on the Appalachian Trail, I stopped by the doctor at home for a routine physical. The doctor reported that everything seemed to be in order except, he said with a frown over the glasses sliding down his nose, my elevated blood sugar. I told him the story of the treasure by the lake and how I had become addicted to Pop-Tarts while hiking 2,200 miles. I knew I had to leave them at home, I assured him, to say goodbye to this masochistic manna. “That’s probably a good idea,” he said, smiling kindly. “Only eat them when you go hiking.”

That was the day, I admit it now, I started thinking about my next hike.

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James D. Brown
James D. Brown
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