The director of the National Park Service doesn’t have anything against hot dogs or pizza being served in eateries in national parks.
“But I wanted more options, and more healthy choices,” Jonathon Jarvis told me at a tasting event this week to unveil new standards for the concessionaires who operate more than 250 food and beverage operations in national parks.
“There is no reason that you should have to take a vacation from eating well when you visit a national park,” Jarvis told a group that had gathered on the National Mall to sample some of the most innovative new menu options.
As Jarvis announced details of the initiative, the crowd was distracted by the wafting aromas of sauteing crab cakes, a creation of chef Steven Sterritt of Skyland Resort in Shenandoah National Park.
“These are fresh jumbo lump Maryland crab with a roasted garlic béchamel sauce. … It’s pure crab, no filler at all,” Sterritt told me. Wow. That’s a far cry from fried chicken tenders.
And instead of fries or potato chips, there were house chips made from beets and other vegetables.
“We are changing to a healthier fare, of course,” Stefan Larrson of Yellowstone National Park told us as he served up things I’d never seen in national parks before.
“This is bison tenderloin,” served with a dollop of horseradish sauce, Larrson told us. “Bison is flavorful and lean meat.” Also on the menu: regional huckleberries, a rhubarb gazpacho, and a brie-style cheese produced in the Yellowstone region.
“So are park visitors surprised to see these kinds of dishes?” I asked. “Yes, I think so,” Larrson told me. But folks are also usually impressed to find all the regional cuisine and the fresh approach, he says.
Turns out there’s only one flop, so far. Apparently, park visitors are not too keen for his take on ostrich meat. Hmmm. Perhaps the pace of change can come too fast.
The new standards are based, in part, on changes already in place in parks like Yellowstone, where concessions are run by Xanterra. As part of its Healthy and Sustainable Cuisine program, the company has pledged to adhere to naturally raised meats, cheeses from regional farms, no high-fructose corn syrup and baked goods sweetened with 30 percent less sugar than traditional preparations.
“You know, baked is the new fried, so that looks delicious,” he told the chef.
Kass told the group that the new initiative is “an important step towards making the healthier choice, the easy choice for parents and kids.”
And after tasting the baked chicken, thumbs up?
Aramark’s vice president for food and beverage, Brian Stapelton, told us that his company has worked with regional wholesalers to procure more local produce and meat.
And how does the new, healthful park food initiative influence the bottom line of the companies serving up the food?
Well, Rick Abramson, president of Delaware North, which has a contract to run eateries at Shenandoah National Park, didn’t hold back in answering me when I asked.
“We’re a commercial company, and we’re in this to make money,” he told me.
Abramson says there’s demand for these new options. “What the market wants is what we deliver.”
So does this new initiative mean park visitors will pay more? Not for basic concession-stand foods like pizza or ice cream, which will be staying on the menu.
But the Park Service says even the newer, fancier offerings will still be affordable.