"This is about choices," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said last week. "There are still the other choices, if you want to buy them."
In a telephone interview from California, sustainable-foods pioneer Alice Waters applauded the park service initiative. "This is an enormous opportunity for the parks to set an example for the nation, because they are present in every state, in very visible locations," she said.
Waters said she had an "epiphany" about park service food a decade ago while visiting the ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado and stopping at a park eatery.
"The food was brought in from God knows where, maybe dropped from another planet," she recalled.
The Chez Panisse founder and her distraught traveling partners were regrouping outside when Waters realized they were standing in a patch of purslane. Waters fell to her knees, picked bunches of the edible leaf vegetable, washed them and whipped up a purslane salad. "I always travel with olive oil and salt," she noted.
Waters said the national parks can make similar use of their local food sources to connect visitors with the surrounding environment in meaningful ways.
Jewell, who previously served as chief executive for outdoors outfitter REI, acknowledged that meals had not been a highlight of her visits to national parks.
"Let's just say I packed my own food," she said.
The new era in park service food was on display at last week's event, as chefs from major concessionaires dispensed free samples of menu items, including bison tenderloin, black bean sliders, sweet potato cakes, chilled strawberry rhubarb gazpacho and summer fruit spritzers.
The cuisine received almost universally positive reviews from samplers, including tourists who stumbled on the event, federal workers on lunch breaks, visiting schoolchildren from Louisiana and a small pack of pedicab drivers delighted with the free food and drink.