For most people, a love of travel and a love of baking might be mutually exclusive. But not for Mary Wilcox. Since 2000, she and her husband, George, have been "professional vagabonds"—that's what it says on their business cards—who crisscross North America year-round in a 36-foot 1998 Alpine motor coach with nearly 155,000 miles on the odometer. The RV is spacious and comfortable, but that's not why Mary chose it. Her reason: "It has the best kitchen we have ever seen in a motor home."
We originally met Mary at a baking class in Sonoma, California, and several months later caught up with her via email and phone in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, where she'd gone to school "many moons ago." (She's "59, pushing 60.") We asked her to share some high points and insights about her traveling-and-baking lifestyle, and she generously agreed.
Cooking in an RV: The Alpine's kitchen has a microwave/convection oven with a 13" turntable. "I wasn't previously familiar with convection," Mary says, "but I've learned some tricks. For example, I use the two racks to bake on two or three levels at the same time—say, for layer cakes." Storage space is tight, so she uses smaller mixing bowls, smaller pieces of bakeware, and a strong hand mixer instead of a stand mixer. She's creative about repurposing equipment: "A Bundt or tube pan works equally well for steaming broccoli in the microwave and baking an angel food or lemon cake." And she's always conscious about conserving water and power. "A 9-inch square of cookie batter is more efficient" than individual cookies, she points out. "Cool, slice, serve—with just one round of oven time." She also bakes multiple batches of refrigerator cookies and freezes them, "so we can have fresh-baked more often without starting from scratch each time."
Essential ingredients: "Since we go to lots of out-of-the-way places, I travel with limited amounts of the basics. Just a little bit of exactly the right ingredient can make a tremendous difference in the overall effect of the dish. I carry pure cane sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, Washed Raw Sugar, all-purpose flour, cake flour, unsalted butter, pure vanilla extract, and really good chocolate with varying percentages of cocoa. And I watch for regional specialties to experiment with." She also brings a notebook of favorite recipes, including one for a simple yet delicious Almond-Orange Cake that she says is her most-requested recipe. "I originally got it from my friend Carol Marcus in Sonoma," says Mary. "I guess it's been passed around for years now."
Staying healthy: "Since my husband's heart attack last year, we're moving toward a whole-grain, plant-based diet. So on this trip I'm carrying Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and making it my current area of study."
When she's not baking: Mary says she enjoys "all things food—how it's made, why it's made this way in this place and that way in that place." Unsurprisingly, her out-of-the-kitchen adventures often involve food. "I'll find cooking classes or events to attend," she says, "and I sometimes assist at cooking classes. I also do product marketing—one year I promoted a new product at the New York Fancy Food show. I've gone to a few Sunset magazine shows—and tasted everything—and I enjoyed being in the midst of 30 food trucks in Los Angeles one Thursday night last April."
Favorite places: "It's hard to pick just one, because we've had so many memorable experiences. The International Kite Festival in Long Beach, Washington, where we volunteered to help serve the banquet. An RV club rally on Prince Edward Island, Canada, where I bought local lobster—the freshest I've ever had—to cook for dinner. Or surviving a wild tornado one night in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and going to the local circus museum the next day and seeing the elephants led into the Baraboo River to play."
Don't rush: "We try to average 100 miles a day or less, and move slowly enough for spontaneity to catch up with us. We volunteer for all sorts of events, and meet the core of the community, which leads to their tips and ideas for fun, and frequently they become friends we may visit again."
Eating together: "When RVers get together, it's frequently a circle of chairs around the picnic table. So the best foods for sharing are ones that can be made ahead from the existing on-board pantry, baked efficiently, and be ample enough to serve a group."