The menu was `ants on a log'

OF all the memorable meals I've had, ``ants on a log'' has to rank right near the top of the list. For those who haven't experienced the many surprises of Girl Scout camp, the ``ants'' are dried-up raisins and the ``log'' they adorn is a chunk of celery, probably wilted. What makes the combination so unforgettable is the generous layer of peanut butter that binds them -- to each other, to canvas tent flaps, to anything within reach.

``Ants on a log'' perhaps can only be compared to, and is often eaten in conjunction with, another Girl Scout favorite -- the so-called ``walking salad.'' In this, a cored apple, instead of a celery stick, is filled with raisins and peanut butter. The effect is stickingly the same.

I'm not saying I haven't enjoyed some four-star Michelin meals in my time. After all, I've dined on dim sum in Hong Kong's classiest teahouses and savored truffles in the south of France. Nor can I forget the sacher tortes of Vienna or the melt-in-your-mouth fettuccini my husband and I discovered in Florence.

They're delectable, one and all. But they're not the solid stuff of lasting, three-dimensional memories.

They're not, for example, in the same culinary league with cold canned pork 'n' beans. Although a good many winters have passed since I sampled my first, I can still remember the snowy January morning in fourth grade when Jan Larson and I set out to explore the farther reaches of her uncle's farm. We must have trudged around his squash patches for an hour -- maybe two - and were beginning to despair of ever getting home in time for lunch.

Then we remembered the provisions we'd stashed in our backpacks. Out came the can openers, in went the beans. I can almost taste them to this day.

I can also think back a few decades to the first Christmas I spent overseas, and the breakfast that marked it. I was living in an Asian country, teaching with the Peace Corps, and our group of young volunteers had been given plenty of cross-cultural training in the kinds of adjustments we might have to make. Nothing, however, had prepared us for going without American breakfasts, and we all longed for bowls of Cheerios in place of pickled cabbage, for bananas instead of seaweed soup.

As the holidays approached, several friends and I began to set aside a bit of each month's living allowance for a special fund. On Christmas Eve, we gathered up our coins and our courage, sought out the local auntie who dealt in black-market goods, and negotiated for a well-traveled bag of New Zealand flour and some tins of imported fruit. Never had there been such a feast -- stacks and stacks of heavy brown pancakes dripping with canned pineapple syrup. Truly memorable.

Nowadays, when I have a hankering for something exotic, I have to settle for some ants on a log. I'm sure I'll grow to enjoy them more, just as soon as our three-year-old son stops calling them ``bugs in butter.''

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