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Credit: Rebecca Stumpf
The Way We Eat

The “Dinosaur Hunter” in Denver Who Lives on Coffee and Peanut Butter

published Feb 23, 2020
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NameNatalie Toth
Location: Denver, CO
How many people regularly eat together in your home? 2
Avoidances: None.

Natalie Toth is the Chief Fossil Preparator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, which means that she deals with dinosaur fossils day in and day out. Dream job alert! Last year, she earned the headline-worthy nickname the “Dinosaur Hunter” after Triceratops bones were accidentally discovered by a construction crew just outside of the Denver area.

While the project was unexpected in scope and area, the work was not unlike many of the missions that Natalie handles on a regular basis. During the busy field season, she manages large crews of interns and volunteers who head out to field camps in the deserts of rural Utah and the Dakotas.

“When we’re in the remote back country with our big field crews, everyone helps makes all our meals. Most people think of camp food as cans of beans or hot dogs, but we recognize that it’s important to give our crew a great meal after a hard day’s work. We’re often shoveling, picking, hiking, and carrying heavy loads so it’s important to start the day with a hot breakfast and end it with a delicious dinner. We make meals together—people are chopping vegetables, working the grill, mixing up pancakes, or mashing potatoes. Everyone pitches in,” Natalie says.

As you might imagine, the way Natalie eats while out on a dinosaur dig is a lot different than the way she eats in her lab at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Read more to find out about her favorite field meals, her grazing habits, and how she survives on coffee for 10 hours out of the day.

Credit: Rebecca Stumpf

While not your official title, you’ve been dubbed the “Dinosaur Hunter,” (which sounds pretty cool to us). How do you feel about the nickname?
I feel like that title is definitely more appropriate for the type of field work where you’re actually hiking around the dessert looking for fossils. When we do other kinds of field work, we’ll spend weeks or months at a time out in the back country in places like rural Utah or up in the Dakotas. But the situation in Denver that earned me that nickname was kind of a happenstance thing where a construction crew hit these fossils and called the museum. I wasn’t really actively looking for fossils in the Denver area — they found us! Regardless, they got people really psyched up. And “Dino Hunter” does sound really cool.

It doesn’t seem too far off though!
My job has two main facets. One of them is, yes, I go out and look for fossils. Often, we have places where we’ve already found them and it will take multiple years to dig them up and get them out of the ground because dinosaurs are just huge. So we’ll get big groups of volunteers to come out in the field with me — I don’t do this alone. We run a field camp in different places across the Rocky Mountains for weeks or months at a time, digging this stuff up, and eventually bringing it back to the museum.

The other part of my job is once all the fossils get back to the museum: I clean them up, put them together, and get them ready for research or exhibition or education. Whatever they need to be used for.

Credit: Rebecca Stumpf

Okay, so it’s not everyday you get called to dig up a triceratops in Denver. So what is a normal day like?
It depends on the time of year. We can’t do field work right now because it’s cold and snowy so from November to April. I spend a lot of time coming into the museum every day. We have over 150 volunteers that work in my lab. On any given day there can be 10-20 volunteers here helping us work on fossils and get them ready for research. When it’s field season time, we’re out running field camps for extended periods of time in the desert.

What does mealtime look like out in the desert?
It varies greatly by where we are doing the fieldwork. Obviously if someone finds a dinosaur in Denver, we’re eating at our houses. But when we have remote field camps in the back country, we wake up and I’ll decide what we’re going to make for breakfast. Together we’ll make something like pancakes and sausage. I usually have a cohort of interns there, so everybody helps prepare all the meals. There’s always someone who is like ‘Oh I make this at home, let me help cut up these vegetables or make the rice.’

What’s pretty cool about what we do is that, for better or worse, everybody is always together all the time. We eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner together; every meal that we prepare brings everyone together around the campfire. We don’t have a kitchen table. It’s really gives you an opportunity to get to learn more about everyone you’re working with.

Whether you’ve been picking, or hiking, or shoveling, everyone is just ravenous, as you can imagine. We always make sure we have big meals and something for everyone. People think of field work and assume we’re eating Spam or a can of beans. But we make really awesome grilled barbecue chicken, baked potatoes, and corn on the cob. Quantity is important. Everybody is always up for seconds so you want to make sure you have enough and that your crew is really well-fed so they want to do more hard work for you the next day.

Credit: Rebecca Stumpf

Where was your most recent dig?
We went to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, right on the border between Arizona and Utah. In my opinion it’s one of the last undiscovered frontiers of the United States. You are truly in the middle of nowhere, more than 20 miles away from any paved road at any given time.

So how does the grocery shopping work then? Sounds like you’d have to pack nearly everything ahead of time.
We often have to use a helicopter to lift in all of our meat and fresh produce. We’ll seal up a cooler. We can last on provisions for about two weeks and then eventually send a crew to hike out, drive to the town, go to the grocery store in some weird, small town and then come back in. By that time, we’re usually moving camp anyway so we can have another helicopter drop too.

Do you have a favorite field snack that keeps you at the top of your fossil-hunting game?
I eat a ton of junk food out in the field, which is terrible but I never eat like that when I’m at home! Everything tastes better when you’re hiking long distances with heavy backpacks all day. So you’re eating fruit snacks and granola bars and sandwiches and Doritos. Everybody has a favorite snack or food, so it’s important to make sure you’re buying something that caters to everyone’s likes when you’re out there and not just your own.

Credit: Rebecca Stumpf

How are you hydrating in the dessert?
Lots and lots of water, occasionally Gatorade. I’m definitely more of just a water person. I probably drink at least a gallon or more a day. That’s probably what you’re supposed to drink anyway, but it feels like a lot.

  • Biggest challenge in eating? Finances. We love to eat good quality food, but dang, it gets expensive. Also finding the time to prepare entire meals when work is hectic.
  • How much do you cook at home every week? We cook five days a week, sometimes less if it’s a busy work week.
  • 5 things on your grocery list every week? Sweet potatoes, yogurt, apples, coffee, greens.
  • Where do you shop, primarily? Sprouts and Kroger.
  • Top 3 default dinners? Pork tenderloin with sweet potatoes, pasta with vodka sauce, and grilled steak with avocado slices.
  • Last grocery item you splurged on? “Fancy” coffee.
  • Favorite drink? A really good cup of that “fancy” coffee with a splash of cream.
  • Best underrated snack? Cereal… and peanut butter and apple slices.
  • Favorite thing to eat while watching TV? Popcorn.
Credit: Rebecca Stumpf

Is the way you eat when you’re back home or in the office totally different?
I’m not much of a breakfast eater when I’m back here. I survive on coffee mostly for 10 hours a day, probably. I don’t know what I eat here! I’m definitely a grazer where I just snack on things all day until I get home for dinner. I don’t really eat meals while I’m at work. One of my go-tos though is that I eat a lot of yogurt and granola and a lot of peanut butter and apples.

You mentioned your food budget. What are grocery prices like in Denver?
Nobody becomes a paleontologist hoping to become a millionaire! I don’t even know if it’s Denver or just the whole country. It’s such a bummer because you want to be able to eat really well and buy the nicest proteins and produce but it all comes with such a high cost. I’ve also lived in Salt Lake City and weird small towns in Arizona. It’s the same across the country!

I grew up in the Midwest, but I haven’t lived there since I finished college. Living more out west, I’ve noticed the more eco-conscious way that people approach food here. When it’s affordable, I try to shop locally or go to farmers markets. I don’t know if I’d be doing the same thing or if there would be that much of an emphasis on it if I were still living in the midwest.

Credit: Rebecca Stumpf

Do you pack everything you eat or does the museum provide any snacks?
What’s really nice is that sometimes the museum will have catered breakfast or lunch for a long department meeting. Sometimes the days are just so jam-packed and chaotic and I have so much to get done that I don’t even have the time to sit down and enjoy eating lunch. I’m literally just shoving an apple in my mouth as I’m running from one part of the museum to the other.

You must really look forward to dinner time then!
[Laughs.] I usually eat dinner around 9 p.m. It’s always some iteration of the same thing, some kind of protein, starch, and salad. Last night I made tilapia, sweet potatoes, and then a salad. My husband (who is a teacher) gets home around 4:30 (and I get home around 7), so it’s great to have him get the dinner process started even before I’m there.

Thanks for sharing, Natalie. Follow her on Instagram.

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you about how they feed themselves and their families.We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. How do you overcome challenges to feed yourself? If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.