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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Alimentary, My Dear

The Fat of the Land

By Tamia Nelson

August 15, 2006

Whether you're embarking on a weekend adventure or a Big Trip, you won't get far without fat. It may not look stylish if it accumulates around your midsection, but fat's a good friend when the going gets tough. It makes food taste better, and it's a superefficient source of calories. Fat's a superb fuel for active bodies, in other words, as well as a store of energy for lean times and an essential part of any balanced diet.

Of course, fat's gotten plenty of media attention in recent years. We hear a lot about "good fats" and "bad fats," for example — even if the boundary between the two seems to shift subtly with each new study. And not a week passes without some expert, somewhere, decrying the obesity epidemic in the developed world and putting most of the blame on the fat in our diet, while another expert, in another place, challenges the first expert's data or conclusions. What do I think? I'm afraid you'll have to include me out of these debates. I'm no expert. I'll leave the health advice to physicians and lifestyle gurus. Still, it's not a bad idea to know a little bit about some practical matters, so let's start by…

Chewing the Fat

Different fats are, well, different. Their melting points vary, often dramatically. Some are liquids at room temperature. These are called oils. Others are solids. These are simply known as fats, though you'll see some solid fats labeled as shortening on the shelves of your local HyperMart. I'll use the word "fat" for both. And unless you eat only rice and lettuce, you'll be hard-pressed to avoid fat altogether. But why would anyone want to? Ounce for ounce, fat has more than twice the food energy of either carbohydrate or protein. It's the most efficient fuel for paddlers' engines, in other words. Moreover, many of our favorite foods contain fat in abundance. Nuts and peanuts are fat-rich, for example, as are most meats (and meat sausage) and many fish, along with cheeses, eggs, butter, and chocolate. Some foods are pure fat, in fact — canola and olive oils, for instance.

The upshot? Whatever your menu, and however skinny you are, you'll be hauling fat into the backcountry on every trip. But fats and fatty foods present the paddler with unique challenges. If a bag of couscous bursts open in your pack, cleaning up should be a snap, but if a bottle of corn oil cracks, you'll find yourself hoping that your sleeping bag stuff sack is oilproof as well as waterproof. Even fatty foods like cheese often prove slippery customers, particularly in warm weather. Tight lids and doubled bags are a must. Fats can also make quite a mess in the camp kitchen. They drip or flame when heated directly over an open fire. Or they sizzle and pop in the skillet, burning the cook's hands and face and leaving stubborn stains on clothing that no amount of washing can remove. Is that all? Nope. There's probably no better way to say "Come an' get it!" to any passing bear or raccoon than to leave fat-encrusted pots lying around your campsite. Washing up after each meal isn't simply a matter of aesthetics and hygiene. Unless you like the idea of playing host to a sociable bear when he drops into camp for a midnight supper, it's plain common sense.

But I'm getting ahead of my story. Let's go back to the beginning. You're in your kitchen…

Packing for a Trip

The first principle? Repackage. Not only is store packaging often unnecessarily bulky and heavy, but it's seldom up to the rough-and-tumble of life in a pack. You might not think so, but fats are fragile. Heat, light, even the oxygen in the air — all of these are threats. Fats left at their mercy become rancid sooner or later, and few people find rancid fat appetizing. "Sooner or later"? Isn't that a little ambiguous? Well, some fats go downhill faster than others. Oils are typically more stable than solid fats, many of which require refrigeration. Unfortunately, refrigerators are hard to find once you leave the put-in behind you, and while soft coolers and ice blocks will keep foods cool for a weekend, they're not much use after the ice has melted. And even fats that don't require refrigeration will suffer if left in the sun. That's why the best food packs are both opaque and light-colored.

But what can you do about the all-pervading oxygen? How can you keep fats and fatty foods away from the air around us? That's easy. The answer is the same as the one-word career advice that Benjamin Braddock received from a family friend in the movie The Graduate


Versatile stuff, plastic. It leaves most other packaging materials in the dust. Glass is heavy and breakable. Moreover, glass containers are prohibited by the managing authorities in many popular paddling areas. What about paper and cardboard? Add a little water, and they turn to mush. Metal? Aluminum butter-safes were once common, but they were heavier than plastic and the seals were prone to rot. Don't bother looking for one today anyplace except a surplus store. Until the cheap petroleum that's the feedstock for the petrochemical industry runs out, therefore, plastic has the field pretty much to itself.

Still, plastic isn't perfect. It's not completely impermeable, and it's easy to tear. That's why it makes sense to double-bag most fats and fatty foods. Ziploc® bags (or one of their many imitators) make ideal envelopes for nuts, chocolate, cheese, and some meats. To minimize the likelihood that lightning will strike twice in the same place, stagger the openings when double-bagging. Of course, plastic bags aren't always up to the job. Butters — whether nut, dairy, or vegetable-oil imitations — travel better in rigid, air-tight plastic containers of the sort made popular by Tupperware® and now sold under scores of brand names. So do many meats. (A hint: Be sure to bag the sealed container. Lids have been known to pop off when stuffed in a pack. The bag keeps the resulting mess confined.) Maybe you remember refillable tubes. These were popular in the '60s and '70s, and they crop up from time to time in the catalogs nowadays. They've pretty much fallen out of fashion, however. And for good reason. The tubes were the devil to clean, and the slide closures had a disconcerting habit of letting go in mid-squeeze. Good riddance, I say.

Thinking about reusing and recycling plastic bags and containers from home? Good idea. But never reuse soiled plastic bags for anything but garbage, and don't try to reuse rigid plastic food containers for any other purpose than holding food. In other words, once a plastic container's been used to store food of any sort, it's a food container for the rest of its days. Scrub all you want. You'll never eliminate the smell of food so completely that a hungry animal won't catch a whiff. And do you really want Old Bruin scarfing your first-aid kit? I didn't think so.

At the other end of spectrum from recycled produce bags are high-tech vacuum sealing systems like FoodSaver®. They work well, and they have many fans. The only problem? They can't easily be resealed in the field. Portion control is therefore a must. High-tech or low, however, rest assured that some fat will find its way onto the outside of every storage bag and container. Don't give up trying to keep the stuff confined, though. Expel any excess air. Make absolutely sure that all caps and lids are tight. And double-bag all bottled oils. You'll lose the battle in the end, but at least you'll have fought the good fight. Nonetheless, sooner or later you'll face…

Cleaning Up

Prevention, as always, is easier than cure. In addition to double bagging and testing every seal, use only as much oil or fat as you need in cooking, and treat used fat like your own…ahem…solid waste: pack it out in an airtight container or (where permitted) bury it at least 150 feet (30 double-step paces) from your camp and any stream, pond, bog, or lake. This is a minimum distance, by the way. How do you imagine you'll feel if you waken to find a bear digging up your old fat only 50 yards from where you're sleeping? And that's not the only danger. If you cook over an open fire, take care to burn off any fat on grills or fire-pans. A final hint: Wait till hot fat cools before pouring or scraping it into a plastic bag.

Personal hygiene enters the picture, too. Sloppy eaters frequently find themselves entertaining uninvited midnight guests. After all, a single sausage sandwich can leave smears of grease on paddle, clothing, boat and packs, and each smear advertises the availability of a free meal. The moral of the story? Good housekeeping is as important in the backcountry as it is at home. And a perfunctory swipe with a hand towel isn't enough. You need soap or detergent to remove fat from pots and hands. Towelettes work for quick on-water clean-ups, but be sure to pack used towelettes out in a tightly sealed container. In camp, you can afford to be more thorough. Just be sure you set up your kitchen sink well away from your tent. 'Nuff said?

Fat isn't an enemy. In fact, it's a good friend to active canoeists and kayakers. And where would paddling anglers be without an occasional fried shore lunch? Condemned to endure a lean and hungry — and rather pointless — semiaquatic ritual, that's where. We may be creatures of the water, at least part-time, but we can never afford to forget that we need to eat of the fat of the land. In moderation, of course. But then that's the secret of most things, isn't it?

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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