Alimentary, My Dear
Food for Thought
By Tamia Nelson
I've been thinking about food a lot lately. Since the truck broke down, in fact. It's going to be quite a while before the old chariot is back on the highway again. In the meantime, "town" is twelve miles down the roada long way to walk. So, while we wait for parts and paychecks to arrive, we'll just have to hike out to the little crossroads SER-STA-GRO a couple of miles away whenever we need milk. It's a good thing that I've got the food-gathering instincts of a chipmunk, collecting staple foods when times are easy and then hoarding them till needed. They're needed now.
Still, rationing food and making do aren't alien notions to anyone who's gone on long excursions into the bush. After the truck packed it in, I made an inventory to determine how many days of food we had on hand. While counting bags of black beans, my thoughts wandered back to all the other times I'd done this.
There were quite a few. I've been venturing into mountains and onto rivers for decades now. In that time I've had ample opportunity to study the aptitudes and attitudes people bring to camp cooking. Most folks fall into one of three categories.
The first are Survivalists. These folks eat to live, period. They take little pleasure in food. For a few, food is an enemy. An acquaintance of ours is one of these. She lives largely on steamed rice, which she eats at irregular intervals and only when she's sure no one is looking. Then she drives to the gym to pound the heavy bag for two hours in order to burn off the calories. She's afraid that she'll get fat. She doesn't have to worry, though. She's gotten thinner each year I've known her. The only food items she takes with her on backpacking and canoeing trips are concentrated energy bars and Rain Forest Crunch coffee. She usually comes back with nearly everything she left with, still unwrapped.
Until I took him in hand, Farwell was a Survivalist. He says he liked C-Rationseven the much-reviled Ham and Lima Beans!and he once spent ten days on the Northville - Lake Placid Trail with nothing to eat but 20 one-pound cakes of a patent Norwegian lifeboat ration. It looked, he remembers, like compacted sawdust, and the taste matched its appearance. No matter. "It was wonderful!" he told me. "No dishes to wash."
Foodies are the opposite end of the spectrum from Survivalists. While Survivalists eat to live, Foodies live to eat. They take great pleasure in planning and preparing camp menus. To Foodies, a seven-day trek into the back-of-beyond is a blank table waiting to be covered with food. It's a challenge. For some, it's even morea calling, perhaps. I'd fall in this category today, I suppose. But I'm not as far gone as some cooks I know. These five-star chefs prepare three-course meals at home and then seal them lovingly in
nitrogen-filled plastic bags, each neatly labelled with the particular day they're to be eaten. The ingredient list for every course is usually long and costly, running to such things as black truffles and hand-made pasta. Meals are served with first-flush estate-branded teas or splits of champagne. Ah, the good life!
Most folks, though, are neither Survivalists nor Foodies. Most folks are Just Gettin' By. They'll cook if they're forced to, but they'd rather let someone else make their meals. They appreciate good food, but they either don't know their way around a kitchen or have spent just enough time there to learn to hate it. This once described me. When I was twelve I was put to work in my parents' greasy spoon. Three years spent tending the deep-fat frier made mehow can I say this politely?an indifferent cook. Yes, it's true. I was once a food abuser.
Later, though, in a high mountain valley in the North Cascades, desperation turned my life around. I was a few days into a month-long Outward Bound course. I and my seven team-mates took turns doing the camp chores. The guys whose night it was to make dinner turned out something that I doubt even Farwell could have faced. I can't remember now exactly what it was, but the ingredients included peanut butter, uncooked oatmeal, and sardines. It reminded me painfully of the time I'd found myself taking care of 14 German Shepherd puppies, all of whom had something the vet called a "stomach virus." That night I made a bargain with my team-mates. I said I'd cook every dinner for the rest of the trip if they'd divvy up the remaining chores. I wasn't the only one who couldn't face Sardine Surprise, so we soon had a deal. Despite my history as a restaurant food abuser, I managed to make meals that everyone enjoyed. I wasn't being altruistic. It was defensive cooking, pure and simple. I was determined to get out of the mountains alive and healthy, and I did. Since then, my interest in cookery has grown and grown, with skill following fast on the heels of
curiosity and practice.
To be sure, camp cookery has many pitfalls. It's demanding in a way that cooking at home isn't, even if your home kitchen is like minemore akin to a yacht galley than something featured in a Bon Appétit photo spread. You can't just drive down to the corner convenience store if you forget to bring the corn oil, after all.
There are other trials, too. Camp stoves are small and often temperamental. My old Svea doubles as a blow-torch in the shop. Simmering on its one tiny burner is an art, and at least once a year it erupts in a spectacular fireball. And fuel is always limited. You have to haul all your provisions, keep them dry, and secure them against the best efforts of mice and bears. Most importantly, you can't afford to run out of food. Remember what happened to the Hubbard Expedition. You don't want that to happen to your party, do you? Of course not. It's no wonder that some canoeists and kayakers dread meal planning.
Poachers are a particular hazard to meal planners. We had one of these with us on a remote Canadian river. There were six in our party in all: two tandems and two solos. We were going out for a month, and each boat team made its own meal plans. One of the solo boaterslet's call him Halwas a "Make my steak very rare!" kind of guy. Then, for some unknown reason, he suddenly decided he'd have a go at becoming a vegan. About the only food he brought with him to the river was bulgur, a pre-cooked cereal made from wheat. Just two days into the trip, he realized that he couldn't face bulgur any more. It was deadly dull, especially since Hal didn't bring any seasonings. Then he swamped in a rapids. Moldy bulgur, he soon discovered, was even worse than dry. He definitely wasn't enjoying his meals.
As the rest of us tucked into our dinners, Hal would stare sullenly at us, looking like a resentful dog with a stingy master. We felt guilty, so we started feeding Hal from our own stores. Now we were resentful. Soon we were all on short rations and mealtimes were just another chore to get through. This could have been prevented. A month-long canoe or kayak trip isn't a good time to experiment with a new diet. At home, Hal was a halfway-decent cook. And he wasn't short of either cash or time. He was simply swept along by a fad, and too lazy to try out his new meals in advance. Hal paid the price. So did the rest of us.
Oddly enough, Foodies are seldom poachers. They like eating too much to rely on other people's planning. The happiest parties, in our experience, are parties of Foodies. Of course, nothing much can be done to persuade most Survivalists that cooking and eating can be rewarding, but there's hope for everyone else. Even Farwell saw the light, after allwith a little help from me. Still, not everyone can count on pairing up with a Foodie. Sometimes it necessary to help yourself. How?
Many people resort to expensive specialty foods, like freeze-dried and dehydrated entrees bought from outfitters. Others buy military-surplus MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat). They're not as bad as C-Rations, but they're not exactly haute cuisine, either. There are better (and cheaper) alternatives. What's the easiest one? Simple. Go shopping at your supermarket. There's never been so much to choose from. The shelves are loaded with a dizzying variety of conveniently packaged meals. Even novices can now eat well in the bush, and keep costs down into the bargain. All it takes is a little practice.
So, the next time you're in the grocery store, take time to browse the shelves. Read the labels. You want easy-to-prepare foods that don't require refrigeration. Most important of all, you want foods you know you like. Don't do your shopping at the end of a long day. Go when you're relaxed and unhurried. Allow yourself plenty of time. You won't make good decisions if you've got one eye on the clock.
Do you like the look of that box of Rice Pilaf, complete with spice packet? Toss it in the cart, along with a small can of chickenif you're going somewhere where cans are banned, substitute slivered almondsand perhaps a package of dried apricots. In camp, boil the rice, then stir in the chicken and chopped apricots. In minutes, you'll have a tasty, filling meal. Or does packaged "Quick-Cook" Cajun Red Beans with Rice look good? Go for it. Bring along some cheddar cheese to grate on top, and maybe a few tortillas to wrap it all up in. How about that packet of Noodles in Alfredo Sauce? You certainly can't beat the priceor the speed of preparation.
Let your imagination run free. Boxed or bagged entrees usually provide suggestions for extras to liven up the meal. Read them while you're in the store. When your cart is full, take your purchases home and practice preparing them in familiar surroundings. Don't be afraid to experiment. If the directions on the Noodles in Alfredo Sauce package call for milk, try substituting an equal amount of water, or mix up some dried milk and try that. And pay attention to portions. Remember that it's better to bring along a little too much than not to have enough. Leonidas Hubbard's ghost would certainly say "Amen!" to that.
Becoming a good camp cook isn't hard. Experiment. Make notes as you go along. Have fun with your food! Before you know it, you'll develop a repertoire of five to seven tested recipes. And be sure to squirrel away several prepackaged entrees in the back of your pantry. Who knows what might come up? A chance to go on an impromptu weekend trip to a place you've never been before. Or a broken-down truck that keeps you
tied to home. Either way, you'll be very glad you've spent time thinking about food.
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