Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Problem Preparation

As if food wasn't enough of a problem all in itself, it has to be prepared. Think about how odd this is, and how different food is from anything else you carry. Ready yet? OK, if not, then follow this.

Everything else you take with you is ready to go. Food isn't. By ready to go I mean it's already been made, tested, refined, buffed, smoothed, polished, painted, packaged, and improved. Again and again.

Food isn't like that. Food is one-off. Food is a throwback (sometimes literally). Each meal is unique. Each meal is hand made. Each meal is assembled from parts, while you wait. No other gear you take along is like that.

Whoa. What?

Some explanation first. For me everything is a tool. That would explain my car, if you ever happened to see it. Not that there is anything wrong with it, or even noticeable. But my car might be something different than what you expected. Part one is: I don't care what you think about my car. Part two is: Form follows function. Part three is: Read parts one and two.

For me it's about utility. A car needs to be capable of transporting me safely, capable of carrying the minimum load I need to transport, reliable, cheap to operate, and affordable enough to buy. After that I'll choose on looks if I have a choice, but that usually boils down only to color. In other words, I don't care about racing stripes or tail fins. My first two cars had no radio. OK by me.

I have the same attitude toward everything else though the criteria change. Clothing, housing, computers, cameras, tents, packs, friends. You name it. Food too. What meets my needs works. The rest is the rest, and you can have it.

So food is a tool, one which requires trailside assembly. Nothing else I carry is like that. This feature poses some problems. My previous post dealt with the aspects inherent in food itself. This time around I'm thinking about the process of turning food into a useful form rather than about food itself.

Let's break this down into two aspects. Let's call these cooking versus no cooking. They are like two separate worlds. Like the early days of the western hemisphere when books showed native inhabitants with their faces in their abdomens. Same planet, same human beings, sort of, but different worlds. Cooking and not cooking are like that.

Cooking is an issue in itself. Fuel, fire, pots, mixing, stirring, heating, cooling, eating, washing up: these are all points where serious problems can collect. If you have to cook something you have to decide what sort of cooking it's going to be. Boiling, steaming, frying, baking, roasting, simmering, steeping, and then juggle all the gizmos and do the timing and all that crap.

Summary: every sort of cooking is odd and tricky.

The more parts your food comes in the more problems you have, compounded by the complexity of the cooking process. Let's say that if you have to cook, or to approximate cooking, then steeping is probably the way to go. I just invented this term so let's say that steeping means adding hot water to food that's otherwise ready to go. Let's shorten this a bit more and say you'll probably usually dump hot water into a ziplock bag containing food, let it sit for a while, then eat it.

This is hard to beat. I've gotten to the point that I no longer carry even a spoon on my trips.

I mix hot water, food, and wait. Some food requires massaging in the bag to mix ingredients and water but that is about all it takes, except for the waiting. Sometimes it takes (or seems to take) way too long to cool. Anyway when the food is done I roll the bag's top to make sure it won't pop open, then tear off one bottom corner with my teeth and squeeze out food. If you like eating toothpaste then you know how this works. Instant mashed potatoes work best.

Hot meals don't get easier. I never touch the food, don't dirty any pots or utensils, don't expend effort on moving food from plate to mouth. If you're old enough to read you've forgotten how tricky it is to get food into your mouth while using a spoon. On the trail you get reminded pretty often. If you're having a really bad day you'll knock over the cooking pot and lose a whole meal. If not then the occasional spoonful will make a break for it before it meets your tongue.

Bag food is simpler.

OK, that takes care of cooking pretty much. I'll let it all go while mentioning only that I've tried steaming muffins a time or two and that works pretty well. But like anything even remotely resembling real cooking, it's messy and awkward on the trail.

That leaves the other half of the food preparation world, the not cooking. Not-cooking is sort of split in two as well.

One half is factory-made food, or food you've prepared yourself. The other half is food requiring no preparation at all. This is pretty much a non-issue. If you peel a candy bar or granola bar and eat it, just take care of the wrapper. If you eat a handful of raisins, deal with the bag you put them in.

Enough said.

The only wrinkle is dealing with food that has to be prepared a little but doesn't need heat. Some foods you can add water to and eat. Bulgur wheat can work this way, and it's possible to eat this cold but it's much better hot. Let's pull the plug and call it cooking. Even without heat.

Maybe a slight variation of this variation is sticking a bag of food inside your shirt in hopes of warming it a bit, in case it's really cold. The food gets lukewarm on one side at best, and not better, so don't bother.

Back to the beginning then. Cooking versus not cooking. Consider those the options. I cook as little as possible. It works. I can deal with it. If you like to cook, then I have some links for you. Be well. Eat hearty. Come backpacking with me sometime. I'd like to watch you fuss with your pots and pans, and maybe kick one over. That could be fun.

References: (from One Pan Wonders)

One Pan Wonders "Backcountry Cooking at its Finest".
Freezer Bag Cooking "Outdoor Food Simplified".

Alpine Aire Foods.
Barking Buffalo.
Emergency Essentials.
Harmony House Foods.
Just Tomatoes, Etc.!
King Arthur Flour.
My Spicer.
Recipe Zaar.
True Lemon.
Walton Feed.


  1. Thanks for the reference to my site! :)