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Wednesday Food: How To Eat In The Woods

It occurs to me how similar backpacking is to giving birth.  In your mind it exists as something exciting and meaningful– of course it’s exhausting, even painful, but you always rationalize it will be worth the effort.  When you’re in the midst of it you recognize all the gaping holes of misery your memory conveniently omitted.

Logistically, this excursion was frustrating.  I took evening flights with no time cushion to rendezvous with family, leaving everyone poorly rested.  There wasn’t enough time to acclimate the first night at the 10,000 ft trailhead, and we hiked in after a 3pm arrival, just in time to set up camp in the dark.  We expected overnight temperatures to hover above freezing, but they plunged to lower 20s and our bags were hardly sufficient for keeping warm.  A modest summit at New Army Pass hinged on disaster when we got stuck in a thundercloud that dumped rain, sleet, and snow on our thin windbreakers and ungloved fingers.  Turns out the ‘Wintry Mix’ phenomenon I thought nonexistent in the Golden State is alive and well.  And bear canisters– cumbersome and heavy, the damn things violate every rule of lightweight packing.

Bear canisters are big plastic vessels that are impenetrable by bears and virtually unbreakable.  They have a simple opening mechanism that requires opposable digits and therefore are unyielding to any fuzzy woodland critters. They weigh more than a tent and barely fit in a pack, and are surprisingly expensive so you’re likely to have to rent one.  But when properly used, they keep bears and campers distanced from one another– good for the campers, but especially good for the bears.

On this occasion my bear canister was packed with the requisite nut and fruit mixtures, bars, hot chocolate (mini marshmallows!), and a few more ambitious meal ingredients…

CURRIED COUSCOUS

On a recommendation from my bike camping post I made a point to try out a couscous dish.  Very basic, the plan was to cook the couscous, add a few shakes of curry (pill boxes work well for seasonings, and all the Vicodin and Diamox you’ll need!), some slivered almonds, raisins, and sliced green onion.  The couscous cooked quickly, did not require excessive water or fuel, and was a welcomed change from dehydrated food.  With the supplemental ingredients it made for a well-rounded meal.  Note– Backpacker’s Pantry makes a Cajun Chicken product which is the single most disgusting thing I’ve eaten from a package, primarily because a single serving contains 1940mg of sodium.

SOBA NOODLE SALAD

A great idea, a tasty result, and hell in between.  Our second night amongst the marmots, my sister pulled from her canister a box of soba, a package of Silken extra firm, lime, a few shallots, and film canisters of soy sauce and oil. We cubed the tofu, used the packaging as a cutting board for thinly slicing shallots, sauteed both in oil, and then transfered and covered them to cook the soba noodles.  Years of experience failed to remind us that soba noodles– in all their starch-heavy buckwheat glory– need thorough rinsing after they’ve been cooked.  Without a healthy flush the noodles congeal in their own starch until you have the beginnings of a promising papier-mâché adhesive.  Under normal circumstances this is unproblematic, but standing in an isolated meadow with your flushing source limited to purified water from a lake, you’re shit out of luck.

With no other options we patiently purified and heated enough water to rinse the gum from the noodles, and strained it with the lid of a pot.

When respectable, the noodles were tossed with the soy sauce, oil, and lime, the cooked tofu and shallots, and topped with a handful of sesame seeds– that my sister trekked garnish up a mountain is evidence of her gustatory commitment.  That she also pulled a Tetra Pak of wine from her pack is evidence of her commitment to my happiness.  Thanks, Ness.

In the end, the soba noodle experiment took all afternoon, and great physical exertion (pumping water is not for the faint of heart).  It was satisfying, tasted like wholesome, hot food when we were cold and exhausted.  But for the circumstances of backpacking it was totally unreasonable.

For now I’m continuing my search for great lightweight recipes.  There are so many obstacles– altitude for boiling, water supply, weight and volume of ingredients and tools, fuel, nutritional value– that it’s certainly easier to resign yourself to instant soup.  But I’ve got to believe there’s a better way to eat in the woods.

Maybe I can start dehydrating homemade meals, or I just haven’t stumbled upon the perfect combination of ingredients.

Backpacking is a dream: the sublime views, the bucolic serenity, the great peace of unplugging from technology, the cleansing exhilaration of daunting physical feats.  You always miss it as soon as you’re relieved that it’s over.

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September 28, 2011 - Posted by | Wednesday Food

4 Comments

  1. Your commitment to eating well despite being out in the wilderness is astounding. If my wife and I have all the makings for a meal purchased and ready in the fridge, there’s a 50/50 chance we’ll say, “It’ll hold until tomorrow. Let’s go out for dinner.”

    Comment by Matt in Toledo | September 29, 2011

  2. And once it is tomorrow, do you say ‘it’ll hold til tomorrow’ again?

    I really love wednesday has refound its place just before thursday. I even think about taking up cooking.

    Comment by Guido Nius | September 29, 2011

  3. Guido Nius – If it truly will, it’s certainly a possibility.

    Comment by Matt in Toledo | September 29, 2011

  4. This reminds me of when my father would go camping with me, and would go through all the steps to brewing coffee. Not stirring some Instant- he’d bring along filters he cut in half and could spear with sticks to hold against the thermos (meanwhile I’d be munching on cold PopTarts).

    Comment by Brandon (@brandonthebuck) | October 12, 2011


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