Monday, November 19, 2012

The Backpacking Boiler

In my last article, Black Beary Milkshakes, I briefly mentioned The Galloping Gourmet.  Later, it occurred to me that many of you might be unfamiliar with Chef Graham Kerr, who was the namesake and star of the live studio television show that ran from 1969-1971.  His signature entrance onto the stage involved running in and leaping over a dining room chair.  Chef Kerr’s nickname was acquired after taking a 35 day trek around the world with a wine expert named Len Evans.  The two men visited some of the finest restaurants in existence at the time and wrote a book at the end of their travels titled, The Galloping Gourmets.

My mother-in-law once said, “Gourmet just means the food is served with a rich sauce on it.”  Apparently, she wasn’t far from the truth when considering the early recipes of Chef Kerr routinely used large amounts of butter, cream and wines to flavor and coat his meals.  Of course, this was before our society was so aware that such fat-laden meals, while pleasing to the palate, weren’t the best choices for our hearts and health.

However, even with our current knowledge, we often chose foods, not for their nutritional value, but for how they will tantalize our taste buds or satisfy us emotionally.  We even have the term “comfort food”, which first entered our vocabulary in 1977, to describe food that is easily prepared, associated with home, contentment, or has a nostalgic or sentimental appeal.  Comfort foods are typically high in sugars or carbohydrates and are often used to alter our moods when we are sad, worried or homesick.  Besides, being chosen for taste or emotional needs, we also chose foods based on activity—we associate certain foods with certain activities.  Can you imagine a baseball game without hot dogs and peanuts or a campfire without marshmallows or s’mores?

The thru-hiker on the A.T. is not like The Galloping Gourmet, making meals from scratch in an elaborately equipped kitchen.  No, the thru-hiker is The Backpacking Boiler usually equipped with a small, titanium, 2 cup capacity pot with a lid that doubles as a fry pan, a spork, a mug, a cozy and a single burner alcohol stove made from a soda can or the more elaborate canister fuel stove with an adjustable flame.  The extravagant thru-hiker will carry such luxuries as a plate, micro-cooking utensils or larger pot.  Anything beyond these items is considered unnecessary and outlandish.  With these items, the Backpacking Boiler must make all the associated camping and comfort foods they can for their psychological well-being on the trail.

If you’ve never cooked using a 6” titanium fry pan, let me assure you that it requires a little bit of finesse to manage the heat dispensation.  I had read that it was different than using aluminum pans and that practice was advised before hitting the trail.  Since I am conducting a fuel test to estimate how long a fuel canister will last with my particular cooking habits, this is an ideal time to try out some basic trail recipes, practice with my cookware and micro-utensils. (Yes, I’m carrying these luxury items.)  The micro-utensils consist of a spatula with a roughly 2” x 2” head on a 4” handle and a matching spork, both made of a lightweight, high temperature nylon polymer.

I set up my stove and decided to try making some basic pan drop trail biscuits.  I’m thinking that if this experiment goes well, these biscuits would not only be good for breakfast with jam, honey or gravy, but could provide me with bread for lunch time mini sandwiches.  I mix the batter in a plastic Ziploc type bag to simulate trail conditions and plop the first dollop of batter into my skillet.  It’s immediately obvious that my pan is too hot even though the flame is low.  I turn the flame down even farther while lifting the pan up and away from the heat.  I continue to try to control the amount of heat the pan is transmitting to the batter and eventually attempt to flip the biscuit which is sticking to the pan.  When I manage to get the biscuit turned, a lovely dark charcoal circle is revealed.  Once the other side of the biscuit has had adequate time to brown, I remove this culinary masterpiece to my inverted small pot to cool a moment and shut off the stove.  Now for the taste test, mmmm…a bold burnt flavor covering a delightfully doughy middle; the dog loved it.

Okay, now I understand why practice is recommended and I’ve definitely learned from my first attempt, so let’s try again.  This time I decide to go for a thinner batter and try pancakes lightly greasing the pan first with some olive oil.  I’m so focused on trying to control the heat that I make the pancake too big to be successfully turned with my micro-spatula.  As I cut the pancake into smaller pieces that the spatula can handle, the remaining pieces begin to stick and are starting to burn.  I’m beginning to feel like the Jolly Green Giant trying to cook with Barbie’s Easy Bake Oven.  As the small wisps of smoke rise from the pan, I’m thankful the smoke detector is not too close to where I’m working. 

After finishing off the other side of my pancake puzzle pieces, I pour a little syrup on it and choke it down.  Not too bad; only one side was slightly burned and the syrup definitely helped.  I’m thinking, “Okay, use a little more oil, keep the pan moving over the flame for heat control and make small pancakes the spatula can handle and you’ve got it!  Good, because I don’t want to eat nothing but boil-a-bag meals for 6 months.”

The Backpacking Boiler’s specialty is, after all, boiling water.  We boil water to make instant coffee, tea or hot cocoa.  We boil water to make pasta, rice, oatmeal or grits.  And most importantly, we boil water to re-hydrate any number of pre-packaged meals, either commercially or homemade, that come in a plastic re-sealable bag.  This is where the cozy becomes a vital part of the hiker’s kitchen.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term ‘cozy’, (I was until my education of backpacking began), it is simply an insulated pouch in which to hold your meal bag, keeping it warm while the contents absorb a sufficient amount of liquid to become edible.  Most often, backpackers will make their own cozies out of those shiny, windshield sunscreens and duct tape or the really talented ones sew their cozy seams.

The other important part of this cooking method, sometimes called freezer bag cooking, is the bag holding the actual food.  If you are using one of the commercially prepared meals, you have no worries as their bags are more than adequately designed to handle the 212*F water.  However, if you are making your own dehydrated meals, you had better be sure your re-sealable bag can handle the heat; otherwise, dinner could end up in the dirt.

So, I boiled a couple cups of water and poured it into a one quart off-brand food storage bag that was not rated as a freezer bag which is much thicker.  I decided to let it sit for 15 minutes which is usually the longest amount of time any meal takes to rehydrate.  As a precaution against the bag failing the test, I placed it upright in a large measuring pitcher.  The bag became soft, but it held.

I figured while the bag was full, I should slip it into my homemade cozy and test the fit.  The bag fit wonderfully, but what I didn’t realize was that the bag was not totally sealed, so when I laid the cozy down and was securing the fold-over flap to close it, the slightly less than boiling water gushed out of the bag and splattered onto my sock covered foot sending me hopping across the kitchen for a hand-towel to dry my now burning toes.  Another lesson learned; ensure you bag is fully sealed or keep the cozy upright.
Burned biscuits, puzzle-piece pancakes and a hopping hot foot…yep, a successful day in the kitchen for this Backpacking Boiler.  Okay, so I don’t have the culinary competence of The Galloping Gourmet and I’ll be spending more time leaping over rocks and boulders than dining room chairs, but there is one thing I have in common with Chef Graham Kerr; my menu options will change over time.  Chef Kerr eventually altered his dishes to a fresher and healthier variety and after 6 months of trail food, I too, will make the move to a fresher menu and will once again enjoy the comfort foods of home.

*Photos courtesy of