Saturday, June 16, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Cooking in the Back Country

For hard core backpackers pack weight is a serious game, especially in challenging and endurance-taxing terrain like the Adirondacks.  Every pound you take on the trail is additional effort.  Every extra handful of ounces somehow magnifies the inevitable crushing drain on personal will that, after an extended day with miles yet to go, can cause you to feel as Jacob Marley must have, shambling on through eternity.

For some, saving weight elevates to a competitive and expensive sport, with ultra-light this and featherweight that.  Lemme tell you, that gear costs.   For the most extreme disciples of light-weight backpacking the quest becomes quasi-religious (and I can arguably drop the “quasi” part).   I’ve known people to cut down pencils to save a tenth of an ounce.

We all join the faithful at one time or another: who among we Adirondack hikers has not at least once felt a surge of joy and self-congratulatory satisfaction all out of keeping with the situation when we drained our last water, feeling and hearing our bottles jiggling around oh-so empty, oh-so mercifully airy?  “Ha!  I’m light now, thank God,” we say to ourselves.

Now if you have been reading my last series of Dispatches you know that my pack is not very full of gear.  I have previously confessed that my primary backpack is an ultralight and my pricey boots are pretty light too.   I ditch the tent in favor of a bivy sack, I leave behind many things that are on others’ essential lists.  Surely I consider myself a high priest of low-weight backpacking.

So here I am with a light pack less than half full and with only food to add.  There is a large selection of dehydrated backpacking food and much of it is very good (those of us who have been around a while can attest to the fact the these foods have come a long way, although no one has yet figured out how to dehydrate eggs so that when reconstituted they are anything less than wretched).  These pouches are the very definition of convenient, they weigh next-to-nothing and there is a large selection for various palates and diet restrictions.

So what do I put in my lightweight pack to provide fuel at the end of the day, yet adhere closely to my faith?

How about some onions, a couple peppers, a package of carrots, two large cans of Muir Glen tomatoes, a can of large olives, a jar of capers, a half-pint of cream, a bottle of Norton Malbec Reserve, a heavy-bottomed sauce pan, a large pot and two stoves?

Ladies and gentlemen, I am not an ultralight backpacker (except for the occasional stupid project like last-spring’s macho-hike).  I am a food-loving, meal-cooking, wine drinking, unrepentant flavor hedonist.  I highly recommend it.

I would like to say I long ago figured out that the extra suffering brought on by a heavy (or the case of the Christmas story I will share with you in December, obscenely heavy) pack is more than made-up for by the spirit-lifting rejuvenation of a delicious meal in the woods at the end (or beginning) of the day.  This is true and I would be honest enough were I to leave it at that.  But I would not be completely forthcoming.  You see, the real issue is that there is a food aesthetic on this Earth, just as surely as there is a wilderness aesthetic.  I cannot bring myself to violate either if I can help it.

What do I mean by a food aesthetic?  Well, for example, one should never eat crappy ice cream.  So many do, so often, and this sad fact is nothing less than a violation of our humanity, what with good ice cream such as Haagen Daz, Ben & Jerry’s and even Breyers Mint Chocolate Chip readily available.    There’s just no excuse for eating the typical commercial ice cream, loaded as it is with palm oil, whey solids, seaweed extract and diglycerides.

In my current home of Madison, Wisconsin ice cream is accepted as a cornerstone of artistic expression.  The University of Wisconsin, which naturally has a world-class dairy operation as part of their School of Agriculture, has its students make and market the oft-claimed “best in the world” Babcock Hall ice cream.  Trust me, it puts that Vermont stuff to shame.  But my favorite is a small commercial operation called the Chocolate Shoppe.  Figuring their butterfat content requires advanced calculus.  They have a sign in their store entitled Nutritional information which begins with the words “Don’t ask…” and another one that simply says “Nutritional information: You want nutrition, eat carrots.”    Nobody orders triple scoops because the stuff is so rich one risks lapsing into a coma.

Of course ice cream on the trail is a non-starter, so I suppose I’ve strayed off topic.  It just makes for a really good example. However the same thing can be said of wine, olive oil, mayonnaise… or tomatoes.

You lightweights can have your 24-pound packs.  Mine has canned tomatoes in it.  Now I have nothing against sun-dried tomatoes.  Those are light and they are great in dishes that call for or work with sun-dried tomatoes.  But there is no substitute for real tomatoes, cooked down the old fashioned way.  The plethora of fabulous sauces and preparations one can make with tomatoes makes them indispensable to me.   The complimentary ingredients to make a killer sauce: garlic, spices, a little olive oil, perhaps – weigh very little. If you are going to make a tomato-based sauce or dish, then you are called by sacred spirits to do it right.  Anything less is an affront to the food aesthetic.

Tomatoes are just one thing.  Don’t even get me started on dehydrated vegetables.

I don’t mean to come across as a lunatic (too late for regular readers, right?).  There are smart ways to pack food staples and treats that don’t add all that much weight but make an incredible difference in the quality and pleasure of the meal you create.  Basically, for something like a week-long trip I will save ten pounds in gear compared to many backpackers, then turn around and spend fifteen pounds more than they do on foodstuffs.  I have consistently argued for the importance of comfort at the end of the day.  The harder work of carrying some extra weight during the day is an easy choice for me.  If I can quit hiking at 4 PM and serve a dinner that delights the senses, maybe with wine or a little bourbon,  that is worth many miles to me and is a bargain I‘ll take any time.

I won’t get into too many specifics this time to spare you from an overlong Dispatch, but by way of an example here is a recipe that is a wonderful, extremely flavorful treat easy enough to do in the back country.  It can serve four hungry hikers, or make dinner and a leave second meal the next day for two.


Pasta with Capers


  • 1 16 oz package of pasta.  I prefer gemelli for this recipe as its bulky nature stands up well to the sauce, but farfalle or penne is fine too.
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes.  Muir Glen for me, but Hunts is pretty good too.
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed and finely chopped.  A bunch o’ garlic is mandatory in my pack. One head will last a long trip and weighs next to nothing.
  • ½ of a 6 oz can of large black olives, sliced.  You’ll have half the can left for another meal.  Olives keep well.
  • ½ of a 3.5 oz can of capers, chopped or crushed a little bit, but not too much.  You’ll have half a jar of capers left, they keep well too.
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper
  • Salt and black pepper to taste

Total carry-in weight of this recipe: approximately 2 lbs 11 oz if you don’t separate quantities, 2 lbs 6 oz if you do, under 2 lbs if you lose the grocery store packaging… I don’t bother with that.


If you have one stove or burner, cook the pasta first, toss it with a little olive oil and set aside.  If you have two burners make the sauce simultaneously and it will be ready at about the same time as the pasta.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the tomatoes (it is all-too easy to overheat olive oil on your backpacking stove and overheated olive oil is ruined in seconds flat, so be watchful, or if you prefer just add the tomatoes right away and heat the whole thing).  Turn the heat to high and cook down the tomatoes for three minutes, stirring frequently.  The key to a great tomato sauce is not hours of simmering, but rapid reduction over high heat.  After three minutes stir in everything else except salt and pepper and turn the heat to low.  Simmer for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Season to taste with salt and pepper and additional cayenne as your proclivity for heat dictates.  Toss in the pasta and serve.  Voila!  Food aesthetic honored!

This dish is good with a spicy Zinfandel.  I’m just saying…

Next week I’ll continue the food theme with a more specific discussion of a back-country pantry for a week-long trip.  Bon Appetite!

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

5 Responses

  1. John Sullivan says:

    Pete — Keep an eye out (I will try to help) later this year for reissue of THE HUNGRY HIKER’S GUIDE TO GOOD COOKING by Gretchen McHugh, which might allow you to get closer to that 24-pound pack without sacrificing good taste. THE HUNGRY HIKER was first published in 1982 and stayed in print for 25 years; I personally think it has no equal. Full disclosure: Gretchen McHugh is my wife. Her hiking days are over, but the book lives on. I’ll try to post you when it comes out.

  2. Cabin Life – #29 « Middle of the Trail says:

    […] reading Pete Nelson’s recent article on trail food, it reminded me of the best meal I have ever eaten.  I’m lucky to be in a family […]

  3. […] Food Ideas that may just satisfy the gourmet in all of us, even better the following article by Pete Nelson deals with lightweight backpacking foods although you can easily adapt his suggestions to any form […]

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