It's been years since City Pages food writer Rachel Hutton last indulged in freeze-dried camp food. She was camping with a friend who was dating a guy in the military so they packed what the military calls Meals Ready to Eat (or MREs). Each meal had a snack-sized packet of Skittles and a Barbie-scale bottle of Tabasco.
What does this have to do with camp food? It's all the same damn thing. The people who make the freeze-dried camp food make the MREs. The "chicken or beef slime" Hutton remembers from her Boundary Waters adventures ages ago is the ancestor to the gruel we put before her at the Recession Vacation Research Laboratory.
Hutton submitted herself to 13 varieties of just-add-water delights. As she choked it down, she told us a bit about how she does camp food. Here are some highlights:
Rachel is joined by RVRL volunteers Laurel, Melissa, Daniel, and me.
ON THE TABLE: Mary Jane's Farm Wild Forest Mushroom Couscous
Rachel Hutton: I just tried a mushroom and I couldn't bite it.
Me: We cooked it beyond the suggested time.
Rachel: The couscous is a little sticky, not fluffy, like it should be. Couscous is really the ideal camp food. You just need hot water. If you want to have organic wild forest mushroom couscous, couldn't you just assemble it yourself? Isn't this like nine dollars?
ON THE TABLE: Backpacker's Pantry Italian Beef Pasta
Rachel: Oh, I don't like the dehydrated peppers--reminds me of those boxed salads. Remember Suddenly Salad with that little spice pack of the dried herbs?
Maybe if I had been hiking all day I'd be happy to eat this.
When I hike, it's never far enough that I care if I'm lugging a few extra pounds. Usually, I just pack say, angel hair pasta, and instead of tomato sauce I make a Thai peanut sauce with peanut butter, garlic and soy sauce. Sometimes I'll just bring leftovers, like roasted vegetables--or I'll pack a can of garbanzo beans. Oh, and I always have instant oatmeal for breakfast.
ON THE TABLE: Backpacker's Pantry Organic Pesto Tofu
Melissa: What's the pesto part? Those tiny green flecks?
Rachel: This has absolutely no flavor.
ON THE TABLE: Mountain House Spaghetti with Meat Sauce
Rachel: (Looking at the ingredient list) Huh, this has zero trans fats.
Laurel: That's more than you can say for many of these.
Rachel: Oh this is very Chef Boyardee. The meat is unnecessary. It just makes it worse.
Me: I cannot lie, I could finish this.
ON THE TABLE: Mountain House Chicken Breasts & Mashed Potatoes
Me: Well this is just plain nasty.
Melissa: You have to eat it because I fished the chicken out of its dirty water.
Rachel: (Looking at two complete chicken breasts, just re-hydrated) I went to a live bird market where you actually kill the chicken yourself and this is more disgusting.
Laurel: Do they chop off the head?
Rachel: No they just go for the jugular.
Laurel: I'm kind of digging this in a processed food kind of way.
Rachel: (Taking a whiff from the package) I think this one most resembles cat food.
ON THE TABLE: Natural High Beef Enchilada
Rachel: This tastes like a combination of Textured Vegetable Protein, leftover oatmeal, and corn tortillas.
She leans over and plucks a few blades of grass, then puts the grass in her mouth.
Let me compare...yeah, about the same.
Melissa: You know we have dogs here, right?
Rachel: (Unfazed) The packaging makes all of this food look so good. Look at this imagery. I'm getting lakes and flowers and llamas--like I'm going to be transported to Nepal or something.
It's funny--one would think with the strides we've made in the American culinary scene that it would have trickled down to camping food. The market of consumers for this stuff probably overlaps heavily with people who spend a lot of money on food and wine. Oh my god, they don't have dehydrated wine do they?*
* Answer: yes.
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