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In the climbers' register at Kulshan Cabin, a log shelter near the base of Hogsback Ridge on Mount Baker, there is a brief entry by a Seattle foursome newly down off the mountain's summit. Appended to the usual comments on weather and crevasses is a simple ode to the processors of concentrated foods. It reads, "Climbed the mountain, two-day trip on under 4 lbs. total food weight, great! Good meals, beefsteak, eggs, bacon, the works."
Anybody whose shoulders have grown raw under a heavy packboard, or who has been forced to throw out spoiled meats lugged 30 miles on foot, will add his own hurrah. For the backpacker's food problem, toughest poser of any long-range hiking, camping or climbing trip, has at last been solved by a new method of food processing called freeze-drying—a process that pharmaceutical houses have been using for many years to preserve sensitive water-soluble drugs, blood plasma and serum.
Freeze-drying is the gentlest technique yet devised for preserving foods. It causes far less change in flavor, texture and fragrance than heat-drying, canning or conventional freezing. Both raw and prepared foods are first quick-frozen at very low temperatures and then dried in vacuum chambers where ice crystals are sublimated, or transformed directly into water vapor and withdrawn without an intermediate melting step. As much as 98% of the moisture is removed, and the foods are protected against adverse chemical, enzymatic and microbial changes. A pound of meat ends up weighing four ounces. High-water-content foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are more spectacular: a head of cabbage ends up looking like a spoonful of dried herbs. But, since the porous cellular structure of the food remains, reconstitution is quick and most nutritive values are preserved. Preparation time varies from one minute to half an hour, and the cooking usually means only soaking, then simmering or saut�ing. There is no long wait, no work, no waste, and very little unburnable residue (some foil packs, some aluminum cans) to carry out.
The leader in dehydration research is the Army Quartermaster Food & Container Institute, but the end result is as far removed from powdered eggs as Korea is from Le Pavilion. Profiting from the Army's example, a number of concerns now are in the business of providing highly concentrated foods in hundreds of varieties for outdoorsmen, sold in sporting goods stores or by mail. (DriLite's March 1963 mail-order form lists 62 items, variously packed in serving portions for two to eight persons.) And racing after them are the suppliers of the supermarkets: Armour, Campbell, Wilson, Lipton and Knorr and Maggi soups—all of whom see a potential for freeze-drying greater than that of today's multi-billion-dollar frozen-food industry. While 50 million housewives are the ultimate goal of these processors, the outdoorsman is today's benefactor.
The American Mount Everest expedition carried hundreds of pounds of freeze-dried foods. They make an ideal survival food cache for a small plane, and are useful as reserve food on a boat, for extended automobile trips into remote areas, and for canoe trips. They are popular with big game hunters, high lake fishermen, fire watchers, foreign missionaries, explorers and scientists on expedition—with anyone, in fact, who is removed from reliable fresh food sources.
On the oldtime backpack trip with fresh or canned food, the member in charge of supplies figured three to four pounds of food and cooking gear per man per meal. The new foods shrink this to one pound per man per day. One hiker in a party of four now can carry all the food for the group on a week-long trip. One man can carry, without spoilage, concentrated foods equivalent to a load of fresh and canned food on the back of a packhorse. And that one pound of daily ration can consist of this variety: one ounce each of eggs, fruit, bacon, soup, vegetable and milk; two ounces each of meats, potatoes, shrimp creole, Spanish rice and pudding. There is no odor to the foods until heat seals are broken, and thus no enticement for marauding ants, bears and mice.
With all these benefits, it seems ungrateful to quibble about the faint cottony texture of string beans and a lack of spice in the chili. Armour Star Lite might be criticized for the bulk of its products, which is not much less than that of fresh foods. Fragile freeze-dried pork chops, beefsteaks and other whole meats are inclined to chip and crush unless knapsacked with care.
Indisputably, too, the foods will remove some of the challenge from situations in which man pits himself against the forces of nature, but all progress has its regrettable side. I once asked a famous mountaineer what he carried in the way of supplies on his long, one-man backpack expeditions into Washington's Cascade Range. He answered, "I don't go into the mountains to eat. I eat when I get back out again." He would take with him on a week-long series of summit climbs only a few flat tins of sardines, some six-ounce cans of grapefruit juice, a couple of large bars of chocolate and two pounds of powdered brewers' yeast as a source of protein and B vitamins.
For the less dedicated but better-fed woodsman, a few old-fashioned ingredients still must be carried in addition to packs of freeze-dried meals. Because fat deteriorates rapidly, some concentrated foods contain none. And fat, as any dieter can tell you, brings out much of the flavor and juiciness of meat. Canned butter, or better-keeping margarine, and canned bacon or the new bacon bars (Wilson & Co. cooks and presses one pound of bacon into a three-ounce bar) add a great deal to freeze-dried foods. Fat should be used abundantly with the meats, which are fat-and bone-trimmed and dry. Spread steaks and chops and patties on both sides with butter before you fry, and do not try to barbecue. Almost all the chewy-textured fruits are packed unsweetened and thus require sugar. Incidentally, fruits improve with overnight soaking in preference to the short simmer time specified on labels.
A plastic shaker is vital to thorough dissolution of citrus-fruit crystals and tomato juice powders, which show a stubborn disinclination to give in completely when stirred in a camp cup. One-pot whole-meal dishes can be concocted inexpensively out of such extending combinations as instant potatoes added to soups, dehydrated cooked meat and a spoonful of onion-soup mix stirred into instant rice, and almost any reconstituted soup used as liquid with instant rice. The soups, by the way, are the most successful of all dehydrated products. Knorr's cream of leek soup, excellent when hot, turns into vichyssoise when chilled—a rare luxury in a canoe. Campbell's Red Kettle line of dry soup mixes, which come in little two-ounce cans, includes a cream of mushroom which serves as a very good white sauce in the field. Wilson's meatballs are delicious floated in beef noodle soup. Sweetened applesauce stirred into instant rice makes a very acceptable pudding. Vegetables are improved by the addition of a bouillon cube.