Alimentary, My Dear
The Fat of the Land
By Tamia Nelson
August 15, 2006
Whether you're embarking on a weekend
adventure or a Big Trip, you
won't get far without fat. It may not look stylish if it accumulates around
your midsection, but fat's a good friend when the going gets tough. It makes
food taste better, and it's a superefficient source of calories. Fat's a
superb fuel for active bodies, in other words, as well as a store of energy
for lean times and an essential part of any balanced diet.
Of course, fat's gotten plenty of media attention in recent years. We
hear a lot about "good fats" and "bad fats," for example even if the
boundary between the two seems to shift subtly with each new study. And not
a week passes without some expert, somewhere, decrying the obesity epidemic
in the developed world and putting most of the blame on the fat in our diet,
while another expert, in another place, challenges the first expert's data
or conclusions. What do I think? I'm afraid you'll have to include me out of
these debates. I'm no expert. I'll leave the health advice to physicians and
lifestyle gurus. Still, it's not a bad idea to know a little bit about some
practical matters, so let's start by
Chewing the Fat
Different fats are, well, different. Their melting points vary, often
dramatically. Some are liquids at room temperature. These are called oils.
Others are solids. These are simply known as fats, though you'll see some
solid fats labeled as shortening on the shelves of your local HyperMart.
I'll use the word "fat" for both. And unless you eat only rice and lettuce,
you'll be hard-pressed to avoid fat altogether. But why would anyone want
to? Ounce for ounce, fat has more than twice the food energy of either
carbohydrate or protein. It's the most efficient fuel for paddlers' engines,
in other words. Moreover, many of our favorite foods contain fat in
abundance. Nuts and
peanuts are fat-rich, for example, as are most meats (and meat sausage)
and many fish, along with cheeses,
eggs, butter, and chocolate.
Some foods are pure fat, in fact canola and olive oils, for instance.
The upshot? Whatever your menu, and however skinny you are, you'll be
hauling fat into the backcountry on every trip. But fats and fatty foods
present the paddler with unique challenges. If a bag of couscous
bursts open in your pack, cleaning up should be a snap, but if a bottle of
corn oil cracks, you'll find yourself hoping that your sleeping bag stuff
sack is oilproof as well as waterproof. Even fatty foods like cheese often
prove slippery customers, particularly in warm weather. Tight lids and
doubled bags are a must. Fats can also make quite a mess in the camp
kitchen. They drip or flame when heated directly over an open fire.
Or they sizzle and pop in the skillet, burning the cook's hands and face and
leaving stubborn stains on clothing that no amount of washing can remove. Is
that all? Nope. There's probably no better way to say "Come an' get it!" to
bear or raccoon than to leave fat-encrusted pots lying around your
campsite. Washing up after each meal isn't simply a matter of aesthetics and
hygiene. Unless you like the idea of playing host to a sociable bear when he
drops into camp for a midnight supper, it's plain common sense.
But I'm getting ahead of my story. Let's go back to the beginning. You're
in your kitchen
Packing for a Trip
The first principle? Repackage. Not only is store packaging often
unnecessarily bulky and heavy, but it's seldom up to the rough-and-tumble of
life in a pack. You might not think so, but fats are fragile. Heat, light,
even the oxygen in the air all of these are threats. Fats left at
their mercy become rancid sooner or later, and few people find rancid fat
appetizing. "Sooner or later"? Isn't that a little ambiguous? Well, some
fats go downhill faster than others. Oils are typically more stable than
solid fats, many of which require refrigeration. Unfortunately,
refrigerators are hard to find once you leave the put-in behind you, and
while soft coolers and ice blocks will keep foods cool for a weekend,
they're not much use after the ice has melted. And even fats that don't
require refrigeration will suffer if left in the sun. That's why the best
food packs are both opaque and light-colored.
But what can you do about the all-pervading oxygen? How can you keep fats
and fatty foods away from the air around us? That's easy. The answer is the
same as the one-word career advice that Benjamin Braddock received from a
family friend in the movie The Graduate
Versatile stuff, plastic. It leaves most other packaging materials in the
dust. Glass is heavy and breakable. Moreover, glass containers are
prohibited by the managing authorities in many popular paddling areas. What
about paper and cardboard? Add a little water, and they turn to mush. Metal?
Aluminum butter-safes were once common, but they were heavier than plastic
and the seals were prone to rot. Don't bother looking for one today anyplace
except a surplus
store. Until the cheap
petroleum that's the feedstock for the petrochemical industry runs out,
therefore, plastic has the field pretty much to itself.
Still, plastic isn't perfect. It's not completely impermeable, and it's
easy to tear. That's why it makes sense to double-bag most fats and fatty
foods. Ziploc® bags (or one of their many imitators) make ideal
envelopes for nuts, chocolate, cheese, and some meats. To minimize the
likelihood that lightning will strike twice in the same place, stagger the
openings when double-bagging. Of course, plastic bags aren't always up to
the job. Butters whether nut, dairy, or vegetable-oil imitations
travel better in rigid, air-tight plastic containers of the sort made
popular by Tupperware® and now sold under scores of brand names. So do
many meats. (A hint: Be sure to bag the sealed container. Lids have been
known to pop off when stuffed in a pack. The bag keeps the resulting mess
confined.) Maybe you remember refillable tubes. These were popular in the
'60s and '70s, and they crop up from time to time in the catalogs nowadays.
They've pretty much fallen out of fashion, however. And for good reason. The
tubes were the devil to clean, and the slide closures had a disconcerting
habit of letting go in mid-squeeze. Good riddance, I say.
Thinking about reusing and
recycling plastic bags and containers from home? Good idea. But never
reuse soiled plastic bags for anything but garbage, and don't try to
reuse rigid plastic food containers for any other purpose than holding food.
In other words, once a plastic container's been used to store food of any
sort, it's a food container for the rest of its days. Scrub all you want.
You'll never eliminate the smell of food so completely that a hungry animal
won't catch a whiff. And do you really want Old Bruin scarfing your first-aid
kit? I didn't think so.
At the other end of spectrum from recycled produce bags are high-tech
vacuum sealing systems like FoodSaver®. They work well, and they have
many fans. The only problem? They can't easily be resealed in the field.
Portion control is therefore a must. High-tech or low, however, rest assured
that some fat will find its way onto the outside of every storage bag and
container. Don't give up trying to keep the stuff confined, though. Expel
any excess air. Make absolutely sure that all caps and lids are tight. And
double-bag all bottled oils. You'll lose the battle in the end, but at least
you'll have fought the good fight. Nonetheless, sooner or later you'll
Prevention, as always, is easier than cure. In addition to double bagging
and testing every seal, use only as much oil or fat as you need in cooking,
and treat used fat like your own
waste: pack it out in an airtight container or (where permitted) bury it
at least 150 feet (30 double-step paces) from your camp and any
stream, pond, bog, or lake. This is a minimum distance, by the way. How do
you imagine you'll feel if you waken to find a bear digging up your old fat
only 50 yards from where you're sleeping? And that's not the only danger. If
you cook over an open fire, take care to burn off any fat on grills or
fire-pans. A final hint: Wait till hot fat cools before pouring or scraping
it into a plastic bag.
hygiene enters the picture, too. Sloppy eaters frequently find
themselves entertaining uninvited midnight guests. After all, a single
sausage sandwich can leave smears of grease on paddle, clothing, boat and
packs, and each smear advertises the availability of a free meal. The moral
of the story? Good
housekeeping is as important in the backcountry as it is at home. And a
perfunctory swipe with a hand towel isn't enough. You need soap or detergent
to remove fat from pots and hands. Towelettes work for quick on-water
clean-ups, but be sure to pack used towelettes out in a tightly sealed
container. In camp, you can afford to be more thorough. Just be sure you set
up your kitchen sink well away from your tent. 'Nuff said?
Fat isn't an enemy. In fact, it's a good friend to active canoeists and
kayakers. And where would paddling anglers be without an occasional fried
shore lunch? Condemned to endure a lean and hungry and rather
pointless semiaquatic ritual, that's where. We may be creatures of
the water, at least part-time, but we can never afford to forget that we
need to eat of the fat of the land. In moderation, of course. But then
that's the secret of most things, isn't it?
Copyright © 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights