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Alimentary, My Dear

Gifts From the Home Farm:

Eggs, Milk, and Butter

By Tamia Nelson

December 19, 2006

Once upon a time, before rural electrification brought refrigerators into every farmhouse and crossroads cottage, countryfolk who wanted eggs, milk, and butter didn't have a lot of choices. They had to keep a cow and a few hens. Or they had to do without. Since not many folks liked that idea, the home farm was a fact of everyday life for a lot of people who didn't think of themselves as farmers — schoolteachers, mechanics, and doctors, for instance. Things are different now. Today, even farmers buy their staple foods in the supermarket, and most of us get our milk and eggs from the dairy aisle, rather than the cow shed and the hen house.

Why are eggs displayed alongside milk and butter in most HyperMarts? Got me. Maybe it's just because they all require refrigeration. This is a problem for paddlers, few of whom have room for a fridge in their boats, let alone space for a cow and a couple of hens. Think of how many times each day you reach for eggs, milk, or butter, never mind cheese, yogurt, sour cream, and half-and-half. The list is a long one. We poach, fry, and scramble eggs. We put milk on our breakfast cereal and butter on our toast. We make hot cocoa, eat yogurt for lunch, dollop sour cream on baked spuds, smother strawberries in heavy cream, and add half-and-half to coffee. And then there are the breads and other baked treats we all love, not to mention pancakes, creamy sauces and cream soups, and mayonnaise. And what about meat loaf and batter-fried chicken?

What do all these have in common? They all contain butter, eggs, or milk, that's what.

Of course…

Fresh Always Tastes Best

I grew up in dairy country, so I frequently drank milk still warm from the cow. There's nothing like it. Really fresh eggs are a treat, too, and you can't get them much fresher than newly-laid, as a recent stay with a friend who keeps both emus and chickens reminded me. This isn't a viable option for paddlers, however. If fresh is best, all we can do is chill out. But soft coolers and freezer blocks can't be depended on to keep eggs and milk safe for more than a few days. Luckily, this is long enough to carry you through most weekend getaways. Are you worried about eggs surviving the rigors of life in the pack? Don't be. The eggs in the HyperMart cooler have traveled many miles and made it onto the shelf with their shells intact. The secret? Packaging. Their fiber or plastic-foam cartons are pretty hard to improve on, though you'll probably want to cut them in two and then pack each half in its own rigid plastic box. (Tight-fitting lids are a must, and unsalted air-popped popcorn can be used to fill out any empty space.) Some outfitters also sell hard-plastic egg boxes, though these aren't as common as they once were. If you find some on sale, check to be sure they'll accommodate your eggs. Size matters here.

Looking for a quick lunch? If left in their shells, hard-boiled eggs are pretty good travelers. They require almost as much protection from hard knocks as fresh, however, and you'll still need a cooler. But there are few tastier snacks. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper and nothing else, then eat and enjoy. Bury the discarded shells.

Milk needs to chill out, too, though if you can buy it in aseptic packs (Tetra Pak® is one widely distributed brand of aseptic packaging) it will keep without refrigeration for weeks in a temperate climate. Once the package is opened, however, the contents won't last any longer than fresh. You say you can't find any retort packs on the shelves of your HyperMart? OK. Day-trippers can keep yogurt or milk in a pre-chilled thermos, but if you're going out for a weekend you'll need a cooler bag. Just decant milk, half-and-half, or cream into small plastic bottles with tight-fitting lids (scald the bottles first and allow them to cool), then pack them away in your insulated bag, along with a freezer block or two. Yogurt keeps longer than fluid milk — it was one of the earliest traveling rations — but it still needs to be kept cool.

Butter. Ah, yes. It may vie with salt for the title of Public Health Enemy Number One, but its silky texture and subtle flavor make it a favorite with cooks, who rely on it to enhance rice and pasta dishes, hot cereals, potatoes, fried fish, grilled meats, popcorn, and eggs. And it's certainly energy-dense. Some hard-chargers like to spoon butter into one-pot meals at the end of a long day, or even add it to their tea. Given this versatility, you'll be tempted to bring some along on every trip. Luckily, plain supermarket salted butter travels better than either fresh milk or eggs. Packed in rigid plastic boxes with tight-fitting lids and kept cool, it can last for a week or more. (A hint: Double-bag your butter boxes in plastic. This is a good idea for your egg boxes, too.) Expedition paddlers don't have it so easy, however. Tinned butter used to be relatively easy to find. Now it's rare. But if you're planning to be in the backcountry for more than a few weeks, you'll want some.

Now let's look at the bottom line. Are fresh eggs, milk, and butter worth the trouble? I think so. Scrambled eggs for breakfast are a treat, and a cheese omelet makes a delightful dinner. Nor can I think of a better ally on a cold night than a mug of hot cocoa served with a twist of peppermint candy. That said, no paddler can keep fresh milk sweet for more than a couple of days. Longer trips demand certain compromises. Those are the…

Dry Facts

Few GIs have fond memories of scrambled dried (dehydrated) eggs. Maybe that's why they're hard to find. Still, I've used reconstituted dried eggs to upgrade a rice pilaf into fried rice on more than one occasion. I've also stirred them into simmering chicken stock for egg-drop soup, and added them to both hash browns and crumbled sausage — and no one's ever refused a second helping. Admittedly, though, dried eggs often need a little assistance from some well-chosen herbs and spices. On the other hand, most outfitters stock freeze-dried eggs. These even make passable scrambled eggs and omelets, though the taste and texture can't compare with fresh, and the cost may give cash-strapped paddlers pause.

Dried milk, on the other hand, is relatively cheap and easy to find. It should be. It's not exactly new technology, after all. Writing in the thirteenth century, Marco Polo described the process. The resulting powder, once reconstituted, helped Mongol horsemen break their nightlong fast without leaving the saddle. (Farwell often uses it for the same purpose, though his pony is a bike.) Then, as now, most dried milk was "non-fat," and for the best of reasons: milk fat quickly turns rancid in any temperatures warmer than chill. When shopping, you'll probably find that you have a choice between sealed one-quart packets or bulk boxes. I prefer the packets for camping, and I carry them in doubled plastic bags. A hint: Even when it's sealed in a foil envelope, dry milk doesn't keep forever. Check the sell-by date on the box before you leave the HyperMart, and store your milk someplace cool and dry between trips. It was once possible to buy dried sour cream, too, but it's been years since I've seen it for sale. The best bets nowadays are the packets of sauce in noodles-and-sauce mix or dried stroganoff sauces.

Warning! Dry milk is only as safe as the water you add when reconstituting it. Use it just like you'd use its fresh counterpart. Pour it over cereal or drink it straight (cold water gives a better flavor). The powder can also be blended with other dry ingredients when baking. You can even add it directly to one-pot meals to boost flavor and protein.

Can't stand dry milk? Or maybe you're looking for something richer and creamier? Then you've got two choices for the long haul — canned evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk. If you're like most folks you'll either love 'em or hate 'em. When I was a kid visiting my Grandad at his Adirondack camp, all his buddies used evaporated milk in their camp coffee. I hated it then, and I hate it now, but you may feel differently. I do use it in baking, however. By the way, condensed milk is sweet. Some people drink it straight and like it. I'm not among them.

As I sit at my desk sipping eggnog topped with freshly ground nutmeg, and look forward to a lunch of hard-boiled eggs (with custard pie for dessert), I'm reminded once again of the gifts of the home farm — however far removed that farm now is from my home. And why shouldn't paddlers enjoy the same treats under way? No reason. No reason at all. Thanks to a happy fusion of ancient and modern technologies, we don't have to do without.

I'll drink to that. What about you?

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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