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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Alimentary, My Dear

Dinner's in the Can

By Tamia Nelson

May 15, 2007

Night is falling fast, ushered in by a freezing squall. Your numb fingers fumble as you struggle to rig your tarp. Suddenly, the textbook paragraphs describing the early signs of hypothermia take on a terrible urgency. It's been a long day, and you're running on empty. A hot meal is what you need, and the quicker the better. Luckily, you've got a couple of cans of soup in your pack. That hot meal you're craving is only minutes away.

Sound familiar? Maybe not. Canned foods are rarely found in paddlers' packs these days. And for good reason. They're often salty and high in all the fats your doctor told you to avoid. They're heavy, too, and if that weren't enough, they're illegal in many parks and reserves. Anyone who remembers the days when popular campsites were carpeted with rusting cans will understand why. Still, it's not as if banning cans has put an end to litter, is it? Plastic bags, discarded aluminum-foil packets, and tangles of monofilament are now common sights in the backcountry. Of course, the law's the law. If cans are banned where you paddle, that's that. Elsewhere, however, canned foods may warrant a second look, even if this does cause some members of the modern incarnation of the Go-Light Brotherhood to raise their eyebrows. After all …

Canned Foods Have History on Their Side

You could even say they're "traditional." Early explorers lived off the land. Or else. They carried few staple foods other than ship's biscuit, salt pork or pemmican, dried peas, beans, and "Indian" corn. So when canned foods first became widely available in the mid-nineteenth century, they were greeted with great enthusiasm, particularly by seamen and arctic explorers. But the early cans concealed a deadly secret: their imperfectly soldered seams leached lead, and lead poisoning probably contributed to several tragedies, one of them being the catastrophic failure of the final Franklin Expedition.

In time, however, manufacturing techniques improved, and canned food became a mainstay of household pantries. It was cheap, tasty, and easy to prepare. Most important of all, it didn't spoil. My paternal grandfather (Gramps, to all his grandchildren) lived through the Great Depression. He was one of the lucky ones: he kept his job. In fact, he prospered, selling dry goods to ritzy hotels around the country. But the experience of seeing thousands of starving men and women begging in the streets of America's cities left a lasting scar. His basement shelves groaned under the weight of enough canned food to feed the whole family for six months. And though my other grandfather — I always called him Grandad — lived a very different life, guiding "sports" in search of trophy trout in the southern Adirondacks, he, too, found canned foods irresistible. Grandad never set out for one of his backcountry camps without filling a pack basket with cans: condensed milk, soups, meats, and hearty stews, not to mention canned vegetables and fruit. Under Grandad's stern tutelage, I caught the bug myself. To this day, I know of few treats to rival canned peaches.

If this seems strange, it's probably because paddlers today have so much to choose from. But that wasn't always the case. In Grandad's time …

There Simply Weren't Many Alternatives

When I was a kid, dehydrated meals were a rarity. Sure, we had dried fruits like raisins and prunes, and dry staples like macaroni and rice — and you could get sliced, dried beef in jars (perfect for creamed chipped beef on toast). There were instant potatoes, too, though they tasted a lot like the box they came in. And of course we had tea bags and coffee, ground to order in the A&P and carried home in a heavy paper sack, not to mention dry cereals and crackers. But dehydrated meals? Nope. The mainstay of most camping menus was canned food. Period.

Then, sometime in the '60s, dehydrated and freeze-dried meals started to make their appearance in outfitters' catalogs, and I was an early adopter. Freeze-dried foods were light and compact. They didn't taste all that great, admittedly, but at least the label on the package suggested restaurant fare. And they were expensive. This, too, was a plus. Of sorts. Does that puzzle you? You're not alone. It had me scratching my head, as well. Until I came across John McPhee's explanation, that is. Freeze-dried meals, he once famously observed, create "a sense of hardtack and pemmican within a gourmet context." In other words, the high price was part of their appeal. Not everyone was quick to jump on the bandwagon, however. Neither of my grandfathers warmed to these latest offerings from the food industry's labs. Gramps, who often boasted that he'd "eat anything, once" — and who dined on Alpo® to silence a skeptic on one memorable occasion — decided that he preferred dog food to my freeze-dried beef stroganoff. "Alpo's a damn sight cheaper, too," he growled, before heading off to the cellar for some canned ravioli. My Adirondack-guide Grandad was more taciturn, but no less dismissive. When I laid my freeze-dried treasures before him, he merely snorted with contempt, refusing to believe that such insubstantial grub could keep any real woodsman going for long.

I wasn't discouraged. I put this chilly reception down to the intransigence of old age. Eventually, though, I began to come round to my grandfathers' way of thinking. Why? Simply put …

It's Hard to Argue With Success

When you need a hot meal — right now — you'll welcome the pour-and-heat convenience of canned foods. Take a can. Add a can opener, a pot, and a portable stove. The result? A meal. Cooking doesn't get much simpler than this. If time really presses, you can always eat the contents of the can cold. Hot or cold, canned food is still fuel. And many cans today don't even need an opener. So you can leave your Swiss Army knife in your pack. But cans are heavy, right? Yep. They are. Very. Canned foods are often packed in water, and water's not light. On the other hand, a lot of weekend canoeists and kayakers can't drink the water they paddle in, and field water-purification methods can't eliminate many chemical contaminants, or make salt water fresh. If you paddle where you can't drink the water, you might as well bring some of what you need in the form of canned foods. The bottom line? Water doesn't weigh any more when it's in a can.

At least you'll have plenty of choices. Stews and pasta meals (spaghetti and ravioli, for example) are long-time favorites, but I've recently explored the potential of ready-to-eat soups. These add-no-water offerings fill almost half an aisle at the local HyperMart, and some of them now boast reduced fat and sodium. Alternatives range from chowders to broth, with just about everything in between. I have no trouble stocking my weekend getaway pack with enough variety to ensure that I'm never bored — though if there's time at the end of a long day, I still like to spice up my meals. Try it yourself by adding a pinch of curry powder and a few dried apricots to a beef and barley soup. Or crumble some dried sage and bacon bits (the real thing or a soy substitute) into smoky chicken and corn chowder. And "Italian wedding soup" can be made even more substantial if you bring it to a boil with some extra water, then add a handful of instant couscous to the pot. In a couple of minutes, stew's on.

But nothing ever comes from nothing, and canned foods aren't for the lazy. Once you've eaten your meal, you've still got the can to deal with. The remedy? You've heard it before:

If You Carried It in Full, You Can Carry It out Empty

No canoeist or kayaker can avoid noticing the spreading blight of litter in the backcountry — or along the highways leading to the put-in, for that matter. Many rural roads in the Adirondacks now resemble strip landfills. The problem isn't limited to northern New York, of course, and no conscientious paddler anywhere will want to add to the growing piles of rubbish that are blowing in the wind. Luckily, it's easy to be part of the solution. Just rinse your cans out, crush them, and store them in an airtight bag or hard-shell container. (The latter is better in bear country.) Then pack them out for disposal or recycling at home. Better yet, pick up some of the trash left by others and bring it out, too. It's not much work, and it's worth it. You'll probably want to come back someday, and you won't be happy if a favorite campsite looks like a garbage dump when you return.

What goes around comes around, and this is as true of good things as bad. In my case, I've come round to appreciating the virtues of canned foods once again. Yes, cans are still heavy and bulky, and they're illegal in many places where we paddle. But anywhere they're permitted, it's comforting to know that dinner's in the can, whatever the whims and vagaries of the weather. And that's alimentary.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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