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Alimentary, My Dear

From Cafeteria to Camp Kitchen —
The Many Uses of Single‑Serving Condiment Packets
Good Things Come in Small Packages

By Tamia Nelson

September 20, 2011

My parents' initial foray into private enterprise involved opening a roadside eatery with a limited menu and no inside seating. We — and make no mistake, this was a family business in every sense of the word — sold hot dogs, burgers, fries, subs, soft drinks, coffee, and milk. That was it. And my job was to man one of the windows whenever I wasn't in school, taking orders and handing out food, along with whatever condiments the customer wanted, each one in a single‑serving packet.

The family greasy spoon is history now, but single‑serving packets of condiments haven't suffered the same fate. They're on offer everywhere, from fast‑food outlets to rural ser‑sta‑gros. You'll even find them in ready‑made "salad kits" and boxed entrées at the HyperMart. So you probably have a drawer full of them somewhere in your home or office. And they're likely to languish there, forgotten and unused. Which is a real shame, because these little food‑industry throwaways are …

A Valuable Addition to Any Backcountry Pantry

We all use condiments. They liven up otherwise pedestrian dishes, help to disguise the bland character of many processed foods, and (often) add a touch of color to our mealtimes. Mustard and relish on hot dogs. Ketchup on hamburgers and fries. Maple syrup on pancakes. Sugar in coffee. Soy sauce on stir‑fry. Barbecue sauce on chicken. And so on. Which is why we keep ample supplies of our favorite condiments in our kitchens at home. Most of us bring along a few staple items (salt and sugar, almost certainly, along with peanut butter and maybe nondairy creamer) on paddling trips, as well. But few paddlers bother to haul around anything like a full inventory. Who wants to carry a bottle of ketchup or vinegar when you'll use only a small quantity, for just a single meal? Particularly when the labels on other common condiments — mayonnaise and salsa come to mind — warn in no uncertain terms that the contents require refrigeration. Electric current bushes are rare in backcountry kitchens, after all, and food poisoning never adds to the fun.

But there is a middle way. The same single‑serving packets that are handed out so freely by your local burger bar are engineered to survive long periods without refrigeration, and their small size is a plus in the close confines of a canoeist's pack. The range of offerings is truly breathtaking, too. Here's a sampling of the ones I've seen:

  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Sugar
  • Sweetener
  • Maple syrup
  • Honey
  • Pancake syrup (i.e., imitation maple syrup)
  • Peanut butter and jelly, premixed or separate
  • Jellies and jams
  • Powdered (or liquid) nondairy creamer
  • Ketchup
  • Mustard
  • Mayonnaise
  • Sweet relish
  • Salsa
  • Salad dressings
  • Malt vinegar
  • Lemon juice
  • Plus a whole repertoire of sauces: cocktail, BBQ, steak, horseradish, tarter, hot, soy, duck, sweet and sour…

That's a pretty long list, wouldn't you agree? And they're all available in no‑refrigeration, shelf‑stable packets. (A word to the wise: Always read the small print! A few packaged condiments — usually "gourmet" items — do need to be kept cold.) That means you can abandon your search for the ever‑elusive current bush. Portion control also simplifies the job of packing for a trip. You can carry only what you'll need, and no more. Better yet, the unopened packets are nearly odorless, an important consideration in bear country. No sensible paddler wants to play Guess Who's Coming to Dinner with bruin, does she?

Why bother with condiments at all? Well, we've touched the bases on that question already. Condiments lend variety and add flavor, at little or no cost and no appreciable increase in pack weight. The only downside? You have to bring out the empty packets. But that's a pretty small price to pay. You carried them in full, didn't you? (A hint: Wash the empties when you do the dishes, then put them in a double freezer bag with your other trash.)


OK. So far, so good. But, supposing for the moment that you don't already have a drawer full of the things, …

Where Can You Stock Up?

The simple answer: Almost everywhere. Fast‑food outlets. Convenience store or HyperMart deli counters. The corner takeaway. Workplace cafeterias. Salad kits. Boxed entrées. I'm not suggesting that you grab more than your share when you're in the caf, by the way. Just take what you're offered and save anything you don't use, putting all the surplus‑to‑requirements packets away in some handy drawer. If you're like me, you'll quickly build up a formidable collection. It pays to rotate your stock, of course. Sometimes the packets have use‑by dates. If not, just discard anything over a year old. (I store items in plastic bags, labeled with the date I acquired the contents. That makes stock‑taking easy.)

Do you need more condiment packets than you can pick up in the course of your everyday activities? Then ask a friend in the food‑service business if you can piggyback on his next order. Or buy straight from the industry's suppliers, many of whom now sell directly to all comers. Just bing or google "condiment packets" or "portion packs" to kick‑start your search.

One way or another, you'll soon have a generous supply of your favorites. But an important question remains:

What Are You Going to Do With 'Em?

Packing is the first challenge. I suggest storing your portion packs in ziplock bags. Why? It makes them easier to find, for one thing. And it limits the mess if a packet springs a leak. (This happens. Not often, to be sure, but once is enough.) You don't want your sleeping bag seasoned with mustard and honey barbecue sauce, do you? Even if it would make you a lot of new friends, they might not be the sort you'll want to hang with. Kind of a wild crowd, if you get my drift. So keep your condiments in a bag.

Pick and Pack

Now it's mealtime. Challenge Number Two confronts you: How will you use your hard‑won bounty? Here are some ideas:

Creamy Instant Oatmeal  Empty one or two single‑serving packets of instant oatmeal into a bowl. Stir in one or two packets of coffee creamer. Pour the required amount of boiling water over the oatmeal, stir again, let sit for a minute or two, and then add your favorite sweetener from your stock of condiment packets — jelly, honey, and maple syrup are all good candidates — along with some dried fruit.

Maple‑Scented Fruit  If you've harvested wild fruit — don't be greedy; be sure to leave some for the local wildlife! — put it in a cup and drizzle a packet of maple syrup over it. The finishing touch? Top with a little crunchy granola, if you have it.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Crackers  If you have a few peanut butter and jelly combo packs, lunch doesn't get any easier. Just squeeze dabs of each onto crackers. This works as a midmorning bonk buster, too.

Lemon Rice Pilaf  Make a pot of your favorite rice, adding powdered vegetable or chicken broth to the cooking water. Then, once the rice is tender, stir in a generous handful of nuts, plus a couple of packets of lemon juice.

Thousand Island Salad Dressing  Blend together one packet of mayonnaise and one of ketchup. And if you like your salad dressing sweet and chunky, also mix in a packet of sweet relish. This is great with iceberg lettuce, by the way. Few leafy greens travel well, but iceberg is the happy exception to this rule, and it's wonderfully refreshing after a hot day on the water.

Tartar Sauce With Fish or Meat Salad  Empty a shelf‑stable packet of tuna or salmon — or a can of deviled meat — into a bowl. Stir in a packet of mayo and one of sweet relish. Eat as is, make into a sandwich, spread on crackers, or roll up in a tortilla.

Catch of the Day  If the fish are biting (and if they're safe to eat, which is not the case in my corner of Canoe Country, I'm sorry to say), prepare your catch any way you like — poaching, sautéing, frying, or baking — and then serve with one or more dipping sauces from the following list: cocktail sauce, lemon juice, or tartar sauce. And what if you crave cocktail sauce but don't have any? Don't give up. You can make a passable substitute from horseradish sauce and ketchup packets.

Teriyaki Pasta  Boil up some pasta, and while it's cooking, combine one packet of soy sauce, one of sugar or honey, and one of vinegar — or mix a packet of sweet and sour sauce with one of soy sauce. Once the pasta is ready (al dente), drain off all but a few tablespoons of the cooking water. Now stir your extempore sauce into the pasta until it's evenly coated. Add some peanuts, too, along with some thin slices of bell pepper and onion, if you have them.

Dressy Pasta  Start with pasta, draining off all but a couple of tablespoons of water, as before. Now empty a packet or two of salad dressing onto the hot pasta, before tossing it gently to distribute the dressing. I like hot pasta with either Italian or blue cheese dressing, but ranch dressing isn't bad, either.

Chicken Salsa  Mix drained canned chicken with a packet of mayo and one of salsa. Roll up in tortillas, or use as a dip with tortilla chips. A hint: If you're also making soup for dinner, drain the chicken juices into the pot. Waste not, want not, right?

Beef BBQ Satays  Skewer thin slices of beef and place them on a plate, before squeezing several packets of barbecue sauce over the meat, using the edge of a packet to spread the sauce evenly. Now roast over hot coals as described in my article on making satays. Eat the meat right off the skewers, wrap the slices in tortillas, capture them between slices of bread, or add to rice.

Quick Potato Salad  Drain the water from a 15‑ounce can of sliced potatoes, then empty the potatoes into a pot or large bowl. Stir in one or two packets of mayo, along with one packet of relish or mustard. Chop a small onion and a stick of celery (if you have them) and add them to the pot, too. Season with salt and pepper from packets.

Vinegar Chips  Empty Pringles chips into a bag or pot and drizzle a packet of malt vinegar over them. Shake the chips to distribute the vinegar. Why Pringles? Because they come in a protective tube and aren't easily crushed. You can use other brands of chips, of course, but you'll need to pack them very carefully.

That should be enough to get you started. But it's only a beginning. And once you've rung the changes with a variety of these happy byproducts of restaurant portion control, I'm sure you'll agree that there's no end to their versatility.

We're Cooking

They say that good things come in small packages. That's certainly true of single‑serving condiment packets. They're just what the camp cook ordered. They travel well. They weigh next to nothing. And they help you make the most of a limited meal plan. Plus they're often free. What's not to like? In this instance, at any rate, small really is beautiful.



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