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Alimentary, My Dear

Taking the Rough With the Smooth Rough Stuff

By Tamia Nelson

November 15, 2011

Roughage. It's not a word you hear much nowadays, but it was common enough when I was growing up. Farmers referred to coarse feed as roughage, and mothers often urged it on reluctant children. This isn't to say that these nagging mothers dished up animal feed for their kids, of course. To women of my mother's generation, roughage was simply fiber — or more specifically, what would now be called insoluble fiber. And it was held to be a sovereign remedy for every sort of digestive disturbance.

Fiber is still being touted as a cure‑all for many of the ills that afflict us, and the medical evidence on this point seems pretty strong. There's even support for the notion that a high‑fiber diet helps you live longer. But my mother's concern was more fundamental. She was sure that fiber would keep her kids "regular," and she knew that regularity was a very good thing. The ads on TV told her so. In fact, regularity was a touchstone of good health for Americans back then. As it still is today, I suppose. At least that's the message I get from a quick survey of the self‑medication shelves in the local HyperMart, where laxatives vie for pride of place with cold remedies and antacids.

It's a good bet that one reason for Americans' obsession with the state of their bowels is the ubiquity of highly processed convenience foods, few of which boast much roughage. Don't get me wrong. In most respects, paddlers and backcountry travelers are well‑served by the food industry, which makes a wide range of compact, lightweight, shelf‑stable meals available at not too exorbitant prices. Some of them are even tasty. But what about roughage? Aye, there's the rub. Roughage is bulky and low in food energy. And it scores badly on the calorie‑per‑gram scale. It also has what the food fabricators like to call "poor mouthfeel." In short, roughage doesn't sell well. Which means there isn't much to be found in many backcountry entrées.

As I learned to my cost some years ago, when I got an unbeatable deal on a case lot of canned, freeze‑dried beef stroganoff from a climbing shop that was going out of business. Talk about penny wise and pound foolish! The stuff was good. Really good. But once opened, the contents of a can had to be eaten without delay. And a #10 can is pretty large. So for several days I lived largely on beef stroganoff. It formed the backbone of both lunch and dinner menus, and for a time I even contemplated beef stroganoff breakfasts. At first, it was a treat. Like I said, the stuff tasted good. But my all‑beef‑stroganoff diet soon began to pall. Still, I stuck with it. Money was tight, and in any case, I've never liked to throw away food.

Nonetheless, my determination was sorely tested during the time it took me to empty that first can of my bargain lot of freeze‑dried stroganoff. And my mother's dire warnings about the results of a roughage‑deficient diet were promptly confirmed. By the time I'd worked my way down to the bottom of the can, I was convinced that my digestive tract had become a cul‑de‑sac. All that was missing was a sign saying "No Exit."


Needless to say, I didn't repeat the experiment. It did, however, accomplish one good thing: It forced me to reevaluate my backcountry menu plan, and that resulted in …

A Roughage‑Rich Menu for Roughing It

Of course, roughage — or the lack thereof — isn't the only thing that can cause paddlers' bowels to fail to deliver the goods with a decent degree of regularity. Dehydration, a radically changed routine, even what could be termed "fear of pooping" (a phenomenon ignored by Erica Jong, curiously) — all these play their part. The cure for dehydration is easy: drink more. And fear of pooping diminishes with experience, as do the disruptive influences of changes in daily routine. After all, you can get used to (almost) anything. But remedying a lack of roughage in your diet isn't so straightforward. It takes some care and planning to put right.

Luckily, it's not hard to do. Many foods are high in fiber. Fresh is best, of course. And on weekend trips, it's easy to carry fresh fruits and vegetables. Be sure to eat the peels if they're edible. Longer outings — and the desire for variety — will require a little more preparation, though. To start with, you can choose from the foods on this list:

  • Rice (brown is best)
  • Wild rice
  • Pasta
  • Couscous
  • Quinoa (cook it like rice — quinoa pilaf is delicious)
  • Barley
  • Lentils
  • Split peas
  • Black beans (available in shelf‑stable packets and cans)
  • Oatmeal (the quick‑cook and regular varieties)
  • Other hot cereals like Magic Morning Mix
  • Cold bran cereals
  • Nuts
  • Edible seeds (sunflower, sesame, flax, or pumpkin/pepitas)
  • Soy "nuts"
  • Dried fruit (prunes, anyone?)
  • Wheat bran (add it to just about anything)
  • Ry‑Krisp
  • Triscuits
  • Other high‑fiber crackers
  • Dense, dark multi‑grain breads
  • Popcorn (you can pop wild rice like popcorn, too)

Plenty of choice, right? Yet the list above is by no means complete. A quick survey of the shelves in any HyperMart will suggest many additions. Look for items advertised as "Heart Healthy" or "Reduces Cholesterol," and take the time to read the nutrition labels. Opt for whole‑grain products where possible. Even staples like pasta can be had in whole‑wheat varieties. But be sure you try anything new at home first, before hauling it into the backcountry. My experience with whole‑wheat pastas hasn't been encouraging. Whole‑wheat and multi‑grain tortillas, however, have won me over completely.

On the other side of the ledger, you'll probably find that highly processed foods are, if not roughage free, at least roughage reduced. Even these can be roughed up, though. Just add fruit, vegetables, seeds, or bran when preparing them. Check out your local health‑food store or co‑op if the HyperMart doesn't offer the roughage‑reinforcers you're looking for. You won't need huge quantities. A couple of teaspoons per serving should do it. (NB Whole seeds are less readily assimilated than ground, but ground seeds don't keep well without refrigeration. I use whole.) Wheat bran — that's bran, not germ — is another high‑fiber staple. And don't overlook nuts and dried fruit. Add these to meals in camp, or make high‑fiber treats at home and bring them with you into the backcountry. Or do both, as I do. Here are some of my favorites:

Camp Breads With a Boost  Bannock, flatbread, and pizza can all be made in camp from dry mixes, as can skillet biscuits. When combining dry ingredients, stir in some seeds, wheat bran, and — if it's a sweet dough — dried, chopped fruit. Proceed to mix the dough and bake as normal.

Skillet Cookies With Character  Add seeds, wheat bran, and some chopped dried fruit or nuts to dry cookie mix. Don't overdo it, though, or the dough will crumble away in the pan. Bake as described in my earlier article about skillet cookies.

Powerful Pilaf  Make rice or couscous pilaf, using brown rice or whole‑wheat couscous (if time and fuel permit) and adding dried fruit, seeds, and chopped nuts. Now spoon up the pilaf using Triscuits or Ry‑Krisps.

Better‑for‑You Soup  Want a meal in a hurry on a chilly day? Just grab a dried soup mix and add a little more water than is called for on the box (or add extra water to a canned soup), then stir in some whole‑wheat couscous while simmering. Fancy a stew? Use less water and more couscous. If you're feeling thirsty, however, you'll want the opposite: more water, less couscous.

Dumplings Extra  Make dumpling dough, adding seeds and wheat bran to the dry ingredients. Then add a little extra water when forming the dough. The same approach yields good results with fruit slump, too, making a high roughage treat even more … er … stimulating.

Pasta With a Punch  This is whole‑wheat pasta paired with a simple garlic sauce (fresh garlic travels well), incorporating dried tomatoes and reconstituted dried mushrooms. For tips on hurry‑up pasta meals, read "One‑Pot Pasta."

Fresh Fish Sesame  If the fish have been biting — and if they aren't loaded with heavy metals and other industrial effluvia — cut them into fillets or steaks and coat each piece with a single layer of sesame seeds. (Sprinkle the seeds on a plate and press both sides of each fillet into them.) Now sauté the fish in hot oil or melted butter until cooked through, turning once. Serve with lemon quarters (if you have them) or sauce from single‑serving packets. You'll have plenty to choose from. The possibilities include soy, tamari, hot‑and‑sour, duck, tartar, or simple mayonnaise.

Hundred‑Mile Plus Oatmeal Bars  New! Improved! Better than ever! An all‑time favorite, these high‑fiber, high‑energy treats have just been upgraded. Make them at home and take them with you.

OK. That should get you started. Now you're on your own. But don't worry. However rough the journey, the trip is always worth it.


Who Says Roughing It is Hard?


Many processed foods travel well, and they're usually easy to prepare. Some are even tasty. But most are deficient in fiber — the same stuff earlier generations called roughage. Why is this important? Well, as your mother (or maybe your grandmother) used to say, roughage is good for you. So you'll probably want to boost the amount in your paddling menu. Luckily, that's easy to do. And now you know how.



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