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Alimentary, My Dear

Ready, Set, Go!
The Birth of the Bug‑Out Box
Horn of Plenty

By Tamia Nelson

June 18, 2013

Cooking is a dying art. As people spend more time in their cars, driving ever greater distances to and from their jobs (at every slower speeds), there aren't many hours left for making meals. Which means that — on most days, at any rate — harried moms and dads pop precooked frozen dinners into the microwave and then sit down to eat a hasty meal, one eye always on the clock. Maybe they'll watch a celebrity chef on the TV while they're scraping the last crumb of Yummy Lasagna from its plastic‑lined tray, but that's pretty much it for home cooking.

Things were different when I was growing up. Even though I appeared on the scene when the post‑World War II baby boom was already fizzling out, families still made meals the old‑fashioned way. They cooked from scratch. Few mothers worked full‑time jobs, and many people lived within walking distance of their workplaces. Even the little farm town where I spent much of my childhood had two large, private employers: a seed plant and a hospital. Both have since shut their doors, however, and in the early morning hours local roads now resemble the opening lap of the Daytona 500, as commuting couples start their engines in preparation for the hour‑long drive to the nearest city.

This will come as no surprise to most readers, of course. Similar stories could be told about rural communities across America. Times change, and we change with them. What choice do we have, after all? But growing up as I did, when I did, I learned the art of cooking from women (and men) who were superb cooks, with an appreciation of good food that was sharpened by memories of the Great Depression. Convenience foods were few and far between back then (even popcorn had to be made from scratch), everyday meals were important family occasions, and "good plain cooks" enjoyed the same measure of respect as that now accorded financial planners and personal trainers. My nascent interest in cooking even survived several years of forced labor — this was how it seemed to me at the time, at any rate — in my parents' roadside restaurant, when I was still in my early teens.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a slave to nostalgia. A lot of things have changed for the better in the last half‑century. Nor am I ready to heap scorn on the ever‑growing number of shelf‑stable, easy‑to‑prepare meals. Shopping for backcountry trips used to be a complicated exercise, and if you wanted the lightest pack possible, you had to send away to specialty outfitters for costly freeze‑dried entrées. Worse yet, what you got for your dollars wasn't always edible, let alone tasty. Farwell speaks feelingly about a week spent hillwalking with nothing to eat but a prepackaged Norwegian touring ration. He says it nearly put him off eating altogether.

Nowadays, of course, it's a lot easier to shop for a trip, whether you're going out for a weekend or a month. You can probably find everything you'll need at your local HyperMart. And much of it — if not exactly gourmet fare — will be at least as good as the meals eaten at home by most of us, most of the time. The cost? Higher than meals made from scratch, to be sure, but a lot easier to prepare, and nowhere near as dear as the freeze‑dried mystery meals of old. "Man cooks" and minimalists can now eat very well indeed.

There's also another benefit to be had from the ready‑meal revolution. It's easy to lay in a stock of portable food "just in case." I'm not talking zombie apocalypse here. I'm thinking of spur‑of‑the‑moment getaways: the trips we take when a window in an otherwise busy week suddenly and unexpectedly opens. How can it happen? Let me count the ways. A business meeting is rescheduled. A project deadline is extended — just as you were rolling down your sleeves and congratulating yourself on a job well done. A workshop (that you really didn't want to go to) is cancelled. A medical appointment proves unnecessary. The result? You're suddenly and unexpectedly set free — free for a day, or even a long weekend. And your thoughts turn immediately to a nearby river, lake, or seacoast. There's no time for shopping, let alone menu planning. If you're ready to go right then and there, your passport's made, and you'll make the most of your accidental holiday. But if you're not ready, it's "Sorry, Charlie" time. You've lost your chance.

"Fortune," an old proverb reminds us, "favors the prepared mind." Or as Baden‑Powell put it, in succinct imperative mode:

Be Prepared!

This came naturally to the children and grandchildren of the Depression. Even city apartments had pantries in the '50s and '60s, and other things were sacrificed to keep those pantries well‑stocked with staple foods. But today — notwithstanding the imminent threat of the aforementioned zombie apocalypse — such prudence is often condemned. If you keep any food in the house beyond that needed for the next week's meals, you risk being branded a "hoarder." The label isn't intended as a compliment. At the same time, though, various government entities enjoin us to keep an emergency stock of food and water in our homes, "in case of a disaster." I guess this is the sort of thing Emerson was alluding to when he wrote that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

Well, I'll risk being outed as a hoarder. I keep enough food in the house to survive for several months. I've had reason to be glad I do, and my hoarding habit has a welcome offshoot: I'm always ready to take advantage of any opportunity for a short getaway. It's paid off again and again. Two days exploring a chain of beaver ponds may not give you bragging rights on Facebook, and the video you shot of the beaver family at play probably won't make you a YouTube millionaire, but your short break will do a lot to lighten the next week at work. It might even make the hours you spend stuck in traffic a little more bearable.

Readiness is all, of course. Which is yet another way of saying "Be prepared." And here's what's involved in …

Keeping a Supply of Camp Food at the Ready

I make it as easy as I can, collecting suitable staples and easy‑to‑prepare entrées in a large cardboard carton I call my bug‑out box. When it's full, it holds several weeks' worth of food for the two of us. That's more than enough for casual getaways. And I can see what's available in an instant, just by glancing down. (Someday, I suppose I'll replace the rather tottery box with a plastic bin, but my hoarding instinct extends to discarded boxes, as well. Cardboard does the job. That's all I ask — or need.) My Master Menu guides me in stocking the bug‑out box, and it helps me decide what to take from it when I light out for the territories, too. In other words, the Master Menu serves as both shopping list and meal planner.

Of course, not every staple foodstuff lends itself to storage in the bug‑out box. Some small items (e.g., spices, herbs, and nuts) have permanent berths in my kitchen cabinets, while others (fresh fruit and starchy vegetables) wait patiently on pantry shelves, and a few perishables (Hundred‑Mile Plus Oatmeal Bars and a variety of other portable rations, along with store‑bought mini‑bagels and hearty breads, plus cheeses of every description) chill out in the freezer or fridge. No matter. Grabbing what I need from these dispersed stores is the work of a New York minute, and bagging it all up takes only a little longer. Any frozen items will be thawed by the time I cycle to the put‑in.

Now let's return to the bug‑out box. Here's what it looks like:

Box Set

It was somewhat depleted when I shot this photo: Spring brings more opportunities for getaways, and I often go several weeks between restocks. (This is one of the advantages of "hoarding." You don't have to devote a good part of every weekend to shopping.) But the diminished contents of the bug‑out box are still representative. They include packaged entrées — Rice‑a‑Roni, Near East Couscous, Knorr Pasta Sides — as well as instant oatmeal, fig bars, noodles, dried potatoes, and imitation bacon bits. There's also a box of ziplock bags for easy repackaging. (Any boxed entrée selected for a trip is immediately transfered to doubled bags, along with the cooking instructions, if necessary.)

Just out of the shot — either on nearby shelves or hidden under the top tier of bug‑out items — are other staples: pasta, rice, couscous, bulk oats, dried milk, canned chicken, single‑serving packets of condiments, instant cocoa, tea, coffee, dried soups, dried fruit, chocolate, and the like. Taken all together, they're a moveable feast in the making.

Such a motley collection doesn't assemble itself, of course. So let's take a closer look at …

The Care and Feeding of a Bug‑Out Box

It begins with a list. As I've already mentioned, I use my Master Menu as my guide. Since I prepare much of what we eat at home from scratch, I make only limited us of prepackaged meals in the ordinary course of day‑to‑day life. But staple foods are just that: staples. And on the rare occasions when their use‑by date approaches, these get pulled from the bug‑out box and transfered to my kitchen shelves. In many instances, I avoid the need for such sleight of hand altogether, by the simple expedient of taking staples directly from my kitchen stores, as and when needed.

The subject of stock rotation deserves a few more words, however. I use older items first, never losing sight of the fact that a bug‑out box is like a checking account: any withdrawals must be offset by timely deposits. At one time, I kept detailed notes of each item I removed and then used this as a shopping list. Now I find that I can keep track of the balance in my head. I make it a point to replace withdrawals within a couple of weeks, though. This makes it less likely that I'll forget anything when the time comes to hit the HyperMart.

That said, I don't rely entirely on my (demonstrably fallible) memory. At least twice a year — usually in early spring and late fall — I conduct a comprehensive stock‑taking, inventorying not just the contents of the bug‑out box, but all the staple foodstuffs in the house. Any item that's not likely to make it through the coming season without spoiling is immediately tagged for current consumption. I take pride in throwing out very little food of any description. Waste not, want not, after all. This was the rule that my grandparents lived by, and I see no reason to reject it now. I make only one exception: If I have cause to doubt the safety of any food, I toss it out. (This is the Nelson Corollary to Fletcher's Law: If in doubt, doubt. Then throw it out.)

But there's the reverse of the coin to consider, too. No matter how seductive the packaging, no new item goes into the bug‑out box before it's been subjected to a full Test Kitchen trial. A backcountry trip is a bad time to experiment with untried or unfamiliar foods. Farwell will long remember paddling through the James Bay Lowlands with a large, covered cooking pot under his seat in lieu of a ship's head, a martyr to his own haphazard meal‑planning. He's become a much more cautious eater ever since.

The moral of the foregoing paragraphs? In the words of a 19th‑century publisher's blurb, a bug‑out box should contain "nothing that is superfluous, and all things that are useful." That's your passport to a speedy getaway.

Boiling the Kettle

Making the most of unexpected holidays is one of life's happier challenges, and none of us likes to see golden opportunities lost for want of preparation. Which is where the getaway pack comes in. Yet it's not the whole solution to the problem. Paddlers, like soldiers, travel on their stomachs, and good meals are pleasant interludes in camp life. That's why I've assembled a bug‑out box of ready‑to‑go entrées and staples. I haven't patented the idea, though. You can have one, too. All it takes is an old cardboard box and a little planning. Then it's ready, set, go. You're off!

Do you have a better idea, or another way of doing the same thing? Don't keep it to yourself. I'd love to hear from you. And with your permission, I'll pass the word along to others, as well.



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