Roughing It on the Fourth

ARLINGTON, VA., July 4 --

Unlike many of you, I did not spend my Fourth of July at a fireworks party, or any kind of party, for that matter. Work was in the way of my having fun, so I had to suck up my disappointment and simply buckle down to the many tasks at hand.

The original premise of this post is to share my finds on the various products on the market geared for cooks who like to rough it. At one o'clock in the afternoon, while the sun was blazing and I was in the air-conditioned comfort of my kitchen, the idea of taste-testing various freeze-dried camping meals seemed a bit unnatural, but I carried on with my experiment (We'll get to the results shortly).

Around five in the afternoon, the sky turned an eerie shade of green-black and started to rumble. Within 10 minutes, all the neighborhood kids who had been enjoying their nonstop runs on a water 'Slip n' Slide" retreated indoors, shrieking, as the rain came down in sheets. The wind was so fierce I began to wonder if this was in fact a hurricane. By minute 49 into the storm, the power went kaput throughout the neighborhood.

I laughed out loud, wondering if in fact this was a) my very own fireworks show and b) the perfect opportunity to eat freeze-dried camping food. (Instead, I made a cucumber salad, with soy sauce, sesame oil and chili flakes.)

Two hours later, I type to you by candlelight and on the battery fumes of laptop number two (the first one got dangerously low on juice), now wondering when we in south Arlington, Va., can join the rest of civilization in electrified bliss. The whole neighborhood is outside trying to find something to do because even at 9 o'clock at night, it's lighter playing on the pavement than in the living room where THERE'S NO POWER.

Now back to the camp food.

Stove-top camp-style toast. (Kim O'Donnel)

I was in REI over the weekend in search of a "Camp Stove Toaster." In my house, there's nary an electric toaster, the subject of much dismay by my beloved co-habitant, who has earned some complaining rights about my baterie de cuisine. My Plan B has traditionally been to warm bread in the oven until somewhat hard, but in his eyes, this method does not yield toasty enough results. I have resisted, insisting there is no room for a new appliance (Forget that I just bought an ice cream maker).

When I learned about the aforementioned "Camp Stove Toaster" made by a Canadian company called Coghlan's, I sprung into action. Could this be the answer to my toasting prayers? Four dollars. (Yep, you got that right; When was the last time you spent four bucks on a kitchen appliance?) Soon, I was the proud owner of a "Camp Stove Toaster."

Essentially, this contraption is a steel plate with perforated holes in the center. Coated foldable wire frames become bread holders, enough for four slices. The bread rests effortlessly on the legs and waits for the heat of the flame to do its thing. In ten minutes, my frozen raisin bread magically transformed into golden brown toast. It sits neatly on top of a gas burner, by the way. I have no intention of trying my new toy out in the wilderness, but feel free to report back with your findings if curiosity sets in.

After a successful toast operation (and a relationship now intact), I ventured forth with my freeze-dried, three-course meal. On the menu: Hawaiian Chicken, with a ginger-teriyaki sauce, Caribbean black beans and rice and deep-dish peach crumble for dessert.

Freeze-dried food
Dinner is served. (Kim O'Donnel)

For the record, freeze-dried food isn't just for astronauts or soldiers anymore. There's a vast community of civilians who like to pack light when enjoying the great outdoors, and that includes the portable pantry. Packaged in sealable foil bags, these meals only require boiling water and preferably, a long-handled wooden spoon for stirring. Think of those ramen noodles in a Styrofoam cup that you lived on in college, but a lot more appetizing.

After adding the boiling water, I stirred the contents of the bag and resealed to allow those heavenly juices to mingle. Ten minutes, dinner was ready. I spooned servings onto a dinner plate for a reality check. Much to my surprise, the Hawaiian Chicken was better than okay, even better than an airplane meal. The ginger-teriyaki sauce was truly gingery! The black beans and rice were more southwestern than Caribbean, but even so, not bad. The beans plumped back after rehydration and were not as salty as I had anticipated.

As my fellow taste-tester said, "If you had been hiking all day and were really hungry, this would taste great." (Note to self: No hiking of any kind that is strenuous enough to elicit a fondness for freeze-dried chicken dinners.)

Although full of promise, dessert delivered far from positive results. In fact, I'd venture to say it was scary. "It tastes like Christmas," my colleague said. Yeah, like a Christmas candle. In this case, the real thing is the way to go. How much room could a small bag of raisins or a medley of dried fruit take up in a backpack?

The freeze-dried meals I sampled come from a variety of lines: Richmoor, Backpacker's Pantry and Alpineaire Foods. All are MSG-free and cost about $6.

(It's nearly 10 and the battery on laptop #2 is teetering on saying goodbye. This is my cue to sign off, with the hopes of being electrified by morn. Wish me luck!)

By Kim ODonnel |  July 4, 2006; 11:06 PM ET Camping Cookery
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The Camp Stove Toaster works pretty good on a Coleman Stove out in the woods. I have been camping for 25 years and keep one in the gear box. As for the Freeze Dried food, it's food . I backpacked for 7 years and when you are out in the middle of nowhere for a week that is your only choice. It provides nourishment, but that is about it.

Posted by: Seasoned Camper | July 6, 2006 12:17 PM

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