Archive for the 'It’s Alimentary: Provisioning, Food, and Cooking' Category

Dec 10 2016

Great Balls of Fire! A Simple Fire Starter You Can Make
by Tamia Nelson

Fire has warmed my cold bones many a time, and for years I never set out for the woods or waters without a twist of birch bark in my pack. After all, waterproofed matches and fire starters both figure prominently among the Ten Essentials, and I preferred birch bark—peeled from dead, downed trees only!—to foul-smelling chemical concoctions with names I couldn’t spell. That said, there’ve been a few times when birch bark has let me down. Then I’ve wished for something I could put together at home that would help me defy the worst assaults of wind and rain. Don’t get me wrong. I take pride in being able to start a fire with one match (or one flick of my butane lighter), even in a downpour. If pressed hard, however, I’ll confess that I’ve sometimes lit a candle when all else failed. Here’s the drill: I place a one-inch candle stub beneath a carefully crafted teepee of tinder and kindling. Then I light the wick. The candle flame dries out the dampest tinder, and soon the kindling catches fire, too. That’s that. In just a few minutes I’ll be toasting my fingers in front of a roaring blaze.

Of course, a candle stub is usually overkill, which is why I reserved it for the most difficult conditions—worst-case scenarios, in other other words, days when hypothermia was more than a theoretical possibility. At other times birch bark usually lit my fire. But I was never entirely happy with that alternative, either. I like to tread lightly in the backcountry, and stripping bark from trees—even dead, downed trees—leaves me feeling a bit uneasy. So it was back to candle stubs. Or was it? There’s something in my parsimonious nature that makes me reluctant to sacrifice a candle to light a fire. I started looking for a better way. And I found it. Enter “Great Balls of Fire.” … Read more…

Originally published at—now—on 9 December 2008

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Nov 21 2016

A Cornucopia of Seasonal Treats for Shank-of-the-Season Outings
by Tamia Nelson

Originally published at on November 15, 2016

No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds —

    From “No!” by Thomas Hood

November is an indecisive month, teetering on the cusp between autumn and winter. At least that’s how it is in Canoe Country, and while the New Model Climate is now pushing the thermostat up in every month of the year, November is still full of surprises. On one day, we wake to summer-like temperatures and balmy breezes. On the next, drifts of new snow blanket the ground.

And then there’s the sky. Gray is the dominant color note, a theme echoed by the gray hills — only the evergreens provide some welcome visual respite here — and reflected in the ominously gray water. All in all, November doesn’t invite us to linger out of doors. Day trips are fun, but it’s hard to work up enthusiasm for anything longer: A little bit of gray goes a long way. I’d rather camp in the drifts on a mountain col on a sunny (if arctic) February weekend than pitch a tent by the shore of a gunmetal gray pond on a monochrome November day.

Yet the relentlessly gray days of November have their compensations. Thanksgiving comes in November, for one thing. (That’s for paddlers living in the bits of Canoe Country lying south of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty line, of course. Our neighbors to the north celebrated the holiday last month.) And Thanksgiving is a good time to sample …

The Fruits of the Year

As I’ve already said, I don’t often do overnight trips in November. But day outings are something else altogether, and on the rare days when the clouds part to reveal a wan sun (and ice conditions permit), I warm to the idea of a moveable feast on some nearby waterway. Such November picnics can be a real treat. I don’t do much cooking on the shore, however. I’ll use my Trangia burner to make tea or heat soup, perhaps, but that’s about it. The daylight hours in the shank of the year are too precious to spend time over a hot stove. So I complete my meal prep at home, then stow the resulting ready-to-eat treats in a pack. (Hint: Soft “coolers” help keep food warm as well as cold — but be sure the food isn’t hot enough to melt the fabric! — and vacuum flasks make it possible to leave your stove in the pack, if you want.)

Does this sound good? It is, and notwithstanding Thomas Hood’s lament about “no fruits,” farm and field have quite a lot to offer at this time of year. In fact, the cornucopia of seasonal delicacies makes late-fall picnics especially memorable. Want to know what’s on my menu? Well, let’s begin with a holiday staple that will grace quite a few tables in the months ahead:

Cranberries.  It’s no exaggeration to say that I’m crazy about cranberries. They have a delightfully tart flavor that complements many dishes. Dried cranberries — “craisins” in marketing-speak — are usually sweetened. They can be eaten like raisins, and while they’re all right as snacks, fresh, unsweetened cranberries are more versatile. These can be added to cooked dishes or simply ground up with oranges (peel and all) and sweetened with honey or maple syrup to make an intriguingly sweet-tart relish. And my own Hundred-Mile Plus Oatmeal Bars also incorporate dried or fresh cranberries.

But that’s just the start. Fresh or frozen cranberries — there’s no need to thaw the frozen berries first — make a delightful accompaniment to braised or roasted beef, chicken, or pork. Simply cook them with the meat. Not that you’re likely to be preparing a roast at the water’s edge, I imagine, but you can always stir a small handful of cranberries into a tin of lunchtime beef stew as it’s simmering and dish it up as soon the berries are soft. (A dash or two of balsamic vinegar further enhances the stew.) Fresh cranberries can also be added to instant oatmeal, sweet or savory steel-cut oatmeal, or oatmeal groats. (Add cranberries before steaming.) Cranberries make a tasty addition to grain pilafs, too. And bakers long ago discovered that cranberries are a flavorful embellishment to quick breads, yeast breads, and apple crisp, not to mention that seasonal staple, apple pie.

Ah, yes. Apples. If any food says fall, it’s …

The Apple.  The heady perfume of “wild” apples* is one of the season’s signature scents, and the fragrance of cooking apples perfumes countless kitchens at this time of year. Here’s why: Apples are versatile. Stew or sauté chopped apples with nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom. Add shaved or chopped apples to both quick and yeast breads, pancakes, and waffles. Stir apples into cooking pilaf and risotto. Bake apples with maple syrup and nuts. And lest you forget (fat chance!), there is apple cider and apple butter — and apple pie.

Of course, you can also eat apples right off the tree, and if your river happens to wind though an old, abandoned orchard, be prepared for a happy surprise. Wild apples taste nothing like their store-bought counterparts. It’s like the difference between Monet’s Magpie and a Hallmark Christmas scene. Or between Corelli’s Concerto grosso in G minor, Op. 6, No. 8 (the “Christmas Concerto”) and Irving Berlin’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Each member of these pairings of unequals is exemplary in its own right, but only one is sublime. Guess which one.

OK. We’ve explored the possibilities of cranberries and apples. What’s next? Well, how about …

Squash?  I’m talking winter squash, the hard-skinned kind that will last till spring if properly stored. I like them all, but my favorites are acorn, buttercup, and pumpkin squashes. (Yes, pumpkin is a squash. Surprised?) All are delicious no matter how they’re prepared: roasted, steamed, sautéed, pureed — on their own or incorporated into other dishes. Winter squash soup is silky and flavorful. (You haven’t eaten all the cranberries and apples, have you? Then mix some into the soup.) Or you can roast your squash. Cubed, sliced, or halved, it makes no difference. And don’t forget squash pie. Pumpkin pie is a holiday staple, to be sure, but other squashes can also be pressed into service, yielding a whole litany of sweet and savory pies. And this is just a start. Whole books have been written on how to prepare winter squash. But I like to keep things simple. I halve and roast my squash, cut side up, with a pat of butter and a drizzle of maple syrup in the seed cavity — I save the seeds and roast them separately — season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle with walnut pieces.

Now, with that mention of walnuts, another seasonal treat takes center stage:

Nuts.  Actually, since nuts keep very well when properly stored, any time of year is a good time for nuts, but tree nuts like pecans, walnuts, and almonds are at their freshest in fall. I eat them out of hand every day, but I also add nuts to oatmeal and other hot cereals, rice and grain pilafs, and pasta, along with quick and yeast breads, pies, cakes, energy bars and cookies. I like nut “butters,” as well. To be sure, peanut butter — peanuts are legumes (“ground nuts”), not tree nuts — is a commonplace, but almond butter is even better. Grind almonds into a paste, then spread on hot toast, grainy breads, and pancakes. Delicious!

Have we exhausted nuts’ repertoire? Not yet. As we’ve already seen with roasted squash, broken or crumbled nuts make a tasty garnish, especially on …

Soups.  There’s a thermos of hot soup in my pack on every shank-of-the-season paddle. My favorites include squash soup (already mentioned), tomato-bean-and-kale soup with leeks, my Irish grandmother’s potato and cabbage soup, and pot-au-feu, the last being as much a boiled dinner as it is a soup.

~ ~ ~

And there you have it, my inventory of fall treats, from soup to nuts, not to mention berries, apples and squash.

But… Perhaps you’re wondering if I’ve left something out. After all, for most people in the States, Thanksgiving dinner is the gustatory high point of the month, and for many, that means only one thing:

It’s Time to Talk Turkey

Not for us, though. I find myself paddling against the current here, I know, but I prefer my holiday turkey alive and strutting. Wild turkeys stop outside my office window to pass the time of day every now and then, and I’ve developed a strong aversion to dining on my neighbors. I admit that I don’t feel quite the same bond of affinity with the plastic-wrapped corpses in the HyperMart freezer, however. But then the frozen turkey I’ve eaten has tasted mostly of the plastic wrapper, and even if this weren’t the case, I’m loath to reward the factory farms in which these unfortunate creatures live out their short and miserable lives. Such industrial enterprises are a far cry from the turkey farms I can remember from my youth, where clear-eyed and muscular birds roamed free during the day, conversing volubly with their neighbors all the while, before returning to individual apartments (no joke) at night to enjoy a well-earned rest.

A field trip to just such a farm was the highlight of the second-grade curriculum in my school, and the tour included a full and frank discussion of every aspect of commercial turkey farming, from rearing the poults to killing and processing the mature birds. We all left the farm with a better understanding of where our holiday meals came from — and with an appreciation of the farmer’s humane approach to animal husbandry. Such considerations have no place in today’s upscaled, bottom-line-driven farm operations, of course. Which is why my holiday table is conspicuous by the absence of turkey in any form. What do we have instead? Lasagna, that’s what. But that’s another story.

~ ~ ~

Is there still open water in your corner of Canoe Country? Then why not plan a moveable feast — a shank-of-the-season picnic? And with that in mind, I’ve made a few suggestions for seasonal treats. Whether eaten on a riverside rock or reserved for dinner at home after returning from a day on the water, this autumnal bounty is sure to please. But maybe I’ve left out your own favorite. If so, why not drop me a line? The cornucopia can never be too full, after all.


* Apples aren’t native to North America, so “wild” apples are really feral. But only a pedant (or a hack writer) would ever worry about such things, right?



Further Reading


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Nov 20 2016

Keeping Your Food to Yourself Where the Wild Things Are
by Tamia Nelson

Picnic time for ...

Originally published at on June 16, 2015

Ah, wilderness! The annual flight from the cities and suburbs is about to get under way in earnest. Soon many popular waterways will boast their own traffic jams, as canoes and kayaks jostle tentatively with darting jet‑skis and lumbering party barges. Lighting out for the territory just ain’t what it was in Huck Finn’s day. But some things don’t change. Beyond the boundaries of the tent‑cities now springing up in established campsites — the line of demarcation is easily identified by the sudden and unexpected appearance of lower limbs on trees — the natives go about their business as best they can. That’s natives with a small “N,” of course. I’m referring to the furred and feathered creatures who make their homes in the world’s remaining enclaves of wilderness.

Wilderness, you may remember, has been sanctified in law in the States. It is the place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” A noble sentiment, indeed, if woefully wide of the mark. Still, how often do hacks like me get to use “untrammeled” in a sentence? And notwithstanding the overheated language, the text of the Wilderness Act does make one useful distinction: In what now passes for wilderness, we humans are indeed “visitors.” We’re just passing through. In fact, in the eyes of the natives, we’re merely blow‑ins — unwelcome guests, to be tolerated rather than embraced.

That said, I have an alternative definition of wilderness to propose: Wilderness is where the wild things are. This lacks the soaring rhetoric of the Act, but it’s much easier to translate into operational terms, even if some of the consequences are a trifle unexpected. For example, many urban apartments would probably earn wilderness status. After all, visitors to New York City are often told they’re never more than six feet away from a rat, and if a stroppy, streetwise rodent who eats tame tabbies for breakfast isn’t a wild thing, what is?


This is TNO, though, not The New Yorker. So I’ll limit myself to considering relations between us and the wild things living in places where trees outnumber cars. And those wild things, if given the choice, would likely be happier if we blow‑ins just stayed home. We, on the other hand, are keen to make their acquaintance. We want to get up close and personal with our new neighbors. Just not too close. And not too personal. When spotted at a distance during the hours of daylight, a bear is a welcome sight, but the same can’t be said of chance encounters under the kitchen tarp at midnight.

The upshot? Backcountry wanderers and campers walk a thin line in our dealings with the natives on whose doorsteps we camp. We want to be accepted by them, but we also want them to know their place and keep their distance. This is pretty presumptuous of us, really. Since when do house guests get to lay down rules for their hosts? Be that as it may, however, it’s much harder to strike the right balance than it used to be. Truly wild things treat infrequent blow‑ins with appropriate caution and circumspection. But tens of millions of us now invade the natives’ wilderness homes in search of solitude and serenity, and such familiarity inevitably breeds contempt. By now, the natives have learned that — outside of the hunting seasons, at any rate — most featherless bipeds are pilgrims ripe for the plucking. You could almost say we’ve become targets of opportunity. The smaller creatures have long since learned to rob us of our tastier stores by stealth, while a few of the bigger beasts see us as possible entrées in our own right. To these more formidable natives, we look like nothing so much as not very fast food.

Needless to say, few trekkers are happy with either state of affairs. We’re used to calling the shots wherever we set foot. We see ourselves as verbs, rather than objects. But that’s not how the natives sees us. To them we’re clumsy, stupid, and clueless. And if push comes to shove, as it sometimes does, the toothier wild things know we can’t put up much of a show. To borrow Admiral “Jacky” Fisher’s pithy phrase, we’re too weak to fight and too slow to run away. Nonetheless, whenever a blow‑in is injured or robbed by a native, our species’ wrath knows no bounds, and we take a terrible revenge. The bottom line? It’s in the interest of both natives and blow‑ins to keep encounters from escalating. And like it or not, the burden of responsibility rests on our shoulders. In other words, it’s up to us — paddlers, hillwalkers, campers, and cyclists — to …

Keep Wild Things Wild

In an age of mass tourism, this is harder than it sounds, but there are a few things we blow‑ins can do to avoid open conflict with our (involuntary) hosts. And they mostly involve good housekeeping. That begins with our …

Observing All Rules and Regulations.  Nowadays, most wilderness is highly regulated, and the people responsible for keeping order and “protecting the resource” — rangers, conservation officers, and park administrators — have the nearly impossible job of reconciling our seemingly infinite demand for recreational access with the finite ability of wild lands (and wild things) to survive the combined assaults of solitude‑seekers and thrill junkies. Which is why most parks and reserves now have rules in place designed to minimize the likelihood of run‑ins between blow‑ins … sorry … visitors and natives. It goes without saying — or it should, at any rate — that these rules must be followed to the letter.

But what about those rare and wonderful places still unencumbered by formal rules and regulations? What then? Easy. Use your common sense, and …

Don’t Feed the Animals.  Mind you, wild things are no more likely than bankers to turn down a free lunch, and (also like bankers) their appetites grow with eating. So don’t embark on a program of dietary quantitative easing. Don’t give free meals to cute cadgers. Ever. And don’t leave food lying about in camp. In fact, make it a habit to …

Keep a Tidy Camp.  In high‑traffic, high‑risk areas (e.g., popular campsites, obvious bear sign, etc.), prepare, eat, and store food well away from your sleeping area. When you’re planning to do 20 miles in the hours from dawn to dusk, 150 feet is not too far to travel between bed and breakfast. And never eat in your sleeping bag or shelter.

Don’t grill meat or fish over coals, either. Fry it in a pan, instead. And pour off the grease into a metal container with a tight seal, saving it for reuse or subsequent disposal. Store any other food waste in sealed, doubled plastic bags. (A hard plastic “bear can” makes an even better trash receptacle.) To minimize the volume of waste, avoid leftovers. When preparing a meal, tailor quantities to appetites. This isn’t usually a problem after a long day’s paddling. It’s rare for a canoeist or kayaker to complain that he has too much to eat!

Then, when the meal is over, clean up immediately. Police your cooking and dining areas, picking up any dropped or spilled food. Next, wash the dishes. Disposing of dirty wash water is a problem, however. In the absence of a designated sump — do not use the privy! — you’ll have to empty it into a cat hole dug at least 30 double‑step paces (150 feet) from your camp and any spring or surface water. And then stow wash basin, wash cloth, detergent, and pot scrubber with the same care as you store your food.

OK. Keeping a clean camp is important. But you need to do more. You’ll also want to …

Clean Up Your Act.  Don’t sleep in the clothes you wore while cooking and eating. And leave scented soaps, shampoos, deodorants, lip salves and the like at home. (In winter, I use a lip balm that has a honey base. Farwell can smell it 50 feet away. A bear could probably do ten times better.) Is there any more you can to minimize your odor trail? Yes. Substitute baking soda for toothpaste and leave your chewing gum behind, as well. It, too, has a powerful scent signature.

And now, for women only: Blood‑soaked tampons and sanitary pads are an intractable problem. If you don’t fancy carrying them home in an air‑tight container, you might want to consider a menstrual cup. It has a lot of advantages.

Lastly, there’s the question of what to do with …

Man’s Best Friend.  The best advice? Leave Rover at home. Wilderness is not a dog park. Dogs of all sizes and breeds will chase wild creatures for the sheer fun of it, but their “playmates” won’t see the game in quite the same light, and many of the natives have formidable defensive weaponry. If you’ve ever had to pull porcupine quills out of an unanesthesized dog, you’ll think twice before bringing Rover with you again. Not convinced? Then consider this: Dog food is strong‑smelling stuff, and dog’s aren’t tidy eaters. Bears and raccoons find dog food quite palatable, too.

Still unwilling to consign your Best Friend to the kennel for the duration? At the very least, then, keep Rover on a short leash, both in camp and on the trail. It’s in everyone’s best interest. And safeguard his food with as much care as you protect you own.


Speaking of which, there’s a newish wrinkle in …

Campsite Food Security

More and more parks and reserves are requiring that backcountry campers use bear‑resistant food storage containers (aka “bear cans”), and while these are pricey, heavy, and awkward, they do reduce the likelihood that you’ll have hirsute guests dropping in unannounced for a midnight supper chez vous. Some established campsites also boast steel food storage lockers or bear poles. And wherever such facilities are provided, it makes good sense to use them.

But what if you’re on your own, camping outside an established site? Well, there’s always the bear‑can option. And bears aren’t the only wild things with a taste for the good life. White‑footed mice, raccoons, and skunks are also happy to dine at your expense, and porcupines have an affinity for salty things like packs and paddles. I’ve had good luck protecting my food in lightly traveled, low‑risk areas with retasked wide‑mouthed plastic peanut jars. You could call them Not So Safes, I suppose. They’re certainly not bear proof, but they discourage foraging mice, and they haven’t been seen as targets of opportunity by skunks or raccoons — yet.

Then again, when camping in places where bear cans aren’t mandated, I usually hang my food, in addition to stowing it in my homemade Not So Safes. But the method I use — it’s a variation of the climber’s Tyrolean traverse — has now been well and truly sussed by many brainy bears, who’ve discovered that biting through either end of the traverse line will make food fall from the sky. A better approach is therefore needed, and I’ve just learned of one:

The Pacific Crest Trail Bag Hang

It’s both simpler and more secure than the Tyrolean traverse method, and while it’s not suited to high‑risk campsites (a bear can or steel locker is the only option in such places), it offers a lighter, more convenient alternative for adventurers who venture off the beaten path. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A food bag with a secure closure and a hanging loop
  • About 50 feet of parachute cord or light line (green or black cordage is probably a better choice than white or yellow)
  • A small stuff sack or throw bag (to be filled with pebbles or small stones when needed)
  • A carabiner hefty enough to hold the food bag’s weight.
  • A toggle made from a stick, dowel, or tent stake, and at least twice as long as the ‘biner is wide

  • A tree located at a fair distance from camp (downwind, if possible), with a strong live branch at least 12 feet above the ground (the higher the better)

It’s a pretty short list, and most campers will already have the makings. Here’s what to do with them:

  1. Fill the throw bag with pebbles or small stones and secure tightly.
  2. Tie a figure‑eight loop in one end of the line, clip a carabiner to the loop, and then clip the throw bag to the carabiner.
  3. Toss the throw bag over the branch so the line hangs at least six feet from the trunk.
  4. Unclip the throw bag, clip on the food bag, and thread the running end of the line through the carabiner. (Photo A below)
  5. Haul the food bag up to the branch. Then, while maintaining tension on the line with one hand, …
  6. Take the toggle in the other and reach up as far as you can, …
  7. Before attaching the toggle to the line with a clove hitch. (This won’t be easy at first, but practice makes perfect. See Photo B for the result.)
  8. Now loosen your grip and let the line out slowly, until the toggle engages the ‘biner. (Photo C)
  9. Allow the bitter end of the line to hang free. (Sketch D)

How to Hang 'em

That’s it. To retrieve your food bag, simply pull on the bitter end of the line until the toggle is once again within reach, remove it, and then lower the bag to the ground.

Big Stretch

What did I tell you? Simple and (reasonably) secure. You have to do your part, however. Most adult male black bears can grab anything within seven feet of the ground (and the biggest bruins can do better), so make sure your food bag is out of reach. Ten feet is not too high. And though it’s a safe bet that some bear, somewhere, will eventually figure out how to defeat the Pacific Crest Trail hang, that day doesn’t seem to have arrived — good news for both trekkers and bears.

~ ~ ~

It’s summertime, and the wilderness is calling. Soon campsites in popular parks will be filled to overflowing, as paddlers and hikers make themselves at home where the wild things are. And with the crowds comes conflict. We want to keep our food to ourselves. But our involuntary hosts have other ideas, and the resulting differences of opinion can get messy. Is there an alternative? Yes. And now you know what it is.

Further Reading


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