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Eating REI

What happens when a big-city restaurant critic drops the sterling silverware and picks up a camping spork?


Hotcakes (top) and huevos rancheros from Backpacker’s Pantry.

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Clockwise from left: REI-bought crème brûlée, chicken piccata, and lasagna.

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Pad Thai.

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Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about our relationship with the natural world, which San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the May 2017 Great Outdoors Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

Unlike Henry
David Thoreau, I did not go into the woods “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” I went into the woods to pour boiling water over freeze-dried chicken gumbo and chana masala; to rehydrate spicy cheddar bean dip and chicken piccata with tagliatelle; and to gauge how well these wan facsimiles of American melting pot fare could possibly replicate the real things.

Where Thoreau wrote of his urge to suck the marrow out of life, I was out to answer my own existential question: Could I, a soft city slicker, leave behind the trappings of civilization and, with minimal effort, bring along some decent lasagna Bolognese?

The woods that I chose were in the East Bay hills, not exactly the frontier, but far enough from any gastropub to feel suitably removed from my usual urban comforts. The meals that I packed came from REI, whose aisles brim with ambitious-sounding backpacker dishes, sold under several brand names in heatproof packets that fetch around $8 to $10 each. None of them took more than 20 minutes to prepare, and the steps were never more involved than firing up a camping stove, heating up some water, and pouring a few haphazardly measured cups into the plastic pouch.

Given the astronaut-ice-cream constraints of the trail-meal genre (light on weight, but loaded on calories and protein), it should not come as a shock that many of the items were a long way from delicious, their cloying taste and grainy texture less suggestive of comestibles whipped up in a kitchen than of laboratory tinkering gone awry. What’s more surprising is how successful some were in supplying me with low-grade satisfaction, even though I wasn’t lost in the Sierra with one arm pinned beneath a rock.

Take the multigrain buttermilk hotcakes I had to start one morning. Slightly nutty from spelt and quinoa, they were every bit as good as anything you’d get at IHOP. Better, actually, because I’d packed real maple syrup, not the corn syrup–sweetened goo so many breakfast places use. I paired the pancakes with huevos rancheros, a medley of dried red beans and a dried egg mix flecked with powdered chilies, onions, bell peppers, and cheddar cheese. In their initial form, the eggs looked like yellow Styrofoam packing. But once reconstituted and stirred on a hot skillet, they fluffed up like a hearty morning scramble. Combined with the beans, which had a pleasant, bulk-bin crunch, they were solid daybreak fuel that also qualified as food. 

Both the hotcakes and the huevos came from a Colorado-based company called Backpacker’s Pantry, which was founded in 1951 to supply Girl Scouts with trail food. In those days, if you wanted tent-side sustenance that tasted like home cooking, you fished for it or shot it. Or so my grandpa told me. That was long before the dawn of glamping. Today the valleys teem with Reese Witherspoon wannabes setting off in search of their wild inner selves, only to discover that those selves might rather live like Bourdain than Emerson (which is to say, ranging freely but eating profusely).

The rush to satisfy that market has triggered a change in the freeze-dried food industry, a fast-growing sector that in recent years has broadened its focus from chipped beef and beans to more fashionably artisan and ethnic-specific dishes. The results have not been uniformly great. As evidence, I point to the pad Thai I hauled into the hills. It was made by a company called Good To-Go, in Maine, and composed of dried rice noodles, roasted peanuts, and a wild American shrimp sauce that was funky in a way that shrimp sauce shouldn’t be. I followed the instructions: Add the peanuts to the noodles; pour approximately two cups of boiling water into the packet; stir, reseal, then “hang out for 15 minutes. Think about how big the universe is.”

It was big, all right. And since I was just a speck in it, perhaps no one would notice if I left this pad Thai for the bears. Instead, I masked its flaws with Expedition Sauce, a spicy condiment that looks and tastes like Tapatío but comes in a food-grade aluminum tube. Its peppery kick worked nicely, too, on an otherwise listless chana masala, just as it helped enliven a chicken gumbo that would have been a hard sell in the Big Easy but was close enough for jazz given that I was hanging out in Redwood Regional Park.

The fact that everything tastes better around a campfire might explain my fondness for the lasagna with meat sauce (Mountain House in Oregon gets credit for this one), which, when you boil it down, was the kind of dish you might get on an Alitalia flight. But no caveat is needed for the chicken piccata with tagliatelle from Backpacker’s Pantry. The poultry meat was moist, the pasta was al dente, and the whole shebang was brightened by capers and lemon that had survived dehydration without losing their zest. Of all the camping food I tried, this came by far the closest to what we call cuisine.

I wolfed it down as the sun was dying, just in time to have my cake and maybe eat it, too. Alas, it wound up being a dark chocolate cheesecake (Backpacker’s Pantry) that betrayed none of the traits of either cheese or chocolate and might as well have been cane sugar, tinted brown. On the hike back to my car, two paths diverged in the yellow wood, and I took the one that led to a dumpster, where I deposited the rest of this lamentable dessert.

Then I was off, down a winding road, driving toward the bright lights and chic menus of the city. Thoreau left the woods because he had the sense “that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” But I’m nowhere near that aspirational. I left the woods because I have only one life. And it is too short to eat so joylessly.


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco 

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