Good Food Leads to Happy Scientists

In a few days, I will start cooking dinner for 120 people. I am one of four museum scientists heading to the banks of the Coppermine River in western Nunavut for the month of July. And I’m deep into the food-planning phase for this Arctic expedition.

At times, we will also have in camp a helicopter pilot and a wildlife monitor from the town of Kugluktuk. And so this is how the math works out: I need to bring enough food to feed four to six people for 28 days. My detailed spreadsheet calculations tell me that this means bringing 120 individual dinners, lunches and breakfasts.

Barrels and gear sit on shore beside a float plane.

We pack our food into these blue barrels. This protects the food from getting wet and it also reduces the food odours in camp. This is important for preventing unwanted visitors such as foxes and bears. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

All this food has to be as lightweight and compact as possible—so we don’t overload the helicopter!—and it needs to be food that doesn’t require refrigeration. For breakfast, this is easy: granola, pancake mix, oatmeal. Lunches aren’t too tricky either: dry sausage, hard cheese, dense bread and mustard in a tube.

Two photos: A man and a woman sit on the ground eating from their plates.

Despite the mosquitoes during a previous Arctic expedition, fellow botanists Lynn Gillespie and Paul Sokoloff enjoy a meal of chicken tikka with sliced almonds, curried vegetables and rice. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Dinners require more effort and creativity. We end our long days with big appetites from hours of hiking the tundra and collecting plant specimens for the museum. Harsh conditions such as wind, rain (or sometimes snow!) and clouds of mosquitoes also stoke the hunger in our bellies. And so we crave hearty meals.

Baggies of dried food.

Here, the homemade dehydrated food is starting to pile up on my kitchen table. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Dehydration is my solution to providing home-cooked food that is light and non-perishable. After cooking a dish, I spread it onto the trays of a dehydrator. (Stews, curries and chilis dehydrate well). A fan at the back of the dehydrator blows hot air across the trays of food, gently removing the moisture over 10 to 12 hours. The crumbly, dried food that results can be rehydrated and reheated in the field.

Pots of stew on a table.

A batch of chickpea stew ready to be dehydrated. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Serving the same meal night after night would be the easiest approach. But the research team would soon be unhappy, and the cook would be fed to the mosquitoes! So, to keep the team smiling and interested in eating, I make a five-day dinner plan that I repeat for the duration of the trip. The menu for the upcoming season includes chili con carne with couscous; tomato sauce with mushrooms, Italian sausage and parmesan over pasta; and chicken korma and vegetable jalfrezi with rice.

A box-shaped dehydrator whose trays are laden with stew.

The stew is now in the dehydrator and ready to be dried. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

The healthy crunch of a fresh vegetable is a common craving for people in remote field camps. To satisfy this yearning, I serve rehydrated salads a few times a week. Shredded cabbage and grated carrot rehydrate well and make crunchy salads with the addition of bit of oil and vinegar.

The dried mix on a dehydrator tray beside a pot of the dried mix.

After about 10 hours, the moisture is gone from the stew, leaving a dry, crumbly mix. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Chocolate, cookies or dehydrated pineapple (a candy-sweet favourite) usually end the evening meal. Tough days (e.g., nasty, cold, wet weather) or special occasions (e.g., an exciting botanical find) merit something more elaborate, and so I have some surprise desserts up my sleeve such as stove-top camp cake with whiskey sauce.

A pot of dehydrated chickpea stew and a pot of dehydrated curried vegetables on a rock in a landscape of river and hills.

When it’s time to cook in camp, I put pre-measured servings of the mix and hot water into a pot. I let the food rehydrate for 30 minutes before cooking. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Food fuels our field work. It powers our long hikes, our plant-collecting effort and long hours of specimen processing in the work tent. Knowing this—and that good food leads to happy scientists—will keep me going as I tackle the task of feeding 120 people.

Camp Cake

Preparing the Mix at Home
2 cups flour
1 ¼ cups sugar
2 tbsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. mace
½ teaspoon cloves
2 tbsp. dry milk
¼ cup shortening
1 cup raisins

1) Whisk together the dry ingredients.
2) Cut in the shortening with two knives or a pastry cutter until the mix is in pea-sized chunks.
3) Stir in the raisins.
4) Package the mix with the trail directions.

Trail Directions
butter or margarine to grease pan
flour to dust pan
1 cup water

1) Prepare a frying pan or other baking pan by coating it with butter or margarine and dusting it with flour.
2) Stir 1 cup water into the mix.
3) Using a lid or aluminum foil to cover the pan, cook the cake slowly on your camp stove set to low. If your camp stove doesn’t have a low setting, use an Outback Oven heat diffuser under your pan.
4) Keep an eye on the cake and check it after about 20 minutes. It’s likely to take about 30 minutes in total.

Serves 8.

Rum or Whiskey Sauce

1 cup brown sugar
½ cup water
3 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 ounce rum or whiskey

1) In a small pot, combine the sugar, water and butter or margarine.
2) Heat until the sugar is dissolved.
3) Remove from the heat and add the spirits.
4) Serve the camp cake and spoon the hot sauce over it.

(Recipes from The Hungry Hiker’s Book of Good Cooking, by Gretchen McHugh. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1995. 263–265).

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