Rolfe: Fast food

Posted by Gary Rolfe on 03/09/2007
Photo: Gary Rolfe.

What to eat on the go. More uncompromising advice from Gary Rolfe - Arctic explorer extraordinaire.

Despite trendy hype we all have a pretty good idea of what food is good for us, and what isn’t. But it’s all too easy to settle for bad food - especially if you’re out on a limb. It’s a subject close to my heart, since I eat a lot. In winter I scoff the calorific expenditure of a marathon every day, around 5,200 calories.

The quantity of food required to suppress my appetite is even a cause of concern for some - apparently it appears unnatural. Most people think I have worms. Long ago my eating habits set an unprecedented personal ability to erode into enormous piles of food. I’d regularly eat two bread loaves, plus a meal, in one sitting.

In the Arctic food has never been cheap. I used to live 350 miles north of the Yukon. During the 1896 Yukon gold rush a loaf of bread was worth more than its equivalent weight in gold.

And even now a grapefruit flown in from down south can cost five quid and taste like sawdust. To keep me going I baked, cramming bread dough full of nuts and dried fruit. Calorie drenched, I couldn’t eat these in pairs so the loaf record remained unchallenged.

I’m not one for the privilege of eating traditional Arctic foods, those considered delicacies, like innards. I tend to retreat, my lips curl. Derogatory? Perhaps. But I’ve seen white overall and rubber glove clad environmental boffins treat the very same as toxic waste. Studies on whales show them to be full of chemical contaminants. Around here bears and humans eat whales. The food chain stops at the polar bear. They’re truly amazing animals, but thanks to worldwide pollution they’re also radioactive. Trans-boundary pollution is released into the environment from industries thousands of miles away and reaches the Arctic through the atmosphere, rivers and ocean currents. Continuous accumulation of contaminants transported to the Arctic is a process called bioaccumulation. The Arctic Ocean is where pollution stays - nothing gets broken down because the sun can’t get at it under the sea ice.

I now live in Greenland, a country known for its pristine wilderness but pollution from lower latitudes is a growing concern. The major threat for human health is mercury. Mercury is concentrated in the food chain and reaches high levels in the traditional Greenlandic diet, mostly marine mammals. Extremely high levels of mercury have been found in the blood of hunters and their families from Greenland. Women now breast-feed their kids with contaminated milk.

I meanwhile filter all my water with a First Need purifier. I’m never without water in an Aztec steel vacuum flask. Filled with boiling water and left outside for three days at minus forty, the contents will remain brew warm. Wrapped around a steel flask I’ve a magazine sized piece of Multimat’s EVA foam, big enough to sit, stand or kneel on. This I tab with a Velcro clasp. In summer day trips I like the Aztec Widemouth 1.2 litre steel flask for keeping a decent meal piping hot.

In the western Arctic beluga whale hunters do their stuff in August. None of your old fashioned approach in nimble kayak armed with twig like harpoon scenes now. It’s all satellite phones, high-powered rifles then back home to the VCR. Though be warned. If the pollution doesn’t ruin your spoils, poor food handling might. Someone always dies from botulism caused by eating muktuk (raw whale fat) that’s been summer-stored in sweaty sealed plastic buckets. One way I overcame crippling food costs (and botulism) was to cross time zones and drive south 2,800 miles to Edmonton in Alberta. The plan was simple: spend a week shopping then head north with it all. My crazily long list always included 40lb of dehydrated banana chips, 70lb of dried fruit, 12lb of dried milk and 4 tons of Nutrience dog food.

A month’s expedition food takes a full day to pack. I always do this alone. Food lists take into account safety margin and rest days. I’ve still got pre-laptop lists noting spoon and cup counts tallying everything that I eat. Fascinating stuff like 118 spoonfuls make up a 340g pot of instant coffee. It’s a laborious process because I’m hopeless at sums. And I mean hopeless, I always made myself treble-check the count with a calculator. These days it’s easier - everything now goes on to neat Panasonic Toughbook spreadsheets that add up for me.

A pound of butter I cut into quarters. This lasts a bad week, one of insane calorific output. With a knife, frozen butter sticks are easier to whittle and add to food. Calculated amounts of dried fruit is mixed into rolled oats. Not just raisins and sultanas but dried strawberries and pineapple. There’s no point scrimping in the cold - planned starvation isn’t clever. Prepared perishables like cheese I leave outside, protected from my dogs and wolf packs, to freeze before giving it the chance of going hairy. The preparation is pernickety, but in a tent I want nutritious and satisfying food then sleep. The less time it takes from bag, to pot, to mouth the better.

Most dried grub sold as ‘expedition food’ is nasty. If you’re serious about what you eat there’s no trusting what goes into this stuff. Look at the ingredients on ‘expedition food’ packaging. You can do a better job and save money; you can determine what goes into your meals without those health-tampering additives.

I love meat, and drying caribou, musk ox or fish in the Arctic is easy - the perpetual summer sun allows it. Framed bug-proof netted boxes looking like bird aviaries allow air to pass freely, and thin strips can make good tasting jerky in hours. It’s not easy to do in the UK though - you’ll need to head into the kitchen. To dehydrate meat in an oven grind it up. Beef is best, once dry it’ll become powder-like. Alternatively cut the meat into thin strips to make jerky. It’s light and nutrient-dense. You can get delicious, tender, high-protein jerky from even cheap meats, and it stores indefinitely. Fish also tastes good preserved this way too. The only trouble with ovens is that they cost a bit to run, and you have to constantly flip and rotate the load - a bind.

If you like the sound of drying your own food then you’ll need a food dehydrator - I use Excalibur ones. These come small or as big as you want. Purpose made driers house the food on screen trays. A fan in the unit’s base circulates air through and out at a regulated temperature. Dehydrating fruit is simple. Wash, cut and trim bruises before placing on a drying tray. Using frozen fruit to dry is good because it’s already prepared, no stalks or peel to mess with. Dried fruit can be eaten at once. When preparing menus it’s important to remember that vegetables re-hydrate at different rates. The fresh-to-dry times for all fruit and vegetables vary too. With practice it’s really easy to create what you know to be healthy.

Forget trans-Atlantic flights with copious amounts of food though. Chances are that killjoy customs officials will stop you with it and spoil your plans. If you can’t dry your own food US food companies like Justtomatoes Etc. offer a magnificent array of unadulterated dehydrated fruit and vegetables, so go with time to buy and prepare in Canada or the US. Summer food preparation differs from winter considerations. If you’re flying north (above the Arctic Circle) then airline cargo expeditors can keep foodstuffs frozen or warm year round during flights. There’s a Canadian post office service called Food Mail. Buy provisions at allocated stores and groceries can be shifted around the Arctic at a cheap rate.

Summer food cache depots flown out ahead of me contain vacuum packed food. Re-sealable bags don’t hold content odours and advertise free grub for four legged gluttons like bears, wolves or wolverines. Vacuum packers are cheap enough. Food expected to withstand a Cessna 185 floatplane flight better be waterproof too. All my re-supplies are packed to survive rough and tumble travel. Bears bust padlocks so I thread and twist brass snare wire through barrel lids to secure them. I use Harcostar Drums - they’re light, tough and reliable 30 to 220 litre plastic drums.

Nobody grows stuff in the ground up north. Dirt is frozen solid year round. When training or preparing a journey from a warm base camp I sprout things like peas, mung beans, red clover, alfalfa and canola. I cover a jar bottom or shallow tray with seeds, soak for a few hours to swell and drain before covering the container with mosquito netting. Twice daily I add cold water, swirl and drain. Most seeds sprout within a couple of days. Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds guarantee me fresh essential minerals and vitamins. In the dead of winter I grow them indoors. Though colourless they’re nutritious and taste great. I started sprouting seeds after reading about Arctic explorer William Parry. In 1819 Parry was chosen by the Admiralty to explore the Arctic for the Northwest Passage. Beset in winter sea ice he grew cress and mustard seeds by the light of his ship’s candles. Supplemented with preserved berries and lemon juice he staved off scurvy from his crew.

Food isn’t much good without a stove. Throughout Arctic summers MSR XGK EX stoves keep me fed and watered. Some things can be improvised on the Arctic Ocean. A stove can’t. In dreadful minus 50Cº cold my stove repeatedly melts 90 litres of snow and boils 12 litres of water to hydrate my dogs and myself. I pack more than matches in the shape of an Ultimate Survival Strike Force all-weather fire starter. It’s a fail-safe stove ignition method. The Blast Match version is operational with one hand.

If all else fails I eat dog food. It’s fit for human consumption.



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