Saturday, April 2, 2011

portable food: a comprehensive review

(reprinted from November 6, 2010)

As promised, here are my reviews of a whole slew of food products I purchased through my REI store credit in an effort to feed myself on a shoestring budget over the past two weeks.

All of these packets of freeze-dried food require one to pour in either boiling or cold water. Stir, let sit for a certain amount of time-- usually somewhere in the 9- to 13-minute range-- then pour out (more like scrape out) and eat. As you might imagine, given the sameness of the preparation process, all the food looks like mush. In other words, when you're evaluating these packets, throw out texture and presentation as judging criteria.

It should be noted, though, that some of the packets contain dry elements that are meant both to enhance flavor and to circumvent the texture problem; you pull these packets of dry ingredients out before you pour the hot water into the primary prep bag. While the presence of these extra packets is a thoughtful addition, what you usually end up with, once you pour the hot food into a bowl, is mush with powder on top. If you fail to eat the mush fast enough, you end up having mush with mush on top. Please keep that in mind as you read these reviews and ponder your purchases: in every case involving dried, pour-on-top ingredients, time is a factor, and slow eaters will be punished for their slowness.

Now... we begin.

Richmoor Natural High Three Berry Cobbler
REI Item# 6525850019

Natural High Three Berry Cobbler rated a "so-so" when I tried it. The berry mush was a rich, dark red, and wasn't too bad, gustatorily speaking, but the visual experience of scraping the mush out of the zip-top bag evoked something primal, like the evisceration-by-spoon of a squirrel. Unfortunately, the addition of the chocolate crumble pretty much ruined the berries/viscera for me. I don't know who manufactures the chocolate for Natural High, but I suspect they're hunched, eyeless cave-dwelling beings bereft of taste buds and olfactory nerves, whose language consists of little more than sibilants and farting noises. The crumble does add a bit of crunch to the experience, but the gritty, near-flavorless chocolate is a true turn-off. My advice: if you have to buy this particular preparation, just consume the chocolate separately by stirring it into a mug of hot cocoa.

Richmoor Natural High Chocolate Fudge Mousse
REI Item# 5160010012

The same angry cave dwellers that created the aforementioned chocolate crumble undoubtedly had a hand (or claw) in making this awful, mephitic goop. Have you ever watched Bear Grylls, on "Man versus Wild," squeezing a huge lump of elephant dung to get at the water inside it? Just as you'd never reach for dung unless you absolutely had to, you shouldn't reach for this chocolate mousse unless you're truly desperate. It comes with almond sprinkles, but the almonds are little more than cardboard. While not quite vomitous, I'd rate this packet "barely tolerable."

Richmoor Natural High Fudge Brownies
REI Item# 6888350011

If I'm not mistaken, I wrote about these brownies before. The batter reacted well to the microwave, transmogrifying into a recognizable brownie in a bit less than 90 seconds. However, since we're dealing with Natural High's unnatural chocolate, the flavor was rather disappointing. I have no idea how the brownie mix would behave if cooked in a camp skillet or pot, per the packet's instructions; one can only hope that the heat of the campfire might induce some caramelization and work some alchemical magic on the brownie's taste. What I found bothersome about the instructions, though, was the assumption that a camper might be toting oil around with him. Or maybe my mistake is that I'm conflating camping and hiking. Plenty of campers bring all manner of weird items into the bush with them. My own mother, bless her, liked bringing along a hair dryer.

Of course, it's possible to tote oil safely, even as a hiker: anyone who's eaten ramen knows that some noodle packages come with tiny packets of oil inside them. I imagine that such packets, or similar ones, are available in bulk at outdoor recreation stores.

Mountain House Neapolitan Ice Cream
REI Item# 6368970015

Ah, childhood memories. This stuff is freeze-dried ambrosia to me, but goddammit, it never lasts long enough. The Mountain House version tastes exactly like the astronaut ice cream I remember eating at the National Air and Space Museum. You could buy packets of ice cream at the museum's overpriced gift shop, and my folks often did.

Perhaps Mountain House offers a range of flavors, but all I saw was Neapolitan. I have nothing negative to say about this ice cream; each packet is 110 calories of pure, evanescent goodness. It's a great way to ponder impermanence; and with enough imagination, I'm sure you could incorporate this ice cream into some creative lovemaking. The way it reacts to moist body surfaces suggests a host of possibilities.

Backpacker's Pantry Cheesecake
REI Item# 6113800012

Although it initially looks like a bowlful of elephant semen, the BP Cheesecake congeals within minutes (xanthan gum? agar agar? I need to look at the thickening agent) to an almost recognizably cheesecake-y consistency. A separate packet of graham cracker crumble is there for you to pour onto the dessert. I didn't mind the taste at first, but toward the end, the cheesecake began to taste cloyingly sweet. Like angels' brains.

Richmoor Natural High Honey Mustard Chicken
REI Item# 5100300010

While not exactly awful, the Natural High Honey Mustard Chicken didn't have an obvious honey-mustard taste. The chicken was doubtless offended to be associated with this packet, which was edible, but uninspiring.

A word about dried meat reconstituted with boiling water: the simple fact is that, once the meat has been freeze-dried to the brink of mummification, there's no bringing it back. So don't expect your meat to have quite the same hearty, rib-sticking mouth feel that it used to have back when the muscle cells still contained water. Those cells have been raped and pillaged by the freeze-drying process; the addition of boiling water can, at best, produce a parody of the meat's original meatiness. I suspect that the makers of camp food are banking on the camper's being tired, hungry, and ready for a novel experience, since camp food isn't something you're supposed to eat every day (which is what I did, for almost two weeks, thanks to my REI store credits). For the rest of us, though, freeze-dried meat will always be a disappointment. Keep your expectations low, or stick with something more traditional, like beef jerky. We'll talk more about beef jerky later.

Mountain House Beef Stew - 4 Serving
REI Item# 7686880019

Having just complained about the lameness of freeze-dried meat, I now turn around and praise Mountain House's Beef Stew. The packet says it serves four (i.e., two Kevins); it did indeed contain a lot of food, once the boiling water was added. I ate this packet over two or three days, and can confirm that the stew reheats well. What's more, the stew tastes like a stew, although in my opinion it lacked some oomph. I supplied some extra heat by ejaculating sriracha all over it.

Mountain House Raspberry Crumble
REI Item# 6101860010

The Mountain House Raspberry Crumble-- essentially, Mountain House's version of the Natural High Three Berry Cobbler-- turned out to be excellent. As with the Natural High packet, there was a separate packet of Oreo crumble, but get this: it actually tasted like Oreos! Originally cringing at the thought of eating this dessert after the Natural High debacle, I was shocked to discover that this dessert was not merely edible-- it was tasty. Although dessert prep evoked the same squirrel-evisceration imagery as before, the smell and taste of the raspberry crumble more than made up for any aesthetic shortcomings. Highly recommended; very much worth your while.

Mountain House Spaghetti with Meat Sauce For Two
REI Item# 5101440013

Despite its place on this list, the packet of Mountain House Spaghetti with Meat Sauce was the very last main meal I ate before I ran out of camp food. The freeze-dried beef was what you might expect, but in this case, the texture worked well with the rest of the sauce. The noodles were laughably stubby-- imagine spaghetti with an Irish curse-- but by the time the packet was ready to eat, I didn't care. My overall impression was that this was great camp spaghetti. The sauce was properly tomato-y; the meat's crumbly texture successfully simulated bits of ground beef; and the noodles themselves were decent by the standards of camp pasta. In all, an excellent meal. Highly recommended.

Richmoor Natural High Strawberry Granola with Milk
REI Item# 5101120011

Did you ever see a B-grade Dolph Lundgren action movie called "I Come in Peace"? The movie was about Earth's encounter with a humanoid race of aliens; one alien was a cop, and the other was a murderer hooked on human brain chemicals. This dude spent a good part of the film grunting "I come in peace," then shooting flexible tubes into Earthlings' heads and sucking out their cerebrospinal fluid. Or something. My memory is fuzzy. Anyway, when the alien cop is shot in the gut by the bad guy, we see that his insides are composed of something milky-white and chunky, but of indeterminate texture. We never get a close look at those guts; it seems that these aliens vaporize when they die.

Natural High's Strawberry Granola with Milk reminded me of that alien's guts. The look of the food was white, chunky, and somehow wrong, and although the dried strawberries tasted fine when reconstituted, the granola itself tasted synthetic, as if it too had come from an alien world. In all, I found the meal just tolerable: edible, but not much more than that. I wouldn't eat it again if better options were available.

Richmoor Natural High Three Cheese Chicken Pasta
REI Item# 7952670011

As you can see, I've taken a rather dim view of anything that comes from the Richmoor Natural High brand, especially when it comes to chocolate. Their Three Cheese Chicken Pasta, however, wasn't that bad. It wasn't great, either, but with the addition of some salt the meal was perfectly passable. I'd eat it again with no complaints. Recommended.

Mountain House Beef Stroganoff - 4 Serving
REI Item# 7686890018

This was my only real disappointment from the Mountain House brand, but the reason for my disappointment was that, when I opened the package, I saw that it contained nothing but pasta: the stroganoff was completely missing. I'll charitably assume that this was some sort of assembly-line error, and not a deeper problem with the way Mountain House runs its operations.

I suppose I'll have to get back to you once I get hold of a proper package.

Backpacker's Pantry Pad See You with Chicken
REI Item# 7872520015

I was curious to see whether this dish would taste anything close to Thai... and it didn't. If anything, the overall effect was rather off-putting. One problem with dried vegetables is that they all start to look the same. The itty-bitty chunks of broccoli were recognizable, but they forced me to question the food's Thai pedigree. The sauce that was supposed to bind everything together merely added to my gustatory confusion, and I ended up feeling a bit like Geena Davis in "The Fly," eating that first revolting bite of teleported steak, and not quite understanding what made it so cellularly perverse. Say "see you" to Backpacker's Pantry's Pad See You. It was a weird, salty mess.

Backpacker's Pantry Shepherd's Pie with Beef
REI Item# 8012290014

Earlier, I said that we'd be talking a bit more about beef jerky. Well, this was the meal where the jerky came into play. Shepherd's pie is normally a layered dish-- kind of a bland version of moussaka. The camp version was-- as I noted at the very beginning of this blog post regarding all such food-- essentially mush. In this case, however, it was mush with chunks of beef jerky in it. Normally, I'd call the use of beef jerky a good thing, but the inclusion of jerky in the Backpacker's Pantry version of shepherd's pie made a salty preparation even saltier. I might even go as far as to question how safe such a dish would be to eat after a day of sweating and salt-depletion. The sudden spike in salt levels might kill a tired camper, for all I know.

The potatoes in the mix felt like standard, military-issue powdered potatoes. The vegetables-- whatever they were-- were forgettable at best. All in all, I wouldn't recommend this meal unless you're that salt-sucking vampire from "Star Trek."

Backpacker's Pantry Fettuccini Alfredo with Chicken
REI Item# 8012270016

This meal didn't cause any love-sparks or powerful erections; it was pretty much unmemorable. By that, I mean it wasn't memorably bad or memorably good. It was mediocre-- the Salieri of camp food. Recommended only as filler or routine-breaker.

Mountain House Beef Teriyaki and Rice For Two
REI Item# 5101300019

Mountain House did it again: this meal wowed me. While I can't say that it tasted much like a typical teriyaki preparation, it was quite delicious on its own terms. I took notes after every meal I ate, and for this one I simply wrote, "FANTASTIC!" It's true: it was one of the best examples of camp food I'd eaten, and I'd gladly eat it again.

Mountain House Chicken a la King Noodles For Two
REI Item# 5101350014

Although this wasn't the last camp meal I ate, I'm glad it's last on the list, because it gets the highest praise. I don't know what chemicals they laced this food with, but the effect was positively addictive, and I'd gladly gorge myself on this meal until I exploded, Mr. Creosote-style. Your mileage may vary, of course, but for me, the Chicken à la King was a more-than-pleasant surprise. Egg noodles were used for the pasta, and that turned out to be a wise move, because they cooked quickly when boiling water was poured into the sealable pouch. The cream sauce's flavor was superb, and worked well with the texture of the reconstituted chicken. The vegetables made their presence known-- subtly, so as not to make you feel too self-conscious about eating something nutritious.

As you can tell from the above reviews, I now lean strongly toward the Mountain House brand, whether we're talking main meals or desserts. Both Natural High and Backpacker's Pantry were disappointments overall; given the choice, I'd avoid them in favor of buying nothing but Mountain House.

REI sells a wide range of food products from all three brands, so these reviews aren't the final word. It could be that I just happened to pick a bunch of duds from NH and BP; then again, since I was picking blind, without knowing anything about any of the brands, one could argue that my sampling was pretty random. So take these reviews for what they're worth, but since Mountain House's price ranges are exactly the same as the other two brands, I'd recommend MH as having the best value in terms of taste and unit cost.


1 comment:

hahnak said...

i was compelled to read every review. every last one had some gem in there.

thank you for your silliness!

also i know i said so before, but if you liked the spaghetti and the chicken a la king you will probably like the mountain house chicken and rice. its salty good, but not too salty. i think it probably has the same addictive qualities that the chicken a la king has.