Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Book Review: Simple Foods for the Pack

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Simple Foods for the Pack

Author: Vikki Kinmont, Claudia Axcell et al.

Date: 1976

Publisher: Sierra Club

ISBN: 0-87156-146-8

Length: 206 pages plus index

Illustrations: many black-and-white drawings

Quote: “Seaweed: hijiki, nori, kombu, wakame. Lightweight and very nourishing…Try them before you go.”

This is the kind of book that comes to mind when we think of “Granola Green.” It wasn’t so much consciously planned to steer you to your friendly neighborhood “health food” store, as they existed in California in 1976, but I suspect that’s where Kinmont and her fellow camp cooks shopped first. So, these aren’t the kind of camp/outdoor/quick-and-easy-at-home recipes that relied on Tang, Lipton soup mix, microwave ovens, or MRE freeze-dried treats. Instead these recipes feature freshly home-ground whole grains, dried fruits and vegetables, sunflower seeds, and things-to-go-with-what-you-find-on-the-trail. Kinmont was not a vegan; in fact there’s a chapter of fish recipes all written around the presupposition that somebody’s caught some trout. On the other hand she and her intended audience didn’t want to kill birds or animals when so much good plant and fish protein was so easy to get.

The preference for honey over sugar is harder to explain, though many people in California shared this preference at this time. Honey has traces of minerals, but only traces; it’s basically superconcentrated sucrose. It’s heavier and messier than sugar. You use less because there’s no level of honey in food that offers the pleasantly sweet taste, like sugar-sweetened food, that people expect if they eat dessert. Things sweetened with honey taste unsweetened or they taste like honey. So people don’t eat dessert and, if they really want to lose weight, some people may lose weight if all the sweet foods in the house are made with honey. For other people, the pleasure of buying something from a local hippie beekeeper, rather than a corporation, may have made honey seem worth the trouble of handling it. Then there was a tiny, though vocal, minority of people (of whom my mother is one) who suffered from chronic low-grade allergies to beets, to cane, or both, and actually felt better when they were able to afford to substitute honey or maple syrup. Luckily, even among close relatives of beet-sensitive people, beet allergies are rare. There are people who actually like the heavy, super-sweet taste of honey; they’re not Highly Sensory-Perceptive, for sure, but there’s reliable evidence that they exist. I personally hate the stuff.

Anyway, if you’re beet-sensitive, a beekeeper, or otherwise determined to eat honey, this book contains recipes that were taste-tested by people who liked honey…mostly in California, I should mention. Bees store honey made from different kinds of flowers in separate combs, and sometimes even the less sensitive human palate can taste the differences. Beekeepers usually mix up what their hives yield; still, there’s plenty of variation in the flavor of honey. Thus the amount that worked for a crowd in San Francisco in 1976 might be too much or too little for a similar crowd in Orono in 2016.

A third general observation about Simple Foods for the Pack is that some of the recipes are so simple they hardly needed to be written down. Does anyone out there not know how to steam greens, mix up lemonade, or make cornmeal mush? Actually, some people don’t; this cookbook is for them.

Many hikers and campers prefer to find their food rather than carry it in from town. This book is for them, although as wildlife populations rebound some outdoorsmen may wish it had recipes for game. When you know nobody’s sprayed poison on it, there’s a lot to be said for grazing on what grows along a trail. Often you find (or can eat in good conscience) only small amounts of the treats nature offers. Often this is as it should be, since some wild foods are extremely rich and a standard “serving portion” might produce a nutritional imbalance severe enough to cause discomfort. (A megadose of Vitamin C, as found in a whole handful of violet leaves or in two or three summer apples, is a relatively mild and pleasant way to flush out the whole digestive system…if that’s what you want to do.) When you do find enough of some wild greens that you want to serve them as part of a relatively formal camp meal, this book offers suggestions about which wild greens typically seem to work best with which conventional flavors. “BRING ALONG: cucumbers, potatoes, onions, garlic, cabbage, carrots, lemons, oranges, corn-on-the-cob. FIND ALONG THE TRAIL: sorrel, dandelion, miners lettuce, chickweed, watercress, onions, wild rice, mint, chicory, plantain, fennel, anise, caraway, rose hips, asparagus, pine nuts.”

Kinmont’s taste is…not everybody’s, even in old-school Granola Green circles. She doesn’t leaven her fruitcake at all. She puts “nutritional yeast” in her granola. She offers several recipes for “knead, mash, and squeeze” candies (featuring nuts, peanut butter, sesame seeds, powdered milk or soy protein, dried fruits, and syrup or honey to bind the dough together) that will appeal to some tastes, but sets these recipes up for failure by calling them “fudge,” which they are not and never will be. She puts wheat germ in her corn cakes, cornmeal in her buckwheat cakes, and soy flour in her wheat cakes. She makes a peanut soup (one of the classic Southern delicacies) and puts Parmesan cheese in it (an abomination). Yankees have been adulterating cornmeal dough with random grains (rye, wheat, even oats) and sweetenings (including cinnamon) and calling the result cornbread for a long time, but Kinmont is probably unique in adding walnuts to the mix and still calling it cornbread. (Actually, depending—as so many Granola Green recipes depend—on the quality of the nuts and grains, Kinmont’s multigrain bread can be delicious, but cornbread it’s not. Nor are those cute little sesame-paste balls fudge.)

Several recipes in this book are practically unique, not found in any other book in my extensive vintage cookbook collection. There’s a reason for this. If you have good fresh ingredients, the recipes work up to things that are tasty in an offbeat Granola Green way. If you use the pathetic substitutes you might find in a supermarket far from the homes of these food items, yuck. The good news is that things like nutritional yeast and wheat germ are much easier to find in a usable condition than they used to be. Even dried seaweed is found in most upscale food stores these days.

Vegetarian meals don’t have to contain mad mixes of four or five kinds of cruelty-free protein, all baked into the bread and then appearing again in the dessert, as was imagined in the 1970s. Humans can live on the same proportions of proteins, fats, carbs, and fibre that work for rats, but most of us may actually do better with more complex carbs and less protein than seems optimal for rats. Some people imagine that, if they don’t have a high-protein breakfast, they’ll collapse on the trail before dinnertime. In reality a good breakfast (as defined in terms of your body’s needs) will help you hike faster and enjoy it more, but if you take it slowly and get plenty of water, you can hike around the Blue Ridge Mountains for days “fuelled” only by such violet blossoms, dandelion shoots, and wild garlic as you find along the trail. (I've done this.) So the high-protein recipes found in this book are optional. If you’re a vegan, although the human body can usually handle a protein overload at one meal if it’s balanced by a lower-protein meal next time, you don’t need a very high-protein diet. If you can’t find, or don’t like, or aren’t satisfied with the quality of, the soy flour and milk powder and so on in your area, you can probably just simplify them out of the recipe, adding flour or meal if necessary.

If, on the other hand, you do have access to a 1970s-style health food store and want to try these vintage recipes…here they are. What I have is the first edition. There are newer editions and, if you don't insist on the first edition, they may be what you'll get (depending on price fluctuations) for the standard Fair Trade Books deal: $5 per book + $5 per package, from which the author or the charity of the author's choice gets $1. Since I'm not finding Kinmont online but am finding Claudia Axcell, that will be Axcell or her charity.