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Eating Well At Pennsic -- Without A Cooler

This is taken from an article I posted on in response to a question about going to the Pennsic War without taking along a cooler.
Subject: Re: Camping without a cooler

>> Since becoming a vegetarian I have gotten involved in looking for meatless
>> period recipes.  This led to an interest in period cooking in general. 
>> Since I am also a near-penniless college student, I am also forced to live
>> with borrowed cooler space when I go to events.
I too am a vegetarian, which I think also makes camping without a cooler a little easier (though as I recall, others have supplied solutions for the carnivores and omnivores). A few years ago I was considering going to War w/o a cooler, when lack of car space made up my mind for me. It's not especially challenging, as it turns out, and I've done it every year since.
>> I was wondering if anyone had
>> more recipes for nonperishable food.  I'm a health nut and would like to
>> eat more than super-dried-white-bread-like biscuits and sweets..
Rather than creating nonperishable food, I take slowly perishable food along with the nonperishables I'd be carrying anyhow.

I'm afraid I don't follow recipes often, preferring to improvise most of the time, but in case it's useful, here's what I do.

Introduction Provisions/Packing Cooking More Ideas Conclusion


First, the packing -- I take along cracked wheat, couscous, perhaps some other pasta, dried split peas and lentils, dried fruit, spices, pickles, olive oil, and a few things in modern tin cans (mostly mushrooms). I count all of those as nonperishable at least until opened, and with the exception of the canned goods either nonperishable or slowperishable after opening. I don't know about the pickles you find in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, but I figure the ones that you find just sitting on the shelf obviously don't need to be kept cold before they're opened, and since pickling is a low-tech way of preserving food, I'm not particularly worried that they'll go bad in a week after opening either, even if the label does say "refrigerate after opening". Hasn't been a problem the past few years anyhow.

Then the "slowperishable" foods:

Finally, there are the real perishables: For me, that mostly means orange juice (which for all I know might not be a period way to consume oranges, but it's the principal me-fuel the rest of the year, so ...) Okay, juice does present a bit of a problem, and if you prefer sodas or sekanjibun (which is a truly AWESOME beverage, BTW) or beer or wine (not great for your body in the heat perhaps) or almost anything else, you've got it easier than I do. Nonetheless, orange juice, fickle as it is, can be dealt with.

First, most of the OJ you'll find in the grocery store is Pasteurized, which means there's not much in there to grow. Now the moment you open it, some yeasties will get in, and if you're unlucky, mold. In reasonable weather and cool shade, you can easily get more than two days out of it before it turns yucky. In typical Pennsic weather and a hot tent, on the other hand, you're looking at between a day and a half and two days. (In a hot car parked in the sun with the windows rolled up, you get a morning and an afternoon.) These times assume you're drinking right out of the bottle, and we know how clean the human mouth is, right? I don't know if it keeps longer if you refrain from putting your mouth on the bottle or not; it might.

If your orange juice starts to taste interesting and slightly fizzy, you're making orange cider -- drink it all right then, 'cause you've only got a couple hours between "interesting" and "vile". (How *do* they ever manage to make orange wine??) If it just tastes wrong, you're growing mold (which citrus juice seems to be more vulnerable to than apple juice is) and you should just pitch it out.

So how do I deal with the OJ problem? I take a bunch of half-gallon bottles. I drink at least a quart a day, so no one bottle goes more than two days between opening and empty. Choose a size that matches your juice consumption rate. If the weather is hot even by Pennsic standards, I'll find a shady spot outside of my tent. If someone else in camp has extra space in a cooler, I'll use that for my juice. It tastes a lot better cold anyhow.

The section on orange juice is kind of long because it's the most difficult thing to deal with that I bring, but after all the theory what you wind up with is pretty darned simple: Bring as much juice as you want, in two-day-sized bottles, and don't worry about it unless it tastes funny.

Of course, this way of dealing with juice wouldn't have worked before Louis Pasteur's contribution. I'd have exploding bottles of orange cider. Oh well.

Another perishable to consider is butter. When I first asked about this on the Rialto, folks mentioned "clarified butter", which I do intend to try one of these days. In the meantime, I just substitute olive oil. But I haven't tried that on pancakes.

Finally, a lot of people run into town at least once mid-week for more supplies. Nothing wrong with hitching a ride (or sending a shopping list) and getting a few fresh supplies to replace things that only last a few days in the heat.

Introduction Provisions/Packing Cooking More Ideas Conclusion


Okay, this is just Not A Challenge, but it does help to have some basic ideas as starting places first. Me, I'm a lazy, and improvisational, cook. If you a) bring recipes with you and plan your packing list accordingly and/or b) cook with a reasonable assortment of cookware on a camping stove, there's no end to what you can create to impress your campmates, fill your belly, and satisfy your palate. Even without such useful things as tomatoes and chili peppers, which I don't bring. (Note: If you're used to using lots of peppers and decide to do without during War, you'll probably find your food needs a lot more salt than usual. Now I finally understand why so many people use so much salt.)

If, on the other hand, you want to do it my way -- no recipe book, vague planning, and a wood fire (I like my own cooking at home, and so do others, but I think I'm better over a wood fire than a stove), here are some ideas to get you started:

Roast Vegetables

I like my cast iron Dutch oven, but I started doing this with aluminum foil. Peel a turnip, dig a hole in it, fill the hole with spices, oil, and a clove of garlic, wrap it in foil, and throw it in the coals of the campfire. (Do at least two -- if you get the cooking time right, after the first one you'll decide you want another.) Go away -- go to a class, or go shopping, or go dancing, and come back an hour or two later. Dig up your turnips. Bet you didn't know turnips could taste that good. Took me two years of experimenting to make 'em taste anything like that at home.

Or do this: Put turnips (dig a hole in each and stuff in a clove of garlic, as above), onions, and carrots (potatoes and parsnips ought to work well also) into a Dutch oven along with a little olive oil and some honey-brown ale. Break the onions into thin quarter-sphere shells and arrange them on top of everything else. Throw some fenugreek, black pepper, oregano, and I forget what else over everything else before you put the onions in. Ask your campmates, who are in the process of starting the fire, to bury it once there's a bed of coals. Go to the Middle-Eastern instrumental workshop. Hang out a while. Come back to camp about two hours later to find the fire mostly died down, some glowing coals on top of and below your Dutch oven, which is cool enough to lift barehanded nonetheless, and marvel at garlic that FALLS APART ON YOUR TONGUE and turnips sweetened by the beer and the onions. Oooooh, Monday's dinner came out nicely this year!!! I didn't even need to add salt, thanks to the beer.


Couscous is easy. The hard part is boiling water over a campfire. While you're waiting for the water to boil, cut up one and a half times as much garlic as you think you'll need, and maybe open a can of mushrooms. Throw those, a generous pinch of salt, a splash of olive oil, and whatever spices you feel like into a pot or a bowl along with half as much couscous as you think you're hungry enough for. And boiling water equal to the amount of couscous, cover for three to five minutes, uncover, stir, and serve. Best as a side dish at dinner, but it makes a great main dish for breakfast. I think couscous is supposed to be steamed to make it properly but I've never done that. Someday...

(At home, throw in a handful of frozen corn and a crushed red pepper, use butter instead of oil, and microwave those to thaw the corn and melt the butter before you add the couscous and water.)


Do I really need to tell a fellow vegetarian how to make soup? ;-) Get your cast-iron cauldron, chop up a mess o' root vegetables, maybe throw in a can of mushrooms, drop in an optional vegetable-boullion cube, add your favourite spices, don't stint on the garlic, pour in a handful of dried legumes (peas or lentils), add bottled or filtered water, and hang it from your tripod over the fire. Go out and try to recruit dinner guests, 'cause you'll have way too much soup for one person, but come back often to stir it and make sure you're not burning things to the bottom.

Vegetable Stew

My favourite -- I seem to be good at vegetable stew and it comes out differently each time (because I can never remember what I did the time before). Like the soup, but definitely add the mushrooms, consider leaving out the boullion cube, use more vegetables (and larger chunks), go heavy on the onions, include fenugreek among the spices, and recruit dinner guests ahead of time 'cause you'll need to stir it a lot more often. Late in the cooking, when the carrots are finally starting to feel like they might get soft enough after all, asses the amount of liquid in the cauldron, and if you like a thick stew (as I do), add either bulgher wheat (cracked wheat) or couscous to soak up the extra water and add texture. (Which you add depends on how close the carrots are to being done -- couscous if you're in a hurry, cracked wheat if you're still waiting for the carrots.) Make sure you have plenty of sourdough bread on hand when you serve it. This dish can be a very filling one -- and extraordinarily satisfying one -- and if you serve it on a chilly evening and have enough bread to go with it you will make your friends very happy. I can often please serious carnivores with my vegetable stew. :-)

Introduction Provisions/Packing Cooking More Ideas Conclusion


As I said earlier, I'm a somewhat lazy cook, especially at war. If you're a bit more industrious and/or prefer to cook from real recipes, there's a lot more that you can do (though just using what I've described above, eating in the food court one evening, and accepting an invitation or two to dine at someone else's camp, you can have a very satisfying War week from a culinary standpoint!). Adapt your favourite recipes from home to the ingredients you have on hand, or try out a period recipe or two or three and invite me over to taste them :-) . If you're not concerned with period ingredients and are even lazier than I am (which is not unreasonable after a tiring day at Pennsic!), bring some tomato sauce and pasta (and remember, pre-packaged "spaghetti sauce" in a jar is a starter for sauce, not a finished product -- if you don't believe me, I'll just have to cook up some of my sauce for you and show you what I mean ... but I don't bring tomato to Pennsic, usually).

I've never made a casserole, but I would not be at all surprised to find someone doing so in a Dutch oven.

I've heard of bread recipes that work in a Dutch oven, and some period bread ovens should be easy enough to construct on-site, so someday that may be how I deal with bread -- can you imagine the smell of fresh bread floating through your camp? I would imagine that cookies, maybe even baklava, could be prepared in a campfire as well. Shortbread perhaps? (Yum!)

I'm not usually awake enough at breakfast time to cook, so I just grab bread & cheese, or a pickle, but various sorts of porridge ought to be easy to do over a fire. If you borrow enough cooler space to keep eggs safe, a skillet and a fire will make nice French toast.

I'm not a big fan of rice, but many people are. How difficult can it be? And with all the fun spices and such to add to it, you could make rice dishes that would entice even me.

Using a camping stove (propane, Coleman, whatever) things get a little more like cooking at home, which some people may find easier. (Not as much fun though, and for some reason my food seems to come out better when I use a wood fire.) Any stove-top recipe that uses ingredients you can lug to War will work fine, and I'm sure that even if you stick to just my packing list you'll find no shortage of recipes. You can even bring Parmalat or Farm Best or some other ultra-Pasteurized milk -- just find some way to use up the whole box the night you open it.

Dishes that require the use of an oven are a little trickier, but the Dutch oven goes a long way towards solving that problem. Someday I'll make a campfire brick oven and see how that works out.

Introduction Provisions/Packing Cooking More Ideas Conclusion


To summarize, camping without a cooler at Pennsic and still eating well is nowhere near as difficult as it sounds. Bring nonperishable ingredients, but also bring "food that'll survive just long enough", and you can eat more than bread, dried fruit, and sweets. Healthy even -- I tend to "eat healthy" mostly by accident when I do so, but there ain't anything to object to in my hearty vegetable stew!

There's something magical about sitting by a campfire in the dark, stirring a cauldron, and then serving up rich, steaming bowls of yummy food for yourself and a guest or three to eat by candlelight. Makes me feel like I'm doing something right. And not using a cooler, in addition to meaning I don't have to lug ice down the hill every day, somehow makes me feel more in-persona. When I am once again able to bring a cooler to War I might still choose not to ... or use it only for drinks.

Introduction Provisions/Packing Cooking More Ideas Conclusion

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