When times get tough, it’s nice to know you’ve got a stash of indestructible food within easy reach.
We're living in the era of artisanal food. Everything that’s good is supposed to be organic and small-batch and preferably produced by a Manhattan refugee who left a high-stress job to make cheese on a Vermont farm where the cows sleep on hypoallergenic mattresses and are raised on a diet of Tibetan poetry and free-range alfalfa. In my own carnivorous way, I’m guilty of this same gastronomic high-mindedness. I once spent 10 days wandering the Patagonian countryside in search of the perfect grass-fed steak, and I’ve engaged in the questionable practice of breeding pigeons in my basement in order to replicate the early-20th-century squab recipes of French master chef Auguste Escoffier. I also host a TV show on the Sportsman Channel in which I travel to remote locations to hunt for, cook, and eat wild game, often within feet of where it fell. But despite all my food-based travels, which have resulted in many sublime dining experiences, I have something to admit: many of my most memorable meals have been slurped from seven-ply laminated sacks of factory-produced freeze-dried food resurrected from its mummified state with an application of boiled pond water and usually a few dribbles from the end of my runny nose.
I like to brag that I’ve eaten more freeze-dried food than any man living, which is probably a lie. What isn’t a lie is that I’ve enjoyed every nibble, thanks to the mind-blowing ambience of the rugged places where I eat it. Take a recent day hunting mule deer in Montana, when I came stumbling down from a snowbound butte after 12 hours of nothing but energy-gel shots so hungry that I was sucking on the palm of my glove to extract the leathery flavor. Back at camp, I dug through my gear and found a bag of Mountain House spaghetti with meat sauce that I’d bought at a Walmart six months earlier and 2,000 miles away. The packet had been living alternately in my gear closet, my car, my duffel, the floor of a canoe, the inside of a tent, and, for the last 20 miles, the bottom of my backpack. It was all my frozen fingers could do to fire a Jetboil to melt some snow. I added the boiling water and voilà. It certainly beat the campfire omelet my buddy would have made if his Nalgene full of cracked eggs hadn’t come open while he was trying to thaw them out in the foot of his sleeping bag. In that moment, I was feeling downright thankful that research scientists had found out how to make a surprisingly delicious food item that had spent some 20 hours inside an industrial sublimation chamber at temperatures and pressures equivalent to what you’d find in the mesosphere 40 miles above the Earth’s surface.
MENTION FREEZE-DRIED FOOD to your average American—one whose meals are prepared exclusively in restaurants or home kitchens—and their frame of reference is likely limited to astronaut feed. To their credit, it is as common to space flights as popcorn is to movie theaters. The first meal ever eaten on the surface of the moon, by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, included freeze-dried bacon squares and peaches. In fact, every manned mission ever launched by NASA has carried freeze-dried food. NASA’s systems engineers appreciate the same qualities—minimal weight, resistance to spoilage, high nutritional value, and negligible preparation—that have so endeared it to hardcore backcountry enthusiasts.
Despite its space-age connotations, freeze-dried food is one of many developments in man’s ancient quest for the perfect shelf-stable traveling grub. Jerky was probably the earliest manifestation of this desire; you can imagine its discovery happening many times, as early hominids stripped the preserved, air-dried remnants of meat from carcasses left behind by saber-toothed cats. The first Europeans to arrive in the New World were dining on meat and fish preserved in kegs of salt, and they encountered Native Americans who’d made long-lasting trail food by mixing shredded jerky with melted animal fat.
At some point along humanity’s road to modernity, freeze-dried food was likely developed by accident. Ancient Peruvians stored meat and potatoes on the mountaintops above the Incan city of Machu Picchu, where the cold, high-altitude climate was similar to the conditions created inside a modern freeze-drying chamber. While various tinkerers conducted laboratory experiments throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the preservation technique didn’t achieve widespread use until World War II. Then, during what was essentially the greatest medical crisis ever experienced by humankind, health professionals began freeze-drying blood plasma and volatile serums such as penicillin that could be shipped overseas without the need for mobile refrigeration.
It wasn’t long before food engineers took note of the emerging technology. By 1963, General Foods began using freeze-dried fruit in its breakfast cereals. The next year, today’s largest diversified manufacturer of freeze-dried goods, Oregon Freeze Dry, which makes Mountain House—the brand most aficionados of freeze-dried meals consider the best—opened its first plant in western Oregon. One of the company’s initial contracts was with the U.S. military. Special-operations units in Vietnam were suffering hindered mobility in the jungles due to the cumbersome, wet-packed C rations developed for World War II.
The answer to this dilemma was the Long Range Patrol ration, dubbed the LRP ration by troops. It was an 11-ounce pack containing accessories such as shrink-wrapped gum, instant coffee, and cigarettes, plus a 1,000-calorie entrée of standard American table fare—chicken and rice, spaghetti with meat sauce, chili con carne—packed inside a waterproof, olive drab envelope. Soldiers liked the LRPs because they could carry a meal in the hip pocket of their fatigues. By 1967, Oregon Freeze Dry had delivered more than nine million such meals to the military.
After reading a November 13, 1967, Newsweek article about LRP rations, REI founder Lloyd Anderson sent a personal letter to Oregon Freeze Dry congratulating it on the success of its new products and asking for a price list. By the time Oregon Freeze Dry launched its first retail product line in 1969, called Tea Kettle, American outdoor enthusiasts had already discovered the company’s military offerings through stateside Army-surplus outlets.