Bangor Metro columnist Bob Duchesne sampled camping meals to find which ones are worth your dollars. Credit: Courtesy of Bob Duchesne

I am not a food critic. In fact, I don’t know the difference between a gourmet and a gourmand. This tale starts innocently.

In 2012, my wife and I camped our way across Newfoundland. Knowing that grocery stores were few and far between, we packed a couple of dehydrated camp meals for emergencies. As it turned out, we didn’t need them.

Five years later, while camping on Scraggly Lake northeast of Baxter State Park, we finally broke out the package of Mountain House Freeze-dried Lasagna and prepared ourselves for culinary disappointment.

It was awesome. Despite sitting on the shelf for half a decade, it actually tasted like lasagna. Were all their offerings this good?

I went to Epic Sports in Bangor and invested heavily in two brands. Since Mountain House provided the inspiration, I grabbed an assortment of their meals. Then, I doubled down and purchased several Good-To-Go packages. This Maine brand is made in Kittery, and the packaging is witty. Apparently, I’m easily impressed.

Lacking a food critic’s rational scoring system, I devised my own, dumbing it down to suit my needs. Does the meal resemble the food it pretends to be? (I don’t ask for much.) Does most of the flavor come from salt? (Mind you, I’m not opposed to eating salted cardboard on a camping trip.) Does the list of ingredients include unpronounceable chemical preservatives? Would I eat this slop at home?

Camp food inevitably tastes better while camping. So, first up: Good-To-Go “Kale and White Bean Stew,” eaten on our first night in the Florida Everglades during a mid-March adventure. It was a gluten-free vegan meal – all the things I distrust about modern cuisine.

The only preparation needed to prepare both brands is to pour boiling water into a resealable pouch, wait a few minutes, stir and serve.

The Good-To-Go meals focus on using all-natural ingredients, nothing chemical-sounding. In fact, the stew package proudly proclaims that all ingredients are pronounceable. The flavor was good, texture acceptable. We did spice it up a bit and added salt. We scored it 7 out of 10, which is a good score, considering that I generally avoid kale and white beans.

The Good-To-Go Chicken Gumbo also satisfied, though I might quibble that the rehydrated okra was a bit chewy. But that’s okra for you. The Thai curry contained sodium caseinate, but that’s merely a milk protein … or so I’m told.

Credit: Courtesy of Bob Duchesne

On our first morning in the Everglades, we tried the Breakfast Skillet by Mountain House. The recipe for this egg, sausage, and hash browns mixture was apparently found in King Tut’s tomb, because on the back of the package, it advises: “best if used by Aug 2048.” 2048?! Forget about stocks and bonds. Lay aside a pile of these, and cash them in 30 years from now. They’ll appreciate.

The Mountain House products do contain a few unpronounceable preservatives, but the meals are also heavy on nutrition. Vitamins are added, protein emphasized, calories limited. For the through-hiker or expedition-paddler, the meal is darn near perfect, even if it takes 30 years to reach your destination. However, you have to understand that the egg, sausage, and hash browns are all mixed together, not in separate piles as in a diner. No matter, I rated it an 8. My more-discerning wife scored it a 6 but was willing to go to 7 if allowed to augment with Tabasco.

The Mountain House Pasta Primavera was more like a soup than a bowl of rotini, but the vegetables tasted as if they were fresh. Mountain House meals are saltier than Good-To-Go, but not excessively so. The flavors in both are complex. They tasted like recipes out of a cookbook – more culinary quality than I expected from freeze-dried meals.

Mountain House even makes a dehydrated ice cream bar. Everyone should try one. But only one. I would characterize it as having the taste of vanilla-flavored cotton candy, and the consistency of a crumbly communion wafer. Nice try.

All told, both freeze-dried meal lines are healthful, flavorful and convenient. They are lightweight. A 2-serving packet is roughly five ounces. The packages are waterproof, able to withstand hiking in a downpour, swamping in a canoe, or the constant rain of my typical camping vacation. You can even eat them right out of the packet, with no dishes to wash and little trash to carry out.

I’m sold. These meals will now go on all of my expeditions. Especially if I’m on a 30-year mission to Mars.

This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s June/July 2019 issue.