The hotel ballroom is draped and swagged with glittering fabrics that twinkle from tabletop to tabletop beneath a galaxy of revolving mirrored disco balls. It's moments before midnight on New Year's Eve, 1999. The place is abuzz. Couples are lip-locked. The Champagne flows. In just a few minutes waiters will serve an extravagant millennium meal, a feast that hundreds have paid thousands for.
Then, the lights go out and the music stops. Ovens cool. Refrigerators warm.
Will this be your Happy New Year? Probably not. Only the most dire predictors of the future think the Y2K bug would lead to such a complete New Year's Eve shutdown. In fact, many experts think that panicked consumers who hoard food and other essentials could create more problems than the computer glitch, which stems from a decades-long practice of using a two-digit date field in computers. Some computer systems may interpret 00 not as 2000 but as 1900, and this could cause a kitchen meltdown on Jan. 1, 2000.
But it pays to be prepared. So back to our mythical hotel gala on New Year's Eve: It turns out the chef is a former Eagle scout. He shifts to Plan B--meals in an envelope, food designed for campers that requires only the pull of a string for the entree to heat all on its own. Dinner, a satisfying mound of vegetable beef stew, is served in a matter of minutes. Guests are glad to be eating anything. They raise their Champagne glasses in a toast to the well-prepared chef.
Lightweight, easy-to-prepare foods for campers--instant meals that were originally created for the U.S. military in combat and NASA's space program--are no longer just for the great outdoors. In addition to canned soups and bottled water, camping foods are a favorite of people who want to be prepared in an emergency situation, be it snowstorm, alien invasion or Y2K. And sales are brisk.
Leisure Trends Group, a Boulder, Colo., research company that follows outdoor recreation businesses, says sales of packaged camping foods (and water purifiers as well) are up more than 42 percent from the same time last year. Oregon Freeze Dry, a company that makes the popular Mountain House brand, saw sales soar more than 300 percent in the first quarter of this year.
"It was crazy for a while, all due to Y2K," says Oregon Freeze Dry's sales coordinator Rhonda Restau. To meet demand the company hired additional production workers and increased inventory. Now sales have leveled off to what Restau calls "a typical busy summer."
Many of the meals in an envelope are radically different from the bivouac food of days gone by--in their contents, cost and ease of use. Thai Satay With Beef, Pasta Primavera and Oriental Style Spicy Chicken all await the hungry camper or the Y2K survivalists (see box below).
But the average price of these instant camp entrees--$6.50--is much more than a can of tuna or Spam, since many of the specialty camping foods are expensive to produce.
The newest are self-heating, requiring nothing more energetic on the part of the exhausted camper than the ability to pull a string. AlpineAire Foods in Nevada City, Calif., introduced its new one-step meal last month. This ready-to-eat entree in a plastic tub is heated with technology that has been around for decades. But AlpineAire is the first company to simplify the process.
The whole business could not be easier. Once a small black string on the outside of the lightweight brown envelope is pulled, it tears open a bag of salted water inside the insulated envelope. The water falls onto a wafer of baked magnesium, which oxidizes in a chemical reaction producing steam heat for about 15 to 20 minutes. When the steam subsides, the meal, served in its container, is ready to eat.
By fall AlpineAire will begin shipping drinks as well--self-heating cartons of hot chocolate and cappuccino.
Traditional packaged precooked meals--those that have been dehydrated using air-dried or freeze-dried technology or a combination of both--have also come of age. At Oregon Freeze Dry, fresh and cooked foods are simmered together, according to recipes, in pots that hold 2,000 pounds of ingredients. Then the foods are transferred to trays, flash-frozen and moved into a vacuum chamber as cold as 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. When heat is applied, the liquids, which have turned to ice, evaporate into a vapor. What remains is a pile of lightweight, faded foodstuffs that have a shelf-life of two years or more.
Their preparation is almost as easy as the pull-cord dinners. Rip open the foil pouch, pour in some boiling water, wait about 10 minutes. Dinner is served.
Most local camping equipment stores stock as many as five brands of instant camping foods--breakfasts, entrees and desserts--that offer as many choices as a shopping mall food court: vegetarian, organic, spicy and bland. The kids can have a homey chili mac with beef, the adults a more adventurous Katmandu curry with lentils and potatoes.
What sells best?
"What people buy is the basics, that's the trend," says Restau. "They don't want to be out in the wilderness trying something new. Oriental-style chicken may sound intriguing. But they buy beef stew."
Disaster relief organizations, such as the Red Cross, advise everyone to always have supplies, including water and nonperishable foods, to last from several days to a week. Prepare for Dec. 31 as you would for the threat of a major snowstorm, they say. Still others forecast that a longer shopping list is required and advise stockpiling the larder with bulk quantities of wheat (as if most people would know what to do with it), corn, sugar and dried beans--enough to last a month to a year.
Food industry spokesmen say that food manufacturers and retailers are prepared for Y2K emergencies though they foresee little interruption in the farm-to-fork chain and dispute the need to stockpile foods. When the confetti clears the air and the last horn is silent, the food industry predicts that Jan. 1 and the days beyond will be normal shopping days in supermarkets.
Studies conducted by the Grocery Manufacturers of America say that more than 95 percent of food manufacturers have "addressed the correction of potential Y2K problems in their critical systems." The time-dependent computer chips in harvesting equipment, milking machinery and grain elevators will be up to speed.
A survey by the Washington-based Food Marketing Institute, a trade organization for wholesale and retail food vendors, concluded that the "majority of retailers will be Y2K compliant for front-end systems such as scanners (96 percent) and scales (91 percent)." Food manufacturers anticipate total spending on Y2K problems to reach $1.8 billion.
Locally, Giant Food spokesman Barry Scher says, "We're ready." The chain has had an active 2000 project since 1996. "We've taken all necessary steps in all critical systems and we're 99 percent done," he says. Does Giant expect a run on milk and bread? "The bottom line, what we're saying is--do not worry," says Scher.
Food Lion is equally prepared and expects "to have products available without significant interruption . . . even if that means using paper and pencil to add up the total," says its Web site.
Still, some folks continue to stock up.
"The average person is buying a stove, a lantern and a couple days worth of food--10 to 12 packages," says Lila Johns, owner of Appalachian Outfitters in Oakton.
Then there are extremes. Johns says "an older gentleman" who sold his house in Northern Virginia has moved to a cave in central Pennsylvania. He has purchased several thousand dollars worth of camping foods since February. "He had his wits about him. He just fears the worst," she says.
Needless to say, the gentleman, unavailable to comment, prefers that we not know his whereabouts.
A Taste-Test Sampling of Camp Foods
Anyone who can boil water can create a satisfying meal in the great outdoors. Lightweight, easy-to-prepare freeze-dried foods and self-heating meals will never replace lightly simmered, fresh green beans and, let's say, grilled pork tenderloin. But on the trail or in a pinch, convenience is more important.
So with the spirit of adventure in mind, we sampled more than 30 instant camping foods. Some, surprisingly, were pretty darn good. Others were ugly, evil-tasting gruels. We learned that although the current consumer trend favors the plain and traditional, many of the spicier meals with exotic names were acceptable. Furthermore, we discovered that the consumer favorite, beef stew, varies in taste from manufacturer to manufacturer. Mountain House and AlpineAire make a winner, Richmoor a loser.
Freeze-dried and self-heating meals are available at most camping equipment stores.
Vegetable Stew With Beef--Lots of well-cooked squares of potato, plump peas and chewy (in a good way) pieces of stew beef with a flavorful sauce. It comes in a self-heating bag. ($6.95, serves one.)
Thai Satay With Beef--Peanut lovers will enjoy this spicy mix of brown rice and vegetables covered with a peanut-butter-based sauce. ($8, serves two.)
Hearty Stew With Beef--A straightforward belly-filler with a well-balanced sauce. ($5.70, serves two.)
Pasta Primavera--An impressive array of vegetables and good pasta in a neutral sauce. ($5.70, serves one.)
Oriental-Style Spicy Chicken & Vegetables--Crunchy peanuts and water chestnuts were a welcome surprise in this well-seasoned main course. ($6.50, serves two.)
Wild Rice Pudding--A hearty and sweet dessert with good texture and lots of chunks of dried fruit. ($3.50, serves two.)
Chicken Parmesan--Mushy pasta and dry chicken pieces in a light tomato sauce. Comes in a self-heating bag. ($6.95, serves one.)
Asian Fried Rice--A mild curry with bits of almond and apple and a strong dried-spice aftertaste. ($4.50, serves two.)
Katmandu Curry With Lentils & Potatoes--Vegetarians will like this colorful, well-seasoned dish. ($6, serves two.)
Apple D'Lite--Dried apples in a cinnamon-flavored syrup could be dessert in a pinch. ($1.85, serves two.)
ECO CUISINE Organic Tabouli--There was a nice complement of textures and flavors in this Middle Eastern side dish. ($4.95, serves three.)
Organic Couscous & Lentil Curry--A comforting dish for a cold, dark January night. ($5.95, serves two.)
Mexican-Style Rice and Chicken--An agreeable, well-seasoned dish made with spicy brown rice as well as kidney beans and a few sliced olives. ($6.20, serves two.)
Long Grain & Wild Rice Mushroom Pilaf--An enjoyable blend of rice and vegetables topped with Parmesan cheese. ($5.70, serves two.)
Scrambled Egg Mix with Bacon--Surprisingly good for powdered eggs, with a strong smoky bacon flavor. ($4, serves two.)
Rice & Chicken--The first bite was far too salty but overall the flavor was neutral. ($5.70, serves one.)
Honey Mustard Chicken--Once past the sweetness of the sauce, we noticed lots of vegetables and chicken. ($6.75, serves two.)
Spicy Thai Chicken--A little too sweet, a little bland for "spicy" but we liked the textures. ($6.75, serves two.)
Hash Browns O'Brien--Little bits of onions and peppers improved the flavor of the bland potato. $1.95, serves 4.
Spaghetti Marinara With Mushrooms--Watery and bland. ($5.50, serves two.)
Teriyaki Turkey--Watery and overcooked with mysterious chewy things. ($6.50, serves two.)
Santa Fe Black Beans & Rice--More water and dried spices. ($5.50, serves two.)
Stroganoff With Beef--Dried-out pot roast and cream substitute came to mind. ($6, serves two.)
Tiramisu--A sad attempt at coffee pudding with carob chips. ($1.85, serves two.)
Organic Black Bean Hummus--A pasty sludge that coats the tongue with the flavor of dried jalapenos. ($4.95, serves eight.)
Fettucine Primavera--Easily one of the worst pasta dishes we have ever tasted. ($5.75, serves two.)
Teriyaki Chicken--Cardboardlike chicken in a sweet, watery sauce. ($6.75, serves two.)
Cheese Enchilada Ranchero--A Tex-Mex mush with a heavy dose of dried spices. ($5.75, serves two.)
Beef Stew With Vegetables--Sounded far more appealing than its aroma (dog food) and flavor (burned something). ($4.99, serves two.)
CAPTION: A kitchen camp set--folding utensils, a multipurpose bowl and storage bottles for condiments, herbs and spices--brings a degree of order to the wilds. Alpine Kitchen Cupboard by MSR, Mountain Safety Research, is $19.95.
CAPTION: Kids love to make their own pocket sandwiches with this time-tested camp cooker. This version, called Hobo Pie, is $11.