“Let’s stop for a snack”. How many times have I heard that? How many times have I uttered it?
I’m talking about snacking on the trail, snacking on bushwalks. That’s usually done as the morning or afternoon wears on and the pack on our back starts to feel heavy. We seek out a spot sheltered from the wind, in the shade in summer and in the sun in winter. Settled on a log or a rock or on the ground itself if dry, we reach into our pack to extract a bag of tasty trail snack and as we munch it quietly we think how good is life out here in the mountains.
Let’s get one thing straight before I start, though. Unlike snacking in the city, snacking on the trail is not an overindulgence in bad food or, let me add lest I upset some, occasional healthy food. It is not cake. It is not biscuits. It is necessary.
The purpose of snacking on the trail is energy replenishment. Whereas urban snacking simply adds kilojoules and fat, in the bush it replenishes what we have expended in hauling a pack loaded with several days supply of spare clothing, sleeping bag and pad, tent and food. That’s why we won’t get fat by snacking in the bush. Snacking is even more important walking in the mountains in cooler weather because more of our body energy goes on simply keeping warm.
Snacking on the trail, then, is good. Snacking in the city, perhaps, is not.
An edible evolution
Like life, snacking in the bush and mountains has followed its own evolution. Here’s how it started.
Take several handfuls of peanuts. Add almonds and other nuts. Now, take some dehydrated apple rings, some dried apricots and perhaps some dried mango. Slice these into small pieces. Put all of this into a bowl and mix, or into a container and shake vigorously until the contents are thoroughly blended. Decant into a cloth or plastic bag. Place in pack. Every so often on the trail, stop and extract this bag, dip in the hand and take a scoop of the contents. That’s trail snacking.
This recipe, imprecise it might be when we can add proportions of ingredients according to our likings, is adaptable. That is why those with a penchant for junk food can take a chocolate and break it into small bits, add Smarties or M&Ms or jelly beans to the mix and get away with it in the bush where we might not in the city. Again, that’s because what is urban junk food is a backcountry energy source.
This is scroggin. All Australian bushwalkers and travelers in the mountains know scroggin. It is a staple of bushwalkers, an old staple still around today. It is the ultimate do-it-yourself trail snack. The original. It is energy-producing, nutritious and tasty. It is the progenitor of all trail snacks. Their story started here.
Trail snacks evolve too
Some decades ago when I spent much of my time walking up and down the slopes, passes and mountains of Tasmania, I worked in the adventure equipment business. My job was based in the businesses’ Hobart, later their Launceston store as well as doing educational work with bushwalking clubs and school adventure education groups. In this role I saw the coming of commercialised snack food for bushwalkers. It was the next evolutionary step beyond scroggin.
But before discussing that let me digress to an unpleasant experience. That was when I bought a block of something called Kendall Mint Cake, a concoction originating in the UK that had been imported — or dumped, perhaps — in Australia for the suffering of the poor, unsuspecting bushwalkers of that land. At first bite it was blatantly apparent that this unnatural-looking whitish stuff was an oversweetened and strongly flavoured substance with an extra-strong minty flavour. I don’t think I finished that first block. Extraordinarily and perhaps unbelievably, I later met someone who liked the stuff.
That next great evolutionary step in bushwalking trail snack food came in the form of a cardboard box containing a number of long, thin, chocolate-coloured, bendy bars. It was apparently a product of the space program of the time as it was called by the suggestive name of Space Food Sticks.
I hoped astronauts had more to live on than these little soft brown sticks. But, unlike the Kendall Mint Cake these were actually edible without shocking the system though I suspect they were more a lab creation than an authentic food as they had the texture of soft plastic. I would buy a box before setting out for the mountains, and I survived.
How mountain snack food reflects the economic system
As well as a trail snack, Space Food Sticks represented an unfortunate function of our economic system. It was this: businesses take something that people already do quite well by themselves, like mix a bag of scroggin trail snack, make a product of it, put it in colourful packaging and charge good money for it. They even make their own scroggin mixes so we don’t have to trouble ourselves with that bit of creative work. Convenient, yes. But a reduction in the human capacity for self-reliance.
This culinary evolution has only accelerated over the years since Space Food Sticks appeared, and in doing so the new products coming onto the market demonstrate something akin to the speciation we find in the evolution of life, the divergence from a common ancestor into a diversity of species. That’s how scroggin, the common ancestor, came to evolve into the bags of prepared scroggin (I’m sure if someone took the trouble to do the math we would find that mixing your own is cheaper), the muesli bars, the Cliff bars, the gells favoured by mountain athletes like trail runners.
Cliff bar is one of the more recent of these evolutionary side-branches and we need look no further than the package to see how the manufacturer makes them appeal to their target market, the modern adventurer. This is blatantly highlighted by the painterly illustration of a climber hanging from a rock overhang, rope trailing away below. Not for the sedentary urbanite, the Cliff bar. On that packaging, too, is another signifier of their preferred buyer demographic — “made with organic rolled oats”, “made with organic peanut butter”, certified organic, that is, and made in the USA. This is for the health-and-environmentally-aware adventurer, the backcountry traveller who doesn’t want his or her diet to despoil the land.
In evolutionary terms the Cliff bar is the peak of its evolutionary journey, the peak of the journey that started all those decades ago with the Space Food Stick. Better yet, with the appearance and texture of a muesli bar it is actually edible and good-tasting.
The trail was dry that day. The weather cool. We had ascended from Pelion Pass to Pelion Gap and there we diverged to climb Perion East, a minor mountain but a good climb nonetheless.
Coming down, we decided to take a break and, doing that, we did as so many of our predecessors had done before, and probably in this very spot. Packs slung off our backs we reached in and extracted that most basic and traditional of all trail snacks, a bag of nutritious, energy-giving, tasty scroggin, complete with yummy chunks of chocolate and Smarties. And in that moment, in doing that, we were revived.