Every now and then I bump my head and shake loose a random memory. The one that floated up from the depths today was of instant mashed potatoes. We never ate them at home, as my mother was a traditional home-maker and thereby created The Land of Home Cooking for us. The food was basic and generally of the meat and potatoes variety, but it was always made from scratch without resorting to the culinary crimes of post WWII “instant-mania”.
However, I was an air cadet when I was a teenager, and one of the benefits of that was bush survival training, in which we learned how to survive in the wilderness. We would head out into the woods (usually in winter but sometimes in spring or fall) carrying well-stuffed backpacks for a weekend of “survival”. We built lean-tos out of small trees and spruce boughs (and usually a layer of plastic sheeting, but not always), and collected standing deadwood (the best fuel for campfires). We usually slept three or four to a lean-to, but sometimes we each made our own, which was less efficient, and in winter, colder.
Most of the time our food consisted of military “K-ration” packs scrounged from the local army reserves. I don’t know what the “K” stood for, but some people called them “K-9 rations” which I think was a reference too their dog food-like quality.
Actually they weren’t that bad. A K-ration pack consisted of two cardboard boxes, each about half the size of a regular shoe box. This was food for a day, but of course in emergencies it could be stretched out for a week. One box contained the heavy stuff, which was usually a small can of pre-cooked bacon (the most coveted item in the whole kit), a can of either Irish Stew or meatballs in gravy, a can of fruit in syrup, a can of chili con carne (or sometimes a Beefaroni-like pasta thing), and a small can (half the size of a typical can of tuna) of either peanut butter or cheese spread. It also contained a can openner, matches, a magical folding metal thing to use as a stove, and some solid fuel cubes.
The other box contained the dry stuff, which was usually a pouch of instant oatmeal, two pouches of Tang-like orange drink powder, some powdered milk, a bunch of condiment packets, a pouch of the mythical instant mashed potatoes, and a box of crackers.
As you could imagine, there was vigorous trading of items. That one small can of bacon (the size of a fruit cup) could go for as much as two cans of chili and an oatmeal. People rarely traded the crackers because everyone liked then (they were like the “Stoned Wheat” crackers you see in the stores now). The instant mashed potatoes were not popular at all and even three days-worth couldn’t be traded for anything.
I used to love making the potatoes, but I didn’t much like eating them. There was something magical about boiling some water in a billy can and pouring it into a bowl of this crazy silica-powder like potato stuff – as you stirred the gloop it transmogrified before your eyes, going from a silty mess to a consistent cream-of-wheat-like paste and finally into mashed potatoes! It was incredible!
Unfortunately, it was also inedible. When you leaned into it and took a sniff, bleh! It didn’t smell anything like potatoes. It had the odor of chemistry and spoiled milk. The only way I could stomach it was if I drowned it in canned meatballs and gravy, and even then you had to eat fast because the liquid from the gravy diluted the potatoes into a watery sour milk-like sludge.