Thursday, October 29, 2009

Field Food Failure

Field work can create many kinds of failure. Most crucial to the research, in the case of my work on spherule layers, has been an inability to find outcrops of the target strata. This is usually a matter of poor exposure. It’s hard to find a thin layer of tiny round particles in a rubbly hillside, especially when one is not sure where it’s supposed to be. There are sometimes other extenuating circumstances, such as the troop of angry baboons I encountered once in South Africa, but these are rarer. My personal research shortcoming is failing to take copious notes or photographs. It all seems so obvious when I’m looking at the rocks.

Other field failures are the common malfunctions of travel: missed connections, lost luggage, or faulty reservations. I’d add three Outback Australia-specific hazards to this list. First, flat tyres. Our trucks have had a range of brand new to badly worn tyres, sometimes both on the same vehicle. Regardless of condition, I have gotten two or three flats on every trip. This is mostly inconvenient; we always carry two spares, and tyre repair is easy at the mining towns. Crawling under a 1.5 ton vehicle on a dusty road to place a tiny jack on the axle is a bit dicey. This is what field assistants are for. Second, getting stuck. I’ve only gotten the truck bogged – in mud – once. That was enough. Escape was a 40 hour project. Finally, road kill. Kangaroos often graze by road verges at dawn and dusk. When they are startled by the truck there’s an even chance they’ll jump in front of the vehicle rather than into the bush. Our expeditions have hit an average of one animal per trip. It’s hard to avoid an animal leaping in front of your truck when it’s going 80 kph. I’m glad that cattle, the other main road kill opportunity, tend to graze during the day. It’s easy to slow down when approaching them.

While I know this inventory of recurrent failures very well, Australia Fourteen served up my first food failure. When Bruce and I first worked together in 1982, he quickly discovered that I liked to cook. This was good: he can’t. I’ve been in charge of the kitchen on every subsequent research trip. This has suited us both very well. Bruce likes my meals, and I enjoy both the cooking as well as control over this domestic part of field work.

On Australia One, I developed a series of field recipes, which I’ve refined over subsequent years. Chernobyl Potatoes is one of these. Another is pan-baked, baking soda-raised bread. I’ve always tried to include a meal or two that features cornbread, dessert bread, or a savory wheat bread.

Louis and I purchased a set of pots in Perth. This has been protocol for many field seasons; to buy cheap, basic equipment which we can use and wear out, to be abandoned in the appropriate refuse or recycling bin at the trip’s end. The set we found was thin metal, but seemed sufficient for two weeks. The non-stick coating on the frying pan was a plus.

I bought staples for bread in Newman. Eventually, a night occurred when I was cooking, and had enough time to make a batter – cornbread this time. To compensate for the hot gas flame, I have always added extra oil to the mix. I heated the pan, and made a small test cake. It stuck a little bit, but came out satisfactorily. I put more butter in the pan, and poured in enough batter to form a layer about half an inch thick throughout the pan: standard procedure. I watched the cooking mass closely. I knew from previous dinners that I needed to constantly move the pan over the flame so that the bread cooked evenly and did not burn. Presently the bread seemed ready to flip. It held together at the edges, and tested to be cooked three-quarters through. I pried up one edge using a knife, and slid my spatula under the bread. It stopped. Crap. In spite of all the oil and butter, it was burned firmly onto the pan. I pried it loose. It broke into many pieces, and was burning rather than cooking. The damn frying pan was just too thin.

I tossed this first failure away. I modified the batter, making it drier. The same thing happened; a burned crust, a raw interior. I got increasingly annoyed. Eventually, it was clear that my efforts were futile. I gave up and made rice. I burned the partially cooked bread in the camp fire, and we disposed of the rest the next day in a rubbish bin. I’ve made dinners in the past that were a bit too spicy, but never have I had to abandon a meal plan. I should have bought a better frying pan.

The frying pan became increasingly difficult to use. Vigorous cleaning progressively removed the non-stick coating. Our meals became slightly greasier to compensate. I became annoyed at the pan for being so useless and at myself for buying such a cheap piece of equipment.

I decided to achieve retribution at our final swag out. After the final field dinner, I took the frying pan away from camp, and tried to crush it with large rocks, dropped from chest height. This was unsatisfying; the rocks were too small, and the ground was soft and absorbed too much of the impact. So I got my rock hammer and punched the pan full of holes. I felt much better.

We recycled the cook set in Newman.