FOOD FOR TREKKING

By Erik "Fangorn" Abranson, June 2, 1998

Adapted for The Guild Companion by Lowell R. Matthews, March 3, 1999

Copyright © 1999, Erik Abranson and Lowell R. Matthews

As anyone who has been trekking for days on end in wild, uninhabited country (something I used to do frequently in my younger days) will know, supplies-food, and sometimes water-are the major problem and impediment. Trekkers must take food along with them or hope to find some on the way, or rely upon a combination of both, including carrying spare surplus found along the way. All methods have their disadvantages; these still apply when the trekkers have pack animals because the pack animals still have limited ranges and also have their own physical requirements and limitations.

In J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, Dwarves are capable of carrying very heavy packs (plus mail, a shield, and offensive weapons) and of covering great distances on forced marches. The real-Earth parallel was the Roman legionary, whose total personal kit weighed about 40 kg (88 lbs), including 18 kg (40 lbs) of defensive kit. In the days of Julius Caesar (d. 44 B.C.), the defensive kit included 10 kg (22 lbs) of mail, a shield, a leather shield cover to protect its paintings, and a helmet. Weapons included a heavy pilum (javelin), a gladius (short double-edged sword), and a dagger. Other items included a dolabra (a kind of hoe), a pick-axe, a turf-cutter, a sickle or saw, two heavy wooden posts to be part of the night camp's defensive palisade, a net with three days' food rations, a leather water bottle, a bronze cooking pot, a wicker basket for moving the spoil from the camp's perimeter trench to the defensive ridge erected just behind the trench, a change of clothes, a shaving kit, a first aid kit, and sundry other things carried in a canvas bag with leather strengthenings. The legionaries did not have backpacks; they carried the small items tied to the forked end of a pole that they would carry on their shoulders. More equipment, notably more provisions, stone grain hand-mills, tents, artillery (catapults and ballistas), and engineering implements, were carried or drawn by the pack train. The standard day's march was 25-30 km (16-19 mi), which could increase to 50 km (31 mi) on a forced march. And when the legionaries reached the day's end stage, it was not to sit down and light a pipe but to start digging the defensive perimeter trenches and latrines (outside the camp), and erecting the stockade, the eight-man tents, and the larger officers' tents. After all that, however, they did normally enjoy the luxury of washing with soap in warm water (big cauldrons were carried by the pack train).

To revert to the matter of food, the legionaries' food was not particularly energetic. Meat was rare or nonexistent on the menu; fish did not appear. The Roman legionary, like the Roman peasant of the day, lived mainly off cereals: bread (1.0-1.5 kg/day) and or gruels made from wheat flour or millet, supplemented with broad beans and lentils. Barley was only given to animals. The drink was posca, water laced with vinegar.

A Web site server recruiting volunteers for the Roman Legion would not crash under the number of hits...

Even when the weight of armor and weapons is replaced by food supplies, the "camping" gear is lightweight, and the food supplies are of the high-energy dehydrated type, the range and autonomy of a walker are limited when he has to carry all his food with him. Hunting-gathering is pretty much a full-time occupation in most places. This slows down progress enormously and is not even an option in many areas. When areas are uninhabited, there's usually a very good reason for it-lack of food resources.

Tolkien gets around the problem with two types of "waybread": cram and lembas.

Cram was a hard and tasteless but very nutritious biscuit or cake. In The Hobbit it was made by the Men of Esgaroth, but it is reasonable to assume that Dwarves, Rohirrim, Rangers, and Orcs all had something very similar when they went on expeditions.

I think the real-world equivalent of cram would be pemmican, a North American Indian waybread made from dried and ground lean meat mixed with fat and other ingredients. This is a very effective food concentrate except it lacks vitamins-which could (and did) cause problems in the long term when not complemented by fresh fruit or greens. Pemmican was the staple diet of 19th- and early 20th-Century polar explorers.

Lembas most definitely has Elf-magic among its ingredients. It feeds both mind and body. I do not think of it as in any way comparable to communion wafers; it is tasty whereas the latter are appallingly bland and only feed the mind. Communion wafers, even in large quantity, would not keep the body going over long distances. Lembas has the magic property of releasing more energy as its daily consumption decreases; without this unexpected property, Frodo and Sam would not have made it to Orodruin.

This being said, Tolkien was perhaps inspired by the spiritual quality of communion wafers when describing the spiritual side of lembas.

Also, Tolkien was from a day and time when pemmican, dried fruit, and honey were the most suitable choices as lightweight high-energy wayfood, so the biscuit or cake presentation came naturally to his mind. The Rivendell miruvor drink was a cordial, a restorative, and not a food substitute. However, I stand to correct myself: Tolkien did "invent" liquid food in the form of Ent draught, but to have been useful on journeys it would have had to have been processed to instant powdered Ent draught.

Today, a trekker can get all the energy and diet requirements for life (minus the roughage) in liquid form with preparations such as Complan™ powder, a few spoonfuls of which stirred in a cup of water provides the nutritional equivalent of a meal. Add protein cakes made from fish meal or soya and glucose tablets, and a trekker can increase his autonomous walking range quite considerably-although I think I might choose to lose time on such treks to pick grubs and snails to add something a bit tastier to menu...

Unfortunately, neither the recipe for lembas nor that for miruvor is known in real Earth.