Organic meals packed in a handy pouch
The Spokesman Review, August 2001
by Rich Landers
Years of patrolling backcountry trails and sitting in forest fire
lookouts gave Mary Jane Butters plenty of time to think about wilderness
Butters worked as firewatch near Weippe, Idaho, as a wilderness
ranger in the Uinta Mountains of Utah and as a guard at the Moose
Creek Ranger Station in the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness.
By the time she switched careers and opened her dehydrated food
business in Moscow, Idaho, she had a clear concept of what her product
should be: low impact and organic.
"When I worked as a wilderness ranger, I was always picking
the remains of aluminum packaging out of fire pits," she said.
"I swore someday to come up with an alternative."
She did. The products were atttractive enough to win the corporate
support of Seattle-based Mountain Safety Research, which markets
the foods as MSR Mountain Gourmet meals.
The concepts were good enough to win an Editor's Choice Award for
backpacking food in 2000. This year, again for the first time, Backpacker
extended its original Editor's Choice Award to different products
within the same product line. They cited 22 MSR Mountain Gourmet
foods, including 11 sold in the new aluminum-free, burnable Pouch
The judges cited "great flavor, healthy ingredients, and simple
"People can burn my packaging in a hot fire and get rid of
it. But personally, I'd still rather see people pack it out,"
The first thing consumers will notice about the food is the cost.
It's more expensive than comparable dehydrated or freeze-dried meals
primarily because the ingredients are organic.
"Wilderness advocates who appreciate the backcountry landscape
generally have the same appreciation for farmland, that it shouldn't
be sprayed with herbicides and pesticides," Butters said.
Providing organic backpacking food has been an uphill battle. "It
would be much easier if I didn't insist on organic foods,"
she said. "But we're over the hump. The food is selling well
and is widely available at outdoor retailers, including REI."
The main change in the new line of pouch-cook meals is the packaging.
The pouch can be filled with boiling water to rehydrate the food,
and it will stand on its own like a tall bowl.
"It's the only stand-up pouch I know of without an aluminum
liner," Butters said.
The standard line of pastas requires 10 minutes of cooking. The
new Pouch-Cook recipes are instant. Just add boiling water.
The instant pasta has been pre-cooked, made into flour and reformed
into pasta, yet it tastes almost as good as the pasta that requires
"We're the only company in the country with organic pasta,"
she said, noting that the foods are processed in the Moscow area.
Butters' Paradise Farm Organics started in 1989 with basic meals
made of peas, lentils and other Palouse grains. The line has expanded
dramatically with more than 70 meals or food items ranging from
smoked spuds to exotic spiced dinners and nice touches such as instant
The vegetarian line has products to please the vegan crowd. Creative
use of spices is a trademark of Mountain Gourmet, although even
Butters says some of the offerings will appeal more to one person
than to another.
"The spicy sesame pasta is very different from other pastas,"
she said. "It's my least favorite, but my computer guy thinks
it's the best. He eats it for lunch here at work."
The bread items are prepared to be "baked" in a covered
nonstick skillet as you would make a thick pancake.
Devices such as the Outback Oven will cook cakes and breads much
like a home oven. But the Mountain Gourmet breads can be cooked
in about half the time in a skillet.
While the biscuits and corn breads get a thumbs up, the cookies
didn't pass The Spokesman-Review's backpacking research team's taste
"I'd rather just stick a Great Harvest cookie in my pack and
save the cooking time," one tester said at a camp near the
Selkirk Crest in Idaho.
One tester said low cost and high volume are his main criteria
for backpacking food as he sliced Costco sausage into a pot with
a Lipton rice mix.
Mountain Gourmet doesn't necessarily deliver in those two categories.
Depending on the product, the food packages say they contain one
and a half or two servings. Butters said one serving is just right
for her, but two servings barely satisfied a male backpacker in
the backcountry taste test.
Here's a way to get around hesitation over both the cost and the
The Paradise Farms web site has descriptions
of all the products. Especially handy is the price list, which shows
how much can be saved by purchasing in bulk. This is the way to
go for large orders or group trips.
For example, couscous and lentil curry is $3.11 per serving in
the Pouch-Cook form, $2.98 in the economy packet and $1.13 in bulk
The Pouch-Cook is a single serving that needs no extra bowl. The
economy packets hold more food and require that you provide the
pot or bowl for rehydrating.
The bulk foods come in 13- to 15-pound boxes that cost $100 to
$300, depending on the product. Buyers use their own packaging,
such as reusable zipper-type plastic bags.
The REI in Denver has plans to carry the food in bulk, Butters
said, but that's not likely to happen soon in smaller markets such
"The packages that don't have cheese or butter contain virtually
no oil and resist going rancid," she said.
"The Oakesdale flour mill uses centrifuge force to explode
the wheat berry, so you don't get rancidity for a couple of years."
Paradise Farm doesn't keep large inventories of food. "Our
foods are always fresh," she said. "We ship to our dealers
every week. We're selling real food. We're not trying to put a five-year
shelf life on it."