Remember those old Westerns with Cookie at the chuck wagon ladling out plates of goo to hungry cowpokes?

Those days are gone, and Cookie has been replaced by ravenous hikers boiling water to revive foil packets filled with lumpy, freeze-dried powder.

How far we've come. But really, how far have we come?

Three local chefs pondered that question, and many others, as they sampled several offerings made by a trio of camping food manufacturers.

The packets, sold in sporting goods stores and ranging in price from $4 to $7, are produced by Alpine Aire Foods, Natural High and Mountain House. All looked promising: beef stew, Thai chicken, chili, seafood chowder and cheesecake.

The directions on the packages couldn't have been easier: Boil water, measure water, pour water, stir water and dried stuff together. Eat.

Notice that they didn't say enjoy.

The tasters were chosen for their palates, reputations and, most of all, senses of humor. Michael Gettier is executive chef at Peerce's Plantation in Phoenix. Quinn Appleby is executive chef at Sascha's Catering in Baltimore. Jerry Pellegrino is owner/chef at Corks on South Charles Street. Joining them around the faux campfire was our own food columnist and now-Wary Eater, Rob Kasper. All but one of our tasters have camping experience, and his secret will go with me to my grave.

Camping grub isn't supposed to fool anyone into believing he is having a three-star dining experience. But these days, the stuff is expected to surpass Cookie's slop.

Which brings us to our second question: How could something that looks so bad taste even worse?

People's Exhibit A was Alpine Aire's Mountain Chili, high in fiber, zero fat, no preservatives. What's not to like?

"This one scares me," said Gettier, as he stirred the ingredients in his bowl, pushing aside the kernels of corn.

"Does the Donner party deliver?" he joked, referring to the ill-fated pioneers who resorted to cannibalism after being stranded in the High Sierras in the winter of 1846-1847.

No one could force down more than one spoonful, with Kasper calling it "prison food."

Also stuck to the bottom of the barrel was Natural High's Beef Stroganoff.

"There are things in it," Gettier insisted, staring into the bowl.

"All I can say is I would eat the chili," Kasper said.

"At least you can pick out the corn in the chili," Pellegrino agreed.

Stroganoff by Mountain House and Alpine Aire fared much better, with the latter earning slightly higher marks for its "impressive fresh herb" taste and by not containing anything deemed "too scary."

The same could not be said of Mountain House's Hearty Stew With Beef.

"There's something going on with these potatoes," Appleby said.

"You push on them and they push back," Gettier agreed. All the participants guessed the dehydrated potatoes had, in an earlier life, been many potatoes that had given up their individual identities to be shredded and molded into potato cubes.

"They've become ubiquitous, unisex potatoes with a peculiar, sandylike quality," Gettier said.

Hardly the words of a good review. The men then zeroed in on the strange qualities of Natural High's Honey-Lime Chicken With Long Grain & Wild Rice.

"I've found a quarter-inch-round cylindrical item," Pellegrino said, holding up his spoon.

We should have first read the package: "a continental-style dish with tender chicken pieces, robust honey-lime sauce with asparagus served on long grain and wild rice."

The robust lime was actually overpowering, Kasper said. "This would make me want to go home."

The chefs also panned Alpine Aire's Teriyaki Turkey, a blend of "some red things and some green things" with "good noodles and sauce" made somewhat better when you "throw out the turkey."

Gettier summed up the scores this way: "It smells good and then you taste it and the bottom drops out."

So what did the tasters like?

Mountain House's seafood chowder.

"I've had worse in restaurants," Gettier said.

"Did anybody make a guess at the green things?" asked the ever-inquisitive Pellegrino.

"I think I got a shrimp here!" a happy Appleby proclaimed.

Natural High's spicy chicken with broccoli and noodles.

"It feels good in your mouth. It doesn't feel like you've gotten something by mistake," Kasper said.

"Flavorful," Appleby said.

"We've been privy to a lot of restaurant employee meals over the years, and this isn't bad," Gettier said.

Mountain House's blueberry cheesecake, the only sample everyone finished.

"Very nice," Appleby said.

"Very sweet," Pellegrino said.

"Sugar is a beautiful thing," Gettier said.

The most amusing offering was a "self-heating" chicken and rice entrM-ie from Alpine Aire. The package instructed you to pull the string to activate the chemical heating pouch, wait 15 minutes while the contents steamed and bubbled, and then "savor the flavor."

"It has absolutely no flavor," Appleby said after one bite.

"But hands down, it was a great show," Kasper said.

After swapping some camping tales and eyeing their empty cheesecake bowls, the chefs offered several tips: Buy a few samples before taking freeze-dried food on a long trip; don't go by the picture on the package; consider the old standby Ramen noodles and boxed macaroni and cheese dinners as less expensive, more reliable alternatives. And finally from Gettier: "Camp near Loch Raven, and you can come to Peerce's for a good meal."

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