Perishable food: My Burning Man shopping list

salami and wine

You can’t live off dry food alone on the playa. And perishable food can perish quickly. What to bring?

When I go to Black Rock City, I’m usually out for build week, which means I’m on playa for about two weeks, sometimes more. When I first went to Burning Man, I had visions of cooking and “making” meals. Now, I buy things I can eat as is. Period. The extra time, the extra MOOP, the extra dishes … not my thing. There’s plenty of time for that in the default world. Other people are very focused on their meals. There’s no right or wrong way to burn and eat.

What I offer here is my specific list and quantities of food I bring that requires a cooler. I offer this so that you can get a sense of the volume and variety of food I pack for two weeks. My food-shopping list assumes both that 1) I’ll get a little of this and a little of that to eat here and there, both around camp and out wandering and 2) I’ll give a little of this and that, sharing my food now and then with friends and campmates.

To avoid over-purchasing (especially perishable food), when I hit the grocery stores (and, yes, Walmart) in Reno, I have an exact list of the food and quantities I’m purchasing. I usually still end up buying 10-15 percent more food than is on this list—things striking my fancy in the moment—though that’s a vast improvement from earlier days of buying 50, 80, 100 percent more food than I needed.

I also fly in, so I’m looking to keep things simple when it comes to eating. If you’re driving in from nearby, then pre-cooking meals at home and freezing them may speak to you.

Here’s my Burning Man shopping list of perishable foods (and why I like each item).

Apples, 5-7

Know your apples. Buy a few apples you love rather than a bag of so-so apples you don’t love. Me? I love honeycrisps, fujis and galas!

Clementines, a bag

Clementines peel easily, don’t have seeds, and have little pith. I find them tasty, refreshing and not very MOOPy. Apples and clementines both get extra points for being fairly cooler-friendly and able to handle a bit of jostling, and they are even better when chilled in melted cooler water at the bottom of a cooler.

Plums, 5-7

Plums are juicy, flavorful; and they create only a little MOOP. They’re also fairly cooler-sturdy and can get banged around a little bit or float in cold cooler water and still be ok.

Red radishes, 2 bunches

I buy two packs of radishes, cut off the greens and wash them in Reno. Radishes are hardy and can be thrown into a backpack inside a ziplock bag. They have a lot of water content and they’re spicy, so they have some punch! Add a little artisanal salt and they’re even better. They can get banged up and they’re still edible at the end of the week. That’s a pretty amazing characteristic, in my book.

Romaine lettuce, two 3-packs

Oak leaf and other lettuces bruise too easily and, just like that, bam! they get ruined, aren’t edible, and transform into wet, rotting organic MOOP. Romaine lettuce is great, especially if you get the three-packs that are mostly de-MOOPed and don’t have all the extra leaves on them. If I can swing it, I’ll put this lettuce inside a Tupperware-like container in my cooler.

Pickles and fermented vegetables, a few jars

I didn’t understand, at first, how pickles and pickled foods were such a thing at Burning Man. Then, one year, I came back to camp on a hot, hot afternoon. I’d done acid for the first time in decades the prior night, and I was a bit out of sorts. I knew I needed something in my body, but I was too hot and fried to figure out what it was that I needed. Some campmates had purchased gallon containers of pickles and left the remaining pickle juice out for anyone to drink. Intuitively, I walked up to the jars, lifted a jar to mouth and drank heartily. And in that moment, I became a convert.

If you hate pickles and pickled veggies, of course, skip this advice. If you even only slightly like pickles in the default world, bring them! If you love pickles, bring lots, and not just pickles: bring several jars of pickles and pickled vegetables (okra, sauerkraut, mixed vegetables). Try different flavors and different vegetables, and, absolutely, save the juice to drink. If you don’t want the liquid, someone else most certainly will!

You almost can’t bring too many pickled foods, especially if you keep opened jars in the bottom of your cooler so that the food is picked, crunchy and chilled!

Smoked fish, 3-4 packs

I purchase several packs of smoked fish such as mackerel and trout; and my latest discovery is pickled (not salted) anchovies in the refrigerated fish section of Whole Foods. Fabulous. The fish provides tasty protein without requiring a lick of cooking. I’ve discovered that (for me), anything takings time to cook probably isn’t going to happen when I’m on playa. Not unless I’m on dinner crew with a group, then it’s a feast. On my own, I simply don’t cook.

Other people are very into cooking and meal prep on playa, and they’re often happy to share their tips online. For many years, I camped with a group that collaborated to provide a warm, robust dinner each night. Recently, I camped with a group that sorta kinda provided dinner. I missed almost every meal, and I was fine. I thought I’d miss the warm meals, but I really was fine. Gifted food does tend to show up here and there, so I did get some warm bites of this and that to eat.

Each to their own with food, cooking and eating. Personally, I keep cooking to a minimum (other than heating water for phở!). If you’re a first-timer, I’d encourage you to keep your food prep simple. Watch what others do, and more importantly, get a sense for how much time you want to spend cooking and cleaning up. Everything takes longer to do on playa.

Hard salami, 2-3

If you want to bring hard salami, which I always do, you’ll want to purchase it in a hermetically sealed package, or you have to place salami in an airtight container in your cooler. A lot of salami is sold wrapped in paper. All it takes is a few hours for that salami to be floating in the bottom of your cooler’s ice melt to ruin the meat. Sad!

Bring what you want, of course. This is my shopping list of perishable food and it works for me.

Salami Photo by Alex Guillaume on Unsplash




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