Sometimes, in survival situations, it is in one’s best interest to avoid detection when possible. However, this can be difficult to do when food preparation comes into play. Fire is often a necessity, when it comes to cooking outdoors, but fire creates smoke, which can draw unwanted attention. There are alternatives to open fire cooking, namely solar ovens, but these alternatives often require special conditions, like minimal cloud cover, to work effectively. Camp stoves are also a possibility. However, they can be bulky; often require a scarce, non-replenishable fuel source; and sadly, not everybody is going to have access to one of these stoves in an emergency. So, what is one to do when the time comes to cook and the options are few? One potential solution to this conundrum is the ancient Peruvian method of cooking, known as the pachamanca– a method with which I am both familiar and very fond.
The pachamanca is a form of pit cooking that involves cooking a variety of foods in a deep pit, using heated stones. The foods cooked often include tubers, namely potatoes and sweet potatoes; legumes, traditionally green lima beans; meats, including lamb, mutton, chicken (or other available fowl), and guinea pig; and plenty of maize. While pit cooking is not endemic to Peru, the pachamanca, I find, is the easiest form of pit cooking to modify to meet survival cooking needs. In order to be practical, this (or rather, any) method of cooking may need to be altered to meet the needs of you and your party. Fortunately, one of the great things about the pachamanca is that it takes kindly to such adjustments. What if you don’t have chicken? Well, just substitute a squirrel or rabbit. The pachamanca has all the beauty and adaptability of nature itself, and this is just the beginning of what makes the pachamanca such an excellent means of food preparation.
Pachamanca is a great form of cooking in that it can be set up in most outdoor environments, requires very little fire, is highly efficient, and can be easily concealed. I say that it can be set up in most outdoor environments because almost wherever you can dig a hole, you can build a pachamanca. I say that it requires very little fire because the flame needed to heat the stones can be put out and scattered as soon as the rocks have been moved into the pit. I say it is efficient because to cook the same amount of food on a fire would take several hours of tending to the flame and making sure nothing burns. I say that it is easily concealed because the pit can be covered with dirt and leaves and left alone for between two to three hours. In fact, in the olden days of Europe, bandits would take a sheep, wrap the edible meat in the animal’s skin, and cook it in a pit for several hours. This method of cooking was preferred, because keeping an open fire going for a long period of time could have drawn the authorities to the location of the bandits’ camp. Alright, now that I feel I have adequately described the pachamanca and its benefits, I will discuss how to make one.
The three most important parts of a pachamanca are the pit, the stones, and the food. A pachamanca pit must be deep and wide enough to hold several food items and multiple layers of stones. The stones must be large (but not boulders) and capable of holding heat very well. The actual food items are not of consequence as much as the order in which they are placed in the pit. The first (and most important) part of making a pachamanca is the pit.
A pachamanca pit is best dug in soft, dry soil. It is best not to dig a pit immediately after a rain or place it near a stream or other body of water. If the pit is dug in wet soil or near a stream, water will tend to pool in the pit, defeating the purpose of using it for cooking. I have made a cooking pit in wet soil before. It’s not impossible, but it’s certainly not fun. The pit should be about three or four feet deep. Ideally, the pit will have a diameter of about one foot and nine inches; it will be circular in shape. It may help to pack the walls of the pit a little bit. Pile the dirt beside the hole; you will use it to cover the pit after filling it with food and hot stones. After the hole is ready, it is time to prepare the food.
As I mentioned before, the foods used in a pachamanca are usually sweet potatoes, potatoes, meat, corn, cooked lima beans, and occasionally, tamales or other corn-based food. As far as meats go, feel free to throw in whatever you may have. In a survival situation, chicken and lamb (or mutton) will likely not be available, and most people in the U.S. wouldn’t eat guinea pig even if it was available. So, feel free to substitute squirrel or game birds. Some versions of pachamanca even use beef, so venison should work as well (as long as you include a piece or two of fat in the parcel to keep the meat from drying out). The quantities of the individual food items are irrelevant so long as they are placed in the pit in the correct order. Once you have decided what all you are going to include, the individual food items are best wrapped in soaked corn husks. Wrapping prevents the food from drying out and also protects against burning. If using corn husks, it is best to soak them for twenty to thirty minutes; this will prevent them from burning in the heat of the pit. To wrap a piece of food, start by taking three soaked corn husks. Tear one of the husks lengthwise into many thin, long strips. These strips will be used to tie the corn husk parcels prior to placing them in the pit; this helps keep dirt and other foreign substances off of the food. Lay the other two corn husks together lengthwise so that they overlap slightly. Place a small piece of food in the center. Roll the parcel lengthwise before folding each end of the package over the center. Secure with two or three strips of corn husk. Corn husks are not the only material that can be used for wrapping; banana leaves, parchment paper, or burlap will also suffice. Once the food is wrapped, it is time to prepare the stones.
The stones used in a pachamanca should be rounded and small enough to be carried in your hands (without injuring yourself). Volcanic stones are the best because of their ability to withstand unimaginable heat. However, common river rocks from a stream bed will serve the purpose of the pachamanca. It is best to avoid other types of rocks; they may become too hot and explode. Be sure to pick dry, round rocks with no cracking or fractures. The number of rocks you will need will vary, depending on the size of your pit and the size of the stones. It probably won’t hurt to overshoot on the number of rocks you get on the first few times, but any conspicuous stones should be removed from the area prior to concealing the pit. After the stones are gathered, it is time to prepare the fire. Seeing as how the goal is to be as inconspicuous as possible, it is best to keep the fire going only long enough to heat the stones. When the fire is going fairly strong, begin to arrange the stones over the fire in a pyramid shape; a shovel or long metal tongs will be of assistance in this task. It is difficult to tell exactly how long it will take for the stones to reach the necessary temperature, so the duration of the heating period is a matter of personal discretion.
Once all of the three vital components are ready, it is time to start cooking. Place a layer of hot stones on the bottom of the pit, using a shovel, tongs, or if you have great dexterity, two thick, sturdy sticks. After the hot stones, place the parcels of potatoes and sweet potatoes. Then, put a layer of stones on the tubers, and put down your meats. After that, slide in another layer of stones. Finally, add your corn and beans and another (optional) layer of rocks. After the final layer of rocks, cover the pit with several blades of long grass and the dirt you excavated from the pit. Now, you can dowse or smother the fire and conceal the cooking pit. The pit can be left alone for two or three hours, and anyone who stumbles upon the scene will see no indicators of human presence besides the small, dead fire. In a situation w.r.o.l., it might be advisable to break a few limbs and slightly alter the landscape to create the illusion that your cooking site was simply a poor, and now abandoned campsite. However, even without rule of law, this is detrimental to any outdoor environment. Upon returning to the site, eating is simply a matter of removing the dirt from on top of the pit and carefully extracting the parcels of food.
It is advisable to practice this technique once or twice while you can afford to mess up. With practice, this method of food preparation can become a valuable addition to your survival cooking repertoire. I hope that this ancient and venerable cooking method proves to be useful to you in your survival endeavors.