In the USA, many things can affect a person's ability to eat nutritiously and affordably. Of course, there's the availability of food. Noddy has written two recent, excellent diaries on how to manage if you have $25 a week for food, or $100 a month, for groceries. What about availability, or lack of it, of a way to fix and eat food?
Basic necessities include a place to store food, with or without refrigeration; time for getting and preparing the food; and cookware. These can be as big an impediment as the lack of food itself -- and just as tough to solve, although some solutions can be surprisingly inexpensive. Other needs -- water, a source of controllable heat, basic knowledge -- also figure into the equation. Many of us take microwaves, cooktops and ovens for granted -- but how does a person, or a family, manage without those traditional necessities? If you're indoors and you have access to electricity, you can improvise a hot-plate with a a clothes iron, heat or boil water with an immersion heater, or use common appliances like small electric skillets or crock-pots.
But without electricity, what's a couch-surfer, shelter-dweller, or Appalachian Trail thru-hiker to do?
Wait, a thru-hiker? Absolutely: a kitchen that must go with its user everywhere is by definition the most basic possible. Hikers spend days, weeks, or months walking from one end of the country to the other; but they still have to eat. They need cooking gear that will work in any weather, isn't hard to find fuel or parts for, makes a meal quickly, cleans up and stows away easily. What better place to start when crafting a very basic kitchen?
Cheap, portable, sturdy, reliable methods of cooking that rely on readily-available fuels exist. Two basic schools are in use around the world right now: camp stove cookery, which tends to be faster, and solar cookery, which tends to be even cheaper but usually takes more time.
There's enough information on cooking with sunlight to overwhelm a novice! So, in this diary I want to concentrate on camp stove cookery, and focus further on stoves that are cheap, if not free, to acquire and use. To give you some idea of the variety of designs of these stoves, check out the links below. I don't own these designs, or want to steal credit from the innovators who created them in the first place.
But I can give you directions for making basic cooking gear. Come over the flickering orange glow with me for some possibilities.
Most people have seen canteens and mess-kits. These gear sets nest down into a cover, which usually has a clip or strap for attaching to a belt: Hands-free, compact, sturdy, they can be had from most military surplus stores or catalogs, but are heavy, and can be spendy.
A great variety of conventional camp stoves exist. Some are ultralight, some compact, some neither; these can be had at sporting goods stores or sometimes through garage sales, Craigslist, or thrift stores. They're wonderful devices. But they're not something you can build for free, or usually something you can find fuel for at a convenience store or a Walgreens. One exception might be the Sterno single-can stove/stand.
Most hikers rely on soda-can stoves. This popular pocket-sized marvel burns alcohol. As with commercial camp stoves, these come in many sizes and shapes. I like the simple ones best. The designs are widely available on the internet. Some people even make them to sell. If you want to see the definitive source for these ultralight and other home-built camp stoves, go to www.zenstoves.net.
Tools are necessary for building these, though. To keep that cost down, I'm not concentrating on designs that require access to electricity or power tools. To build a hobo stove or a soda can stove, very minimal tools are needed: a ruler or measuring tape, a book or wood block to help you cut cans or other materials in a straight line, a punch or awl and marking device -- sharpie or pencil, a pushpin or needle, a utility knife or razor-blade knife, small pliers or multitool; nice extras are sandpaper, emery cloth or a file, steel wool, and adhesives like epoxy or JB Weld, but these are not, strictly speaking, necessary.
Please be very careful with the tools to be used building these cooking stoves, and the components of the cooking systems if you build them: sharp edges, open flames, and hot objects abound.
For cooking utensils to use with these appliances, aluminum foil and sturdy scissors are very handy.
One of the better designs out there is this modified "cat stove," but the classic soda can stove is good, too. A bonus with these stoves and their utensils is that, including the ignition source, cleanup gear and necessary pot holders, most of the cooking systems weigh a pound or less, the pieces nest, and the assembled cooking set is very compact. It travels well -- and if it's lost or confiscated, it costs very little to replace. It also needs only a very small space to use.
Soda-can stoves are fueled with non-potable alcohol such as HEET (tm) or other "fuel-drying additives" from the auto aisle of a convenience store, or denatured alcohol from the paint section at a hardware store, or 91% isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol from a drug store such as Walgreens. I've added links here because the stove makers deserve not to have their hard work copied without credit, and because those tutorials do a better job of explaining soda-can stove construction than I can do here without illustrations. One of the sturdiest pocket-size camp stove designs utilizes an aluminum bottle. Another variation on this theme makes a bigger stove with a separate internal burner, combining the hobo stove and the soda can stove. Here is a pattern for a fold-flat pocket stove that works like an Esbit burner, only you can use wood in it. Hobo stoves can be fueled with firewood, charcoal (use a very sturdy can), a buddy burner, or a tightly-rolled paper log.
Remember we're talking about open flames, hot utensils and appliances, and hot food or liquids -- be safe! Don't set up your kitchen on a flammable surface, and do be sure you're not using it without adequate ventilation, please.
The easiest, cheapest, and most readily homemade stove, though, is probably the hobo stove. A page at Texas A&M University gives good directions for one design, but the one I know how to make is a little different. It's not much more than a tin can that keeps the fire contained and acts as a chimney for the heat from it.
For a basic hobo stove, you need an empty metal can and a plain wire coathanger.
Empty a suitable can and rid it of all labels. Do not use a galvanized can to make one of these stoves.
Remove one end of the can as neatly as possible. Use a can opener. File or sand the rim smooth.
Save the lid. If it has any paint or markings on it, scour them away; wash and rinse the lid well.
About 2 1/2'' above the bottom of the can on one side, make a rectangular opening about 1'' high and 2'' long; leave the fourth side of this piece uncut to serve as as a damper for the stove. File or sand edges as smooth as possible, or bend very narrow margins inward with pliers. (edited for clarity)
Don't take the bottom out of the can. Around this end at 90-degree intervals, make four holes (intake vents). These allow air into the can for the fire. Use a church-key if you have one, or enlarge these holes by wriggling a punch in the openings until they're large enough to readily admit a sturdy pencil.
Make 4 more holes, about 1/2'' below the upper rim of the can, at 90-degree intervals around the can.
These holes admit the support wires, pieces of coat hanger 3'' longer than the can diameter.
Push one wire through each pair of support holes so that 1 1/2'' protrudes from each end. Bend the wire upward to the rim, then over the rim and inward in an open loop. This makes the burner-ring, on which the cooking utensil will rest (or the can lid, which will support the utensil). That's all there is to making this stove.
A hobo stove will become very hot. Don't use it on grass or other flammable surfaces. Set it on a rock, or concrete, or in a sandy spot; this is essentially a portable campfire, so observe campfire safety rules when using it. It can be used the same way as a a small charcoal grill, or a fire in a firepit or fire ring. It is not safe to use indoors without a fireproof place to set it and an open window to ventilate it; don't use it inside a car, or in a tent. Have handy a large amount of water or sand or baking soda to douse the fire should the need arise. Properly made and used this stove also contains all the ashes or remains of the fire (let ashes, etc. cool before disposal!) and leaves no trace.