The Great Kiwi Can Cooker

September 3

How to upcycle a New Zealand staple in the name of sustainable backcountry dining.

MY DAD IS NEITHER A HIGH-COUNTRY FARMER NOR YOUR ARCHETYPAL DO-IT-YOURSELF BLOKE, BUT HE IS AN OLD-SCHOOL MOUNTAINEER. MOSTLY THIS INVOLVES SLEEPING IN CANVAS TENTS, TRANSPORTING CABBAGES BY SKEWERING THEM TO THE CRAMPONS DANGLING FROM HIS PACK, AND BEING A CURMUDGEON WITH A FONDNESS FOR THE GOOD OLD DAYS AND A DISDAIN FOR COOKERS CONTAINING THE WORDS “JET” AND “BOIL”.

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He recently wrote a cranky letter to Wilderness magazine, railing against their refusal to feature any kind of stove not fuelled by compressed gas. So, the timing couldn’t have been better when the editor of 1964 asked me to experiment with a Down Under version of a classic in the homespun-spirits-burner genre: the ‘cat food can stove’. Under my father’s watchful eye, I armed myself with a drill and set out to prove whether all you need to stay nourished in the hills is a tin can and a bottle of meths.

A cursory internet search revealed that the method is, in theory, quite simple: source a tin can about 100g in size (hence the ‘cat food’ moniker), remove the pull top and clean it out completely. Take a single hole punch or a drill and make between 10 and 15 evenly spaced holes through the metal, just below the rolled rim. Next, make a second set of holes below the first, offsetting them to align with the gaps between the first holes, creating a delightful mountainous zig-zag pattern. Seize your methylated spirits firmly, ensure no minors witness the secrets of the child-proof cap, crack them open and pour a splash into the bottom of the can. Drop in a match, and you’re away.

Or this is how it should work if you follow the instructions. If you’re like me, however, and opt for a larger 250ml can of reduced cream (because I don’t have a cat, this is Aotearoa and we eat reduced cream with every meal, and 250ml was the only size in the supermarket), you’ll find yourself standing not over a delightfully compact and efficient stove, but a tall can of flaming liquid that is snuffed as soon as you set a pot on it. Bugger.

Dejected, I cast my eyes to the soaring peaks across the lake and called upon the dogged spirit of mountaineers of yore to give me the strength to try again. They obliged, begrudgingly, as dogged spirits do, and with a flash of light (and a rummage in the cupboard) there appeared before me salvation in the form of a can of tuna.

Taking up the drill once more, I returned to my labour, determined to produce a stove of unmatched ease-of-assembly and billy-boiling efficiency. The sun was dipping behind the hills when finally I stepped back, looked down, and dropped a match into the purple liquid. I waited, like the internet instructed, for 15 seconds, then placed my pot on the tin.

Flames rose evenly through the punctured metal and licked the blackened bottom of the billy. Slowly, but surely, bubbles started to rise. Slowly, but surely, the curmudgeon started to smile.

WORDS: NICK AINGE-ROY PHOTO: PAUL ROY


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1964: mountain culture / aotearoa is a reader-supported magazine that explores Aotearoa New Zealand’s remote places and the people who seek them out. Working with more than thirty artists, photographers, writers, woodworkers and welders, we advocate for and support Aotearoa’s creatives.

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