Rations, The Reenactorís Dilemma
By: Arthur Porras
Time and again I have seen reenactors with otherwise great impressions ruin it by pulling Slim Jims and Pop Tarts out of their haversacks during a break. The problem seems to be two fold, one, many reenactors know what was issued to the troops, but have no clue as to how to turn that knowledge into a palatable meal, second, itís far easier to pop these modern anachronisms in your haversack than to do it right. This brief article will deal with the first - how to turn a mess of raw materials into something that wonít kill you far faster than the enemyís guns. Since we are primarily a Confederate unit I will deal with Confederate messes first.
First, lets begin with your meat, the infamous salt pork or salt beef. DO NOT buy the salt pork sold at stores, it is incorrect, and more importantly, not cured properly, which means it will spoil on you and you will get sick. Instead of thinking of salt pork as a specific product, think in the generic term "salt cured meat". You can salt cure any cut of meat you care to, I personally usually salt boneless beef ribs but that is up to you. At the grocerís in the spice section you will find meat cure. I use Mortonís brand Tender Quick. Itís in a blue 2lb bag. The directions are on the back and very easy to follow. It takes 1/2 oz. of meat cure per pound of meat to be cured. Hint: I rub in pepper with the salt cure to give the meat more flavor. I bought mine 4 1/2 years ago and I still have enough for two more events. Usually 1 1/2lbs of meat is more than enough for me for a weekend. Remember you have to fit all this in your haversack and lug it around. When you are ready to eat your meat you must rinse the salt out or else it will be unpalatable. I put the amount of meat I need for that meal in my tin cup, fill it with water, knead the meat to force out the salt, pour out the water and repeat again. The question I constantly hear is "Have you ever gotten sick" and the answer is "NO". I have carried cured meat in the middle of Texas summers for the whole weekend WITH NO REFRIGERATION and it does not go bad. I have gone as long as 5 days and never had a problem. As modern reenactors we have forgotten how recent an invention refrigeration is and we fear any meat not out of the icebox or a cooler. There is no need for this.
So now you have your salted meat which should be wrapped in a waxed brown paper. Now what? Other issue and non-issue items that could be found in the Confederateís haversack would be: cornmeal or cornbread already made, flour if it could be had, rice, peanuts, pecans if in season, potatoes (small red ones - Irish potatoes), sweet potatoes, i.e. yams, corn on the cob, beans ( black-eyed or green string beans if in spring), onions (scallops, white or yellow), peas (fresh if in spring or summer, dried if in winter), molasses or brown unrefined sugar, oats or barley, cabbage if in season for you Irish reenactors, coffee if he was very lucky, and carrots in season. Fruits were rare and limited to what could be foraged from the area. Therefore if you have to have fruit research and find out what was in that area for that time period you are portraying, i.e. peaches for the Atlanta campaign, cherries when we did Gettysburg etc. Canned fruit would have been of Yankee manufacture and rare. Canned evaporated milk was also a prized commodity from the Yankees. The same for canned vegetables. Besides, from painful experience, I have found that canned goods weigh far more than the fresh variety because they are mostly water.
Before I give you meal ideas, there is one more thing; what to cook your meals in? Overwhelming evidence points to three items: a tin pail with no lid made from a preserve can with a wire bail hanger attached, canteen halves, and your tin plate. Skillets were usually shared by 4or 5 members of a mess. Meat was often broiled directly over the fire on sharpened sticks. If no sticks are available your ramrod will do fine. That said, letís get on to some cooking !
Coffee (of course!)
Oats, barley, or even rice boiled to make a porridge, flavor with molasses when done
Cornbread with molasses is quick and easy
Eggs will keep around 12hrs with no refrigeration (remember where they come from? A hen is not refrigerated!) Wrap in hay or straw and be careful with your haversack- please, no plastic cartons.
Slab bacon that you have salted
Corn dodgers- use 2 handfuls of cornbread per person eating (all measurements will be given in "field" usage since a measuring cup in your haversack would be awkward to say the least!) add a little water at a time to make up a thick paste, salt and pepper to taste. If some of your companions are cooking up bacon beg/borrow about a tablespoon of the fat and mix in (this is optional-it adds taste and helps the batter stick together. The same goes for 1 egg. Make the batter up into patties or roll into logs about the thickness of your thumb and fry in bacon fat. They are done when the outside is golden brown (if you have to use a commercial oil put it in a period glass bottle)
Quick and Easy: when thereís little or no time, or no fire, or your just plain lazy!
Coffee (see a trend here? Coffee was a mainstay for the Civil War soldier)
Cornbread or corndodgers
Salted meat broiled (remember to rinse out the salt!) or cold
Corn- put a couple of ears in the coals or you could do this in the morning and that way you could eat them cold "on the march". Peel the husk back, strip off the string and sprinkle with water, recover the ear and put on coals, not directly over the fire. Remove when the husk is black, usually around 10-15 minutes.
Hard boiled eggs- will keep one day or make up at breakfast that day
Supplement with peanuts, pecans, apples, a can of peaches? These are the true haversack "stuffers".
More Time Consuming: youíll definitely need a fire for these
Cornbread or dodgers
Cush- this was mentioned in several accounts-both in the eastern and western Confederate armies. Take some grease (cooking oil or bacon fat will work), cut up some of your salted meat (about 1/4-1/2 lb, about the size of your fist, again, rinse some of that salt out!) into small cubes and put it in the hot grease, add water to cover the meat and boil it up for about 15 minutes, remove from the fire, and add about 2 handfuls of cornbread, or flour ( yanks pounded up their hardtack). Put back into the fire and cook until all the water is boiled out. Keep a close watch and stir occasionally or it will burn the bottom. This dish works best in a skillet or canteen half but can be also done in a tin cup or bail wire cup.
A nice variation of this is to cut up your washed meat, add vegetables, rice, barley, corn (cut up the cob or scrape the kernels off the cob), onions ( 1 small onion cut up), 1 potato, carrots, cabbage, whatever you fancy and put in your tin cup or bailed cup and fill the cup to the top with water to make a nice stew. Boil for around 1/2 hr, adding water as necessary. Keep stirring occasionally to keep the bottom from burning. You can make this thick like a hash or thin like a soup by the amount of water you boil out. You can make a fancy cush of this by adding flour. It will also make your provisions stretch farther.
Another way to prepare this is to "stir fry" the whole mess, cut up all the ingredients into small portions, put into a skillet or canteen half with a small amount of hot grease and stir vigorously for about 3 minutes. Its very quick, you donít want to overcook this. This only works in a skillet or canteen half. If you want, serve this with rice you cooked up in your tin cup or bailed cup. Remember the rice will take About 20 minutes so start it first so both will be ready at the same time. For those of you who donít know how to cook rice: take 1-2 handfuls of rice ( depending on how hungry you are), add water that takes up twice the volume of the rice add 2 pinches of salt, 1 spoonful of oil if you got it, and set to boil. If your fireís too hot it will boil out the water before the rice is completely cooked, keep an eye on it and add water sparingly. Keep stirring to avoid scorching the bottom.
Supplement with: roasted ears of corn, peanuts, pecans and other treats. Potatoes can also be roasted by putting in a bed of coals, sweet potatoes are particularly good for this! Place the whole potato in the coals and cover for about 45 minutes for a good sized potato, 30 minutes for the smaller ones. (hint: carry several smaller ones rather than 2-3 huge monsters-they cook faster and overall will be lighter. Remember you have to carry all this stuff just like they did.)
Fancy ideas; For those of us that are really creative
Apple turnovers: Take one or two apples depending on the number of turnovers you want to make. One medium apple will make two turnovers. Peel the apples. Make a dough of flour: 1 part water and 1 part evaporated milk, a pinch of salt to make a thick paste ( it should not flow but maintain its shape when rolled). You can do this several ways depending on your utensils. If you only have tin plates make up several round patties the thickness of tortillas. Put several slices of apples in the middle, sprinkle molasses sparingly to cover or 2 tablespoons of sugar ( I prefer the sugar but you decide) on the apples, sprinkle some water on it and roll it up. Moisten the ends with water and tuck in so the apples are sealed in. Put in the coals. Cover with a pardís tin plate (youíll probably have plenty of volunteers in return for a share) and cover the top carefully with coals. Leave in about 30-45 minutes. This will also work with canned or fresh peaches but use half the molasses and use the syrup from the can- still add the sugar, it taste better, donít ask me why! Remove carefully and serve!
Stewed apples- core an apple, fill the core with brown sugar, and place in your tin cup or wire bailed cup. Fill cup about 1/4 full with water and put over the fire. When all the water is boiled out its done.
A final word. You will probably have noted that some of the items listed above, like the eggs, will only last a short time. But these ideas will work for the Friday night, Saturday, and half of Sunday events we are all familiar with. For longer events such as National events where we are in the field Thurs.- Sunday the above menus will still work minus the eggs. Naturally these are just my menu ideas that Iíve found work well in the field and I welcome any more recipes. Try eating this way and youíll gain a deeper understanding of another aspect of the common soldierís lives, which is why we do this hobby. You will probably note that the main component in all these meals is salted meat, as it should be. If the idea of eating salted meat for a 48 hr. event ( Friday night, all day Saturday and half of Sunday) is too much for you just think for a moment what the men we say we are portraying ate day after day for four long years. I think youíll agree we can do it for one weekend. And remember, items such as coffee, sugar, and even vegetables were often scarce, the meat issue was often not fit for consumption, so we are still living "high on the hog". See you in the field.