Campaign Cooking

By: Pvt. Gregory
(this ran in the 2004 April Regimental Dispatch .)

"It takes a great deal of dirt to poison sogers."-quote attributed to a British soldier when told about a new system of cooking that was to be introduced in the Crimean War.

Now that the haversack article and the first article on Campaign Cooking have thrilled you; we are ready to delve further into the matter. In this article I hope to enlighten you on how to plan for a weekend’s eating out of your haversack.

In previous articles I have told you what the standard ration issue was. Something you need to understand is that with a few minor exceptions Johnny Reb was the home team. Whenever you are the home team there are certain advantages and one of them was that in addition to whatever the Quartermaster could issue, there was a good possibility that confederates could supplement their fare with some foraging.

The above-mentioned fact gives us a wide variety for our weekend menu. So what we have to think about is; what is available, and the time of year.

Here’s a hoary tale from the antediluvian days of reenacting. In a previous life I used to reenact as a member of the 41st Virginia, Company I of Mahone’s Virginia Brigade. As part of our research, we discovered that General Mahone who suffered from dyspepsia brought along a cow for milk and turkey to lay eggs for him. This unique diet kept General Billy in his fighting trim of 98 pounds spread over his 5’1" frame. Upon his being wounded at Second Manassas, Governor Letcher advised his wife; Otellia Mahone, not to worry as it was only a flesh wound. She replied that was what worried her, as Billy had no flesh to spare.

Anyway back to our tale. As part of a cooking demonstration at a living history we decided to portray Confederates who in 1864 had liberated General Billy’s turkey and cooked it. We cooked a standard turkey over the open fire with two sticks and a ramrod, and scattered some appropriate feathers scattered around. It was a hit with the spectators to say the least and made a damn good meal.

At a Military Through the Ages event, we portrayed Confederates in the Petersburg trenches. As part of our impression we had bought a live hen that we tethered out and informed the public that we had foraged her. We did not do the live chicken voodoo sacrifice. Agnes; (named after a much more interesting Gettysburg phenomena then the killer rabbit) the battle chicken joined the population at Jamestown. But, the intended effect worked, the crowd was impressed.

Another year after some research showed Confederates catching and cooking squirrels brought forth the "squirrels from hell" scenario. The crowd liked the roasting squirrels on an open fire (isn’t that a Christmas song?) Unfortunately for us, we overcooked them and since the event organizers provide dinner, their leathery remains were consigned to earth just outside the fort. It is rumored that their ghosts haunt the unwary tourist to this day.

Now the point of my blathering is to show you that there is a lot you can do if you the research.

Planning the menu:

A large portion of your campaign-cooking menu is going to be hardtack. Hardtack has a long and honorable history. In fact it dates back to the Romans where it was called Bucellatum. It was a hard baked flour cake containing only salt and olive oil as a binding agent. It was boiled in water to soften it. Legend has it that the Roman Legions conquered the world in order to find something soft to eat.

In fact, lets look at the rations available to a legionary soldier of Rome and see how it differs from the campaigner impression of the Civil War.

While on the march, the Roman "Iron Ration" consisted of one to one and half pounds of Bucellatum, bacon and sour wine. The sour wine would be added to water and helped to prevent dysentery. So with the exception of sour wine instead of coffee you can see that the legionnaire of ancient Rome ate pretty much the same as his Civil War brethren.

Enough of this ancient history lesson, its enough to realize that the basics of campaigner chow has not changed a whole lot over the years.

As we have talked about ad nauseum, the standard Union issue of hardtack was ten crackers a day. Some accounts say eight, but ten is the generally accepted amount. So for the two and half days you are going to be at an event figure twenty to twenty five crackers. Just round it up to an even thirty and it gives you a number to play with.

As you might remember from our earlier article you can either purchase ready made hardtack or make it yourself at home. If I can bake hardtack at home, anyone should be able to do it. I store it in a paper bag for a couple of days to let it air harden and then it goes into the Rubbermaid bread container.

Slab bacon; that ubiquitous flesh of the swine can be found in a variety of places. The Edward’s ham company with outlets in sundry places sells it various sized packages from one to five pounds. Whatever size or brand you get I highly recommend doing a little quartermaster work yourself and break it down for transport.

Since there is usually some savings in buying in bulk I will purchase the five-pound slab. I break that down into five one lb packages. Then I will cut the one lb package into four or five slices. I wrap the pieces in some baking paper and place them in the freezer. Then come event time I just grab a couple, put them in the little cooler with a blue ice pack. When I get to the event I load my haversack. Now you can cook the meat right away and it will safely keep for the weekend. You could even pre cook it at home, then freeze it and just warm it up at the event.

You can substitute beef for the slab pork. Beef was usually issued fresh; "still quivering from the knife" according to one source. There are some health concerns with the fresh beef. One option is to freeze it at home as soon as you get it home from the store. Cook it for example on a Wednesday night and refreeze it. Pull the package out and do the same as for the slab bacon. Another way is if you can buy it that day on your way to the event. Cook it as soon as you can. It should be safe for the weekend. When you shop for beef at the store look for the cheaper cuts.

The same tactic could apply for fresh pork as well. NEVER, NEVER eat raw pork or beef. There are just too many things that can happen to you and not many of them are good.

Salt beef was issued as well as salt pork. Salt beef is going to impossible to find. You can try making your own at home. Use a ceramic, stoneware or plastic crock that has a lid that fits. You will also need a lot of pickling salt or kosher salt. Get a couple of pounds of cheap beef that has some fat clinging to it. Place the beef in the container and make sure it is well covered in water. Start pouring salt in. How much? Until you can float a potato or the salt will no longer dissolve.

Place plate on top of the beef to keep in from floating to the top. Put the lid on and place it in the refrigerator. Twice a week agitate the mixture and check the brine. A small amount of scum should make its way to the top. If it does just scoop it out. If it excessive, clean the meat under cold running water, scrub the container out and start over. Count on at least two weeks and possibly up to six weeks depending on the thickness of the meat for it to salt cure. Obviously this is not something you want to start on Thursday night.

When the time is up place the meat in the open air to dry. It will dry rock hard and the salt will protect it. If you plan to use it at an event count on soaking it fresh water overnight and you may have to boil it and change the water several times.

Onwards to our planning the menu for the event. For planning purpose’s we are going to attend the 1st annual battle of Hogan’s Goat (ask me story). Let us also assume that the company will not be cooking a meal on Saturday so you can forget Kale and Hominy casserole.

Anyway, the event has been billed as the greatest hardcore campaigner event of all time. Upon registration you will be issued with period correct lice that have been specifically bred for the event. You know it’s going to be hardcore because the local volunteer fire department has not set up a funnel cake concession, so you will be on your own.

That means if I get there late Friday night I can count on providing myself at least five meals. On Saturday that’s a breakfast, lunch and dinner along with any snacks. Then on Sunday, you have to fix a breakfast and a lunch.

All right as you no doubt remember from my first article I go to the basement, move the cat off the commissary chest and start to pack. I pull out thirty hardtack crackers and store them in the bread bag in my haversack.

Next I consider my beverage. From our research we know that coffee was the preferred beverage of both Johnny Reb and Billy Yank. Hmm? I could always go upstairs and pull down the can of Folger’sÔ Mountain Roast and fill a poke sack with some grounds. Well here’s the rub.

The main supplier of coffee for Johnny Reb was the Union army; either foraged or traded for. So how did Billy Yank receive his coffee ration? At the beginning of the war; the Union Army was in a great thundering hurry for a lot of things. Consequently they were unable to keep a close eye on a lot of contractors, which led to Union soldiers being supplied with shoddy clothes and substandard shoes. In order to prevent contractors from cheating the government, when the federal government bought coffee they bought only the whole bean. This prevented contractors from adulterating the contents and making extra profit. So if you need to tote that coffee you are going to have to use coffee beans. Or is there an alternative?

Indeed there is. A food item that became available to Union soldiers was "extract of coffee." It was a primitive version of instant coffee. Here is a recipe to make your own extract of coffee.

Take a half-cup of your favorite brand of freeze-dried coffee, 1 can of Bordens condensed milk (if you are worried about the sugar content of the condensed milk; go ahead and use evaporated milk) a minuscule amount of boiling water.

Slowly; a few drops at a time add the boiling water to the freeze-dried coffee. I use a teaspoon. What you want to accomplish here is to turn the freeze-dried coffee into a thick paste, not a drink.

Place the milk into a bowl and very gently warm it a microwave. Add the coffee paste to the warmed milk. Mix well; you should wind up a thick dark brown paste. Now you need a suitable container. Hey guess what; use an old cap tin. Keep it in the refrigerator until event time. Make sure the lid is tight or everything in your haversack will get a nice coating of extract of coffee.

At an event, just heat up a cup of water, add a spoonful of the extract, stir well and you have a pretty good approximation of an item carried by Union soldiers. A word of warning as this stuff can be pretty potent.

The meat ration has already been discussed and I make a note to get it out of the freezer prior to leaving.

What about something a little more substantial? How about some beans?, rice?, or peas? Well all of the above are actually pretty easy to prepare for either lunch or dinner.

Just after breakfast put some of the dried beans or peas in your boiler. Cover with about an inch of water and place by the fire. Let it cook all morning. Just before lunch, slice some meat into it, let it cook some more and then go to town.

Implications For Us:

It should be our goal as living historians to try as much as possible to emulate how the boys of 61 did it. As living historians or reenactors however you want to put it; we have an obligation to do the best possible impression that we can. There are several benefits to doing things the way they did it. First, we learn for ourselves. Second, when a spectator comes around they get an opportunity to see how things should be.

By doing things the right way we reduce the amount of trash we have at an event. Think about it. When we bring things wrapped in plastic or Styrofoam egg cartons, the residue has to be disposed of. Normally we chuck it into the fire. Since I know a little bit about hazardous materials this is not a very bright idea.

It is the nature of the beast that we always don’t get to associate with other serious minded reenactors. A lot of you might be familiar with some of the people we have had to bivouac next to and their campsite resembles a county landfill with all kinds of stuff lying around. Beer cans, beef stew cans, plastic bread wrappers and the like not only cheapen their impression but affects ours as well. By no means I am saying we should be the authenticity police, but it starts with us.

It has long been my philosophy that I control no one’s impression but my own. My impression is only as authentic as I want to make it. By doing research and trying to do it right I am walking down the road to a better impression.

Works Consulted

Mr. Kipling’s Army, All the Queen’s Men, Byron Farwell, W.W. Norton Company London, 1981

A Taste For War, The Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray, William C. Davis, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 2003

Columbia Rifles Companion, A Resource for Living Historians in the Development of a Well Rounded Civil War Federal Soldier Impression-1st Edition April 2001, Published by the Columbia Rifles.

538 visitors have been to this page.