KISSing Your Rations
By Phil McBride
†††† The old ďKeep It Simple, StupidĒ adage is good one to remember for buying reenacting rations and cooking at the events. Unless you are an experienced modern day outdoor chef, and I donít mean grilling burgers over a propane grill on the patio, the easier you can make your reenactment cooking, the happier a camper you will be.† While there were some real differences between what Rebs and Yanks were provided to cook and eat, most of the variety can be pared down to similar menus for reenacting weekends.
†††† For we 21st century weekend Civil War soldiers, the main point to remember is that both sides relied on the troops in the field to cook their own food once the rations were provided.† In the 1860ís that cooking was done by ďmessesĒ of a few soldiers who either took turns, or had worked out a system for the better cook to handle the chore for the mess, while others handled other duties for the cook. For our events that system translates into half a dozen or so friends in the same reenacting group working out similar partnerships, or just going it alone.
††††† First of all, remember two ration rules:† One - nothing plastic or aluminum leaves the car.† All food should be wrapped in butcher paper, wax paper, white paper towels, or cloth ďpokeĒ sacks.† Two- ideally, donít take ice chests out of the cars. Not one single Civil War soldier had access to food stored in an ice chest.† It didnít happen.† But, if you just must do so, put the ice chest in your tent covered with a blanket.† It is still much better to leave the cooler in your vehicle and walk back to it whenever you need something.† So, plan on carrying your grub from the cars to the camp when you first arrive.†† Use your haversack for its historical purpose: To carry your rations. Your rations for a weekend will fill your haversack, and may overflow into your pack or blanket roll.† Consider a second haversack to leave in your tent as your ďkitchen cabinet.Ē
††††† The food itself falls into the expected categories. Here are some suggestions for what to bring to eat and cook, based on what seems to work well for our unitís more experienced members. These ideas cross the north-side line.† Our unit galvanizes a lot, and whether we are in blue or gray, we tend to bring the same food to events.† When shopping for your weekend rations, keep in mind that the real boys didnít have much variety in their diet while campaigning.:†
VEGGIES: †You donít see much green leafy stuff at reenactments.† Instead, think yellow, brown, and white. Reenacting food is generally cooked just two ways, fried or boiled.† With one exception: One fellow in our unit cooks a lot at reenactments, and I often see him roasting ears of corn and sweet potatoes in the hot ash near the fireís coals.† The corn shuck and the sweet taterís skin protect the kernels and meat quite nicely.† It takes a while, especially for the sweet potato, so he puts it in early and just forgets about it while everyone else cooks.† After the crowd has finished at the fire, he pulls out the blackened potato and digs out the good stuff.† He also sometimes brings uncooked black-eyed peas, beans, or uncooked rice to boil on the fire.† Iím less creative and just bring the same handful of small new potatoes and an onion to slice and fry in bacon grease or olive oil. †
FRUIT:† I always bring a couple of small apples. Look for smallish apples to save space.† An orange would be a stretch authentically, but is still better than a modern packaged snack..† Some guys bring †cans of peach or pear halves.† If you do that, look for cans without the pull tab opener, take the modern wrapper off the can before you leave home, and expect to open the can with a pocket knife.†
MEAT:† A reenacting weekend is not the time to stress over the fat content of meat.† In fact, infantry reenactors will likely need the extra calories and protein to get through the physical exertions of† a reenacting event. Meat was the foundation of Civil War soldiersí diets and keeping it edible was the bane of the quartermaster department. †The best way then was to keep the beef on the hoof as long as possible. In 2005 we canít drive herds of live cattle to our events to be butchered and distributed among the reenacting units, as needed each day.† Neither do we bring big wooden barrels of salt cured beef, pickled beef, or salted pork with us to events.† Thank heaven.† But we do have the means to simulate freshly butchered meat and salted meat rations.
††††† Some stores sell dry-cured hams that will easily last a weekend without refrigeration.† They are usually big and always expensive, but work very nicely as reenacting food. Thick sliced bacon and pork loin steaks cooked at home will also last the weekend, especially if kept cool in an ice chest for the long drive. I put both in paper wrappers inside plastic baggies for the drive, then change the plastic baggies for cloth poke sacks when I reach the event site. †Raw bacon can be treated the same way, but I highly recommend cooking bacon at home. If the weather is cold, raw bacon will be fine.† But bacon kept in a pack or haversack on a long hot or just moderate day, may be too ripe for safety by the end of Saturday and all of Sunday. †My reenacting son swears bacon is Godís main gift to mankind, and precooked, haversack temperature slices are his favorite.† Itís also quick and easy (and thatís a high priority for me at the cooking fire) to reheat home-cooked bacon and use the grease for frying veggies.
††††† Morton sells a meat curing salt to do a quick salt-cure on pieces of beef..† I use it on cheap-cut steaks that I cut into cubes at home, then put in the refrigerator overnight in plastic baggies with the curing salt coating it.† Read the directions on the curing salt package, so you wonít over-salt the meat.† When I leave for the reenactment, I transfer the meat to a wax paper wrapper and put that in a cloth sack.† When cooking, I boil the meat for a few minutes to get the salt out, then fry it with veggies. I recommend buying a small round tin can to carry vegetable or olive oil for cooking.† You can find these at sutlers at the events.
††† The last choice, easiest choice, and safest choice, for fresh meat is to leave it in the ice chest (in your vehicle) and go get it at meal time.† Please, unwrap it from its plastic store wrapper before you take it to camp.† While I personally dislike this popular choice, no one can argue that striving for authenticity should include even the chance of food poisoning from spoiled meat.† Pre-cooking at home works except in extreme summer heat.† Salt curing before the event works, but requires two-step cooking at the event.† Since we canít keep fresh meat on the hoof until itís cooked, keeping fresh meat cool until it hits the cooking fire is the safest way to go.†
BREAD: Donít bring sliced bread.† A can of† biscuits cooked at home right before you leave for an event will last the weekend in a cloth sack or even wrapped in paper towels.† The same holds for cornbread fritters made at home. Some guys bring a loaf of French bread.† Any bread with a thick crust makes it harder to get smashed in your haversack or pack.† One of our veteran reenactors likes to take cornmeal in poke sacks and fry corn fritters made from cornmeal and water.† The real Rebs seem to have done that pretty regularly.† Itís easier and tastier than you might think.
HARDTACK CRACKERS:† If you have a hardtack cutter, you can make a dozen or two hardtack crackers at home before the event.† I always do that, and if I do it, you can bet it ainít hard to do. Hardtack can be made authentically hard and brittle by just mixing flour, water, and salt, and baking it twice at low temperatures to get all the moisture out.† I only bake mine once, since I like my teeth and donít like paying the dentist.† Alternately, you can make a softer, chewier, and tastier cracker by adding a little oil or even sugar and milk to the dough. A caution is that when oil, sugar, or milk is added, the crackers will spoil after a while.† They should last the weekend just fine, and wonít endanger those old molars in the back of your jaw.† But they wonít last until the next event.† The real soldiers munched on hardtack on the march, but they also used hardtack crackers to add ďbodyĒ to stews, and soaked them or fried them in grease to soften them.† Itís easy to find hardtack recipes on the internet.†
GOOBERS:† Iím a nut for goobers, and always take a poke sack, or two, to reenactments.
CHEESE:† Cool weather will keep a chunk of yellow cheese very edible. I try to find a round piece in a wax covering, since plastic wrappers are NOT acceptable.†
COFFEE:† I buy whole beans at the local grocery store and carry them and a sugar cone in a poke sack.† A bayonet socket makes a fine hammer to smash the beans in a cup while the water is heating to a boil in the old tin can boiler.† Just boil the smashed beans as long as you want. This isnít instant coffee, and Iíve found that the boiling generally takes longer than I want to wait, so start early.
POTS & PANS:† My reenacting kitchen collection of pots and pans is real basic. I take a pressed-steel small frying pan bought from a sutler, and a large tin can with a homemade holding wire attached to the rim.† This old can is dented from hanging off the outside of my knapsack and black from the fire, but it has served me well at dozens of events without total collapse.† Sometimes I take a canteen-half as well, but I donít take a plate since eating out of the fry pan or canteen-half works just fine.† A good tin cup is essential for boiling water when two boiling tasks are needed at the same time, like heating water for musket cleaning after the battle, while also starting some veggies or meat boiling for supper.† †Oh yea, a tin cup is also pretty handy for sipping hot coffee or any other beverage.† I have been through a series of period eating utensils and pocket knives, and have settled on a folding combination knife, spoon, and fork.† These may not have been real common in the Civil War, but they were used, and can be bought reasonably at events at the sutlers.
†††† You can see a lot of things are missing from this list.† For instance, I donít take eggs. Even though they surely were ďforagedĒ by both sides, they werenít a common issue.† Besides, eggs tend to break before you intend to break them for your breakfast. No one I see messes with molasses, even though it was often issued in bulk.† I strive for simplicity and ease of preparation.† On the other hand, one of our guys has a cast iron Dutch oven and he will mix up and bake a simple fruit cobbler or cake on occasion. In a garrison camp event where the supply wagons would have caught up with the troops, thatís a good addition to a normally bland and repetitive menu.† But then, he likes to cook.
†††† Itís easy to bring way too much food to an event. We desk-jockeys are not really accustomed to marching and moving about for 36 hours like we do at events.† It may seem counter-intuitive, but the exercise saps the appetite, rather than increasing it. †I have learned by experience that less is better.† Besides, itís a pain to pack and haul around extra food, just to see it thrown away uneaten, or even uncooked. Reenacting weekends are also not when I get creative in my menu planning. . Breakfast, lunch, and supper all look a lot alike most of the time. Beyond that, even though reenacting weekends usually have a lot of down-time, it also seems that meal preparation and eating happens when the sergeants are trying to hurry everyone up. So, my solemn advice to you for many reasons is to KISS, when planning, buying, packing, and cooking reenactment rations.