Authentic food and correct food preparation enhances any living history and becomes quite an enjoyable activity for a mess of “possums” around the campfire. Still, for many members of the Brigade, authentic cooking is viewed as quite daunting and many are discouraged from even trying to cook while in the field. Fortunately, similar to learning the rudiments of drill in Gilham’s manual, once the basics are mastered, campaign cooking is easy and the benefits are great: correct rations are simple to prepare, affordable to purchase, and make life much easier – and hey, it could even become fun. In addition, utilization of period rations in our haversacks and preparing them correctly (and safely) is critical to accurately portraying a Confederate soldier on campaign. With practice, each living historian can become self-sufficient in the field with respect to period cooking, and combined efforts of messmates can result in tasty, enjoyable meals at events, while being authentic to the time period.
The purpose of this article is to provide a general guide for cooking in the field. Vendors and food source suggestions are provided in the appendix attached to this guide. This guide is not all-encompassing but is written to provide the minimum essentials. Each living historian is encouraged to conduct their own research on vendors, food sources, and cooking techniques.
At the outset, you need the proper utensils, implements, and storage containers.
Individual Mess equipment – Everyone should have the following items at a minimum:
- Huck Towels (at least one for food and one for personal cleaning)
- Poke Bags
- Tin Cup
- Tin Plate or Canteen Half
- Spoon and/or fork
- Pocket Knife
- Lye Soap (in a small muslin bag works best)
- Match Safe
Optional Individual Items and Extra Necessities for Dog Robbers/Foragers:
- Linen, muslin, or cotton rags
- Peach can with bail
- Small skillet
- Small hatchet
- Forage Bags (for dog robbers/foragers)
- Extra Haversack (for dog robbers/foragers)
- Small burlap sacks (for dog robbers/foragers)
By way of background, “dog robber” is a period term for the member of a mess most often charged with cooking and/or foraging.
When portraying a Confederate infantryman on the march, it’s important to remember that less is more. If a static camp is used for an event, then more leeway is available. If we are going to march and fight for the entire weekend (like at McDowell or Burkittsville), then only bring what you and your messmates can easily carry (i.e. a spider is unrealistic, but a one quart camp kettle or small coffee pot can easily be attached to a knapsack or bedroll). Mess items include such things as:
- Hot Tin Dipped Camp Kettle (one quart “nesting” variety that can be carried on march)
- Skillet (small or medium sized to fit in haversack or strapped to back of knapsack)
- Spider (for static camp impressions)
- Small coffee pot (small enough to strap onto back of knapsack)
- Medium or large size Wooden Spoon
The most important aspect of proper use of period rations is correct storage. Nothing can kill a period scene for a spectator (or other event participants) and ruin the atmosphere of a living history/event if an otherwise period looking living historian reaches into his haversack and suddenly pulls out a bag of potato chips, food wrapped in plastic, or other modern food items.
All food items should be stored in poke sacks, wrapped in huck towels, or otherwise stored with period wrappings, such as muslin. Brown paper is sometimes used by re-enactors, but given that paper was in such short supply in the Confederacy (and especially in the army) during the war, paper wrappings should be kept to the minimum.
Preparing and eating foods that were most commonly issued to Confederates during the war is relatively simple. Most foods that were issued back then are still available for purchase today. These items do not require refrigeration in order too keep from spoiling (no refrigeration in the 1860s!). Even slab bacon can keep in your haversack for a two or three day event without spoiling or causing health/safety concerns. Food rarities to the common soldier in the field, such as cheeses, pies/sweets, fresh foods that require special care in warm weather, should be avoided. In addition to not being very accessible for most soldiers on the march in a campaign during the Civil War, such items require special handling and storage that are not available at events (i.e. access to a cooler with ice, need for plastic wrapping etc), particularly living history programs or events where there is no access to vehicles.
List of Period Ration Items:
It is important to remember that rations varied depending on the time of year (summer, winter, spring, fall) and campaign scenario. These factors impact the availability and selection of food (i.e. seasonal foods and accessibility depending upon wagon transportation, etc.).
- Salt pork/slab bacon
- Black eyed beans
- Long grain rice (unprocessed)
- Corn Pone
- Parched Corn
- Corn Meal
- Dried Peas
- Corn (unshucked) and other seasonal appropriate vegetables
- Goober Peas/Peanuts
- Coffee substitute (i.e. sweet potato coffee)
- Cone sugar, molasses or sorghum
Fresh beef would be appropriate for rations on rare occasion. Make sure it’s a poor cut of meat, like rump roast or shoulder roast, not T bones and tender sirloins. Unlike slab bacon which is smoked /cured and will not spoil for up to 3 days before cooking, fresh beef needs to be issued and cooked immediately for health safety reasons.
Corn pone is authentic. Corn bread generally is not. The difference is that corn pone does not rise, while corn bread does. Corn pone, when cooked properly, is harder in substance and will not crumble as easily if stored in a haversack. A corn pone recipe is included below.
Corn meal should be coarse ground – not the fine ground meal sold in supermarkets. Most international food sections of supermarkets have coarse ground. A vendor is also listed below.
Partial List of Period Foraged Items:
Availability of “foraged” items depends upon the season and campaign. These items could be sent in a box from home, foraged from the country side, taken from a federal haversack on the battlefield, or purchased from a sutler if the army was in winter quarters or otherwise stationary. It is important to remember that forage items would be rare and in small quantities, since an army of 20,000 to 80,000 soldiers on the march would strip a countryside clean of food items. Foraged items would include:
- Corn on the cob (unshucked)
- Apples (in the fall)
- Peaches, Cherries (summer)
- Dried Fruit (sent from home)
- Spring Onions (in the spring)
- Potatoes (sweet/yam; red or white)
- Eggs (boiled eggs will keep for a week w/o refrigeration)
- Coffee beans (green coffee beans were most common, requiring toasting before grinding)
- Baked biscuits/round loaves of soft bread
- Federal Hardtack
For a large group, you can spread out a couple of ground clothes and make individual piles of each food item. The members of the company line up and proceed down the line to receive their portion of each item. The supervising sergeant and NCOs can use a tin cup to dole out equal quantities of the goods from the bags directly to each person receiving rations. Demeanor for rations issue: Be business-like about issuing the rations. The Sergeant (or person running the issue) should be quick and decisive when issuing.
Another method is to buy quantities of cheap muslin that are cut it into handkerchief-sized squares, put the requisite quantity of food stuff in the middle of this square, and wrap and tie it up hobo style. Each person receiving a ration is then given one muslin package that contains equal quantities all food items issued.
Rations can be received in a canteen half, in a cup, in poke bags, or in a piece of cloth – it’s just a matter of a soldier’s ingenuity. Each person should always have at least 4-5 poke sacks and 1-2 huck towels or pieces of cloth in their haversack for rations. Foragers can also store rations for transportation in larger forage bags or small or medium sized burlap sacks. These bags can be tied to a knapsack, tied and hung off of a belt, or even tied to the haversack strap to hang down by the forager’s side while on the march. Again, food storage and transportation on the march is just a matter of ingenuity and creativity in the field. As long as period items are used, just do whatever you come up with that works: chances are a soldier back in the 1860s figured out and used the same method.
Cooking (The Moment of Truth)
Salt Pork/Slab Bacon: Salt pork was often called ‘sow belly’ by soldiers in blue and grey. Salt pork was the most common meat issued soldiers in both armies – a rations staple no matter what time of year. Avoid modern ‘salt pork’ sold in supermarkets – it’s mostly fat and tastes absolutely terrible. Period salt pork is not readily available. The best substitute is slab bacon (which is also better to eat, tastier, and not nearly as salty).
Slab bacon does not need to be refrigerated and can keep in your haversack for up to three days before cooking. Just use common sense if you have raw slab bacon in your haversack (i.e. don’t leave it sitting out in the sun during the summer). You can also cook your slab bacon at home and then store in your haversack for up to three days without a problem.
Slab bacon is generally sold (by the vendors listed below) in 4-5 pound slabs. Upon receipt, simply take the slab out of its plastic wrapper and cut into one half pound or pound pieces. For storage in your haversack, the easiest method is to simply wrap it in a huck towel or place in a larger sized poke bag. Extra slab pieces can be stored in larger sized forage bags.
Slab bacon can be boiled, roasted, or fried.
- For boiling: place a piece in a tin cup or peach can, add water, and place on the fire. After the meat is cooked through, the remaining water can be used as a base for a broth or stew.
- For roasting: you can simply place the slab bacon on the end of a stick or bayonet and place over the fire. For cooking for a large group, simply take the slab bacon pieces and put onto a ramrod; next, rest the ramrod on the backside of socket ends of two bayonets stuck in the ground on either side of a fire.
- For frying: place a piece of slab bacon in a canteen half or small skillet, after a small amount of grease cooks off the bacon into the cooking container, add a bit of water to avoid burning the meat; continue to add water as needed to avoid burning until cooked through.
Black Beans or Field Peas: The most important thing to remember when issued beans in the field is to soak them overnight or through the day (at least 8 hours) in a cup or boiler to facilitate cooking. When preparing beans, simply boil until soft enough to eat. Beans can be combined with rice, or added with other items for a stew or soup.
Hominy: This makes a great breakfast as it is a good idea to soak the hominy overnight (or all day if you plan on making it for supper) before you boil it. Cover the hominy with twice as much water plus a bit extra (one cup of hominy to at least two cups of water or if you want a runnier consistency add more water). Hominy is very bland. You can add a bit of the sugar cone or molasses to this if you want it somewhat sweet or you could add salt pork fat, or both the sweetener and the fat.
Rice: Make sure to use only natural, unprocessed rice. Most stores that sell “organic” foods will have a variety of rice available to buy in bulk. In addition for use with stews, beans, and soups, rice can also be used as a breakfast item. Simple boil the rice until ready, and then add brown sugar and/or molasses. This provides a tasty cereal and plenty of carbohydrates for a long day.
Corn Meal: The following corn meal cooking techniques are listed in a cooking article from the 16th Virginia website (reprinted here with permission from the author, Vince Petty):
- Corn Cakes (“Corn Dodgers”) – To the corn meal and flour mix add bacon grease and enough hot water to make stiff dough. Pinch or spoon off from the dough enough to pat out into a patty the size of an old silver dollar and fry it in a canteen half (make sure you use plenty of bacon grease) until golden brown and a little crunchy.
- Hoe cakes – To the corn meal and flour mix add bacon grease and enough hot water to make stiff dough. Pinch or spoon off from the dough enough to pat out into a patty the size of an old silver dollar. Instead of frying, prop up a canteen half close to the heat of the fire and bake rather than fry (an ideal method when there is no bacon grease available to fry with). By propping up the canteen half very close to the fire you are using it like a reflector to bake with. It is because these corn cakes were often cooked on the blades of hoes and shovels that they were often called hoe cakes.
- Ash cakes – When no mess gear is available the ash cake is another option for using corn meal. Prepare your dough as you would for hoe cakes or corn cakes. Once prepared wrap up the dough in corn husks, tie the husks closed and bury in ashes and coals of a fire. Allow to bake for about 30 minutes. Following is one soldier’s account of baking ash cakes: “The next morning we drew bacon and meal from which the commissary had ‘presses’ in the country. This was the first food we had had for three days, except the small ration of beef on the day before, but there was not a cooking vessel of any description in the brigade, so we had to make up our dough on boards, pieces of bark or any flat material we could procure. Probably more ‘ashcakes’ were made in one hour than had ever been made in the same length of time and everybody knows they are hard to beat for bread, but I made an improvement on the style of cooking mine without the unpleasant feature of having it coated with ashes. I found a corn shuck from which the ear had been removed and, making my dough on a broad piece of bark, filled the shuck, tying the end with hickory bark, covered it with hot ashes and coals. My experiment proved a complete success, for when I uncovered it and stripped of the shuck, I had a beautiful ‘pone’ of bread just the size and shape of an ear of corn and I can truthfully say it was the best bread I have ever eaten before or since.” J. P. Cannon, 27th Alabama Infantry.
Dried Peas: Follow the same general process as for cooking hominy and beans (soaking over night or most of the day before putting the kettle or cup on the fire). You do not need to add sugar or salt pork fat as dried peas actually keep their flavor.
Potatoes: Potatoes can be baked in coals; sliced and fried in bacon grease (make sure to add a bit of water to avoid burning); or boiled. Potatoes can be combined with other items for soup or basic stew.
Sweet Potato Coffee Substitute: Put about two heaping tablespoons of coffee substitute in a tin cup, add water and boil the hell out of it. The recipe on how to make sweet potato coffee substitute is included below.
Unprocessed Sugar Cone: Can be purchased in one pound cones. Easiest method is to shatter the cone and divide among your mess mates for storage in a poke sack.
All mess activities revolve around the Dog Robber and Assistant Dog Robber. They take the lead in food preparation and cooking, but everyone in the mess and/or unit needs to participate. For example, two people should gather firewood, another charged with prepping/cutting the meat or veggies, another messmate in charge of maintaining adequate water supply, and one or two in charge of actual cooking and supervision of the food preparation.
Mess equipment (and you don’t really need very much) should be divided among the messmates while on the march.
A practice that works well for the 4th Virginia is to pre-assign food items to bring. For example, in the 4th VA newsletter before an event, each person attending is assigned one food item: i.e. one or two people are charged with bringing 3-4 sweet potatoes each; one person is charged with bringing rice; another with corn meal; another with spring onions, etc. etc. etc. Generally, only one person handles ordering slab bacon, and then the rest of the messmates reimburse that person their pro-rata share of the costs. Granted, if a person does not show up, then that food item is missing – but when you think about it that would be entirely correct if a messmate carrying rations straggled on the march or was killed in battle, thus rendering his stored food or cooking implements unavailable for the rest of his messmates.
Parched Corn: Parched Corn was also issued to Confederate soldiers. This food item needs to be prepared at home prior to an event. Parched corn is a nice “snack” food, easy to store in a poke bag, lightweight, and perfect for your haversack.
Parched Corn is made by first drying fresh corn cobs until thoroughly dried, and then cooking the dried kernels with a small amount put in a skillet or spider with some bacon. The bacon grease would keep the corn from sticking and the heat would make the small kernels of dried corn swell up and turn brown. Parched Corn is the swollen and browned kernels.
If you can’t get fresh corn on the cob (or don’t want to because of the price and time involved in drying it), then just go buy frozen whole kernel corn at the grocery store. If you have a dehydrator that will simplify drying the corn, but if not, then you can simply spread the corn kernels out on cookie tins and set your oven to 150 degrees and leave the door cracked an inch or so. It will take up to eight (8) hours or more to dry, just be sure to check on it every thirty minutes or so.
Once you get it fully dehydrated, then it’s time to get out your favorite skillet and oil or grease. Almost any kind of oil or grease works, just heat the skillet on a low heat and oil the skillet. Once the skillet is hot, spread the oil around for just a thin coating on the skillet surface. PAM spray also works very well for this.
Next, you should pour in a little of the dried corn; you should have not quite enough corn to coat the bottom of the skillet. You have to constantly stir the corn around so it won’t burn. It takes less than a minute to parch the corn. When the corn swells up and turns a light to medium brown color, it is ready. Dump the corn out onto a plate that has some cloth (or some paper towels) on it to soak up any of the oil/grease that might be left on the corn, then re-oil your skillet and do some more. If you are doing it right it will take several skillets full to make a weekend’s ration but you won’t end up burning any of it. The corn kernels will take a while to dry out. You should allow the kernels to stay out overnight to dry.
Sweet Potato Coffee Substitute: Peel and cube the sweet potatoes. Dry in an oven on low heat (about 150 degrees) for several hours. Afterwards, you can brown the dried cubes in a skillet (do not use oil, just place on skillet). Next, finely grate/ground the dried cubes using a cheese grater or food processor. You can use these grounds for brewing coffee or, for some caffeine content, you can make a mix of three parts sweet potato grounds, and one part coffee grounds.
“Corn Pone” or “Indian Bread”: From Confederate Receipt Book: A Compilation of over 100 Recipes Adapted to the Times – West & Johnson, Richmond – 1863
1 quart Butter Milk
1 quart Corn Meal
1 quart Coarse Flour
1 cup Molasses
a little Soda (baking soda) & Salt
Mix and Bake
Editor’s note: Mix ingredients together, let batter sit for an hour. Pour batter in greased cake pans and bake in 425 degree preheated oven for 35-45 minutes (though baking in greased cast iron skillet is best – if using skillet bake a bit longer).
You can add more molasses to make it a bit tastier. Note that if properly cooked, this will be harder and more ornery looking than regular cornbread.
Corn Pone in the Field: You can also make corn pone in the field – simply take left-over bacon grease and add to corn meal and a bit of water. Make a dough and place on a skillet on camp fire coals (low heat) and then cover the skillet with another plate or some sort of lid.
Cush: Another Confederate staple made in a variety of ways. One soldiers account:
“We take some bacon and fry the grease out, then we cut some cold beef in small pieces and put it in the grease, then pour in water and stew it like hash. Then we crumble corn bread or biscuit in it [some soldiers made mush or paste of flour or meal and added one of both of these at this point instead of crumbs] and stew it again til all the water is out then we have . . .real Confederate cush.” The Life of Johnny Reb, at pp. 104-105, by Bell Irvin Wiley.
Editors note – you can also add vegetables, like potatoes and/or onions to cush.
Irish Mashed Potatoes: Boil Irish potatoes and green apples together, then mash together, season with salt, pepper, onions, and/or garlic. Wiley at p. 105.
Special Thanks to Greg Schultz (17th Virginia, Co. E/Delmonico Mess) of Michigan for his guidance, information, and recipes; and to Vince Petty for allowing us to use excerpts from his research article on corn meal from the 16th Virginia website.
Equipment Vendors and Food Suppliers
Carter and Jasper Mercantile
Excellent selection of period dry goods and food containers
Green Coffee Beans and Cone Sugar:
Jas. Townsend and Son
Hominy and Stoneground Corn Meal:
Blue Heron Mercantile
Slab Bacon Vendors: Each of these vendors will ship slab bacon to your doorstep via two day air delivery. Affordable and reliable. It’s advisable to call ahead to ensure availability. It’s recommended to order at least 7-8 days before an event to ensure it arrives in time for an event. The slabs are packaged in plastic. To prepare for an event, simply remove plastic and cut into ½ or ¾ pound pieces, and put in haversack. Slab bacon will last in the field without refrigeration for at least 3 days.
Item #55 Slab Bacon
New Braunfels Smokehouse
Catalog Item #394 – Smoked Comal Slab Bacon (4-5 pound slab)
To order by phone call 1-800-537-6932
Edwards Virginia Smokehouse:
Catalog Item # 078B Country Style Virginia Half Slab Bacon (4-5 pounds)
Mess Equipment Vendors:
Carl Giordano Tinsmith
Small Nesting Kettles – One quart with lid and bail
The Village Tinsmith
Small Coffee Pot – Catalog Item #3
Peach Can Boiler – Item # 9
Tin Mucket – Item #10
Tin Plate (copied from original) – Item #20
Tin Dipper – Item #37
Match Safe Tin – Item #50
A note on “bacon” :
My father-in-law grew up on a farm in the early part of the 20th century. They basically farmed with 19th century methods, plowing with horses, etc
He told me once that the “bacon” referred to during the Civil War era isn’t necessarily what we think of as “bacon” today. He said when he was young, there were three types of hog meat:
He told me bacon referred to any sliced meat from the hog (other than the hams) that wasn’t ground into sausage.
He also laughed at the comments by soldiers that they were fed spoiled meat that had turned green. He said the color was simply an effect of the curing process, like rind on a cheese, and it was just a matter of slicing off the green part. The rest of the meat was still good
Soldiers of the time period knew what cured meat looked like. They also knew what spoiled meat smelled like.
And if they didn’t the first time, they certainly learned quickly!