Or beeve and flower, depending on how you’re spelling in 1778.
John Buss of the 10th Massachusetts complained mightily of the rations he drew, and the quality of the beef, pining in his letters home for cheese and cider. His affection for cheese has become part of the unit’s lore and an in-joke, so I did make certain to have plenty of cheese for Monmouth. Bread, cheese, ham, fruit in season, beef stew: yawn, after a while.
Trying to cook authentically in the field could result in dull, repetitive menus, recreating the soldiers’ experience, but unless everyone you’re feeding has signed up for that, you may have an unhappy crowd on your hands. Mostly they just want food, but people will grumble if you are cooking the same thing every week (and that opportunity exists). When I was a kid, my mother cooked chicken and broccoli every Sunday night, and to this day, I won’t eat chicken and broccoli unless it is in satay sauce.
The 10th can count themselves lucky that they weren’t on the expedition to Quebec, when Newfoundland was on the 2nd Rhode Island’s menu, as well as squirrel-head-and-candle-wick soup. (Try explaining this Newfoundland business to your creative writing group. I tried historical fiction and got a reputation for being “dangerous,” and you can, too.)
At Monmouth, we served as another regiment’s….disposers…on Sunday morning, and were treated to the extra steaks they cut from a ham. Grilled and stacked on bread with hard cheddar cheese, this was delicious. Our conversation turned quickly to the question of grilling. After all, we only have kettles and sticks. I said I’d buy and carry a grate if they wanted ham so much, but the Adjutant proposed weaving a grid of green sticks and holding that over coals, and just brushing off the ashes when the meat fell into the coals. The minor detail left out is what we would use to retrieve the meat, though it must be a stick by any other name.
One cannot fry in or on tinware: the tinning will melt. We know soldiers carried as little as they could even in the regular infantry, so light infantry units were packing nothing but what they had to carry. No frying pan; no grate. Upon reaching this conclusion, we turned our sad-eyed stares on the other regiment with their table and stools and grill and ham, and were rewarded with another grilled ham piece each. Dogs have got a good thing going.
Begging and sharing aside, what about ham? The joke we make at home about ham being the natural prey of cats who butcher, brine, and cook the ham they beg for applies just as much to light infantry troops and their hangers-on. (They shouldn’t really have me along, but they are stuck and I’m pretty handy for getting the meals out, the canteens filled, and the wounds bandaged.) But a ham? Harder still to justify. Salt pork, yes; salt beef, yes. But the attractive and portable boneless hams at the supermarket are, sadly, more delicious than authentic.
One can take on the task of preparing meat properly oneself, in one’s copious spare time, but that won’t fix July and August’s meals. Staring sad-eyed at other regiments seems a parasitic and reputation-destroying plan. What to do?
Tune in next time for more adventures in historic meats!