Rational Rations Part 2
by Paul Winslow
The appetite of Civil War reenactors for information regarding the period is voracious. How many times have one of my comrades come up to me as I prepared an evening meal of salt pork and hardtack, and inquired, “What is that s..t?” This is usually followed with a rhetorical question such as, “How can you eat that?” and/or “That looks terrible!”
What these reenactors don’t realize is that they are actually reenacting the reaction of the soldiers we portray. They found field rations as repugnant as many of us 21st-Century types. Save for hunters, trappers, herdsmen, etc., those who served in the Civil War were used to Mom’s (or sister’s, aunt’s, grandma’s etc.) cooking. Even workers who lived apart from home, like lumbermen or canal and rail workers, had cooks, hired by the company or through a collection taken up among workers. Few of these solders had ever cooked for themselves.
Any one who has served in the modern military is familiar with the copious instructions that are printed on everything from toilet paper, to hand grenades, to atomic bombs, to bayonet gages. These instructions kept many a modern soldier amused during some of those endless moments with which much of military life is filled. Civil War soldiers were spared all of this. They might have appreciated a few words on what to do with a raw piece of salt pork–who wouldn’t? They relied on veterans and advice to learn how to prepare their field rations. Even if we try to eat as they ate, we lack the support of contractors who skimped on salt and/or sodium nitrate (yes, saltpeter) which insured the supposed preserved meat would rot, or added supplements to hard bread such as sawdust or chalk (a good source of calcium).
A good first step for overcoming an irrational fear of Civil War rations is to start with the most offensive item to our thoroughly modern sensibilities, salt pork. It is available in your local supermarket. It usually comes in chunks of a pound or more. Slice it as you would slab bacon. Parboil for 20 minutes, drain, trim off the rind, and fry as bacon. You will be pleasantly surprised. A real treat when my mother prepared it was to make a milk gravy with some of the drippings, and serve on boiled potatoes.
That all for now. I know I’m leaving you starving for more, but you’ll have to wait for Part Trois.
This article was originally published in the January-February 2001 issue of The Shrapnel, the newsletter of the Turner Brigade. For information about The Shrapnel, contact Capt. Randy Baehr, Editor.