Rational Rations Part 3
by Paul Winslow
Picture in your mind’s eye the ruins of an ancient Roman outpost in the forests of northeastern France. Within the overgrown walls, the archaeologists labor in this dustbin of history. They come across a fragment of a clay tablet and on it they make out the words:
Num quam postea reveni.”
Imagine their excitement, imagine the thrill of this discovery, words that link soldiers across the millennia. For, you see, roughly this Latin fragment translates:
Come again no more.”
The thing that the starving Irish couldn’t figure out how to eat during the Great Famine 1845-51. British Commissariat officers, you see, in defiance of orders from London, distributed “biscuits” from military stores out of compassion for the living skeletons they saw around them. The sailor’s dreaded “sea biscuits” and what the soldiers we portray called sheet iron, worm castles, hard bread, etc. The food the soldiers loved to hate–Hardtack–served as the field rations for generation of soldiers the world over.
Aside from the unappetizing reputation, hardtack offered several advantages for military planners trying to feed armies on campaign. It was lightweight, did not have to be prepared, and was loaded with carbohydrates. When coupled with salt preserved meat, an army could be fed year round regardless of conditions in the area it traveled through. Made of flour, water, salt and/or sugar and dried in an oven, it lasted forever when properly made and stored. Properly made and stored means keeping it dry and insect free. Any moisture left in the hardtack or getting to it later would cause it to mold. Crates washed out with whiskey would keep it insect free. Unfortunately for Civil War soldiers, some contractors substituted sawdust, chalk and other inert ingredients for flour and shortened drying time, producing a product that was moldy. Many of them apparently found another use for the whiskey and packed products that arrived full of weevils. As proof that properly packed and made it lasts forever, I point to a crate found a few years ago at Gettysburg that was in perfect condition.
When first encountered, hardtack is usually thrust into the mouth and clamped, unyielding, between the teeth. This approach demonstrates a lack of appreciation for human anatomy. Starches are digested by saliva. Hardtack is easily overcome by just breaking off a piece and putting it in one’s cheek. Soon the thing that seemed harder than the walls of Jericho begins to crumble and soften and then may be chewed, providing nourishment to the starving soldier.
When they had time, soldiers would soak it in coffee. With more time, they might make “Skillygilly,” which is hardtack soaked in water or coffee and fried in grease; it tastes like fried dough or squaw bread. A more elaborate meal was a stew even you can make, if you have an onion, meat and hardtack. Slice your onion and meat (salt pork, bacon, dried beef or ham), and break up two biscuits of hardtack. If using salt pork or bacon, you may want to fry it first to create something more suitable to modern palate. In your big cup, make layers of half the onion, one broken biscuit, the meat, and then the rest of the hardtack and the rest of the onion. Cover with water, season, and bring to a boil and continue to cook at a moderate boil until the hardtack is soft. The hardtack will resemble dumplings, similar to those in chicken and dumplings, in texture and taste.
To make hardtack, take 5 cups of flour, 1 cup of water and 1 tablespoon of salt and/or sugar. This makes a very heavy dough, and you may need to add more water to work it. Roll to 1/4 inch, cut into 3-inch squares, perforate evenly with 16 holes, and bake in a 325º oven for 1/2 hour. Turn the oven off. Take the biscuits off the cookie sheet, place on the oven racks, and allow to cool as the oven cools. Since the objective is to dry it completely, it doesn’t hurt to leave it in the oven for a few days. Store in a paper bag or cookie tin. Do not store in plastic bags, since any moisture in the hardtack will cause it to mold.
Soldiers didn’t spurn hardtack completely. During Grant’s overland campaign to Vicksburg, the army foraged for rations. The men had fresh meat, vegetable, and fruits. Once they began to invest Vicksburg, Grant rode along as the men dug earthworks. One of the men shouted, “hardtack.” Soon all the men were chanting, “hardtack, hardtack.” Grant ordered that hardtack, salt pork, and coffee be distributed, and that evening men who had been forced to survive on chicken, beef, sweet potatoes, etc., enjoyed a comforting meat of field rations.
Since the 21st century mouth often contains more metal in than a canister round, some people add oil. This produces a soft biscuit that can be bitten and chewed. The disadvantage is that oil goes rancid, and in a short time you have an even more unpalatable item than the original.
Make some hardtack, try skillygilly or a hardtack stew, at home. Hardtack is not chicken cordon bleu or fettuccine alfredo; it isn’t even General Hardee’s or Scottish cuisine; but if you try it in the sanctity of your home, you may then try it when in the field.
In Rational Rations: Part Quattro, we will tackle Civil War beverages and how to kick your civil war cooking up a couple of notches.
This article was originally published in the March-April 2001 issue of The Shrapnel, the newsletter of the Turner Brigade. For information about The Shrapnel, contact Capt. Randy Baehr, Editor.