Hot! Five Ways for 18th Century Reenactors to Eat More Authentically

With the huge Revolutionary War reenactment at Rockford Plantation this weekend, there’s been a lot of chatter on the boards about food, cooking, and authenticity.  Since I love cooking, food, and reenacting authentically, this seemed like a natural topic for this blog.  I hope this is helpful!

Eat seasonally and regionally.

We’re reenacting the days before refrigeration and long-haul shipping, so if it wasn’t in season where you were, it wasn’t available.  As my friend Anna pointed out, whereas strawberries are still in season here in Virginia, they’re long gone in North Carolina.  Check to see what is in season where you are, and try to stick to those foods.

Forego the roasts and other complicated, time-consuming cooking.

Most armies on the move had minimal cookware with them, as baggage trains were often quite behind the troops on foot.  The references I’ve seen lead me to believe that only a cookpot and maaaybe a frying pan per mess of men.  Stick to simple recipes that don’t take forever to cook and that can be made with minimal cookware.  Leave the fancy reflector ovens and toasters to the officers.

Have the men cook.

Though cooking is a duty that generally falls to the female campfollowers at events, most historical accounts show that the men did their own cooking, and that the women who followed along were largely engaged in tasks such as laundry, mending, etc.  Cooking over a fire is NOT that hard, and having the men cook their own food is not only more historically accurate, it also frees up the women to do more historically accurate tasks or to get to see more of the event, since they’re no longer tied to the campfire.

Keep it simple.

Bread.  Cheese.  Porridge.  Smoked and salted meats.  Root vegetables.  These are all core foods that pop up over and over again in accounts.  Not only that, but they tend to do well when stuffed into a haversack, market wallet, or pocket, so you don’t have to go back to camp to grab a bite to eat.  It may not be tasty, but it’s not all that bad and really, it’s only for a weekend.  If you really care about having a period experience, this is a good way to do so.

Do actual research on what the people in your unit (or a similar one) were eating.

Try to find regimental histories or accounts of the army on the move.  If you can’t find one for your unit, try to find memoirs such as Joseph Plumb Martin.  As you read, try to keep an eye out for mentions of food or cooking.  Take notes on what you read, and compile them into useful info for your unit.

All of these are fairly simple changes that units can make, that have a huge effect on the overall authenticity of a unit.  It helps cut down on the “Williamsburg on Wheels” factor, will give you a more period experience, and will raise the esteem and reputation of your unit.  If you don’t do these already, give them a shot, and if you do, good for you!

[This post was written with input from Rob Welch, Anna Gruber Kiefer, Katie Kinlin, Nicole Strait, Marc Lauterbach, Travis Shaw, Sean Edwards, and Sean Lothar.]

17 Comments

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  1. Us Jagers usually ate sausage, cheese, bread… apples… mmm

    • That’s what we do in QOLVR, though we also generally cook a stew for the midday meal and have oatmeal in the mornings.

  2. Great points! Plus, seasonal eating and simple eating can often mean more economical eating–making our potentially expensive hobby a little less pricey. One quibble–roasts are actually pretty easy and can be done with minimal equipment (I’ve never understood why so many folks use the fancy reflectors when you can braise a roast in a cookpot or use a simple spit!). How often would troops have actually *had* a hunk of meat like that, though? From what I can tell from memoirs and records…probably not often on campaign, or barracked, either. If we do a roast I make a point of telling spectators what an exciting treat food like this is! Sometimes it’s easy for us to forget that food is part of the experience for those who come to see us, too–and should be part of what we engage on educationally.

    • Oh yes, I wasn’t necessarily referring to the cookware necessary to cook things like roasts, but the fact that unless they were garrisoned in a town or had recently shot some game, there’s no way they would have had that kind of thing while on the move. Sounds like you do it the right way!

  3. Good comments! I have been taught (and supplemented with research) about wild greens and other such foods that can be foraged at an event. I g a lot of questions from reenactors and spectators alike while I picked pigweed greens (a/k/a lambs quarters) and boiled them up for supper. Milkweed shoots, greens, flowers, and pods are all good eating at various times of the summer. Queen Anne’s Lace provides small carrots. There are loads of other wild food options available at many reenactment camping sites. Also, for summer/hot weather events, I make pigs-in-blankets (biscuit wrapped around small sausages) before the event – these carry well in a haversack, wrapped in a cloth napkin – and in corn season, I boil corn on the cob ahead, and carry that cold in my haversack as well. At many hot-weather events, I don’t need a fire most of the day.

    • I like your pig in the blanket and corn ideas! QOLVR usually carries hard boiled eggs, which also tend to do well in a haversack. At events later in the season, I’ll be bringing turnips, carrots, and other root vegetables from my garden.

  4. I agree with your point about having men cooking, but I’d like to point out that I actually enjoy cooking and using that as a way to interact with visitors. Simply put, it gives me something to do. I’d be up for more sewing/mending, but the truth is most re-enactors take such good care of their clothes, there’s not much call for it unless someone comes with half-finished coat or tears a hole in their britches. I’d love to sit around and sew while someone cooked, but I already sew all the time at work! And, honestly, although I enjoy having time to go around and see the other parts of the re-enactment and visit, I consider it part of my interpretation to be a bored, harassed, and over worked 18th century woman. If you’ve ever read middlin’ class letters or journals, a lot of women talk about how overworked and bored they were and how little time for fun they had. Just mah tuppence.

  5. More men cooking, please! I’d love to demo something other than food all day, every day. I want to sew and spin and churn and make things, but until we get more people… I cook because the other cooks are busy manning the weapons display.
    We do select our food for period and regional availability, and are working on transitioning to seasonal foods and more preserved out-of-season foods.
    A perk of being medieval is that the food is great because we can “hunt” and go to the “markets” in between battles.
    On the other hand, an impression that can have corn sounds like fun. 🙂

  6. anthony emery

    I am seeking for information about the use of net bags in cooking. I am the net maker for a Pennsylvania Dutch historic preservation society. At a festival a few years a spectator told me that in the 17th and 18th centuries cuts of meat were placed in a net bag and lowered in a pot of boiling water using a drawstring. When the meat was finished cooking the drawstring was used to retrieve the meat. I have seen this technique used in New England lobster pounds to cook lobsters, crabs and shellfish.
    I would love to find documentation of the use of this manner of cooking in past centuries. Net bags needed to cook this way are easy to make. The use of net bags in cooking seems so logical. However I am unable to find any historic documents supporting this idea.
    Thanks in advance for any help

    • At least one of my 18th Century cookbooks has instructions for “bag pudding,” in which the ingredients, whether savory for a main dish or sweet for a dessert, are mixed and placed in a cloth bag, then boiled in a pot until done. I’ve made one, more like an Indian pudding, but a meatloaf-like mix would make a good savory one.

  7. What about ablutions? What did people use for toilet paper and to keep themselves clean and hygienic?

  8. Okay, if having the men (or soldiers) cook frees up the women who would normally be “tied to the campfire”, then just when do the soldiers have time for parade, drill, battle, etc?

    • I’ve done both – cooking while also involved in parade, drill, battle, etc., and it isn’t always easy, depending on the event schedule and the unit’s commanding officer’s decisions. All the more reason to limit one’s mid-day foodstuffs to items prepared ahead of time and eaten cold or things like apples, cheese, or summer sausage that don’t need advance preparation. And in the hot summer season when most of us are reenacting, who wants or needs hot food, anyway?

  9. Read somewhere that the rations for the continental army included or–more correctly–was supposed to include a gill of vinegar a day which was used to cover up the taste and smell of the rancid meat they infrequently received.

  10. Craig McNeill

    Ahoy all. Any chance on getting a camp cooking page set up for helpful advice on period cooking tecneaks , recipes , food storing and period photos???? seems to be the only thing this page is missing.

  11. As a Ranger from coastal Connecticut I tend to keep it very simple, and cook fish when practical – lobscouse was very popular and takes only one pot – fish, potatoes, local herbs, and wild onions (usually use scallions), and it’s tasty when not overcooked. Think chowder without the cream, although I have added cream when requested. I’ve also cooked partridge and venison in stews successfully, as a ‘luxury meal.’