Saturday, June 10, 2017

"Rancid Beef and Wormy Biscuit": Notes on "Improving" 18th c Cooking, Messing and Kitchens

Virginians of Bibb's Company, Prince Edward County Militia, pause to
cook rations on the march to Guilford CH, 1781. Note the use of sticks in place of fire
irons and iron trammel hooks.  We can infer that iron fire implements
were not in use from extant art and regimental orders that wagons were to be used for
the company tentage only with kettles to be carried by the men.

Recently a question was posted on an online group I follow asking about 18th c cooking.  There were the usual snarky remarks, but very little information from folks who were "in the know".  Sadly, in living history, particularly among mainstream organizations, we seem not to base our cooking on any historical research, but rather the Southern Dutch Oven Cookbook from Barnes and Noble (an admirable tome, to be sure, but not accurate to the 18th c).

I would submit several recommendations for improving upon cooking at living history events (by improving, I mean from and authenticity standpoint, of course).

1.  Rations. 

In 1775 Washington and his officers agreed on ration requirements that were seldom, if ever met throughout the war:

                "By order of his Excellency General Washington,
              a Board of General Officers
              sat yesterday in Cambridge, and unanimously recommended
              the following Rations to be delivered in the manner hereby directed.

             Corn'd Beef and Pork, four days in a week.

             Salt Fish one day, and fresh Beef two days.

             As Milk cannot be procured during the Winter Season,
             the Men are to have one pound and a half of Beef,
             or eighteen Ounces of Pork Pr day.2

            Half pint of Rice, or a pint of Indian Meal Pr Week.

            One Quart of Spruce Beer Pr day, or nine Gallons of Molasses
            to one hundred Men per week. 
            Six pounds of Candles to one hundred Men Pr week, for guards.3

            Six Ounces of Butter, or nine Ounces of Hogs-Lard Pr week.4
             Three pints of Pease, or Beans Pr Man Pr Week,
             or Vegetables equivalent, allowing Six Shillings Pr Bushel for Beans,
             or Pease-two and eight pence Pr Bushel for Onions-One
             and four pence Pr Bushel for Potatoes and Turnips.

             One pound of Flour Pr Man each day-
             Hard Bread to be dealt out one day in a week, in lieu of Flour." (1)

Throughout his narrative, Connecticut soldier Joseph Plump Martin records rations only on a few occasions and when he does, it is monotony; southern salt pork and sea bread, pork and bread, corned beef and hard bread in a borrowed pot, one pound each of beef and flour, salt shad on two separate occasions, beef and flour and finally, fresh pork and hard bread (2)

    For more on Continental Army rations, see my previous article, "18th c Military Rations and the Lack Thereof"

Rations for British army units also varied from garrison to campaign and from geographical location.  In one American garrision, soldiers were to receive:

                          "1 lb good Salt Beef per Man per Day
                            1 lb Flour per Man per Day
                            6 oz Butter per Man per Week
                            1 1/2 [lb] Rice per Man per Week
                            1 Pint Teneriffe or other Strong wine per Man per day."
Elsewhere in North America, soldiers would receive at Trois Rivieres:  

                          "A compleat Ration for one Man for one day in every Species

                          Flour or Bread. . . . . . . . . 1 1/2 Pounds
                         Beef . . . . . . ... . . 1 Pound
                         or Pork. . . . . . . . . 1/2 Pound
                        Pease. . . . . . . . . 1/4 Pint
                        Butter. . . . . . . . . 1 Ounce
                        Rice . . . . . . . . . . 1 Ounce"

The reality of rations on the march:  Hard bread, salt pork and boiled oatmeal.
The flagon contains switchel, an anti-scorbutic concoction of water, vinegar,
molasses and rum.

In 1776, the British Army Contract stipulated: 

the weekly ration contained "7 Pounds of Flour, or in lieu thereof 7 Pounds of Bread; 4 Pounds of Pork, or in lieu thereof 7 Pounds of Beef; 6 Ounces of Butter; 3 Pints of Pease; 1/2 Pound of Rice, or in lieu thereof 1/2 Pound of Oatmeal." 48  Mid-war, prior to his advance on the Hudson, Burgoyne's commissary also wrote from Montreal or in-kind substitutions in the daily ration:                                            "1 lb Broad or Flour

                                           1 lb Beef or 9 1/7 oz. pork

                                          3/7 pints pease

                                          6/7 oz. Butter or in lieu 1 1/7 oz. Cheese

                                          2 2/7 oz,. flour or in lieu 1 1/7 oz. Rice or 1 1/7 oz. Oatmeal." (4)

To these, soldiers were to augment with potatoes, parsnips, carrots, turnips, cabbages, and onions, sauerkraut, porter, various wines, spruce beer, malt, vinegar, generally intended as anti-scorbutics. (5)
While vegetables and anti-scorbutics were theoretically provided by the commissary, it seems that acquisition of fruits and vegetables was generally left to sutlers and soldiers' wives, who then made a profit in selling them to the messes (6).

2.  Messing Arrangements

Messes were ordinarily organized in 6-8 men (based on the number of men assigned to a tent), according to Lochee (7).  It follows that the soldiers were conducting the cooking rather than the wives of soldiers. 

Preparing a soup for the mess, "A Private Soldier and
Militiaman's Friend", (1786).

The cooks for a Mess of six.  Soups and stews were easily created from issued
rations and could be cooked for a few hours in the afternoon.  They were not overly
complicated and other tasks could be completed by the mess men, such as sewing,
cleaning of weapons or even diversions such as gaming.

Again, the SgtMaj recommends soup to the messes,
"A Private Solder and Militiaman's Friend" (1786).

3.  Kitchens

How differently the camp kitchens look that we see at reenactments and living history events.  Braziers, Dutch ovens, grilles, iron spits and trammels as well as cooking utensils abound in the recreated camp...yet we have no evidence of their use outside of the home or garrison.  Certainly we see iron trammels, ovens and cranes in the fireplaces of forts, however to think that these were carried on campaign in wagons meant for tentage seems impossible, given that men were to carry their mess equipment on their persons.

We find that the kitchen on campaign was much more simple than our modern recreations.  Below are some examples from period art:

"Soldiers Cooking", Rowlandson, 1798.  Here we do see the use of a chain
as a trammel, a copper or brass kettle and the use of branches to
make a frame for suspension of the pot.  Interestingly, Rowlandson has chosen to
depict all six of the mess-mates in this engraving.

Detail from "Encampment on Black Heath", Sandby, 1786. 
Black Heath was located just outside London, and according to
correspondence from Abigail to John Adams, was full of highwaymen and rogues.
A simple tin kettle resting on the ground.

Soldiers and Camp Followers Resting from a March, Jean-Baptiste Pater, 1730.
Here in this early 18th c depiction of French camp life, we do see a woman doing the
cooking for the mess.  The iron pot appears to be suspended on a line between two trees.

"Escorte d'Equipage", Painting by Car after Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1760.  A kettle suspended
from a tree stump and some plates and a pitcher in the foreground are all the
impedimenta of this French mess...even with the baggage train escort.

Detail from "A Perspective of a View of an Encampment",
Bowles and Carver, 1780.   Note the use of the sticks to make a tripod and the
simple design of the four tin pails.

...and the most impedimenta in a kitchen, I could possibly find, this at Hyde Park,
in London, presumably using existing structures or those erected for the Royal
Review.  "A Camp Kitchen in Hyde Park", Sandby, 1780.
While the previous illustrations show simple fires on the ground, it was also the practice in the British and Continental Armies to build field kitchens in the form of a round ditch with small fireboxes dug into the central mound.  This keeps the danger of fire from the tents, however, according to Reid, kettles were to be brought back to the company street for the officer of the day to inspect their contents and presumably to be consumed by the mess (9).

An earth camp Kitchen from Plate 3 in Grose, as reproduced in Neumann and Kravic.
Such kitchens would have been dug for each company, with one firebox to a mess.

Plate from Lochee's "Essay on Castremetation" depicting the
layout of a regimental camp.  The camp kitchens are represented
by the circles above the sutler's tents and officers' tents. Lochee does note
that the kitchens for the flank companies would be located on the perimeter, nearer
their post with the outer guard.
A recreated camp kitchen at Endview Plantation.  Queen's Own Loyal Virginia
Regiment member, Luke Fryer tends to the pan and kettle over the mess's
firebox.  As all the heat is directed towards the pan and kettle, the kitchen is far more
efficient than an open fire.
According to Simes, the kitchen had a diameter of 16 feet, with a three foot trench surrounding, the earth from the trench being thrown up in the center of the kitchen (10), as you see in the photo above.

4.  Cooking Equipment

If we are not to use Dutch ovens and such, what then can we use in keeping with the meagre equipment of the 18th c mess?  Period memoirs and correspondence generally only mention frying pans and kettles, and even these were scarce, although the intent was for one to belong to each mess.  Martin's memoir only mention the use or borrowing of kettles.  Just keeping this in mind (and leaving
the lodge cast iron materials at home) will go a long way towards improving the kitchen and cutting
down on weight.

The author's recreation of a repurposed shovel.  The original shovel/frying pan
is depicted in the upper left. (Neumann and Kravic).

For large kettles, I recommend Hot Dipped Tin or Carl Giordano.  Their products are heavy gauge tin and based on original designs and extant artifacts. 

On campaign in 1781.  Without wagons, the Queen's Rangers erect brush huts and
rely on a simple tin kettle for hot rations.   As the rangers operated from boats and
conducted multiple raids along the James, Elizabeth and Appomattox, we expect most
equipment of the mess was carried on the soldiers' persons.
I was able to "de-farb" a small one quart kettle I purchased on sutler row a few years back.  The small kettle had ears more suited to the 19th c.  I merely ground down the rivets that held on the anachronistic ears and fashioned brass ears appropriate to the 18thc.

Defarbing a sutler-row kettle.  Tools required:  Screwdriver, drill, pliers, tin snips,
jeweler's hammer.  This took about 30 mins to complete.

The author's inaugural use of what would be christened,
"The Pungo Mess Bacon Shovel" at a drill at Sully Plantation. 
Note the use of a forked stick in place of an iron trammel and the
use of sticks for suspension of the tin pail.  Easily constructed on the march.

This certainly doesn't mean that we are opposed to the thought of carrying a few extra impedimenta.  We do carry a blown glass bottle of rum, an 18th c tin coffee pot as well as a pewter flagon for mixing switchel and flip. Guilty...we are still a work in progress.  Oh yes, and earthen jar with a leather cover for carrying pickles.  I'm sorry, my kids like pickles.

For further reading, I would recommend the research of John Rees on the subjects of messing and kitchens and rations, found at: and the 2d NJ Mess Guide:

(1).  G.O., 24 Dec 1775, retrieved from:

(2) Martin, Joseph. "Memoir of Revolutionary War Soldier." Courier, NY, ed., 2012, pp. 55, 60, 81, 108, 110, 113, 141.

(3).  T. 64:201, Robinson to Navy Board, 4 Apr. 1781

(4) T. 29:45.
(5)  T. 64:103.
(6) . 64:106, Robinson to Gage, 9 Sept. 1775; More, Son, & Atkinson to Howe, 25 Sept. 1775; ibid.,

(7) Lochee, Lewis.  "An Essay on Castremetation".

(8) 64:103, Day to Robinson, 22 Aug. 1777; Report on Army Extras, 1778, as quoted in "The Organization of the British Army in the Revolution", retrieved from:

(9) Reid, Thomas, "A Treatise on the Military Duties of Infantry Officers, Walter and Egerton, 1795 (25).
(10) Simes, Thomas, "A Treatise on the Military Science." London, 1780. (11)
(11 ) Simes (174)


  1. Thanks for this great post! A few follow-up questions based on the well documented rations soldiers received: did they generally cook but one meal a day, or did the soldiers divide up the rations for breakfast, nooning & supper? How did they carry their meat and flour rations? Were they somehow wrapped up and carried in their haversacks, wallets, or backpacks?

    1. From what I have read in extant military manuals and journals, it was dependent upon whether in garrison, camp, or campaign. Rations might have been precooked prior to an approach march/engagement. In camp/garrison, three meals were cooked/day. As far a storage, rations were issued daily at the company level. On the march, men might grab a haversack full of hard bread. I have no evidence, but I do carry flour, peas and such in small linen bags. I carry meat in period newspapers.

  2. Thank you for this and for your earlier post, "18th Century Military Rations, and the lack thereof... ". I appreciate your pointers to relevant primary resources, as I am also trying to put together a demonstration of soldier's rations in the context of the gathering of military stores prior to the outbreak of hostilities in Concord, MA. Do you cure your own meat? Thank you again.

    1. I am pleased you appreciate it. I wish you luck in your project. I do not cure my own meat. I find it is commercially least in NC and VA.