In 1776, the troops were miserable — and so was the food

  • By Ron Ramey Herald Writer
  • Tuesday, June 30, 2009 10:34am
  • Life

Want to party this Fourth of July like it’s 1776?

Turn off that gas grill in the backyard and light the campfire. Stow the hot dogs, burgers and just about anything fresh you have on hand.

Break out the salt beef and beans. You’re in the Continental Army now. Get a feel for what a ragtag army went through to get you to this Independence Day.

Here’s your ration for the day, per person:

1 pound salted or fresh beef or salt fish, or 3/4 pound salted or fresh pork (Not so much “Take your pick” as “Here’s what we have,” and “fresh” was a rarity.)

1 pound bread or flour (Make your own bread, in other words.)

1 gill (that’s a half-pint, or cup) of dry beans or peas

1 pint milk (Ha! Good luck with that.)

1/6 pint Indian meal (cornmeal)

1 quart beer or cider or 4 ounces rum or whiskey

Source: “Supplying Washington’s Army” by Erna Risch, Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C.

Now, the commissary officers could get lucky and score some fresh vegetables or meat from farmers in what was then a predominantly agrarian society, but this was not a given. Many farmers were loyalists and didn’t want to supply the Continental Army, and those that were sympathetic still were leery of the new currency. The British, after all, paid in gold.

And, if you want to really be authentic, some of that food will be rotten, full of weevils, or maybe not there at all. Feel free to complain — many in the Continental Army did — or desert (i.e., go to the supermarket and get your hot dogs).

If you’ve toughed it out so far, here are a couple of yummy things to do with your rations, especially if you got fortunate with a few vegetables.

The stew is adapted from “Food and Recipes of the Revolutionary War” by George Erdosh, one in a series of children’s books he did on food in U.S. history. Erdosh notes that “The army told the soldiers to make stew with the meat. The army doctors believed that frying, baking or broiling were unhealthy ways to cook meat.” When officers weren’t present, Erdosh adds, the soldiers often took the “unhealthy” options.

I substituted water for canned beef broth in Erdosh’s recipe, since I’m pretty sure Campbell’s or Swanson’s weren’t around in 1776. Onions and other vegetables could possibly have been procured.

Minuteman’s beef stew

1 1/2 pounds beef, cubed

2 tablespoons vegetable oil (Butter would be more authentic, since it was normally part of army rations, or rendered fat from the beef.)

2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper (May or may not have had this in camp.)

1 bay leaf

1 medium onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 medium potato, diced

2 carrots, sliced

Brown the meat in oil or butter. (You did start the campfire and break out the cast iron pot, didn’t you?) Pour in the water and put the pot higher above the coals … OK, turn the stove heat down to medium low. Add salt, pepper and bay leaf. Cover and simmer for about an hour. Add the onion, garlic, potato and carrots. Cover and simmer another 30 minutes. Serve with bread and butter.

Which brings us to Yankee Doodle and hasty pudding.

Father and I went down to camp

Along with Captain Gooding

And there we saw the men and boys

As thick as hasty pudding.

Yankee doodle, keep it up

Yankee doodle dandy

Mind the music and the step

And with the girls be handy.

This recipe is from “American Revolution: Almanac” by Barbara C. Bigelow, Stacy A. McConnell and Linda Schmittroth. The method calls for use of a double boiler, which could conceivably be improvised in camp.

Hasty pudding

2 cups water

1/3cup corn meal

1/2teaspoon salt

Molasses or maple syrup (Army rations called for 9 gallons of molasses per company of 100 men per week.)

Put water in the bottom and 2 cups water in the top of a double boiler, boil over medium heat. stir in cornmeal and salt. Cook until thick, about an hour, stirring occasionally. Serve warm with molasses or syrup, or cool and slice it.

There you go, soldier. Buck up and have your daily beer. Only five more years until Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown. Have a Yankee Doodle Fourth of July.

Ron Ramey: 425-339-3443;

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