The feast for the troops!

Cooking on a hearth can be a lot of fun, even while being a lot of work. A couple of weekends ago we had a clean up day at our local historical fort museum, and as a volunteer there, I was tasked with feeding the troops. They had pizza for early in the day, and in the evening I made a decent sized feast. It was well received. Some of the volunteers are new this year (and I should note, so am I; I’m just already experienced with reenacting and organizing volunteers), and they were amazed at how much food I cooked over the course of the three days we were there.

That Friday, I was lucky enough to be presenting for a local wildcrafting school’s instructor, which was a lot of fun. I was dressed all in 18th century kit, using appropriate cooking pots and tools, as well as the right vegetables and meats for the era. I made squirrel stew, fresh bread, and added some beet and leek salad and some pickles to the table. The food was appreciated, and I managed to turn the wife of the instructor into a squirrel lover. She’d had his cooked before, but wasn’t pleased with the flavor, but found mine to be incredibly tasty. High praise indeed!

Sun setting behind the fort.

Friday evening, I caught a lovely image of the fort as the sun went down behind it. The night was clear and mild, and I was happy. I went to bed (for the first time!) on a rope bed topped with a down feather ticking mattress. I slept incredibly well, and I look forward to spending many days and nights there this summer. The moon was ridiculously bright on both Friday and Saturday nights, and you didn’t even need a lantern to make your way to the privy. It was much nicer than when we stayed there in February. The temperature on Friday night was about 45F, considerably more comfortable than February’s 11F. All in all, it was glorious! There was wine, song, camaraderie, and a lot of relaxing in the dim light of the fire. The cabin itself was very dark once we closed the shutters for the night, and there’s no electricity or running water there, so we had candles and the fire for lighting. I did have my solar lantern with me for privy runs, but really didn’t need it.

Full moon over the grounds.

The entire weekend was perfect for working, to be quite honest. If you’ve never experienced volunteering at a heritage site, there’s always too much work and never enough time or volunteers. We were lucky. The local middle school sent over their 8th graders, all 40 of them, and they did pretty much all of the raking and exterior cleaning. We had one gentleman who went around the entire fort, cleaning the dead grass and weeds from around the bottom of the fence uprights. Four ladies plunked themselves down in the very overgrown garden and began weeding and cleaning and sorting. Plans were made to add some new herbs in a couple of weeks, when we’re less likely to get hard frosts overnight. Cabins and lean-tos were cleaned out and swept. The fort store (the display store, rather than the gift shop) had its interior torn down entirely, repainted, whitewashed, new shelves installed, the liquor lock-up was entirely re-done, and then everything put back in place with a few extra items. People put time into cleaning windows, mopping floors, replacing candles, and wiping out the cobwebs and mouse nests from the various corners and hidey holes.

I did most of my work in the big kitchen. I was cooking for the majority of the time, but in between bouts of chopping and checking on foods, I was cleaning as well. There’s a massive display shelf in the room, which holds many useful tools, bowls, plates, knives, and other stuff. All the items had gotten besmirched by the mice over the winter, and so they had to be wiped down with bleach water where possible (some items that are not reproductions, but are actual antiques, had to be treated a lot more carefully). I bleached all the shelves, and laid out a mixture of dry lavender and fresh cat mint to deter any summer mice that came looking for a place to stay. I discovered a huge hole eaten in the feather tick, so that’s going to need repairing, but I didn’t have my sewing kit with me this weekend. I’ll be there for an entire week during an upcoming event, so I’ll repair it then.

Left: Habitant Pea Soup. Right: Stewed vegetables.

The feast I put together for the volunteers was based on foods available in the 1750s, which is when the fort was most active. We had a pea soup made with dried peas. I used split peas, though they could have also used whole ones. Peas were ubiquitous during the colonial times, as they were fairly easy to grow, and dried and stored well. Being April, it’s likely they would have used up all of the best stores, and were down to scrapings at the bottoms of their barrels. The soup had local foraged cat mint in it, as well as some dried thyme and scraggly onion greens from the garden.

The stewed vegetables were cabbage, carrots, onions, parsnips, parsley, and potatoes. While potatoes weren’t being eaten by a lot of the colonists in the 1750s, there were a few who were beginning to do so. It wasn’t until about 1780 or so, when Benjamin Franklin ate potatoes and tomatoes in public, that they began to become popular. Those colonists who had a close working relationship with the local natives would have had more access to potatoes, tomatoes, and even things like sweet peppers and sunchokes. The natives had excellent trade routes with their southern neighbors, and were eating all of those things and more, and the settlers around this fort had very good relations with the natives. I admit to using olive oil for the fat in both the pea soup and the stewed vegetables, only because it’s better for us today. In colonial times, lard would have been the the fat of choice, or possibly schmaltz (chicken fat). The food in the 1750s (and much of the earlier times as well) had as much fat in it that they could manage, because fat equals calories as well as flavor, and for a people who worked from sun up to full dark, those calories were necessary.

Left: cabbage with bacon. Right: chicken stew with dumplings.

The cabbage with bacon had bacon fat, so it didn’t need anything extra. It was fantastic, I might add. The fat and natural sugars in the cured bacon tend to cause the cabbage to caramelize, so the dish is just melt in your mouth, with little pops of delicious bacon flavor. That was a volunteer favorite dish, and despite my cooking up almost an entire giant head of cabbage with that pound of bacon, it pretty much disappeared in minutes. This from a group of people who “…weren’t that fond of cabbage.”

The chicken stew was my standard recipe: chicken pieces (in this case, boneless skinless thighs and bone in skin on drumsticks), onions, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, and peas, with fresh dill and parsley added near the end. Then the dumplings cook on top for the last 30 minutes or so. They turned out nice and fluffy, and soaked up a lot of the yummy flavor in the chicken stew. For spices, I used salt, pepper, thyme, oregano, and nutmeg. I didn’t use a lot of any of them, because I wanted the chicken to shine through as well as the fresh herbs. I succeeded in that, or so I’m told.

All of this was cooked on the hearth. The chicken and onions for the stew, and the bacon and onions in the cabbage were both sauteed over a very hot flame until the smell started to come up, telling me they were browning. Then the liquid and other vegetables were added. Everything cooked low and slow after that, taking several hours over a low fire. It was warm enough in the cabin that we didn’t need to have a big fire.

Table set for dinner.

Setting a proper table for feeding people in the 1750s was important to me. Though this was not a costumed weekend, and people were just hanging out in jeans and sweats because a lot of the work was filthy, I wanted to provide that lovely feeling of sitting down to eat, in community, with people you’ve worked alongside all day. That’s something so lacking in today’s world, and it’s part of “making do” that’s vitally important, in my opinion. Some of you may be familiar with the saying, “No man is an island.” How important that is to remember. We may talk about civil war, or unrest, or zombie apocalypses, and that’s fine… but we need to remember that there are times to be alone, and times to reach out and make community. It is a very rare the person who is capable of living entirely alone, or even in a pair. Community is such a vital part of the human psyche. We are village builders, tribe makers, clan defenders. We aren’t, for the most part, hermits. If an emergency happens, if it’s TEOTWAWKI, we’ll need to spend time alone, yes. We’ll need to do whatever it takes to survive. But survival only goes so far. You can’t “just survive” forever. At some point, you have to stop surviving and start recovering, and then living. So when I set the table at the fort, I did so beautifully, to remind people that behind the layers of dust and cobwebs and heavy outdoor work, there is gentleness and beauty as well. When it’s appropriate, when it’s safe, we really have to embrace it, and let it in.

Fire = life.

We began and ended each day with a fire. Fire is where you cook your meals. It’s where the coffee is made. It’s where you warm up on a frosty morning. Fire is where you sit with your friends to talk about the day’s events. At the fireside, that’s where the jug of wine is, to share among those who join you. It’s where stories are told, and ballads are sung. It’s where children fall asleep, either tucked into the big bed in the corner, or snuggled into a parent’s lap under a blanket. Fire purifies the water we drink. It cooks our food. It sterilizes instruments when needed. If nothing else, the fire provides you with light. Fire is the center of life when you are not indulging in electric power. Fire is also a cheery thing. It crackles merrily through the day and evening. You can hear it as you drift off to sleep.

People often ask me, why would I want to stay in an unheated building with no insulation, in the winter? Why would I want to cook for 12 or 15 people over a fire? Why would I want to wear a long dress, and cover my hair? Why would I want to sit with a butter churn between my knees for a couple of hours? Why sew my own clothing? The answer is, because I don’t want to be dependent upon modern conveniences.

Do not get me wrong. I adore my dishwasher, my clothes washer, and most of all, my dryer. I love hot running water, showers, bougie soap and organic shampoo. I like cars and busses and trains and planes. Having a stove that I can just flip a switch on, and have heat, is marvelous. All these modern things are wonderful, and I appreciate them every day. Visiting the 18th Century (or other times and eras) gives me such an appreciation for the modern items. I aim never to forget how special it is that I have slaves (the washer, the dryer, the dishwasher, etc.) who run and do my bidding day after day without complaint. I also work to know what to do, just in case those modern conveniences stop working. They are, as some people seem to forget, conveniences. It’s nice to have them; it’s poor strategy to die without them.

Knowing all this “stuff” is why losing power in winter doesn’t faze me. It’s why I can happily wander off to go camping or hiking for a week at a time. Not having conveniences simply means I have to spend more of my time connecting to my own life and mind, and my inner thoughts. I stop depending on the electronic thing in my hands. It’s a good thing.

Are there skills you’re improving on? Is there something you do that helps you hone your skills, or test them out?


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By hagar

4 thoughts on “Cooking and Making Do”
  1. I retired, or more correctly semi-retired, two years ago. Until then, my focus was on my profession. Now I’m branching out. My great-grandfather and my grandfather were machinists for railroad companies. My father was an engineer, but did woodworking and machining as a hobby. I inherited his equipment when he passed, but when I was young I could not afford to move them when I changed jobs (they were very heavy), so I gave them away. Now I want to learn machining.
    My local community college has a machinist program, but it’s 8 hours a day, five days a week, for 16 months. I can’t do that. However, the head of that program has put me in touch with some “maker” programs at other places that have a more relaxed schedule, and I am starting on that this fall. I’ve tried some by myself, but metal is very unforgiving when it comes to precision, particularly compared to wood, and it’s clear I have some technique deficiencies I can’t fix on my own.
    The other new skill I’m working on is gardening at a near-subsistence scale. I live in a forest, so I am focusing on permiculture-type things, but am also working on some traditional medieval-style toft farming. I cleared about an acre of forest, which is a lot more work by hand than I thought it would be. It took me an entire summer to fell the trees, dig the stumps, and half-assed level the land. But it was good exercise.
    I’ve gotten to the point that I can provide almost all my vegetables, a fair number of seasonings/herbs, and most of my fruit for the spring and summer, and have sufficient greens into the fall, but am not good at preserving stuff. I’ve gotten pretty good at *growing* things, but I’m having trouble *protecting* them. I’m only harvesting about 40% of the lettuce and beans I plant. There’s a lot of wildlife where I live, and the critters out there like my garden more than I do. I’ve also started beekeeping, which is both easier and harder than I thought it would be. I haven’t started raising “beginner” livestock yet (e.g. chickens, ducks, swine) because my wife and I are travelling a lot — taking the vacations I could never take when working — and you can’t travel if you have critters.
    With that comes cooking. If your eating is dictated by what is growing, then you have to look at more traditional cooking styles as well. I’ve been getting more and more into medieval cuisine, particularly at the less-than-nobility level.

    1. You should talk with some of the people on this site about machining and wood working. There are those who know. 🙂
      Gardening is not nearly so easy as some would assume. There are some things you can just “stick in the ground” and they’ll grow (beans and radishes come to mind), but most veggies require a little bit more hands-on. And you have to know what you can plant near one another, and what has to be separated. And stuff like… corn has to be planted in formations, usually squares, because it’s wind pollinated. Rows don’t work with corn unless you have vast acreage of them.
      When it comes to clearing land, I’ve done a *very* little bit of it, but am not great at it. I’ve helped others, though, and I admit I’d be more interested in doing it by animal than by hand. Set your goats out to clear out any and all greenery (they can eat everything, including invasive kudzu and poison ivy without any ill effects), then bring in your chickens and pigs. Got nasty stumps that need removed? Put corn cobs with peanut butter smeared on them into holes in the base, and the pigs will get down to them. Their powerful snouts are the BEST at doing first tilling of ground. The waste of the goats, pigs, and chickens will fertilize the field, and the next year you can plow and probably plant something. 🙂 But you have to know how to take care of goats, pigs, and chickens. LOL… It’s a rabbit hole I’ve been down myself.
      And yes, learning to cook what you grow is entirely different. The first time we ground our own grain, I ended up baking about 8 loaves of bread because I just automatically used my usual amount of water. It didn’t occur to me that the grain had its own water in it, which is removed before it gets sent to stores. LOL… You use a LOT less water when grinding your own fresh grain. Knowing how to cook freshly slaughtered animals, and which ones need to hang or rest first, is also important. Then there’s learning to preserve: salting, dehydrating, canning, and freezing (though I caution people to be wary of freezers if your goal is to be off-grid). It’s NOT easy. But you get used to it. Looking up ethnic cuisines is helpful, because they often deal with natural cooking methods.

  2. What period? RevWar?
    Growing up my mom’s family would have a reunion in Farmer’s Retreat, IN, a couple miles from Friendship, during the shoot there. A grade school classmate’s family was into RevWar reenacting, and a college friend was into ACW.

    1. I do French and Indian, and am dabbling in RevWar a bit. I also do 14th and 15th century medieval, at other places. 🙂 I have a ton of fun with it.

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