Boiled Beef & Ash Cake
During the American Revolutionary War some of the common rations provided to each soldier were to be half pound of fresh beef and a pound of bread per day. Much of the time the ration was not realized or was substituted with salt beef or salt pork which often times the quality was less than favorable. Most times due to the lack of adequate camp bakeries the bread ration was dispensed as flour and even that quality many times was poor. Wheat flour or a mix of wheat and corn or rice flour was sometimes substituted.
So to sum it up; the majority of the diet of the American soldier in the American War for Independence consisted of meat and bread (when he could get that). At times some rice, peas and what little fresh vegetables that could be scrounged up may supplement his meal but most times he learned to do without.
Many times one can find in camp orders and other contemporary writings that the soldier would be issued two or three days' ration before a march or a battle and he was ordered to cook it and be ready to move out in the morning.
The common method of preparation in times such as these was to boil the beef and to make the issued flour ration into a hastily made biscuit called fire cake or ash cake.
It would not take too much imagination to suspect that a hungry soldier being issued three days' ration of beef would have indulged in a bit more than his daily share upon its initial preparation. For one, hunger was indeed an issue here because many times the soldiers did not have enough to eat. Secondly, they had to carry the prepared food with them which added to their load. Finally, a surplus of food going bad was useless to them or it would render them ill. Some of this ration, even though it was strictly forbidden, could be traded for spirituous liquors or other needs.
So the picture in one's mind is of a soldier on the march and ultimately going into battle during the upcoming few days with hopefully a pound and a half of boiled beef of which the quality was questionable and perhaps upwards of three pounds of crudely made biscuit, most likely stored inside his haversak in possibly a sack or a folded piece of linen cloth, or possibly just thrown in with everything else.
No refrigeration in often oppressively hot damp weather. A modern food handler's nightmare!
Over the past number of years I have carried with me during reenacting events boiled beef and biscuit or raw flour and made the ash cake during the times I am in camp.
Living in the modern world has given us insight into understanding proper food handling techniques necessary to keep us healthy but, on the other hand, I believe that due to the cleanliness in our modern lives we have lost some of the tolerances that our forefathers may have had for such things as improperly stored foods.
But better safe than sorry, I will discuss a good method of emulating what these soldiers ate that one can use during a reenactment. I have found this method safe by modern standards but the individual should be aware that high humidity and temperatures can cause bacteria to grow quickly, especially if improperly handled. So let that stand as my disclaimer.
We shall start off with boiled beef.
Procure a piece of fine lean beef such as a bottom round roast or similar. The Revolutionary soldier didn't have this luxury many times the beef being half gristle or fat. I usually will boil about one and a half pounds at home before a weekend event. I cut the beef into pieces about 2 inches thick by 2 inches wide by 3 inches long. Get a 2 quart pot of water boiling on the stove. You can add some salt to the water if you like for seasoning. Throw in the beef and in about ten minutes you can skim off any scum that's floating on the surface of the water ( just like making soup). I usually let the beef boil at a rolling bubble for at least one half hour to 45 min. Take the beef out of the water and place it on a clean cloth or paper towels to absorb the excess water. The hot beef will actually start drying on its exterior which is what you want.. the dryer it is, the safer it will keep. Within three minutes it should be beginning to dry on the outside at which point you can sprinkle on a bit more salt if you wish and place the beef in the refrigerator uncovered to fully cool. In about a half hour the beef will be cooled and the exterior will be somewhat dry. Place it in a Ziploc or plastic sandwich bag and keep it in the refridgerator. Most times I will split it up into separate bags with a half day's ration in each. The key here to maintain safety is to keep the beef cold with no additional moisture. Excess moisture can cause spoilage.
The packets of beef are placed in my cooler when I go to an event. Depending on the heat and humidity of the day, I will take as much as I need out of the packet that is in the cooler and wrap the boiled beef in a clean linen cloth which then is placed in my haversak. The amount is determined by how long I will be on the field.
Many times for breakfast or supper I will just get some from the cooler, wrap it up and carry it to the place where I will be dining. As you can see, the beef never is unrefrigerated for more than a few hours and even then only when the weather determines it. If the weather was in the 40's I would not have any qualms about leaving it in the haversak for much of the day. However, if it were warm or if I were doing a southern event I would be very cautious about the length of time it was out. I do believe that salting the beef when it is cooling helps prevent it from spoiling better than leaving it plain. And yes, I have attended a number of events without a cooler but I still take the beef. I can't tell you to do that however because if you go and make yourself sick ( even from over indulgence of your rum ration) I'll get blamed!
"What does it taste like?" you ask. Well I, for one, am particularly fond of it breakfast, noon and night. The addition of salt, which was most certainly an unheard of luxury for the Revolutionary War soldier makes it quite palatable.
Now; to go with your beef one should have some fine bread but as all we have is this flour and a dwindling fire we will make do with ash cake.
I have made use of my flour ration before an event by preparing this item at home in the oven or taking the flour with me and making my bread as I go through the day. Many events are so fast paced that I find it best making them ahead of time and I just carry them in the haversak. If it is a two or three day event I stow some in with my gear in the tent or my bed roll.
As to the flour of choice I find that here in N. E. PA, there is a flour called Hodgson Mills 50 / 50. It is half unbleached wheat and half whole wheat and have been told that it is a close approximation of what possibly could have been the wheat flour ration of the 18th C (sans the worms). It holds together well and has the somewhat nutty flavor of whole wheat.
If you are making them at home here's what you need to do; in a mixing bowl place 1 cup flour and slowly add water and mix until you get it to a kneadable dough. Knead it a bit and break off a hunk about 1/2 to 3/4 the size of a golf ball and press out flat and round in shape ( you can roll it flat if you wish). I make mine about 1/4 to 3/8 thick. Punch some holes in it with a fork, bake on a flour dusted cookie sheet about 12 min. at 400 degrees. They should be nicely brown. If you want them to look really nice place them under the broiler for a short time to brown the tops.
Remove from the cookie sheet and cool. These little gems will last a good long time as long as they don't get damp. This is what was issued as biscuit, although if you made them oddly shaped they could pass as ash or fire cake. Now, if you added anything but water to the flour you would be cheating yourself out of the real experience. However, I have added pearl ash to the flour as a leavening agent for a lighter cake. Pearl ash is the fine white ash left over from complete burning of a hard wood fire. It was used as an early leavening agent.
If you want to make your ash or fire cake in situ right there in camp you just need to carry your flour ration with you in a sack. A good hardwood fire that has died down to the ash stage is required. Make sure your fire is clean and nobody has thrown trash and such into it! Pour a handful of flour in one hand, then make a hole in the center and pour a little water into it and start mushing it together (I never said it was a pleasant job). Add more water until you get a kneadable dough; if you made it too sticky just add a dusting of flour. I usually throw about a spoon of the white ash that's in the fire into the dough. Mix it well and press flat in your palms until you get it about 3/8 inch thick. Clear a spot in the ashes where it can be laid without laying upon any burning coals. Just lay it in the spent ashes and let it bake until it is brown on the bottom, then flip it over to brown the other side. It's then ready. Alternately, if your fire hasn't burned down yet you can place the cake to bake on a flat rock that has been close to the fire. Again brown on both sides.
Well, now you are ready for a superb meal befitting a person who has strived to make sure his uniform and accoutrements are authentic to the period. A piece of beef, a bit of biscuit and a mug of water with perhaps a splash of rum in it, some good companions and tales of battles fought is all that is needed to replenish one's soul.
Jim W. Filipski