Adventures at a WWI event!

So this past weekend my husband and I were able to drop the little guy with my parents and have a rare outing, sans toddler.  So, naturally, we chose to go to a historical reenactment.  Specifically, we went to WWI days in Orange, MA.

I have to be honest, WWI is not really an era that I am all that familiar with.  My husband, though, is completely the opposite.  He's been studying the military weapons, equipment, uniforms, battle tactics, and primary sources for years now.  So he went to this event full of information and childlike giddiness since he would be able to talk about everything he's researched.

And I have to say that it was a great event.  Not only was the weather wonderfully cool (and not the hot and sticky humid it was two days before, probably a great relief for the reenactors in wool uniforms) but it was wonderfully presented.  Not only were there trenches dug for the battle scenarios but also there were some great presentations of gear, fire arms, and general goods that would have been available to the soldiers. 

I mean check out that hardtack!!!

Meanwhile, my husband was checking the table next to it.  Can you tell what interests us historically?
At least we can be historical geeks together!

Then I found this!!!

Now, I admit, I did know that the 26th Yankee Division WWI reenactors would be bringing their recreated WWI rolling kitchen before I went to the event.  And it was certainly something that I knew I would find very interesting, mainly because there are so few (recreated or original) around.  But expecting something and then actually seeing it is two completely different things.  And my inner historic foodways geek was so intrigued!

Some of the very nice gentlemen who were cooking that day were able to answer the millions of questions I had for them, and didn't seem to be bothered that I was taking so many pictures of every thing.  Especially when they were cooking the noontime meal, which I can understand how hard to juggle speaking to the public as well as cooking an edible meal for their fellow reenacting soldiers.  Especially when that member of the public nearly drops her phone into the kettle of sauerkraut and beer.

So, as stated before, this rolling kitchen was recreated by the 26th Yankee Division from sheet metal and hot rivets.  This actually helped it to remain air tight and allowed the heat to circulate with great accuracy.  The gentleman I was talking with said they could boil water in one of the side kettles in half an hour with a good fire of dry wood going.  That's REALLY good!

The top sections are 6 kettles that would be used for cooking soups, stews, heating water and making the most important beverage for army life... coffee!!!  (For those of you that said Rum, I don't disagree, but wrong century!)  Then on each side was a oven with a stove box under each oven where they would feed the wood into.

They obligingly opened the ovens for me so I could take a look in them.  They were central for the meals that day, in the morning for the biscuits and gravy they had for everyone to try (and were VERY good!) and then later on when they were cooking brats for their noontime meal of brats in sauerkraut!  Yum! (This was for the reenactors only, sadly.)

This was really cool to watch.  They had finished cooking the the brats and sauerkraut and were preparing to serve it with pieces of bread.  Now I had thought that  they would be just dipping a ladle into the kettle in the kitchen.  But then they hooked the sides of the kettle to a rod and lifted it out of there, which makes so much sense.  That kitchen had to be so hot, and certainly wouldn't want to burn anyone, even though the hospital tent was set up across the way.

Nothing like a hot meal to pick up the moral of the troops!  No matter what era!

Somme, October 1916, Field Kitchens 

There were a few things that surprised me when discussing the topic of Army rationing in WWI, which is a topic I've never really delved into.

First was the huge access to canned goods.  Having not really gone into rationing past the Civil War (where there were canned goods, but they came with a high percentage of botulism) I didn't think of how much more it had evolved in food preparation and storage.  And the sheer variety compared to past rationing systems, where flour and salted meats were much more prevalent.  But there is also a lack of alcohol in the soldier's ration, something that would have probably caused a mutiny amongst Revolutionary War soldiers.  But this is mainly with the American rationing system of WWI.  As it was pointed out at the event the French soldiers often had two canteens, one for coffee and one for wine (or two for wine depending on how good the wine was)!

The second thing was how much more efficiently supplied they were, mainly because of the advancements of kitchen set ups (like the rolling kitchen above) and also preservation techniques, mainly through canning and refrigeration.  And the cans had an added bonus of being impervious to the gas that was often used in the trench warfare. Now, of course, there is the set standard of what a ration should be, and then there is the reality of the situation.  And there is enough primary source documentation to support the complaints of the troops about meal quality.  But, even if the supplies were of a questionable freshness, it seems that transportation and supply were pretty regular with the feeding of the troops.  Quite unlike the situation of their fore bearers who might have been forced to eat their shoe leather from lack of food supplies.

The third thing was this book!

One of my millions of questions I had was where they got the recipe for the biscuits and gravy, and I was handed this manual.  Que me sitting on a box for the next hour flipping through the manual, letting my husband go explore other areas, and telling the guys who were cooking to let me know if I needed to get out of their way.  They were very courteous and let me geek out at the HUGE amount of information at my fingertips.  Unlike many other historic cookbooks that I have read, this explains all the details that are often missing from recipes.  As my husband told me "When the Army writes a manual, the only thing they assume you can do is read."  And it certainly is true with this book!

Look the biscuit recipe!  I'm going to have to try it out, but not for 60 men.

It explains not only how to cook with the camp kitchens and rolling kitchens but also how to preserve foods, butchering techniques, food storage, ration allotments, how to serve, where to put refuse, how to collect water, and even a glossary in the beginning to explain all the terms (from well known items, like eggs, to some not so well known ones, like ambergris).  And a whole plethora of recipes at the end, usually made in amounts for 60 -100 men at a time.  There is even a seasonal chart for suggesting the best meals for each season. 

So, of course, the minute we got home we had to order it!  It also comes in PDF form, but I'm a bit old fashioned and prefer having the hard copy.  But this is the reason why I love going to other reenactments, especially not from the same time period that I am representing.  It opens up so many more avenues of things to learn, and certainly creates many more questions that I will want to answer.  And so many more recipes to read!

Now I have to get the book away from my husband, who is just as interested in army rationing as I am.  Look for our book in 2030 "The Ultimate Guide of American Military Rations!" (Just kidding! Or am I?) 


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