Monday, September 27, 2010

Ash Cakes, Hardtack, and Biscuits

Alright, so I know I said  would write about tea kettles next, but the fact of the matter is that the topic is quite a bit more extensive than I had originally realized. I've decided that in order to write about the matter with any sort of knowledge, I'm going to need to borrow some books from the library and do some intensive studying. Until that gets done, the tea kettles will just have to wait.

In the meantime, I thought I would write about hardtack, also known as ash cakes, also known as biscuits. I made my first batch for our last event, and while I wouldn't call them the tastiest things in the world, they're certainly edible and can sustain long periods of time without going bad.

Okay, so what is it, exactly? during the 1700s, hardtack was known as "biscuits." These weren't your Pillsbury Doughboy fluffy biscuits, but rather a flat, often square bit of flour and water, cooked until all the moisture is gone and all that's left is an extremely hard morsel. Biscuits were great for long campaigns, because (since they didn't really have any moisture in them at all) they would last for weeks upon weeks, if not months upon months. You could toss half a dozen of these into your haversack and not worry about them for at least a few months, provided they didn't come into contact with water or other moisture. The idea of baking flour and water together has been around for centuries, and this hard bread was used by pilgrims coming over to the New World.

British soldiers during the Seven Years' War (French and Indian War) were frequently issued flour as part of their rations (along with salt pork, peas, and rice). It was their responsibility to use the flour as a meal item. Since this was usually the only ingredient issued, the soldiers had to figure out a way to make almost solely flour into an edible bread substitute. Thus, biscuits (now known as hardtack) sprouted into existence.

How were they made? There were two main ways to make these biscuits. One way would be to make them in an oven before the campaign started. Ingredients were about two cups of flour, enough water to make the mixture stiff (not sticky), and a dash of salt. Mix the ingredients together and roll the dough out flat. make scores into the dough so it's easier to break into pieces later, and then punch several holes into each scored piece so the moisture can escape. When I made these, it took about an hour in a 350 degree oven.

The above is the more "refined" way of making biscuits. The other way is to take a small handful of flour, add in enough water until you have a stiff dough, and then flatten the dough out and place it on a flat rock under the ashes in a fire. The term "ash cakes" came from this practice. It was a quick, easy way to bake up your flour ration into something you could eat on the trail (if you had enough teeth). With a little salt, biscuits really aren't that bad. If you use a 50/50 white/whole wheat flour mix (which, from what I've heard, is the closest we can get nowadays to the kind of flour they had in the 1700s, minus the maggots!), the biscuits take on a slightly nutty flavor.

I took our biscuits with us on our six mile trek to our last event, and ended up munching on a single one the whole way. I hadn't finished it by the time we'd arrived in camp. Additionally, it caused me to drink more water just because it was so dry, which led to better hydration for me throughout the walk. I highly recommend them!

I didn't take any pictures of the biscuits I made, and I think they were so popular with the other re-enactors from our unit that we didn't have any left over. Here's a picture (from of biscuits that highly resemble the ones I made:

And for your own personal enjoyment, here's a picture of a round ship biscuit from 1784:
(from Inscribed on it are the words "This biscuit was given – Miss Blacket at Berwick on Tuesday 13 April 1784, Berwick."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fort McHenry and Koh-Koh-Mah

I must divulge again into my actions on the re-enacting front. Two weekends ago I was in Baltimore, Maryland, for Defender's Day at Fort McHenry, which is one of my favorite events. Last weekend I was much more local, going to a French and Indian War event in my own state of Indiana. I don't have a lot of pictures from either event, but I have a few amusing ones that I thought might be enjoyed by more than myself. First, Fort McHenry:

The boys - I love this group of musicians. I always have a good time with them, and they always make me feel like part of 'the gang.' It's a shame we live so far away from Maryland!

We get "The British are coming!" a lot on account of our red musician's coatees (musicians of the period dressed in the opposite color of their unit, so the dark blue of the American units was countered by bright red in the American field music) - so we frequently hold up our canteens - like the one above - or packs when people ask if we're British. The "U.S." always throws them for a loop.

Bass drummer and dear friend, Aaron Bradford. Aaron (also known as "Smiley") is always an encouragement and an inspiration to me. His cheerful disposition and Godly attitude are great testaments to his faith!

While waiting to march through the streets of Baltimore, we hit on this bocce ball court in Little Italy. We enjoyed watching some possibly native-born Italians play this game, even if we didn't understand all the rules.

And the best picture I got from the whole weekend. Running short on time in order to make it to reveille that morning, Phillip appeared on the bastion dressed enough that, from the ground, you couldn't tell he wasn't fully dressed. I snagged this picture of him when we lined up in front of the barracks for roll call. I love it.

So that was the weekend of Defender's Day in Baltimore. As I said, always a good time. We had a few days to rest and recover, and then it was off to Kokomo, Indiana, for Koh-Koh-Mah and Foster. I only have a few pictures from this one:

The rangers decide to take a page from their manual for supporting firearms and instead support themselves. At one point I had crawled underneath, but we didn't catch that part.

And the rangers - this is everyone minus Ranger Gerret, who disappeared with his honey before we got this picture. What a bum! Can't say I blame him though - if I were him I'd probably choose my honey over this motley crew too!

This year, for the first time ever at Koh-Koh-Mah (to my knowledge) we actually had English field music. We're a rag-tag bunch, but I'm proud of each one of our musicians for showing up and giving it their all! I'm really excited about our group expanding in the future.

And finally, a quick shot of our camp set-up. We had to double up Gerret's and Robert's tents because we were tight on space, but the result was a pretty nice little area for our kitchen between Gerret's tent and our officer fly, with the "girls' tent" in the back. Our ladies made wonderful food for us over the weekend, and I think we're starting to get the knack of this camp management thing - we were even complimented on our camp by another re-enactor - it was a great weekend!

P.S. We purchased a tin kettle at Koh-Koh-Mah, and I'm completely thrilled about it. Hence, my next legitimate post will be about kettles of the time period - stay tuned!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Puzzle Mugs

I've recently become interested - nay, fascinated - with puzzle mugs. I was introduced to my first puzzle mug at a historical re-enactment about a year ago, and it's been on a back burner in my mind ever since. Somehow, I stumbled across puzzle mugs in my internet wanderings, and now I feel I simple must have one. But what is a puzzle mug, you say?

According to The New England Antiques Journal, "the puzzle jug, intended for use in inns and public houses as a humorous drinking challenge, is a centuries-old tradition which still survives as a novelty today." A puzzle mug is generally defined by the holes around the top of the mug, thus preventing the drinker to be able to consume his beverage from it in the normal fashion - namely, by just sipping it out of the mug. If the drinker attempts this, he will inevitably spill the contents of his mug all over himself. In order to drink from the mug successfully, you have to use one of the holes in the rim of the mug (generally there are several of these). Because of the nature of straws, you have to cover all the other holes in the rim that you're not drinking out of in order to get liquid to flow to you.

A puzzle mug, circa 1760 (from The New England Antiques Journal). Notice the flower-shaped holes in the sides of the mug, preventing the user from drinking in the normal fashion. To drink, one must sip from one of the holes in the rim while covering all of the other holes in the rim. How does it work? The handle of the mug serves in the same way as a "sippy cup" does. The handles would be hollow, and thus work like a straw, bypassing the cut holes in the sides of the mug. In addition to the holes at the top that had to be covered, there were also sometimes hidden holes in the handle itself that one had to cover.

The most puzzling puzzle mug mentioned in The New England Antiques Journal was one made by the Welsh: "the spouts are actually dummies which serve no function and the key to accessing the contents is a small row of holes disguised by the brown line running around beneath the pierced neck. There are twelve holes in groups of three and in each group two holes are dummies, leaving one hole to be covered. Frustratingly, the working hole is positioned differently in each group and it is difficult to sort out which is which without peering closely and running the risk of spilling the contents at the same time."

Puzzle mugs continue to be a collector's item today, and are very much a novelty item. Apparently the puzzle mug's popularity was starting to wane in the Victorian era (at least that is what I surmise), because during this era paintings of nude women began appearing in the bottom of puzzle mugs. What, you say? During the straight-laced Victorian era? Surprise! Puzzle mugs each have their own distinctive features, but frequently came with sayings glazed onto their ceramic surfaces, such as:

Here Gentlemen come try your skill
I’ll hold a wager if you will
That you don’t drink this Liquor all
Without you spill or let some fall


In this can there is good liquor
Fit for parson or for vicar
But how to drink and not to spill
Will try the utmost of your skill

I've started looking for one of my own (one that looks period but isn't actually from the 1700s - I don't want to have to worry about breaking it while I'm eventing!) When I find and purchase one, I will post up pictures of my wonderful puzzle mug. Until then, I will have to content myself with drooling over the various designs and styles.

(Again from The New England Antiques Journal - they were one of the few sites I could find online that possessed what seemed to be valid information - they had pictures of mugs to back up each one of their claims/examples)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Pine Box: Part Two

As promised, I now present to you part two of the pine box. After waiting the day for the individual pieces to dry, we then had to join the side beams together to form the entire sides of the box. Since we were doing all of this by hand and don't yet have the fine skills needed for woodworking, we simply glued the side boards together (instead of cutting a better joining method into the pieces) and then tied them together while they dried. And then we had to wait another day for the glue to dry.

This was, incidentally, an extremely messy project, and there are now dozens of little glue drops all over our garage floor... Oops.

The next day, it was finally time to start putting things together. Erik and I had purchased some mortar nails, because they are cut nails and more closely resemble the square nails that were being used during this time period. However, we couldn't get them to work without splitting our wood, and they were really, really long (over three inches long), so we had to sit and rethink things. We finally came up with an idea to "fake" the nails. We took each nail, laid it flat on the cement, and individually pounded the heads so they would have a square-ish shape to them. When pounding the nails into the wood, we had to pound them in most of the way and then start hitting the heads at awkward angles to create the faceted look that the heads would have had.

The picture is blurry this close, but hopefully you can kind of see the square, faceted look we put into the nails (each one, one at a time... I respect the blacksmiths who had to make nails one at a time!) There were a lot of nails that had to go into the box, because we had to nail the sides to the base, and then nail the sides together, and then nail the outer, "crate beams" to the sides.

Erik's friend Eric was visiting this day, and Erik took a break to go "play," while I pounded away at the box. It was fun watching them in between pounding down nails. After several days of work, rethinking, and lots of bent-headed nails, we finally finished the box.

So pretty! We made it so the "crate beams" extend beyond the edge of the box, so that they help hold the lid in place. And the final test...
And it fits perfectly! Yay! I was so proud of our box that I actually made Erik carry it into the house and put it in the living room so I could look at it.

I'm very pleased with the way it turned out and feel that it isn't a bad pass for a sea-crate kind of box. It's likely that a box similar to this would have held rations of salted ham (and when I say salted, I mean the box was full of salt, and the ham was buried in it). Erik says that by the time our rations of salted ham reached us out on the frontier, we likely would have thrown away the meat and kept the salt. This box could have been reused by us after using up the ham and/or the salt.
The box made it's debut event at Fort Wayne last weekend. It was SO handy, and hid the cooler very nicely. We were sleeping on the second floor of the fort behind our fly, and if we hadn't had our box, we would have been forced to trek up and down the stairs every time we needed something out of the cooler.

In addition, just like we'd hoped, the box makes an excellent bench, shelf, and table. We'd done what we could to make it sturdy enough for sitting, and after last weekend, our box really showed that it could do all of those things. I'm pleased as punch with it, and learned a lot from the project. Total, the box was around $45-$50 for materials. We probably could have purchased a box for $50 or $60, but we couldn't have gotten one built just the right size for our cooler, and we wouldn't have learned nearly as much (or had as much fun!) if we had bought a box. Hopefully this box will last for years of our re-enacting careers.