Salt Pork, A Horrid Ration
Preservation of food for the soldiers of the British and Continental armies was an essential part of success in warfare. Without proper rations that could survive the length of campaigns, or the changes in temperature, soldiers would be left to forage for food stuffs not only for addition to their diet, but as their sole means of survival (which was the case, at times, for the rebel army). One solution to this, was curing meats through smoking, brining or salting.
Salt pork, a staple in the Americas and a central means through which to feed the men of the British army, was a solution to the question of how to provide sufficient calories and protein to men, while ensuring that spoilage was averted. As previously seen, when it comes to bread, this was solved by making use of hardtack, round perforated unleavened bread that would last for months (or years, if not decades). Salt pork, is the meat version of this, a means through which to ensure that food supplies from Britain would be able to reach the soldiers and remain edible (and we mean that loosely) after arrival and during a campaign. A means through which to consume this, was “peas pottage”, or peas “porridge”.
Soldiers were often provided with a pound of meat a day, consisting of beef (fresh if in garrison, potentially salted as with pork, or brined), salt pork (though fresh may have been available) and salt cod (a staple in the diet of Portuguese and Basque people’s diet, to this day). This ration would have been supplemented with any forage that may have been obtained (wild fruits and berries, root vegetables, mushrooms, game meat and fish, as well as the occasional squirrel).
For our most recent event in Fort Klock within St. Johnsville, New York, we prepared and cooked salt pork! Please keep in mind, that the process used was a shorter version and that the preparation of the pork to re-hydrate and desalinate it took into consideration that these men were on the move, with very little time to do both and to prepare their meal, as would have been the case for the Light Coy of the 8th in the Mohawk Valley.
To start, you need to purchase, wash and trim sufficient quantities of pork leg or shoulder, removing the bone and ensuring sanitary conditions of the curing equipment. Then, place a thick layer of salt, any salt can work, though certain salts such as kosher salt, non-iodized sea salt and pickling salt tend to work better. Follow this by placing the meat into the salt bed, adding salt on top of it. Over the day, drain any liquid that escapes. This would normally occur in the period by placing the meat in barrels of salt and allowing the liquid to drain away, until the meat was dry as leather.
Over the next day, remove the meat and place a clean, fresh layer of salt on the bottom of the container, as well as more on top of the meat. Three days later, repeat the process. At this point, no further liquid should come out of the meat. Here, you have a meat that still needs to be cooled, but dry and salted enough to try it at an event. For meat safe enough to eat unrefrigerated, you would need to salt the meat for several months.
Once we got to camp, we begun soaking out peas overnight and changing the water the next day around noon. Around noon, we begun soaking our meat to remove the salt and re-hydrate the pork. This process, in garrison and at home, would have taken three days, changing the water twice a day, as is the case now, with salt cod. Here, we changed the water twice and placed a third batch of fresh water to boil the meat. We then began boiling our re-hydrated split peas for an hour.
After boiling the peas for an hour, we begun boiling our meat, an hour after that, we added the peas to the meat, along with root vegetables. For our vegetarian solider, we kept some to the side for him in an iron camp follower’s kettle with root vegetables. We also added our hardtack to soften it and thicken the porridge partially, which made for a nice treat.
Appearance wise, the porridge looked beautiful and smelled wonderful, but that is where our love affair briskly ended and in horror. The amount of time used to soak the meat, as expected, was insufficient to remove all the salt, while the meat was not pleasant, it was “palatable” and would have sufficient salt to replenish a soldier who had expended his body’s own on a long march, though the broth and root vegetables tasted strongly of salt. At home, the process, as noted, would be longer, though on a march, fearing for attack deep in enemy territory, five hours is probably generous in terms of time. We do have reports in the Continental Army, of men having to eat the meat uncooked out of necessity (drying would mean it most likely was safe, but disgusting to taste).
Our modern pallets found the taste unfavourable, but the meal was hardy and would have met the needs of a solider. Would we do this again, “not as long as I live”, said Captain Marcio da Cunha of the Company, while Private Wayne Renaud commented that he didn’t find the flavour overly offensive. This whole time, our vegetarian private laughed at our suffering, while we then stole what was left of his sumptuous non-salted meal. This is how mutinies happen…
Overall, we learned a great deal, about how food would have been prepared and eaten out of necessity, regardless of flavour and out of utility, but also how men would rise up against their “betters” for poor food quality. Keep in mind, the pork was often putrid owing the corners being cut on delivery and questionable actions of both the seller and the buyer (certain officers). We also recognise that there are people out there who will disagree with our conclusions and methods, we understand that, but this is based off of years of experience preparing cured meat by one of our members and the realities of the campaign within our specific unit fought. Forage would have been essential, meat would have been soaked longer in garrison, but when the enemy is potentially facing you behind every tree and when you are deep in enemy territory, the luxury of time was not available to the men of the Light Company deep in the Mohawk Valley. This would have been supplemented though, with fold “confiscated” from families who refused to provide support to the men of “the rightful King”, where upon their homes and farms would then be burnt to the ground.
This was an interesting process, but we’ll never do it again, well, until we do beef…
*Note, we must note that there is a difference in cured meats. Salt pork is a very specific meat where the product is pork itself, dried through the method noted, this is different from pork belly or bacon, which is pork belly salted, often also smoked and of higher flavour value and fat. We then also have higher quality meats such as presutto and hams, which may have also been provided, though this article is in relation to salt pork, specifically and similar to it's nautical cousin, salt cod. Smoking, while a superior process in our opinion, is more costly and time intensive, something that the armies had little care for; give it to us cheaper and quicker and if the men are unhappy, give them rum.
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