trail food, field rations, military rations, ultra-light backpacking Clear Springs Press

Trail Food

Chapter 42 - A Brief History of Trail Food

         Bulgur is one of the earliest portable trail foods that we know of. Bulgur is a kind of parboiled, dried, cracked wheat. Because it is pre-cooked, it can be easily and quickly constituted into a variety of dishes and quick meals. It is most common in European, Middle Eastern, and Indian cuisine.

         Through hikers, long hunters, scouts and explorers rarely have access to a supply chain and must be self-contained. Modern soldiers generally have a supply chain behind them and no longer need to carry food for weeks or longer. That was not always the case.

         The type of food carried depended on the type of food available and the preservation technologies available. In terms of the amount of food needed, the needs of a soldier in the field and a long distance hiker are very similar, so it is interesting to observe how soldiers have been fed over time.

         First, consider the Roman legions. The Roman army was a professional army that had a supply chain behind it. Nevertheless, when it was on the move, it had to be mostly self-contained. In addition, like all ancient armies, they also acquired supplies on their campaign by either purchasing or stealing from the locals, depending on the place and circumstances.

         The Roman army moved like a portable fortress. After a long march, the camp would be assembled with each tent in exactly the same position relative to the others as in the previous camp. The camp was always surrounded by fortifications that moved with the camp. Everyone always knew exactly where everything was located.

         Their primary food was grain with wheat being the most common. A group of 8 soldiers shared a tent and cooking duties. They carried portable stones for grinding grain and a portable clay oven for baking bread. When traveling, they carried all of their weapons and personal kit, but additional supplies, tents, grinding stones, etc. were carried by pack animals or carts.

         Calculations show that each soldiers basic peace time diet would be a grain ration of about 1-1½kg per day (2-3lb) added to which would be Oil or Lard, Bacon or some other meat, Vinum (Vintage wine) or Acetum (Sour wine), Salt, Cheese, Vegetables etc. While marching, they carried bread that they had baked themselves from flour that they had ground themselves. In addition, they carried a form of hard bread called buccellatum. Buccellatum was similar to what we now call hardtack. The term "hardtack" came into use around the time of the US civil war but the hard bread or cracker was and is used long before and after that period. Hardtack is a simple unleavened bread or cracker that is made only from flour and water. An important difference between Roman hardtack and later versions is that they used fresh ground whole grain to make theirs making it significantly more nutritious.

         When they were on the march, they relied largely on buccellatum and sour wine for sustainment. Sour wine was basically water spiked with a bit of vinegar. At the start of a march or campaign, each soldier would be issued a 20 day sustainment supply which he was responsible for transporting himself. Sometimes pack animals or slaves were used to help transport the load.

         When living in a stationary garrison, the soldiers would grow gardens, crops and livestock to supplement their supplies. The soldiers in the garrison also had craft skills and served the collective. Blacksmithing, shoemaking, etc. are examples. A garrison was essentially self-contained and partially self-sufficient.

         From existing records and examination of skeletal remains, we know that the Romans were generally healthy and enjoyed good dental health despite a lack of modern dental care. It is important to note that they had no sugar and that all of their grain based food was made from fresh ground whole grains.

         The American revolutionary army was issued these rations, at least on paper.

Daily Ration

1 lb. beef, or 3/4 lb. pork, or 1 lb. salt fish, per day;
1 lb. bread or flour, per day;
3 pints of peas or beans per week, or vegetable equivalent;
1 half pint of rice, one pint of Indian meal, per man, per week;
1 quart of spruce beer or cider per man per day, or nine gallons of molasses, per company of 100 men per week;
3 lbs. of candles to 100 men per week; 24 lbs. soft, or 8 lbs. hard soap, for 100 men per week.

         This is what they were promised and always hoped they would get. When faced with starvation and defeat they did what was required to survive. In the revolutionary army, groups of six men shared a tent and cooking duties. Each man was supposed to have a tin cooking pot, but this was frequently lacking.

         In common practice, each man received a pound of flour and a pound of meat, often beef. From correspondence and diaries of the time, we are informed that "the flour was close to a pound but the beef was no more than three quarters of a pound and half bone." They had to cook this themselves over a campfire often without utensils. The flour was mixed with water to make a thick paste which was baked on hot rocks or in the ashes. Meat was often moved on the hoof, butchered and consumed fresh on the spot. At other times it was provided in salt cured form.

         Canned foods did not yet exist and the only two widespread preservation technologies were drying and salting. Salt cured meat and fish contains so much salt that it is inedible until it is soaked in fresh water several times to leach out the salt. In addition, the salted meat can spoil if the salting isn't done properly.

         Other armies of this time period weren't much different. Troops manning a fort or garrison would grow gardens for fresh food as well as acquire fresh food from the local population. Soldiers on the move would acquire food from local sources on their march. When forced to rely strictly on their rations, they often suffered from scurvy and other vitamin deficiencies. More soldiers of that time period died of malnutrition and disease than from warfare. The same was true for sailors. Scouts, long hunters, explorers, fur trappers and prospectors fared better because they always relied on local fresh food for much of their sustenance.

         The famous Lewis and Clark expedition that explored the western United States, relied primarily on meat from fresh game for their food supply. They were reported to have consumed six or more pounds of meat per day per man.

         Native Americans of this time period had developed concentrated food of their own. Parched cornmeal could be eaten dry or reconstituted with water. Its energy content was comparable to flour or hard bread. Pinole, in Central America, was made from roasted ground maize, cocoa, agave, cinnamon, chia seeds, vanilla, and other spices.

         Native Americans also made jerky, or more correctly, dried meat and pemmican. Pemmican is made from pulverized dried meat, dried berries and rendered animal fat mixed into cakes. The Native American foods were adopted and carried by explorers, fur trappers, traders and prospectors.

         Early arctic explorers carried a combination of pemmican and some version of hardtack as their main rations.

         In 1795, Napoleon Bonaparte offered a cash prize to anyone who developed a way to preserve and carry large amounts of food. A Frenchman named Nicholas Appert developed a process to preserve food by placing it into a sealed glass jar and covering it with boiling water to cook the food inside. The heat killed any bacteria inside the jar and sterilized the food, and the airtight lid prevented any more bacteria from entering. In 1810, an English grocer named Peter Durand replaced the glass jar with a can made from sheet tin, with an airtight lid that was soldered on. "Canned food" revolutionized the entire food industry.

         The British and French Armies quickly adopted them and commercial canned foods soon appeared on the civilian market. The early versions of canned foods were contaminated with lead from the solder used to seal the cans and caused heavy metal poisoning in those who consumed large quantities.

         By the war of 1812, the United States did not have the industrial capacity that Britain and France did and was still using the same basic rations as in the revolutionary war. However, the bread or flour portion had been replaced with a rock hard dry biscuit. This dry biscuit was given the name "hardtack" during the US civil war. Hardtack kept better than flour or bread. By the US civil war, little had changed with the staple food being cured bacon or salt pork and hardtack along with some beans and locally procured fresh foods. At times a flour or cornmeal ration was issued in place of the hardtack. Hardtack was softened by soaking it in coffee or frying it in bacon grease. A flour or cornmeal ration had to be turned into a crude bread on a campfire, often with minimal or no utensils.

         During the US Civil War, soldiers were issued (on paper) a daily ration of:

12 oz. pork or bacon or 1lb. fresh or salt beef
1 lb. 6 oz. soft bread or flour or 1 lb hardtack or 1 lb. 4 oz. cornmeal

Plus for every 100 men, an additional:

15 lb. beans or peas
10 lb. rice or hominy
10 lb. green coffee or 8 lb. roasted coffee
1 lb. 8oz tea
15 lb. sugar
4 quarts vinegar
1 quart molasses

         Cattle were often moved with the army and provided "meat on the hoof." When salted meat was provided, it was sometimes spoiled and sometimes caused illness from its consumption. The bread ration was most often provided as hard tack. It was sometimes moldy because it hadn't been dried sufficiently before shipment, or the wooden crates had gotten wet during transit.

         Some canned foods began to become available in this time period and the northern army quartermasters experimented with dehydrated vegetables. The first time the US was able to provide a large proportion of canned rations to its troops was during the Spanish-American War in 1898. There were, however, problems with quality control and food poisoning.

         The Manual for Army Cooks (1898) listed a traveling ration as consisting of one pound of dry bread (hardtack), a 12 oz. can of canned beef, 6 oz. of canned baked beans plus coffee and sugar. After three days, an additional one pound can of canned tomatoes was added to the diet.

         The army specification for hard bread (hardtack) was not eliminated from inventory until 1935.

         By the first world war in 1914, canned foods had become reliable and safe. The reserve ration, which sought to provide a complete food allowance for one man for one day, included:

         Daily Ration

One one-pound can of meat (usually corned beef)
Two 8-ounce tins of hard bread
2 ounces of sugar
1.12 ounces of roasted and ground coffee
0.16 ounce of salt

         It weighed about 2 3/4 pounds and contained about 3300 calories. These were sometimes eaten cold and sometimes warmed in an individual mess kit.

         The emergency ration was a packaged unit of concentrated food carried by the soldier to sustain life during emergencies when no other source of subsistence was available. It consisted of three 3-ounce cakes of a mixture of beef powder and cooked wheat and three one-ounce chocolate bars. These items were contained in an oval-shaped, lacquered can which fitted the soldier's pocket.

         It was in this time period that the large armies started using field kitchens to feed its soldiers in quantities rather than having them cook for themselves either individually or in small groups. Imagine looking over an army encampment and seeing hundreds or thousands of small campfires. Not exactly inconspicuous or fast moving and mobile.

         After the First World War, the US Army tried to improve its supply process by incorporating a number of different canned foods into a single package which could be easily transported and distributed. The result was the C ration. The C ration was a waxed cardboard case containing enough canned foods for three meals. A C Ration contained three cans with beef or chicken mixed with potatoes, rice or noodles, three biscuits, a chunk of fudge, some sugar cubes, a packet of coffee, and a P-38 can opener. The food was already pre-cooked inside the can and could be eaten either cold or warmed. The C ration was the standard food carried by troops in the Second World War and continued to be used through the Vietnam War.

         The D ration was a 12-ounce bar of equal parts of bitter chocolate, sugar, and peanut butter providing 600 calories per bar. The D ration was carried by pilots and others as a portable, high energy food source. The K ration was a lighter version of the C ration that was carried by front line troops and paratroopers.

         During the Vietnam war, Vietcong rations were mainly rice, typically cooked at night under good fire discipline. They might also have canned or dried and salted fish or C rations from the black market and food obtained locally. The rice was carried in a large tubular canvas bag. They also carried ready-to-eat parched rice. With a little salt and plenty of locally obtainable water, parched rice enabled some Vietcong units to march and fight or hold ambushes for days without the disadvantages of making fires. The Vietnamese also carried vegetable seeds and grew gardens when circumstances permitted. They also raised fish and ducks in ponds formed by bomb craters.

         According to the account given by Sun Tsu in his 2,300 year old classic, The Art of War, the elite shock troops of King Ho-lu of Ch'u in 500 BC carried a three-day supply of parched rice and were able to march 300 li (about 100 miles) without resting.

         In the 1980's, the Pentagon created the MRE (Meal Ready to Eat). MRE's contain entrees and side dishes packaged in retort pouches rather than cans, crackers or bread also sealed in a retort pouch, some commercial items like candy and some freeze dried items. The Army states that the average MRE contains 1,250 calories and is 13 percent protein, 36 percent fat and 51 percent carbohydrate. The average MRE weighs about 1 pound and 10 ounces.

         Some weight was discarded with the cans, but the standard MRE has a lot of excess packaging and soldiers often stripped them down to reduce weight and bulk before being deployed. A typical MRE can shed about 3-4 oz. of weight when stripped down. This led the military to introduce a variation called "first strike rations" which are devoid of the extra packaging.

         There are also variations called LRP's or Long Range Patrol Rations and MCW's or Meal Cold Weather. These two variations have entrees that are freeze dried rather than wet packed and weight a lot less than the standard MRE. Military rations from other nations generally use the same food preservation and packaging technologies as the US military, but may vary considerably. Some use canned food, like in the C rations, and many include crackers, similar to a more edible form of the old hardtack.

         The advantage of the current military rations is that they have a long shelf life and are organized in carefully calculated and measured quantities that require little or no preparation. The soldier does not have to spend time and distraction preparing food. No more camp fires and field cooking.

         For the modern backpacker, the standard wet pack MRE's, like canned foods are too heavy. The freeze dried entrees are ideal, but expensive.

         There are some valuable lessons and techniques that can be learned from the practices of the past. Today, however, our understanding of nutrition is more advanced and newer food preservation technologies are available.

Adapting Lessons from Trail Food History

         The food preservations that existed before the nineteenth century included drying, salting, pickling and fermenting.

         Pickling and fermenting are good contemporary food preservation methods, but don't contribute much to trail food because of the weight. Unless you dry them, they contain too much water weight.

         Salting is a food preservation method that isn't used extensively today, partly because we now understand that excess salt isn't healthy. In addition, newer, safer and more convenient alternatives are available.

         Everything that we can produce with our food dehydrators is just a continuation of the dried food traditions of the past. The only real difference is that today we have more modern tools to do it with. In addition to fruits and vegetables, the old traditional foods included jerky, pemmican and hardtack biscuits.

         Of these jerky and dried meat are available in numerous modern variations. This method of meat preservations has also persisted into modern times.

         Pemmican is about half rendered fat and is not commonly available in a modern low fat, calorie conscious world. Is traditional pemmican a potential useful and desirable trail food for long distance hikers today? Yes. If it is made and stored properly, it is a calorie dense, nutritious, shelf stable food that is versatile and palatable. There are some details about how it is made that are important.

         Hardtack crackers in the old traditional form are also not commonly available today. They are popular in the preparedness community and are made privately and commercially in small amounts for the re-enactment community. Is traditional hardtack crackers a potential useful and desirable trail food for long distance hikers today? Possibly. If they are made and stored correctly, they will keep for years to decades. For this reason, they can be placed in food caches and left there for long periods of time. It is theoretically possible that you could store a food cache and your grandchildren could find it and eat it.

         Are hardtack crackers something that you would carry as a preferred trail food? Probably not. They are brick hard and require some preparation to eat. There are more convenient, palatable and nutritious choices available.

         Are there variations on the traditional hardtack recipe that are more edible and nutritious? Yes, the possibilities are nearly endless. In all cases, there is a tradeoff with shelf life and nutritional quality and palatability.

         Another carryover from traditional food practices is the use of parched grain and flour made from parched grain. Parched corn and parched corn meal from Native American tradition is practical as a trail food today. Parched rice and wheat and their parched flours are also practical. The fact that they are pre-cooked makes meal preparation as simple as the re-hydration of a freeze dried meal. Parched barley flour is called tsampa. It is still used as a staple food in the Tibet area of the world. A common practice is to consume it with hot buttered tea.

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