18th Century Pocket Soup and other portable comestibles

Diana GabaldonThe whole world is counting down the days to the release of Diana’s latest in the Outlander series: Written in My Own Heart’s Blood and I’m among the lucky ones who have a ticket to the book’s launch in Seattle.  Which means I’ll be journeying from Vermont clear across the country to Seattle. A perfectly mind-boggling distance, if you stop to think on it.

I’d bet cash money some people have suitcases out and are already packing.  I’ll admit to having made a a set of unique calling cards for the event, along with a Lord John’s Felted Mitten Kit for the Friday evening charity raffle.  The next logical thing to gather together is food for the journey.

There are foods we travel with today which aren’t all that much different from their 18th century counterparts. Oats, or barley, for porridge or gruel, would be recognizable to an 18th century Scot, if not their English or French counterpart, as would flour, butter, lard and cheese. Dried fruit, jerked meats, smoked sausage, nuts, chocolate, coffee, tea, salt, chunks of sugar (Vermonters would travel with Maple Sugar of course), small containers of herbs or spices, a loaf of dense bread.. pocket food in the 18th century isn’t all that much different from what you might load up a backpack with today.  In fact, all but the lard or butter would make it on the airline with me, although I might get odd looks if I wrapped them up in muslin instead of ziplock baggies.

What is mightily different, between then and now, is “crackers.”  Those dry, unleavened “breads” which now come packed in boxes and are made with every possible combination of grain, and in every conceivable shape. But the modern Triscuit cracker has its roots firmly planted in history, in the need for a highly portable, starchy, traveling food.

Claire would have carried corn dodgers, those little cakes made from ground corn, water, and lard, and fried on a skillet to golden brown.  In Drums of Autumn she remarks they are edible, although not entirely tasty, for several days of travel.. and they must be soaked after the second or third day lest you crack a tooth on them.

Or she might have filled her pockets with oatcakes.

But for crossing a country, or an ocean, Hardtack is called for.

The recipe for Hardtack is shockingly simple: 2 cups of flour to 1/2 to 3/4 cups of water.  Blend together until you have a nice, not sticky, dough, roll out on a cookie sheet to roughly 1/2 inch thick and bake in a 350 F oven for 30 minutes.  Cut your large square into 3″ squares, poke four rows of four holes neatly into  each square, turn them over, and return them to the oven for another 30 minutes.  Turn the heat off, and let them cool in the oven.  If you’d like to give your hardtack flavor, add a pinch of salt to your dough.

What you’ll end up with is a biscuit capable of cracking molars and lasting 150 years.  The Atlanta History Center apparently has a signed biscuit of such an age on display.  They also have a rather neat song from the Civil War lamenting the less than tasty properties of hardtack: Hardtack Song (it will open in a separate window so you can enjoy it atmospherically).

Hardtack has within it the recipe for something you may recognize from your modern grocery store: Matzah.  The only difference between Matzah and Hardtack is one is rolled as thin as possible and baked on a hot sheet  in a very hot oven (475 F) for 2 minutes on each side, and one is rolled thick and dried out in an oven for an hour.  You’d think there’d have been sufficient cross-cultural pollination in the 18th century for someone to have noticed, as they soaked their hardtack to make it soft enough to gnaw through, the nice Jewish family eating delicious matzahs spread thin with butter or cheese.  But.. apparently.. no.

Once softened in water the starchy mush, of either hardtack or matzahs, can be mixed with eggs and fried in lard, for what sounds like a hopelessly tasteless mass but is, in fact, both filling and tasty.  Either can be used to thicken a soup, and either will travel and keep for long periods of time.. although I daresay the hard tack has the advantage of being able to travel without shattering, even if it pays for that portability by threatening to shatter teeth. Both benefit substantially from salt.

Pemmican and Pocket Soup..

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