Thursday, April 22, 2010

THE LOST ART OF FIELD COOKING

“An army marches on its stomach.” Napoleon Bonaparte

Throughout the history of warfare, it was commonly expected that the soldier could do his own cooking, and supplement his rations by whatever means available. Until around WWII, America was still what Thomas Jefferson had intended and hoped for, primarily agricultural. Most people still lived on farms, even those in many towns kept chickens, rabbits, or even a milk cow, and the average rural man still knew how to take domestic and wild animals from the field to the plate. Only relatively recently, starting with American C-Rations and ending with MRE’s, was the soldier given food ready-to-eat and requiring no preparation at all.

Not so very long ago soldiers, even from Western and industrial nations, were all taught and practiced a variety of field skills, especially in the way of the culinary arts. Granted, very few, even the snake-eaters of the Green Berets, can truly live off the land. I mean, you don’t see Survivorman Les Stroud having to go on the Jenny Craig diet when he gets back from a week in the boondocks. But possessing the know-how and skills could always come in handy, no one can take the knowledge from you, and in times of emergency, it could even save your life.

Let’s take a quick look at what soldiers of the not-so-distant past learned and knew in the days before P38 can openers and brown plastic spoons.

German


Note to folks from NYC or LA; these Wehrmacht soldiers are milking a cow. This is where milk comes from, not from a plastic jug.

In the German Army in WWII, not just the elite light infantry units like the Gebirgsjaeger (mountain troops) and Fallschirmjaeger (paratroops) but all infantrymen were expected to be able to prepare their own meals and supplement them by foraging if necessary.

The following are excerpts from war-time German field manuals.

If it is anticipated that serving from field kitchens will not be possible, powdered coffee, tea, and other rations should be issued in advance to enable the soldiers to prepare their own hot drinks and hot food. To prevent overloading the men, however, only essential rations should be issued. Patrols and raiding parties should receive rations which are light and do not occupy much space. Every man must know how to cook and should be given opportunities to practice cooking.


EMERGENCY RATIONS

When on reconnaissance or isolated sentry duty, a soldier is often forced to be economical with his food. The following suggestions on how to make provisions last are based on Russian recommendations for emergency foods for guerrillas, stragglers, etc.

Frozen Meats

The simplest way to keep meat in winter is to let it freeze. Before being boiled or fried, it should be thawed over the range. If quick cooking is necessary, cut the frozen meat into little pieces and place them on the lid of the mess kit, after adding fat and a little salt. Keep the meat over the fire until a sample is at least tolerably tasty. During the thaw period, thawed meat will easily spoil. To prevent this, cut the meat into thin slices, dry them on a piece of sheet iron over a stove, and sprinkle them with salt. Meat thus cured will keep reasonably long.

Raw Fish

Cut the frozen fish into thin flakes, or, preferably, scrape the fish with a knife instead of cutting it, so that thin shavings are formed. If need be, it can be consumed without cooking.

Food from the Woods

The red bilberry grows in pine woods beneath the snow. Cranberries are found in mossy bogs. Fir cones and pine cones, when held over a fire, will open and yield nourishing seeds. Yellow tree moss is poisonous. Other tree mosses, especially Iceland moss (steel gray), become edible after several hours of cooking. The rushes which grow on the banks of rivers and lakes have root ends which can be eaten when boiled or baked. Wild apples or bitter fruits, like those of the mountain ash, become sweet after freezing.

Sawdust Flour

Flour rations can be stretched by adding sawdust flour, made preferably from the pine tree, but birch bark may also be used. For this purpose, carefully cut the outer layer of the bark from a young tree. Make two ring-shaped incisions in the inner layer of bark, about a yard apart, and vertical cuts between them. Then carefully lift off segments of the inner bark with a sharp knife, cut them into small pieces, and boil them, changing the water several times to eliminate the taste of tar. Next, dry the pieces until they are not quite brittle. Finally, mash and pulverize the pieces in the hand.

Usually sawdust flour is mixed with rye flour in a proportion of 25 to 100 or even 50 to 100. It is stirred into the dough With water added. Sour milk may also be added.
The dough is rolled out very thin, and small flat cakes are baked.


Baking Bread in Mess Kit

Bread can be baked in the mess kit in hot ashes. This method is employed only when other bread cannot be obtained. The simplest and quickest way is to use baking powder. The ingredients are two mess-kit covers full of rye or wheat flour (about 540 grams, or 1 pound 3 ounces); one mess-kit cover about half full of cold water; one-half ounce of baking powder; and one-half teaspoon of salt, if it is available. Mix the ingredients slowly, add cold water, and knead the dough until it becomes medium stiff.

This dough is shaped into a roll the length of the mess kit. Roll the loaf in flour and place it in the mess kit. Close the mess kit with its cover, and put it under embers and hot ashes,
baking the dough for about 1-1/2 hours.



Japanese

The Japanese soldier could not live purely off the land, either, despite his reputation. But even before their supply lines became stretched or cut, the islands of the Pacific provided welcome fresh additions to Army rations.

Each Japanese soldier usually carries on his person sufficient food to sustain him for 5 days in the field, and some who infiltrated have fought for a week without recourse to food or ammunition supply trains. All have shown marked ability to live off the country; in fact, captured Japanese orders point out the necessity for this in order to conserve regular supplies. In some instances individuals and small infiltration units killed and cooked dogs, goats, and other small animals to supplement their emergency rations.

The 5-day emergency ration includes:
a. One-half pound of hard candy;
b. One can of coffee;
c. One package of concentrated food;
d. Vitamin pills;
e. One package of hardtack;
f. One 5-inch-long sack of rice.

Each soldier is responsible for his own cooking, but generally the men of a squad cook on a cooperative basis. No special cooking stove or other cooking apparatus is carried. Often food is cooked in the morning to last for the day. Sometimes only rice and salt are available. Sugar, considered a luxury, is procured locally. Looting is condoned.

British

The British Commandos of WWII learned a great deal about traveling light, keeping themselves warm and dry in all kinds of weather, stretching their rations, and living off the land. Hands-on exercises were conducted in the Scottish Highlands, sometimes for days on end.

Here’s an American officers observations of Commandos in training.

Food should be eaten frequently, especially if the troops are young men and the operations are not too strenuous. Great care should be taken to share all food with the utmost equality, and hoarding of rations should be discouraged. The men must be taught what fruits, plants, mushrooms, etc., are edible so that they can supplement their rations or live off the country. They should know how to milk a cow, how to clean and prepare carcasses of animals, birds or fish, and how to catch game by all possible means-traps, snares, dead-falls, etc...

Rations were carried in their packs by the soldiers. Food was prepared in mess tins, individually. The soldiers were encouraged to use dandelion shoots, grass nettles, and other herbs in conjunction with pemmican and oatmeal for making a stew. These herbs in the stew contributed vitamin C. While the standard Army ration was used during the training, the concentrated ration was substituted during tactical operations because of its small bulk and light weight. It was impressed on the students that the ration was sufficient to maintain them in satisfactory physical condition during these short operations, and to enable them to perform their assigned tasks without undue hunger and fatigue.


Such skills are still taught and practiced. Here, British Royal Marines training in Norway put together a survival shelter from pine boughs. Looks like trout for dinner.

Rhodesian

During the counter insurgency in Rhodesia, the Selous Scouts went to extremes when it came to teaching brutal bush survival skills, learning to eat things that truly would make a billy goat puke. But when all was said and done, those who passed the ungodly qualification course that washed out a huge percentage of applicants, really could live off the land anywhere, anytime.

Under selection each man is reduced to below a threshold which the average human being could not endure. He is virtually "dehumanised", forced to live off rats, snakes, baboon meat and eyes, to survive in hostile surroundings which prove that nature, too, can be as deadly as any human enemy. And they are taught to live off nature, to drink from the water in the carcass of a dead animal - a yellowish liquid - and to eat maggot-ridden green meat which can be cooked only once before becoming deadly poisonous.

Students are not given rations except for water. They are expected to survive off the land, making their own fires without matches, and making and using bark string - "gusi tambo" - to help catch food for themselves. They are soon hungry enough to capture any small creatures they can find - grasshoppers, lizards and squirrels - to stave off the hunger. "And you do get hungry." said one student who had recently been on the survival course. "We caught and killed a small leguaan, and before we even had time to skin it, one of the men was ready to take a bite out of it".


Well, okay, that last one is a bit much. I’d have to pass on that myself.

The point is that very few people in this day and age have any of these skills, and the military doesn’t teach much in the way of field skills anymore, and nothing in the way of feeding yourself other than how to open an MRE. Between ever-increasing urbanization, the emasculation of the American male, political correctness, the welfare state, and sheer laziness, those who are able to prepare their own food from the ground up are becoming rare indeed, even in the kitchen. Never mind cooking it over an open fire. In many cases, U.S. Army units overseas have even given up their field kitchens (and the soldiers, knowledge, and ability to use them) and chow is provided by private contractors!

Fobbits (they don't call 'em REMFs anymore) foraging for food in the desolate mountains of Afghanistan.
I don’t know who first made the statement, but I heartily agree. If you gave the average American a 10-pound bag of flour, he or she would starve to death using it as a pillow. Less than 5% of folks grow up involved in agriculture in any way now; plenty of people actually think that food is magically produced under cellophane at the supermarket. In most cases back East, not even the Boy Scouts teach cooking over an open fire and field skills anymore, just an increasing bunch of “love mother earth” crap. Even most hunters and outdoorsman don’t know how to do anything more than field dress an animal; from there it goes to the meat locker for the professional butcher to process. And due to environmental restrictions, the Army can’t even teach a soldier to dig a cat hole to crap in; field exercises have to be escorted by truckloads of Porta-Potties. The average urban dweller could probably not even start a fire without a five-gallon can of high octane.

This is all well and fine as long as everything in the system runs like a top, but few people realize how inter-dependent and actually delicate our modern infrastructure has become. It would only take the trucks to stop rolling for a few days, and the cities would begin to starve; there is only a 3-day food supply on hand between the stores and warehouses before it begins to run out. And when the cities start to starve, they will start to burn.

So, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to learn a few of these skills. After all, with the current leadership we’re enjoying, we could be a Third World country ourselves by 2012. If nothing else, Tea Partiers, Libertarians, Constitutionalists and smartass bloggers who have spoken out against the regime may have to take to the hills with Janet “Reno” Napolitano and a pack of federal attack dogs in hot pursuit.

I found this interesting, and a good place to start.
The Militia Cookbook

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a snake to eat.

4 comments:

Blue Ridge said...

You should write for a magazine or something... The best blog I've seen in a long time! Thank you, and keep up the good work.

Ed

Ben said...

I agree. A string of good posts, Bro!

Bawb said...

Wait till you see my next article on goat cavalry.

Oh yeah, and I do have another article on the Japanese knee mortar coming out in WWII History Magazine.

Ben said...

Japanese knee mortar? Cool! Sounds like something a Bond villain's henchman would have.

Remember that movie that came out a couple years ago where this chick had an functional M16 for a leg? That's cool too.

I never actually watched that movie, but the commercials were enough to inspire me to get my crayons out and draw up a patent submission for a toe launcher. (Not to be confused with a TOW launcher.) I still haven't heard from any defense contractors yet (obviously pussies). But a knee mortar sounds awesome! I can't wait to read that, I'm sure I won't be disappointed.

And GOAT calvary?! I've always been fascinated by the Italian army.