Thursday, June 9, 2016

Menu Planning in the 19th Century: Easy Authentic Alternatives to Convenience Foods

Recently I was at an event, not as a participant- just as a spectator, when I saw it. It was coming across the yard near the campfire, a plate stacked high with bread. Mmmmm bread, sandwich bread, from a bag- a whole loaf, stacked on a plate, beside it being carried was a bag of potato chips. My heart sank. Why would you do this?
Then I remembered, that's why I started this blog. I wanted to show that what is eaten at an event can be just as important as the clothing and weaponry being used. Period food does take effort, but with small changes, anyone can do it.

Picnic Table
The above photo is one of a standard summer picnic table, however, more than once, I have seen a very similar scene at living history events. Plastic ketchup bottles dotting tables surrounded by piles of hot dogs and potato chips, lunch meat packages and cheese wrappers. Why? The most common answer is usually convenience, others would say that it's hard to feed their kids period food (see this post). But even small changes in your food choices can make a big difference in your impression. Once you have a glaring yellow mustard bottle on your otherwise period correct table, what would you say to a visitor that walked up and inquired about your meal? "Oh, well, we just eat whatever we want."  Hmmm, there goes the credibility of any other good impression.


Heirloom Tomatoes at my local grocery. 
Simple period meals do not require much more than a trip to the grocery store. Take a walk through the produce section. What do you see? Chances are many of the items were available in the 19th century. Something as simple as potatoes & onions can provide a nice lunch verses modern hot dogs if you have a fire. Seasonal fruit (apples, berries, etc.) can be great snacks that do not even need to be cooked! (Which are great things to have around at those summer events.) What do all of these have in common? No cooler required either!

Loaves of bread ready for purchase. 
Moving along in the grocery store, we come to the bakery section. Stop, smell, smile. I do love bread, especially fresh bread. Many of us do not have time to bake bread at home for upcoming events, although, I do try, and you  may find it rewarding to try your hand at it as well. There are many alternatives to bags of sandwich bread. One, you can get bags of ready-made dough in the freezer section will cut down on prep time but still allow baking at home. Another option is to just buy the bread. Many stores offer a variety of fresh baked breads, or try a local bakery for a good loaf.

Let's keep moving. Meat. Honestly, you can go a day or two without it. If that is not an option there are alternatives to the bologna packages. I usually go with cured meats for a weekend- slab bacon, sausage, ham, etc. If I have fresh meat I cook it the first day and use leftovers for other recipes. (Such as using roast chicken in soup, or left over beef in a meat pie.) Meat does not have to be a main event of a meal- use it in soups or stews, use it as part of a ploughman's spread, etc. A great thing about the mid-19th century is that there are some canned meats available, such as corned beef. These canned meats do not require refrigeration and travel well.

Up next, dairy. I honestly do not think that I have served a meal at an event that did not involved dairy in some way. Milk, cream, butter, cheese, eggs. There are ways around it, but I prefer not to forgo my dairy. Buy cheese that can hold up for a weekend- Parmesan, cheddar, etc. If you have access to smaller stores you can get "hoop cheese" that is still sealed in wax and can last the weekend without being refrigerated. Butter can be kept in stoneware crocks with lids to keep it cool. Milk/cream can also be kept in crocks or stoneware jugs in a cool place (shady, or in a tub of water) if the weather is not too warm. There are also powered and shelf-stable milk options, I personally have never tried these, but have met reenactors that use them.

My spice tin stays stocked and ready. 
General groceries- the aisles that never end. Let's take a look at what can be used here. Dry beans. There really is no easier one-pot meal than beans, they hold up well and are great to eat no matter the weather.  Crackers, ditch the Ritz, go for "water crackers" they are readily available in most grocery stores and can be served with any meal- have them with cheese for lunch or serve with stew for dinner. They are also great to have on hand as part of a child friendly snack. Spices. These displays of plastic containers can be daunting- but keep a general spice tin stocked for events. Mine contains mace, mustard, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. I keep salt in a separate container. Spices give even a drab pot of beans all the flavor they need! There are a few canned goods that can be used as well- peaches, evaporated milk, and I mentioned corned beef earlier- just be sure to change the labels out. Another great grocery item to have, especially at hot events- pickles! Grab a jar of pickles, transfer them to a crock and keep them readily available all day for crunching on and restoring electrolytes. Don't forget that the good staples are also found on these shelves- whole-wheat flour, sugar, cornmeal.

Well, that was a quick trip around the store. There are plenty of options to make great meals for a weekend with! Remember, if we make smarter decisions about the foods we bring, we are offering a better interpretation of the 19th century. There is always room for improvement.
A much improved lunch spread!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Amanda,
    Thanks for posting this. The first time having a farby table hit me was in 2004, with my old unit. I know at least one of those guys spent $400 on his frock coat and maybe $150 for his forage cap. I know he was very particular about uniform accuracy. But one weekend, we were at an event and I looked over and saw him and the guys sitting or standing around a table with a big box of Ritz crackers on it. Not to mention, the table was pretty sloppy anyway. It really made me think of how much that devalues your impression... especially after spending hundreds of dollars. I definitely think having a nice set-up is more attractive to visitors and draws people in.

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