Back in the (colonial) day, where was a guy to go in order to get away from everything? The cows had been milked, the fields had been sowed, the horses brushed. As the moon slowly rose over the horizon and the stars twinkled one by one into existence, would Papa pinch out the wick of the candle and sneak out to the oasis of manhood? Sail to the island of smoky paradise? Slip into stream of flavor? Yeah, he would.
To get an idea of just how important the smokehouse was during colonial America, I took a ride up over Mount Kemble to join my friend and colleague, Monica (Funi), at the grand reenactment at Jockey Hollow National Historical Park, where, as a member of Jersey’s 2nd New Jersey Regiment, Helms’ Company (www.2nj.org), she was helping to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. During the war, most of the soldiers in the regiment would have held from western Central Jersey, especially from the Hunterdon County area. Although the regiment regularly reenacts various battles and skirmishes, this weekend was especially cool because of the amount of interest and people taking part in the event. Members of the regiment would spend the weekend immersed in the lifestyle and activities that soldiers and those that supported them would have done almost 250 years ago. Because I am not a member, I can only guess about the conversations that were had in the evening over the blazing fire, before turning in for the night in their canvas tents. Gunpowder wet again! Ration bag light on tobacco. Anything stronger than tea? The drudgery and monotony of soldiers on the march, offset only by the extreme danger and comradery of brothers in arms. When Funi invited me up for the weekend, I looked forward to learning about how colonials prepared their meat. From previous visits, I know that the Wick House, which is the centerpiece of the park, has its own smokehouse, but I
was also interested in hearing about how soldiers ate meat on the march or in camp. Without refrigeration, the meat had to be preserved in other ways in order to have it available for days on end and in the heat.
When I arrived, I found Funi sitting with a group of soldiers in the shade of the Wick House doing what members of the regiment would have done between skirmishes: resting, eating and tending to their equipment. As a woman, Funi was heavily involved in the support structure of the fighting troops by making camp, helping to prepare meals and rations, tending the wounded, and making or repairing clothing. At the moment, she was decked out in her bright blue dress (looking great of course, even with battles raging around us) repairing a piece of clothing with needle and thread. Also in the group was Adam Young, of Clinton, a militia member that can be recognized by his distinctive blue woolen cap, who was currently repairing one of the rations bags that the soldiers would have carried. Funi introduced him as one of the best sources in the regiment to talk about how the troops stored and prepared their meat during the Revolutionary War. Throughout the conversation, Funi and I regularly exchanged glances as Adam belted out answers to all of my questions and elaborated with some pretty unusual facts.
Because livestock, such as cows and pigs, which were easy to keep, could move with the troops and would not spoil until after they were butchered, meat was abundant during the war. In fact, when soldiers signed up to fight in the army, one pound of meat per day was a common stipulation of the enlistment contract. Although in reality, meat was not issued except or every few days or so, it was more plentiful and not as highly sought after by the soldiers as fresh vegetables, which were more difficult to find and store. Vegetables rot really quickly. Although the soldiers carried muskets that were great at shooting quail and other game such as deer, squirrels, and rabbit (giving the guns the nickname of “fowlers”), soldiers were strictly forbidden to hunt while marching or camped. Ammunition was valuable and sometimes in short supply, and loud shots could easily give alert the enemy and give away positions. Random shots also were used to sound alarms, so although a furry critter on the ugly side of a barrel could have provided you with a tasty treat, the noise would have brought hundreds of unwelcome guests that would have strung you up… and taken your dinner.
But, lo, smoking the meat for added flavor (or any flavor other than salt) would not be in the cards. Soldiers weren’t able to smoke the meat, but were only able to boil it, extensively, to get rid of the salt taste. Not only would it extend the rations by creating broth, but the broth was also thought to help balance the four humors of the body (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) that regulated a person’s health. Archaeological evidence shows that soldiers did cook the meat over the open fire on the down-low though. Barrel bounds , twisted into various shapes to be placed over fires have been found at sites, suggesting that these were used to hold the meat above the flames. They were known to also use planks and set food on right on top of burning logs as well. Everybody living in this country can appreciate the sacrifice that the Patriots made in order to help our nation. The sacrifices that they made, men and women, to fight in a struggle against a force that was the strongest in the world at the time, must have been immense. To leave home and family for asuch a long amount of time, under extreme conditions, and at the risk of life or limb was a lot to ask. To think of what they gave up so that we had the opportunity to choose between Clinton and Trump in 2016! Perhaps one of the biggest sacrifices was giving up the delicious smoked meat that they left in their home’s smokehouse so that they could gnaw on boiled, over-salted meat. Hopefully, they returned to that smokehouse and appreciated the taste of great barbeque for the rest of their lives. Thank you, Funi and Adam, for sacrificing some of your time to talk with me.