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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Eating Like a Soldier in the 1870s

By Mitch Baird, Fort Griffin Site Manager

At Fort McKavett’s annual West Texas Heritage Days living history event this spring, Fort Griffin State Historic Site staff demonstrated how the military fed horses and mules at Fort Griffin during the 1870s. We also included the subject of feeding soldiers and what food products were available at the sutler store operated by Conrad and Rath. Many folks don’t know that, in 1971, the military at Fort Griffin contracted with local farmers to plant more than 1,000 acres of corn to feed the horses, mules, and soldiers at Fort Griffin for the upcoming year.

Part of our demonstration was to trick kids into learning. We asked them: “Who helps make cornbread at home?” After someone answered that question, we handed them an ear of dried dent corn and told them to “show me how!” This was usually met with a blank stare or a confused look. After a few moments, we took the kids from the goat cart full of dried corn to the corn sheller, and let them crank the handle and get the corn off the cob. Next, we showed them the food mill and let them grind corn meal.

After that, we talked about milking cows and making butter, getting eggs from the chickens, mixing the cornbread, splitting wood, building a fire, and how only now we can bake our cornbread. Most kids comment, “That’s a lot of work!” And we reply, “but wait, we don’t just want cornbread for supper! Do you want pork or chicken with your cornbread?” When someone answers we tell them, “then go catch it and get it ready to cook!”

We also talked about green coffee beans and hard tack crackers, or worm castles as we call them, which were commonly infested with weevils (as shown below). Yum!

We showed the children other food items that soldiers could purchase at the sutler store: canned oysters or lobster costing .45 cents for one pound or .80 cents for two pounds; sardines costing .30 cents for a quarter-can or .50 cents for half a can; and different types of processed meats, such as wild game sausage, which were also available at various prices. Canned corn could be purchased for .35 cents, and fresh ears of corn in the summer were only .05 cents an ear. We introduced the history subject of the U.S. Reconstruction Period by explaining that soldiers used Tabasco sauce to eat the sardines or oysters. Did you know that Tabasco is a product of Reconstruction in Louisiana?

While the kids cranked the handles and grinded the corn, they didn’t realize it until it was too late—they learned something and had fun at the same time. And we had fun, too. Next, we take this demonstration to Fort Chadbourne on May 4–5, and then to Fort Lancaster on May 18–19. Come make corn meal with us and see our weevil-infested hard tack!

Fort Griffin State Historic Site is located 15 miles north of Albany on U.S. Hwy 283, in the Texas Forts Trail Region.

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