While the British soldiers fought the Americans in the 1812 battle at Stoney Creek, Upper Canada (now Ontario,) their wives cooked in front of the white canvas tents.
Each year in June a reenactment is held at Battlefield Park under the towering stone monument that marks the success of the British to defeat the American push to the West.
Shelley Mason is a reenactor from St. Mary’s, Ontario representing a British soldier’s wife with her husband and son. Armed with a keen interest in historic cookery, she was participating in the first annual Cast Iron Cook-Off, an interesting take on the chef competitions of our time but with a historic twist.
Each of the six participants were given a basket of ingredients including flour, butter, brown sugar, a tin of evaporated milk (in place of cow’s milk), salt and pepper, 2 eggs and some baking soda. In addition, each cook was given a secret ingredient and the rules gave permission to use what they may have in their tent pantry.
“It was not an easy life,” said Shelley, as she taught me how a soldier fed himself back in 1812. Each soldier was given a daily ration of: ½ lb. of dried peas, ½ lb. of rice, ½ lb. of butter, ¾ lb. of flour, and 1 ½ lb. of salt pork or beef that was packaged in England and was none too fresh. A common dish combined those ingredients and was like a green mush.
Shelley was making a Sweet Potato Pie for the Cast Iron Cook-off, using two cast iron frying pans over the open fire. She was wearing a wool apron as a potholder and to keep the sparks from burning her as she tended her pie.
Under a lottery system, 10 of every 100 soldiers could bring their wives and children from England. They were given smaller rations than the soldiers, however the wives were clever at foraging for berries and greens that could supplement the rations. They felt privileged to be cared for by the British Army. Soldiers could also buy extra supplies from the Sutler, a civilian who travelled ahead of the troops to sell them extra goods from the back of their wagon or a tent.
Gayle Allen who runs, “4 & 20 Blackbirds,” a Sutler style shop at reenactments, told me that soldiers in those times, were the only men that had money, as they were paid by the British government. Other settlers traded, bartered, grew or hunted their goods. Gayle told me that sugar was popular in the early 1800’s and was a status symbol. Rather than the cane sugar we are familiar with, sugar made from maple syrup and from whitish sugar beets enabled the baking of sweets.
Gayle bakes cookies using old recipes and serves lemonade to thirsty re-enactors and visitors. (See recipe section for a for shortbread cookies that she found in a recipe (receipt) book, that was 500 years old.
Sandra Burnison was busy cooking for the Cast Iron Cook-Off with her secret ingredient, parsnips. She was creating a loaf and added caramelized sugar and cinnamon on top. She has been coming to re-enactments since her boys were little and when her son became interested, she joined him to become a reenactor.
Ruth Heykoop from Niagara Falls had molasses in her basket and was cooking Peaches and Cornbread. She added brandied peaches from her larder as a topping over her walnut cornbread.
These women represent the dedicated wives who followed their soldiers and used what they had and what they could find to create the most interesting meals they could for their husbands. If a woman’s husband was killed in battle, they had 48 hours to find another husband or their rations ended.
I caught a glimpse of a Butternut Squash Pie made by “Brian,” who was fighting in the battle reenactment at the time of my visit. As I sat with a group of women, they gave me a peek of the pie and told me they were convinced that he would win the upcoming Cook-off.
At one camp, there was a bustle of cooking activity as a family cooked for the American soldiers who would soon return from battle ready for a good meal. Jacob McGillvary is a sixteen- year -old cooking enthusiast who had just turned out two pies. He loves baking and joins his family from the Acton, Georgetown, Ontario area to help cook for the reenactments.
At the camp of the Upper Canada Woodland Allies, I met reenactors representing the First Nations peoples who played an important role in assisting the British troops. They knew the lands and their diet consisted of jerky, white corn that had been browned in frying pans, mixed with nuts, berries, and supplemented with greens foraged in the forests. They carried food in pouches and took no time to cook meals while on the trail.
Jeff and Jessica Wakefield run a candy stand at reenactments. They sold Cartridge Candy, not sold in 1812, but made of a candy ball rolled up in paper with powder, much like musket cartridges. Jeff taught me that earlier in history, British soldiers made candy using their musket ball molds to create a sweet from ginger and molasses. This helped them avoid the dry mouth they developed when firing their muskets. Rock Candy was made in the early 1800’s and he first flavor was lemon.
I never learned who won the Cast Iron Cook-off, but I think all cooks showing us the past teach us how to use what we have to be creative cooks.
As the musket fire thundered in the fields, I could almost taste the meals that the soldiers would return to that evening. They had so little and fought so hard……