Feast and Phrase

Gastronomy in the world of words.

Category: Gastronomy and Non-Fiction


Five Things Fur Trappers Ate

If you’ve watched Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, you’ll have noticed that Leonardo DiCaprio’s fur-trapper character Hugh Glass eats just about anything as he tries to survive in the wilderness. He scarfs scraps of plants, chomps on raw salmon, sucks out bone marrow from a rotting skeleton, and, most famously, samples raw bison liver. Regarding that last option – as has now been widely publicized – DiCaprio willingly abandoned the jelly-based prop he had been given and bit into the real thing for a more authentic look on camera.

The real-life Hugh Glass and other mountain adventurers have earned their place as some of the toughest folk in American (and indeed, world) history. What sort of food was on their menu?

Here are five things that fur trappers ate:

1. Bison (Buffalo)

bison 2

‘Buffalo meat tastes much better than beef. The meat of the cows is usually tenderer and fatter than that of the bulls, and particularly deserves the preference in summer, when the bulls are lean and unpalatable.’

So writes Dr F. A. Wislizenus in A Journey to the Rocky Mountains in 1839. Wislizenus was a physician from Germany who moved to America and ended up joining a company of fur traders on the Oregon Trail. His account gives a vivid idea of their lifestyle. Fur trappers worked up quite an appetite thanks to vigorous day-to-day activities and debilitating outdoor conditions. Meat was essential for getting through, and they certainly ate a lot of it. As Wislizenus recounts:

‘Considering the absence of bread, and the traveler’s life in the open air and daily exercise, it is not remarkable that the appetite makes unusual demands, and that people, who formerly were accustomed to eat scarcely a pound of meat daily, can consume eight and ten times as much of fresh buffalo meat, without being gluttons on that account.’

F. A. Wislizenus, A Journey to the Rocky Mountains in 1839.


Bison seem to have been the favourite meat source, offering plenty to hungry hunters:

‘From the slain buffalo only the best pieces are taken, namely, the tongue, the ribs, the hump ribs, the meat on either side of the backbone, and the marrow bones, with at times also the liver and kidney. Buffalo tongues are celebrated; in dried condition they are sent by thousands to the States; but the ribs, especially the hump ribs of a fat cow, are much finer. They are usually roasted on the spit, while other parts are better suited for boiling.’

Wislizenus, A Journey to the Rocky Mountains in 1839.

Wislizenus adds that fire-roasted bison thigh-bones give ‘the finest marrow that ever tickled a gourmand’s palate’. Why waste?

2. Elk


This large member of the deer family was one alternative to the bison. Wislizenus states that elk meat ‘has in taste most resemblance to beef; but is inferior to buffalo meat’. For trader Charles Larpenteur, it appears to have been a lifesaver:

‘Toward spring [1863] we were in a starving condition, game of all kinds extremely scarce, and men afraid to go out for a hunt. For about six weeks I lived on nothing but jerked elk meat, having some salt but being entirely out of other groceries. There is little substance in elk meat.’

Charles Larpenteur, Forty years a fur trader on the upper Missouri: the personal narrative of Charles Larpenteur, 1833-1872.

There was clearly enough substance to keep Larpenteur alive – though six weeks of the stuff evidently bored his taste buds to death.

3. Beavers

BeaversA pair of beavers. Image from Flickr user finchlake2000. All other images in this article have been taken from Pixabay.

Beaver pelts were big business, so it is unsurprising that trappers tucked into beavers. According to Wislizenus, ‘their meat is very palatable’, and ‘the tails, which are fat all through, are especially regarded as delicacies’.

4. Berries


Berries made for portable, high-energy snacks in the wilderness. They could also be a desperate last resort in times of scarcity, as Larpenteur makes known: ‘We remained in camp two days. From this point until we got to the other side of the mountains, game became so scarce that we had to live for two days on such berries and roots as we could find.’

5. Bears


One of the fur trappers’ most dangerous ‘enemies’ also turned out to be a rather nourishing addition to the table. In his Journal of a Trapper, Osborne Russell recalls ‘an elegant supper of Grizzly Bear meat and Mutton nicely stewed and seasoned with pepper and salt which as the mountain phrase goes “is not bad to take” upon an empty Stomach after a hard days riding and climbing over mountains & rocks’.

He also remembers another occasion where bear was prepared, revealing that ‘it took a longer time to cook than any meal I ever saw prepared’, but even so, ‘all pronounced it the best meal they had ever eaten as a matter of course where men had been starving’.

It would probably have been a dark twist on a certain fairy-tale if, while eating, one of the men had complained, ‘This bear is too hot!’ or ‘This bear is too cold!’. By the looks of it, that bear was ‘just right’.

Victoria Sponge

Queens and Cake

This week saw Queen Elizabeth II become Britain’s longest-ruling monarch, beating her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria’s record of 63 years and 216 days. Various elements of their respective reigns have been compared, from family size and shape of economy, to the number of coins circulated under each and the number of streets named after them. In that last category, Queen Elizabeth II is well in the lead: 237 to Victoria’s 153!

With all this going on, the first thing that came to my mind (in true foodie fashion) was Victoria Sponge: the classic British teatime cake that gives mouthfuls of summery goodness with its combination of raspberry jam and cream. No, wait – that should read ‘anytime’ cake.

Victoria Sponge TwoVictoria Sponge, photographed by Flickr user Derek E-Jay. The featured image for this article was photographed by Flickr user gordonplant.

Sponge cakes were popular during the 18th century and grew more so with the development of ‘afternoon tea’. This hallowed British tradition supposedly came about in the 1840s thanks to Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford. Unable to face the long gap between lunch and dinner, she asked to be served a snack of tea, buttered bread, and cake in the middle of the afternoon. Her friends were later called on to enjoy this with her, and the practice spread.

http://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/afternoon-tea/An image of Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, from around 1820. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

Victoria Sponges were one type of cake served at teatime, said to have been a favourite of Queen Victoria; hence the name. They were then known as ‘Victoria Sandwiches’ – a name which is of course still common today. The first written record of the term can be found in the famed 1861 publication, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Note the lack of cream, which seems to have been a later addition:


  1. INGREDIENTS – 4 eggs; their weight in pounded sugar, butter, and flour; 1/4 saltspoonful of salt, a layer of any kind of jam or marmalade.

Mode.—Beat the butter to a cream; dredge in the flour and pounded sugar; stir these ingredients well together, and add the eggs, which should be previously thoroughly whisked. When the mixture has been well beaten for about 10 minutes, butter a Yorkshire-pudding tin, pour in the batter, and bake it in a moderate oven for 20 minutes. Let it cool, spread one half of the cake with a layer of nice preserve, place over it the other half of the cake, press the pieces slightly together, and then cut it into long finger-pieces; pile them in crossbars on a glass dish, and serve.

Time.—20 minutes.
Average cost, 1s. 3d.
Sufficient for 5 or 6 persons.
Seasonable at any time.

From Chapter 29 of Isabella Beeton’s Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

This recipe may not have been thought up by Isabella Beeton, as she plagiarized many of the pieces featured in her book. More importantly, note that even Mrs Beeton (or whoever thought up the original recipe) considered Victoria Sandwiches to be ‘seasonable at any time’. No arguments there!

 Beeton Household ManagementThe title page of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). Located via Wikimedia Commons.

In the spirit of comparison, it should be known that one of Elizabeth II’s favourite afternoon tea cakes is honey and cream sponge, according to her former royal chef, Darren McGrady. Another is chocolate biscuit cake, which also appears to be a family favourite – so much so that the Duke of Cambridge had it prepared for his wedding reception. Here’s the full recipe, taken with permission from McGrady’s website:

Chocolate Biscuit Cake

Makes 1 cake – 10 portions

Her Majesty the Queen’s favourite afternoon tea cake by far. This cake is probably the only one that is sent into the Royal dining room again and again until it has all gone.

4 ounces dark chocolate (for the cake)
4 ounces granulated sugar
4 ounces unsalted butter (softened)
1 egg
8 ounces Rich Tea biscuits
½ teaspoon butter for greasing
8 ounces dark chocolate (for coating)
1 ounce chocolate (for decoration)

  1. Lightly grease a 6 inch by 2 ½ inch cake ring and place on a tray on a sheet of parchment paper.
  2. Break each of the biscuits into almond size pieces by hand and set aside.
  3. Cream the butter and sugar in a bowl until the mixture starts to lighten.
  4. Melt the 4 ounces of chocolate and add to the butter mixture whilst constantly stirring.
  5. Beat in the egg to the mixture.
  6. Fold in the biscuit pieces until they are all coated with the chocolate mixture.
  7. Spoon the mixture into the prepared cake ring. Try to fill all of the gaps on the bottom of the ring because this will be the top when it is un-molded.
  8. Chill the cake in the refrigerator for at least three hours.
  9. Remove the cake from the refrigerator and let it stand while you melt the 8 ounces of chocolate.
  10. Slide the ring off the cake and turn it upside down onto a cake wire.
  11. Pour the melted chocolate over the cake and smooth the top and sides using a palette knife.
  12. Allow the chocolate to set at room temperature.
  13. Carefully run a knife around the bottom of the cake where the chocolate has stuck it to the cake wire and lift it onto a tea plate.
  14. Melt the remaining 1 ounce of chocolate and use to decorate the top of the cake.

Chocolate Biscuit Cake and Victoria SpongeCakes fit for queens: Victoria Sponge and chocolate biscuit cake. Taken from the website of Darren McGrady, former royal chef to Queen Elizabeth II.

Which cake you prefer is a matter of opinion and impossible choice (I suspect ‘both’ is the answer running through your head). That said, one thing is for sure: excellent taste in cakes definitely runs in the Royal Family!

Franklin Duplessis

Benjamin Franklin on Food

A few months ago I finished reading Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Walter Isaacson’s biography of ‘the most fascinating of America’s founders’. Given that I knew next to nothing about the man, other than of his legendary kite experiment and his invention of bifocals – ‘Double Spectacles’, as he called them – the account of his life, achievements, and character completely won me over.

Franklin_lightning_engravingAn engraved depiction of Franklin’s kite experiment from an 1881 textbook. Located via Wikimedia Commons. The featured image for this article is a portrait of Franklin by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, painted around 1785; image uploaded by Flickr user Cliff.

As Isaacson shows, he also took a keen interest in food. Despite his autobiographical claim that a ‘perfect inattention’ to ‘victuals on the table’ was fostered in him from childhood, food certainly does not go unnoticed in his personal writings, which contain a variety of recipes. Several are translated into French, likely from his time as a representative for American freedom in France during his seventies. Enough were found to prompt the 1958 publication of Gilbert Chinard’s Benjamin Franklin on the Art of Eating, which goes into more detail on the subject. It finds that Franklin adapted recipes from Hannah Glasse’s bestselling cookbook, The Art of Cookery, made Plain and EasyConsider the following:

Oyster Sauce for Boiled Turkey

Take one Pint of oysters draw out the Liquor which you will set apart, put them in cold water, wash and clean them well, put them in an earthen dish with their Liquor, in which you will put a shred of Nutmeg with a little butter strewed with flour and a quarter of a Lemon; boil them, then, put in a half Pint of Cream and boil slowly, all together; this done take out the Lemon, the Nutmeg, squeeze the Juice of a Lemon in the Sauce, then serve it in a Sauceboat.

From Benjamin Franklin on the Art of Eating, edited by Gilbert Chinard (1958). As featured in Gary Scharnhorst’s Literary Eats (2014).

Take a look at Glasse’s original recipe, which also calls for a celery sauce accompaniment.

1002px-Art_of_Cookery_frontispieceThe title page and frontispiece in a copy of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, made Plain and Easy, published around 1777. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

Cream, butter, and nutmeg: rather indulgent. For all his insistence on frugality, Franklin relished a good meal – or several, as was the case when in France. Living on the estate of the wealthy merchant Jacques-Donatien Leray de Chaumont, he enjoyed seven-course dinners and amassed a collection of wine containing over a thousand bottles. Such a lifestyle, accompanied by a lack of exercise, was not without its consequences: Franklin ended up suffering from gout. This prompted him to write a dialogue in which his personified malady scolded him for his ways, of which an excerpt:

FRANKLIN: Eh! oh! eh! What have I done to merit these cruel sufferings?

THE GOUT: Many things; you have ate and drank too freely, and too much indulged those legs of yours in their indolence.

FRANKLIN: Who is it that accuses me?

THE GOUT: It is I, even I, the Gout.

FRANKLIN: What! my enemy in person?

THE GOUT: […] While the mornings are long, and you have leisure to go abroad, what do you do? Why, instead of gaining an appetite for breakfast, by salutary exercise, you amuse yourself with books, pamphlets, or newspapers, which commonly are not worth the reading. Yet you eat an inordinate breakfast, four dishes of tea, with cream, and one or two buttered toasts, with slices of hung beef, which I fancy are not things the most easily digested. Immediately afterwards you sit down to write at your desk, or converse with persons who apply to you on business. Thus the time passes till one, without any kind of bodily exercise.

Benjamin Franklin, ‘Dialogue Between Franklin and the Gout’ (1780).

All this seems quite ironic when compared to the moderation Franklin called for in his youth. Take, for example, his advice in the 1734 edition of his renowned publication, Poor Richard’s Almanack: ‘Be temperate in wine, in eating, girls, & sloth; / Or the Gout will seize you and plague you both.’

L0000080 Dialogue between Franklin and the Gout‘Dialogue Between Franklin and the Gout’, as published in an 1819 collection by Franklin’s grandson, William Temple Franklin. From the Wellcome Library, London.

Around the age of 16, Franklin came across Thomas Tryon’s The Way to Health, first published in 1683, which sang the virtues of ‘a vegetable diet’. He was inspired to take up this form of vegetarianism, living off the likes of raisins and biscuits, boiled potatoes, and rice. No longer spending money on meat, he had ‘an additional fund for buying books’ and furthered his studies, feeling that his regime gave him ‘greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension’. He eventually changed his mind on a boat trip from Boston to New York; tempted by the smell of freshly-caught cod being rustled up the crew, Franklin caved in! His retelling of the incident paints it as a triumph of rational thinking:

‘Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion I consider’d, with my master Tryon, the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc’d some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, “If you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.” So I din’d upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.’

Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin AutobiographyA draft page from Franklin’s Autobiography. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

Later in his life, Franklin became an advocate for American foods. During the growing tension with Great Britain in the 1760s, he wrote in support of local produce:

‘[…] we have oatmeal in plenty, for water gruel or burgoo; as good wheat, rye, and barley as the world affords, to make frumenty; or toast and ale; that there is every where plenty of milk, butter, and cheese; that rice is one of our staple commodities; that for tea, we have sage and bawm in our gardens, the young leaves of the sweet white hickery or walnut, and, above all, the buds of our pine, infinitely preferable to any tea from the Indies; while the islands yield us plenty of coffee and chocolate […]’

Benjamin Franklin, ‘“Homespun”: Second Reply to “Vindex Patriae”’ (2 January, 1766).

Franklin BustA marble bust of Benjamin Franklin, made in 1778 by Jean-Antoine Houdon, now held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

He also kept an eye out for new gastronomical delights, sending seeds of rhubarb and scotch kale to correspondents back home. Most interestingly, one of his letters refers to tofu, which he learnt of in the work of 18th century missionary to China, Domingo Fernandez Navarrete. Franklin sent a sample of soybeans to American botanist John Bartram with ‘Father Navaretta’s account of the universal use of a cheese made of them, in China, which so excited my curiosity’. Prior to doing so, he got in touch with British merchant James Flint, who specialized in Chinese trade, to find out how it was made. Flint’s description of ‘the method the Chinese convert Callivances into Towfu’ may well be the earliest record of the word in English, though this has not been formally recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary as of yet. Franklin’s letter to Bartram spells it as Tau-fu.

Tofu and Peas‘I send, also, some green dry Pease, highly esteemed here as the best for making pease soup; and also some Chinese Garavances, with Father Navaretta’s account of the universal use of a cheese made of them…’ – from Franklin’s letter to John Bartram. Photo of tofu and peas by Flickr user Luca Nebuloni.

Whether experimenting with vegetarianism, arguing for American produce, or partying in France, Benjamin Franklin maintained a lifelong fascination with what he ate. While often sticking to his frugal practices, he was not one to miss out on the pleasures associated with eating – truly a ‘Founding Foodie’, as many have rightly termed him.


The Cucumber King

The forest was no place for riding that day, with air heavy and unforgiving, like swamp water to the lungs. Hands of foliage appeared ready to catch those falling from exhaustion, but all instantly gave way on touch. King Theinkho, son of Sale Ngahkwe, was drained and hungry. Far ahead of his company, he reached a clearing and dismounted. An empty squint revealed leafy rows extending up to a farmhouse in the distant shade, and, growing right before him, line on line of dark green gourds. Tearing one free, the monarch took a ravenous mouthful.

Hunched over his meal and crunching away, Theinkho heard nothing of the figure rising behind him. Then a thick spade handle crashed into the back of his skull, forcing his jaws to make their final bite. His body collapsed on the soil.

Cucumbers GrowingCucumber plants. Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

Many things have led to the deaths of kings, but ‘cucumber-stealing’ is difficult to imagine as being one of them. Bizarre as the crime may be, it appears to have occasioned the end of this Burmese Pagan dynasty ruler of the 10th century CE, with the exchange of power begun not at the tip of a sword, but the butt of a spade. Of course, the above description is fanciful; one entry in the Hmannan Yazawin, translated into English as The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma, puts it rather more plainly:

‘This was the manner of his death. He rode abroad for sport in the forest, and being hungry he plucked and ate a cucumber in a farmer’s plantation. And because he plucked it without telling him, the farmer struck him with the handle of a spade that he died.’

The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma, translated by Pe Maung Tin and G. H. Luce (1960).

Not that the story closes there – Hmannan Yazawin goes further. Theinkho’s groom, perhaps foreseeing chaos among the people, carried out a desperate cover-up operation. He told the farmer that ‘he who slayeth a king, becometh a king’. The man of the soil was less than keen, being more content with tending to his cucumbers. He was eventually won over by the groom’s promise that he would not only have all the riches of a ruler, but would also be allowed to keep his plantation going.

Bagan TemplesThe temples of Bagan, once the capital city of the Pagan dynasty. Photo from Flickr user KX Studio.

Secretly brought before the queen, who greatly approved of the whole plan, he took to the throne as Nyaung-u Sawrahan, also known as Taung-tah-gyi or Taungthugyi, the Cultivator King’. The Glass Palace Chronicle terms him ‘the farmer king’, while G. E. Harvey uses ‘Cucumber King’ in his History of Burma. Nyaung-u went on to turn his beloved cucumber patch into a grand garden.

There is likely to be more legend behind this tale than solid fact. In Hmannan Yazawin it is claimed that a concubine and a minister who scorned the new king were killed by a living stone statue near the palace door.  Harvey mentions that there is another version of the cucumber story in the Burmese narrative of one Princess Thudhammasari, with two more in historical accounts from Cambodia. While The Glass Palace Chronicle gives his reign as 931 to 964 CE, sources dispute when exactly Nyaung-u Sawrahan lived. It also credits him with the founding of five Buddhist temples; a stone tablet found in 1212 CE apparently mentions his refurbishment work on a local monastery, which may link to this.

TabinshwehtiKing Tabinshwehti (1512 – 1550), here depicted as a Nat, or Burmese folk spirit. He was supposedly assassinated while hunting for a white elephant. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

More certain is the history of cucumbers. The plant is held to have originated from the region between the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal, with excavations in 1970 at the Spirit Cave site between Burma and Thailand unearthing cucumber seeds dating to 9750 BCE. As for Burmese kings, several seem to have had unusual deaths – so Ben Schott writes in his classic collection of knowledge, Schott’s Original Miscellany. A number died through the actions of elephants, one due to laughter, and others thanks to buffaloes or poison. Even so, Theinkho’s end and the rise of the ‘Cucumber King’ remains the strangest of all.


Waterloo 200: Battlefield Victuals

In this two-part 200th anniversary special, Feast and Phrase looks at the food and words linked to the Battle of Waterloo. First course: Written accounts of battlefield feeding.

What food did soldiers have during the Waterloo Campaign of 1815? The frequent attribution of the popular saying ‘an army marches on its stomach’ to French leader Napoleon makes it all the more appropriate to ask. A collection of accounts published in the same year as the battle gives some idea of how those in the field ate – and how they didn’t:

‘The whole of the 17th, and indeed until late the next morning, the weather continued dreadful; and we were starving with hunger, no provision having been served out since the march from Brussels. While five officers who composed our mess were looking at each other with the most deplorable faces imaginable, one of the men brought us a fowl he had plundered, and a handful of biscuits, which, though but little, added to some tea we boiled in a camp-kettle, made us rather more comfortable; and we huddled up together, covered ourselves with straw, and were soon as soundly asleep as though reposing on beds of down.’

‘Letter from an Officer to his Friend in Cumberland’, in The Battle of Waterloo, published by John Booth (1815).

De_Slag_bij_Waterloo_Rijksmuseum_SK-A-1115.jpegDe Slag bij Waterloo (The Battle of Waterloo), by Dutch artist Jan Willem Pieneman (1824). Located via Wikimedia Commons. The featured image at the top of this article is Wellington at Waterloo by English painter Robert Alexander Hillingford, also found on Wikimedia Commons. Grand and impressive as both works are, they show a very different reality to that endured by the combatants.

Difficulty getting supplies to British troops and their European allies during clashes before and during 18 June meant that many were fighting on low fuel. The French were similarly afflicted, with their support wagons falling behind as they advanced into Belgium. As evidenced above, fighting was fed by foraging, which made up for direly insufficient rations. The process could drain areas of resources – one report by a French eyewitness almost seems to liken it to a Biblical plague:

‘As soon as the troops had taken even a momentary position in the vicinity of a village, they rushed like water from a broken dam over all the country beneath; corn, cattle, bread, meat, even household furniture, linen and clothes disappeared in an instant. The village became a mass of ruins; empty houses; broken doors, and the inhabitants flying into the woods and fields. The adjacent fields, hitherto covered with the promise of a rich harvest, seemed like the straw in a stable trodden under foot; and the fires of the bivouacks, leaving their blackening traces in meadows and corn fields, seemed to mark so many places which had been struck by thunder.’

From The Journal of the Three Days of the Battle of Waterloo, translated from the French (1816).

Waterloo_campaign_mapA plan of the Waterloo Campaign, located via Wikimedia Commons.

Finding enough food in a conflict situation is one problem; finding enough time to eat it is another. A British officer’s description of the lead up to the Battle of Quatre Bras (two days prior to Waterloo) shows the overriding force of urgency and orders:

‘[…] we had scarcely rested ourselves, and commenced dressing the rations, which had been served out at Enghien, when an Aide-de-Camp from the Duke of Wellington arrived, and ordered us instantly under arms, and to advance with all speed to Les Quatre Bras, where the action was going on with the greatest fury, and where the French were making rapid strides towards the object they had in view […] The order was, of course, instantly obeyed; the meat which was cooking, was thrown away; the kettles, &c. packed up, and we proceeded, as fast as our tired legs would carry us, towards a scene of slaughter, which was a prelude well calculated to usher in the bloody tragedy of the 18th.’

‘Extract of a Letter from an Officer in the Guards’ (21 June 1815), in The Battle of Waterloo, published by John Booth (1815).

Wollen,_Battle_of_Quatre_BrasThe Black Watch at Bay, by British painter William Barns Wollen (1894). The Scottish regiment is shown fighting at the Battle of Quatre Bras. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

Following victory, the trouble with provisions continued. Some British soldiers ‘slept supperless in the fields’; others hunting for sustenance found French huts full of meat which was dealt with so hurriedly that it was rendered inedible:

‘[…] scattered over their floors were numerous fragments of meat partly raw, partly half-cooked, which in the hurry of some movement had been thrown away. The British soldiers were very hungry, but they could not bring themselves to taste these viands […] raw meat of every description in abundance – beef, pork, and mutton; but it had been so beaten about in the hurry of the strife, and was so vilely dressed – the very hides being in many instances left upon the morsels, and these but indifferently bled’.

George Robert Gleig, Story of the Battle of Waterloo (1847).

Napoleon_French_Lancer_by_BellangeA Lancer in Napoleon’s Grande Armée, or ‘Great Army’. Illustration by Horace Vernet in Laurent de l’Ardèche’s Histoire de l’Empereur Napoléon (History of the Emperor Napoleon), published in 1843. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

According to the National Army Museum, a British soldier’s basic everyday ration during the Napoleonic Wars was a pound of meat – fresh or salted – and the equivalent weight of bread biscuits.  Other items could include oats, cheese, vegetables, rice, and alcohol. The biscuits were generally made of wheat, with added barley in times of poor harvest. Their tough, solid texture earned them the name ‘hard tack’, while normal bread was known as ‘soft tack’.

One such biscuit is featured in the museum’s online showcase of ‘200 Objects from Waterloo’; another eye-catching food-related item is a nutmeg grater made of silver. This was the possession of Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole, an Irish officer who served under Wellington but missed Waterloo as he was honeymooning at the time! Given the high cost of the spice due to Dutch monopolies on trade, to have and to use such a piece of equipment was an unmistakeable indicator of wealth. It also allowed for much more exotic meals than those on standard rations might enjoy. Wellington apparently remarked that Cole gave ‘the best dinners in the army’, while his own were ‘no great things’. Not that officers lived a life of complete luxury – if supplies were strained, they suffered with their men.

Bryan DonkinAn image of British industrialist Bryan Donkin, who revolutionized food storage by being the first person to mass-preserve goods in tin cans. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

One innovation which made an appearance at Waterloo was canned food. As Tom Standage writes in An Edible History of Humanity, this developed from a preservation technique of sealing food in bottles, thought up by Frenchman Nicolas Appert in 1749. In the 1810s, a merchant by the name of Peter Durand received the first patent to do so in England, later selling it to British industrialist Bryan Donkin. He replaced the bottles with cans, and the technology took off. Can openers were not invented until around fifty years later, so soldiers would have to prise their rations free using a trusty bayonet or chisel.

British Rations21st century British rations: A 24-hour Multi-Climate Ration (MCR) pack developed by the Ministry of Defence in 2009. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

Canned foods are common sights in modern ration packs, which can feature everything from squid to Szechuan noodles for a taste of home, depending on their country of origin. To note this and recall men in the first source ‘starving with hunger’ and ‘looking at each other with the most deplorable faces imaginable’ makes it all the more clear: whether meat and biscuits or stuffed peppers and halva, food plays an essential part in boosting morale. 

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