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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hardtack and Johnny Cakes

     While I haven't seen the movie yet, I suppose there is a lot to be learned from Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of Abraham Lincoln.  It appears that there is even more to be learned from a Civil War Thanksgiving and a room full of wired, rowdy little boys.
     Several weeks ago, we took our Cub Scout troop to the local Texas Civil War Museum.  Once we fought our way through the gift shop that was strategically placed at the front of the museum, we joined up with our museum guide.  I knew that we were going to get along famously when he introduced himself as our guide through the age of the War of Northern Aggression.
      After some hands-on explanation of black powder rifles and combat formations, our guide was ready delve into the artifacts at hand; but then he hesitated a moment.  Singling out the largest of our young scouts, our guide made a claim that I immediately discounted as a bit of sensationalism. According to the guide, our tallest scout who is only in the 5th grade, is the same size as the average Civil War combatant. Without a McDonald's and Starbucks on every corner of the battlefield, nutritional standards of the day limited the size of most men of the era.  This point seemed lost on most of the boys, but an unsettling tremor seemed to pass through the parents on the fringes while the boys passed around civil war era firearms and gear.
      Clearing the small arms exhibition, we got our first peek at some of the uniforms on display.  In an instant, it was clear that our guide had not been telling tall tales.  Our "towering" Webelo was as tall as the former owner of the uniform, and frankly it would have been a stretch for him to button the overcoat around him.  Imagining our Webelo in uniform, running through war-torn country side, was very disconcerting.
Some men write about Badges of Courage.
I write about waffles.
     Eventually the discomfort subsided, and the parents seemed to settle into the museum.  From my untrained eye, the museum has done an outstanding job and sports some impressive artifacts, including some fascinating pieces unique to Texas' role in the carnage.
     Between the building suspense around the new Lincoln movie, and the cook books I found in the gift shop, I wasn't able to shake the intrigue building in my mind over wartime rations and average build of your average 19th century male.  There seemed only one thing that made sense.  Time to treat the boys to a Civil War Thanksgiving Feast.
     Even in the age of Google and Amazon, it turns out that finding good war-time recipes is something of a challenge.  Measurements don't translate, ingredients have fallen out of favor, antiquated methodology can be an insurmountable obstacle for a guy that sometimes struggles with microwave popcorn.  After several trips to Central Market, countless hours on the Internet and a bit of a domestic showdown with my lovely wife, our feast was ready to serve.
I think Acme Brick uses the
same recipe for its bricks
as the Union used for it
hardtack.
     As a starting point, we were duty bound to serve up some hardtack.  How the Union Army was able to survive on hardtack and win the war is a mystery to me.  If you haven't had hardtack, whip up a batch.  Be sure to eat it before it hardens.  I saw some joking references to hardtack from the War of 1812 being shipped to soldiers on the front lines of the Civil War... but I almost think that could be pulled off.  Roaches and hardtack will both survive the apocalypse.  Johnny Reb had hardtack as well, but they also ate a lot of Johnny Cakes which we made by the bushel-basket full.
     Dried fruit was sometimes sent by soldier's families, so we had dried apples and dried plums.  With a tip of the hat to the saviors of western civilization, we whipped up a batch of Irish mashed potatoes, consisting of boiled potatoes and green apples.  The main course, the highlight of the night, was rabbit stew.  Yeah, real rabbit.  Not boiled chicken.  Rabbit.  The meal was completed with ginger snaps and sweet tea.
     To my great surprise, several of the boys settled on the hardtack as their favorite.  One dad commented while we looked on in amazement, "You like that hardtack?  I guess you are ready to be a soldier then."
     That's when it finally hit me, and hard enough that even I could understand.  In less than a decade, most of these boys will be old enough to wear a different uniform, replete with body armor and modern sidearms. My two sons are included in this group.  Suddenly 18 years doesn't seem to be nearly long enough to contain the substance of childhood.
2nd Lieutenant
Darryn Andrews.
     I thought about men like 2nd Lieutenant Darryn Andrews.  The last time I saw him alive, he wasn't yet 2nd anything, he was just Darryn.  The last time I saw him alive, we were burying his sister.  When he died, he was defending the lives of men not much older than the boys that turned their noses up at my rabbit stew.  I thought of the flag lines I had stood in with the Patriot Guard while a family said good bye to a young man or woman, most closer in age to my own children than to me.  I remembered the face of every mother that shook the hand of every stranger standing in the flag line, sharing tears, hugging strangers, expressing their gratitude where none was needed.
     If I thought it would really work, I would serve all my boys hardtack and Johnny Cakes every day if it meant they would stay little boys for just a little while longer.

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