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The Mess Group Leader’s Guide

By Elizabeth McAnulty and the Company of Select Marksmen [additions by Matthew Murphy]


[Omitted were sections on brush shelters and guard duty (since we follow a different guard system).  For information on brush shelters I refer you to John Rees' articles on the subject.  All of my additions are bold and in brackets.  MM 3/03] [Further additions made 7/03]


Food and Cooking

Mess group leaders are responsible for the care and feeding of their troops.  It is the most important responsibility in the hobby.  It is your job to make sure that everyone is warm, dry, fed, and watered.  Here’s how:


Cooking/ Carrying Materials

Ideally a soldier would have a haversack or knapsack to carry his food in.  Since many men never had these items they came up with alternative methods such as wrapping their food in their  blanket, handkerchief or spare shirt.  What are you eating with?  You are a poor soldier (or his female companion), so you would usually do without fancy things like knives or forks.  You may have a basic pewter or wooden spoon, but those two 5-digit things on the ends of your arms are documented for use.  A basic wooden bowl and tin cup are also helpful.  Every man should also have a canteen to carry his liquid issue in.

For cooking, you will have to use a kettle, wooden spoon (or fresh cleaned stick), or some of the things described below.  In all instances the rule "less is more" can be applied when considering supplies.

When in an established tented camp the best tool for cooking is a camp kitchen.  It's highly recommended that when the situation permits, a camp kitchen be made and used (see John Rees' article on this subject for the proper dimensions and particulars of camp kitchens).  If you're just in a spot for the evening, then you should use available wood, stones (etc..) to make the frame you're going to hang your kettle from.    


Per mess group of 6

[For the 2nd New Jersey it is highly recommended, for accounting and practical reasons, that one person purchase food for the entire unit.  The rations can be divided at the event.] Amounts are given in pounds/ounces so that you can determine amounts when shopping at a grocery store.  (Measurement in cups is in parentheses- It will be useful to know how much your bowl and or cup holds, so you can use it as a measure.  Every ‘man’ should consider marking the base of his cup and or bowl with its volume in Imperial and metric.  This will save time in the field!)


[The most appropriate meals below are marked by a '*']

[Even though meat was very common in a soldier's diet, it can be omitted from many of the recipes.]


Boiled beef or pork with sauce

- 2 -3 pounds of any of the following: corned beef, ham, fresh pork, or fresh beef

- 1-2 onions

- Bag of carrots, about 2 pounds

- 1-3 Large bunches of greens (depending on size)

---for spring, summer, or fall, might use kale, chard, spinach, beet greens, etc.

---in fall you can also use cabbage

---in late fall or winter, you can use sauerkraut [Sauerkraut was regularly used by British troops but only occasionally by Continentals]

[Fresh greens were hard to get, but it is known that cabbage could be had...especially when soldiers "found" it during their march.]


*Pease Soup/Porridge

- 1 pound dried split peas

2-3 pounds ham or corned beef

1-2 onions

may also include spinach or other greens [Greens were hard to get, but it is known that cabbage could be had.]


Stewed Beef Gobbets

2-3 pounds fresh beef (might also use lamb if desired)

6-8 turnips

6-8 carrots

½ pound rice or barley (about 1 cup)  [Rice was not so readily available, so it is an option to go without it.]


*Beef Pudding

2-3 pounds fresh beef (might also use lamb, corned beef, ham, etc.)

1 ½-2 pounds flour (about 3 ½-4 cups of flour is one pound)

¾-1 pound butter-use half as much butter as flour by weight (1 stick=1/4 pound=1/2 cup)


Pellow or Pilau (chicken and rice)

½ pound piece of ham

1-2 chickens (depending on size)

1 pound rice (about 2 cups)

2-3 onions


*Corn Meal Mush/Hasty Pudding

½-3/4 pounds corn meal-preferably white (1-1 ½ cups)

2 ounces Butter (about ½ stick)-optional

2-6 eggs if desired [It is more appropriate to make this recipe without butter or eggs.  A meal and water mixture on it's own was common at the time.]


Oatmeal Hasty Pudding

1 pound steel cut oats-not rolled oats (1½-2 cups)

2 ounces butter (about ½ stick)-optional



½ pound flour (about 2 cups)

¾ stick butter

1-2 eggs   [Again, this is more appropriate without the butter or eggs.  The soldiers would have taken their flour ration, rolled it in water, and then dropped the rolled dough into the kettle.]  


Appropriate Fruits

Spring-berries (strawberries and raspberries), cherries, dried fruit

Summer-melons, berries (blueberries and blackberries), grapes, peaches, plums

Fall-apples, pears

Winter-dried fruit, possibly apples



About 2 loaves for a weekend (unless very small-then 3) should be enough for 2 lunches and 1 dinner-choose round or oval loaves of yeast bread, un-sliced, white or brown, with no additions (e.g., seeds, herbs, etc.).  If you want to bake bread (this is NOT necessary, as acceptable bread is almost always readily available at most grocery stores), make very plain yeast bread shaped into a round or oval loaf (do not bake in bread pan).  [Since "soft" bread would spoil quickly biscuits were more commonly found in the army.  See below for a recipie for simple biscuits.]

Matt's additions below (All are highly recommended):


Biscuits - This recipie can make enough to feed one mess for one day (about 16 cakes).

4 cups of wheat flour.

1/2 - 1 tbls. of salt

mix together with water to make into dough

cut into 2/4" wide and 1/4" high biscuits and poke 10-15 holes in the cakes

heat oven for 400 degrees. Bake on tray for about 1/2 hour or until biscuits are hard.  Let dry overnight.


Plain ol' Beef, Pork or Shad (fresh)

Even though the officers ordered their men to boil their meat, the men used makeshift equipment to broil their allotment.  One can use twisted barrel bands (pigtail grill), sticks, converted tools (old shovels), bayonets (don't let the officers see you do this) or even just throw the meat onto the coals (though that could be nasty).  As one might complain about the lack of meat in a meal today, the opposite existed back then. 


Salted Beef, Pork or Shad

Since fresh meat spoiled easily the soldiers were frequently given some of the salted type.  Salted fish can be found but needs to be soaked in water before consumption. 

Here is a recipie for salt meat packing during the war:


 "After the meat is cooled, it is cut into 5 lb. pieces which are then rubbed well with fine salt.  The pieces are then placed between boards, a weight brought to bear on the upper board so as to squeeze out the blood.  Afterwards the pieces are shaken to remove the surplus salt, [and] packed rather tightly in a barrel, which when is full is closed.  A hole is then drilled into the upper end and brine allowed to fill the barrel to the top, the brine being allowed to fill to the top, the brine being made of 4 lbs. of salt, 2 lbs. of brown sugar and four gallons of water with a touch of saltpeter.  When no more brine can enter, the hole is closed.  This method of preserving meat not only assures that it keeps longer but also gives it a rather good taste."


Fire Cakes

Flour was as common as beef.  Often this is all they had...a sad pile of dust.  You can mix the flour or corn meal with water and cook it on a stone in the fire, make it into cakes and cook it on a board, or even just throw it onto the coals (nasty).


Pumpkin Meal Cakes

Corn meal mixed with squash or pumpkin made into cakes.  You can then prepare them like fire cakes.   


"Do Boys"

A soldier in upstate NY described this.  He basically threw his flour cakes into the container he broiled his beef in.  You may also drop your dough cakes into the kettle that still contains the flavored water of the beef you boiled.


"Frumenty" (also spelled "Fermity")

Boiled wheat/rye cakes (possibly with sugar) boiled brown.



Boiled corn mush meal. (Brown sugar may be added for flavor.)


Milk Porridge

A milk base thickened with any grain, hardtack, or bread crumbs.


Instructions for Recipes

(**salt and pepper may be added to taste for all recipes below)


Boiled Meat with Sauce, or Stewed Beef Gobbets

1-2 hours cooking time depending on fire, attendance to fire, and whether or not food is actually simmering (at least) for the whole time

This recipe can boil actively, and requires a little less attention, but make sure liquid level doesn’t get too low

 Don’t use onions if Dave Austen[Paul Hutchins] is in your mess group or eating this meal

May add dumplings or broken apart hardtack to the Boiled Meat with Sauce

For Stewed Beef Gobbets-add rice or barley for last ½ hour of cooking


*Pease Soup/Porridge

Start soaking dried peas at breakfast (cover with water)

1-2 hours cooking time depending on factors listed above and whether peas have been soaked

Don’t put in onions if Dave Austen[Paul Hutchins] is in your mess group or eating this meal.

Simmer until peas are tender, but watch water level, and add more if soup gets dry and thick

As soup gets thicker, use a little less heat, but keep it simmering.



About 1-2 hours cooking time (see comments above)

Don’t use onions if….(see above)

 Just enough water to cover chicken, ham, and onions

May remove chickens when done to keep somewhat whole, and cook rice after, or add rice for last ½ hour of cooking


*Roast Meat

Need a high, blazing fire

Plan for about 20-30 minutes per pound of meat (hint:  if meat cut into smaller portions, cooking time for whole roast is reduced)-original recipes suggest 15 minutes a pound for beef-they liked it pretty rare

Put roast(s) on a sturdy, peeled green stick and prop between forked sticks or on stones or whatever-if roast is cut into smaller pieces, leave an inch or two between pieces of meat on the stick

Meat should be beside the fire (not over it)-about 1 foot away

Turn about a quarter turn every 15 minutes

OR, just give everyone a hunk of meat and let them roast their own on a stick


Hot Cereals/Hasty Puddings

Bring water to boil first

½-1 hour depending on factors discussed above

When water is boiling, slowly shake in corn-meal or oats, stirring constantly

As cereal thickens, may add butter, beaten eggs, nuts, or fruit

Monitor fire and cooking as cereal thickens, so that cereal does not burn and stick over hot fire-may need to add water or lower temperature



Mash/stir butter until soft and cohesive (not chunks), or else cut up into little pieces, and mix with flour so that texture of whole is kind of uniformly crumbly

Add egg if you have it

Add a little bit of cold water and see if you can shape dumpling into a ball that stays pretty much a ball

Drop balls of dumpling dough or spoonfuls of dough (if it’s a little softer) into boiling broth with vegetables or boiled meat

Dumplings are usually done when they have risen back to the top of boiling broth and cooked for 10-20 minutes (depending on size)


Beef Pudding

Bring about ½ kettle of water to boil

Follow directions for mixing butter and flour as described for dumplings above

Add a little cold water and mix until you have a cohesive dough that you can shape/press into some sort of uniform shape

Wet a large, closely woven linen cloth, and press dough into a large circle on the cloth (about ¼-1/2 inch thick)

Place meat, cut into about 1-inch cubes or thin slices (may also leave whole, but will take longer to cook), in center of dough circle.

Bring sides of cloth together, and tie snuggly with string, so that pudding is like a big ball or dumpling

Drop pudding into boiling water

Boil for 1-2 hours depending on factors listed above, and make sure that water level stays high and stays boiling throughout-also, fresh pork or corned beef will take longer than fresh beef, lamb, or ham

May cook vegetables or meat in same kettle if there’s room


List of some known ingredients used by Continental soldiers           


This is a list of some known ingredients used by Continental soldiers.  Of these the most common items were beef, pork, peas, beans, and flour:

beef, flour, peas, watercressbeans, salt pork, hard bread, potatoes, turnips, onions, mutton, squashes, carrots, beets, cabbage, geese, parsnips,

sugar, vinegar, salt, ducks, corn meal, pig to roast, turkey, chicken, eggs, cheese, apples, asparagus                   



Liquid Rations

Rum, rum with water (British troops frequently carried this mixture in their canteens, but Continentals sometimes did the same), spruce beer, cider, peach or apple brandy, vinegar, vinegar with water, molasses.  Less common items included sugar, coffee, tea, chocolate and pepper.


General Cooking Instructions/Information


Care and use of camp kettles

- Do not use without liquid (that means no frying or baking, only boiling)-coating will melt

Do not let blazing fire come up side of kettle above line of liquid

Whenever kettle is beside fire to cook things, remember that the side closer to the fire is hotter-turn kettle about every 15-20 minutes.

Use only wooden utensils in kettles

Clean after use

Dry with cloth after cleaning


Changing cooking temperature

To raise heat: Hang kettle lower over fire, move what you’re cooking closer to the fire, build up the fire so flames are higher

To lower heat: Raise kettle so it is higher, move kettle further away from fire, let fire die down, move some of the fire or coals out to one side and place kettle over it propped up on rocks or two logs


General Fire Building and Maintenance Instructions



Surface fires were the most common type of fire while soldiers were on the march. These types of fires do not require a pit but can be a fire hazard if even a slight wind picks up.

Reenactments present us with many differet options for firepit making depending on the rules of the site, ground, weather, etc.

John Rees' article on fires, "As many fireplaces as you have tents" is the documentation we currently use. The most common firepit the 2nj utilizes at this time is on Plate 3, on the left side, with a tri-pod instead of Y stakes. This appears to be a deep pit of about twelve inches, square, and as wide and long as the kettle or available wood. The larger of the kettle or wood will determine the length and width.

This design is efficient and allows the heat of the fire to be directed upward to the bottom of the kettle. This makes it a particularly good cooking fire.


Fire building

Many modern campers lay tepee fires - that is, they lean small sticks against each other over a central pile of kindling.  This is a clumsy fire to add to, and is good for warmth but slow to cook.  Lay a log cabin fire, instead, and use 1 inch to 2-inch pieces of dry wood, either round or splits, to lay the log cabin.  This sort of fire will be easy to add to the top of, and has the additional benefit that it seems to make the best, fastest coals.  Build the log cabin first, then lay fine kindling at the bottom and then get your tinder to light.  It is too late to build the fire when the char is already afire!  Especially in the rain.

In the rain, keep something over the fire until it is well alight.  This will make the whole prospect possible.  You don’t have to cover a good fire, even in a hard rain, but you must cover the makings of a fire.  Also, it is more important to keep your firewood covered than it is to keep yourself covered.  If the section has a tarp, first shelter the wood.


Fire Keeping

Always appoint a member of your mess group as Firekeeper.  This is a comfy but vital job.  It should be viewed as a reward, and any failure to perform it punished ruthlessly.  It is the firekeepers job to keep the fire lit and at the strength (and place!) that the cooks require.  The firekeeper has to make sure that there is always abundant wood of all the types required (so small, one inch and two inch wood for boiling water, and small stuff for kindling, and big stuff for coals and conversational fire.)  If the fire is dieing, the firekeeper should get it back to full strength.  He or she should keep sweeping coals into the coal catcher (the pit in a keyhole fire, or the ‘deep end’ in a trench fire.


Wood and wood chopping

Every member of a mess group shares responsibility for wood.  The mess group leader will ask/order people to chop wood from time to time, and the firekeeper should keep him aware when wood is needed.  On the trek, this can mean a major evolution where everyone has to search for firewood.  In the ‘field’ where wood is often provided, this is little more than a quick detail to fetch firewood.  Mess groups will also want some downed wood for kindling and for quick, hot fires (one inch or two in diameter) and should try to go into local woods and pick it up as soon as they are at an event, dressed, and have their camp up.  A supply of dry wood is the most important requirement for a mess group after WATER.

Wood should be chopped with an axe.  Wood should always be chopped onto another piece of wood, and a smart mess group leader will always make it an early goal to secure a decent chopping block.  The largest and densest piece of cut firewood will often do the trick at an event, but on the trek some luck and imagination is required.  No one should ever cut wood on the ground.  Let me say that again.  No one should ever cut wood on the ground.


Being a mess group leader is a hard job.  To help you, you should appoint a firekeeper, a cook, and an assistant (your Lance Corporal) to help you get the job done.  You should have at least six men.  That’s enough to stand guard, cook, get firewood, and clean muskets all at the same time.  Don’t forget that your men and women are here for fun, and need time off.  Don’t forget that everyone needs to drink water.  And remember that in the field, women are as valuable (or more valuable) than men.  Consider how to use jobs as rewards and punishments, but in general, remember that these people are modern volunteers, and see that they stay that way.  Keep the balance of work even.  If there is a really nasty job...

Do it yourself.  And despite all that, enjoy yourself.

[We're all here to teach and have fun.  All members of a mess should work as a team and always consider his/her friends' tummies before his/her own desire to wander off.  The mess leader will serve as a sort of NCO.  THEY MUST BE WILLING TO MANAGE THEIR PEOPLE.  That means asking people to dedicate themselves to cooking, chopping, preparing, fire tending, fetching water etc...  Nobody works alone.  The food provided by the unit should be the ONLY food used in mess cooking.  This is so Dave doesn't look over and see the yummy bacony cheesy mess that Kevin made and then feels bad that he has to eat his mess's rotten calve's liver off of the coals...poor Dave.  A senior mess-leader (most probably the person who bought the food) will be appointed to make sure that everybody's needs are met and that the mess leader's are doing ok. 

Have a fun and authentic meal!]


[As with all of our interpretivec work, this is a work in progress.  I encourage everybody to provide any documented soldier's recipies.  Updates will be made.]

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