Looking at the amount of storage required on board ship for all the provisions, it quickly becomes obvious that carrying anything close to naval rations for even a small party travelling on land would require wagons or, at least, a string of pack ponies plus extra ones to carry oats or barley for the equines. For pioneers heading into the wilderness with no opportunity to re-stock, most of their carrying capacity would be allocated to food. Water would (hopefully) be found along the way. There may always be the possibility of hunting for meat, and refilling water barrels.
The Oregon Trail Centre gives a list of supplies for travellers setting out on the Oregon Trail, a five month, 2,000 mile trek from Missouri to Oregon in 1841 includes (for a family of four) 600 pounds of flour, 400 pounds of bacon, 100 pounds of sugar, 60 pounds of coffee and 200 pounds of lard. These basics would be augmented by hard tack, sacks of beans, rice, dried fruit, baking soda and corn meal. (The corn meal made pretty good packing for eggs, and bran made good packing for bacon.) Seasoning would include, salt, pepper, vinegar and molasses. If they had a milk cow, butter would be churned as they went by simply hanging it under the bumpy wagon in a bucket and letting the trail do the work. In the early days, game (buffalo and antelope) was plentiful, but when the wild animal population diminished settlers might take a herd of cows for meat as well as milk.
Journeybread or Journeycake?
My Facebook friend, musician Jennifer Cutting recently posted about trying journeybread made by a local woman who ferments the dough herself. It’s a dense, unleavened whole grain loaf chock full of dried apricots, raisins and walnuts. Jennifer said: ‘It tastes of rye and hardship.’
Instead of journeybread why not journeycake? A traditional fruit cake/Christmas cake contains all of the above dried fruits and nuts, and is also baked with ground almonds and eggs as well as flour and sugar. You can bake it slightly harder than normal to prevent it from turning into a crumbly mess. Trickle brandy over it once it’s cooled from the oven. It’s much more palatable than rock-hard bread. There’s a reason it’s a mid-winter cake – it’s a great way of preserving. It will keep for months and be just as good as it was on the day it came out of the oven. It’s very nutritious, especially if you eat it with hard cheese (like a mature cheddar or aged gouda). Anyone who hasn’t eaten Christmas cake with cheese should remember the rhyme: Fruitcake without cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze. It’s almost a complete meal, with the cheese providing extra protein.
Anyone who hasn’t read Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland should at least go and read the entry on ‘stew’. Go on, I’ll wait… Right. OK, then, let’s get started.
Stew is undoubtedly a staple of all those fantasy inns because you can fill a big pot full of cheap cuts of meat and plenty of root vegetables (and possibly beans, lentils and barley) and let it simmer all day. (It can simmer overnight, even.) Of course, if there’s any left the following day, just throw more vegetables and water into the pot and set it going again. Rinse and repeat until there’s a very small meat-to-veg ratio, whereupon you call it soup, serve it all up, and start a new pot of stew as soon as you’ve scrubbed the pan. (Note, since you don’t want to poison people it needs to be kept up to temperature, not left to fester. Before refrigeration, cooks used to keep a stock pot on the go for weeks by making sure it was boiled up thoroughly, every day, to kill off bacteria.)
When I was a kid my granny used to start a stew off on the back of the coal-fired range on a Sunday night with shin beef and any leftovers from the Sunday joint. With daily additions of more potatoes and vegetables and a handful of split peas and lentils it would generally last until Friday. It would probably do two main meals for the family of five (one with dumplings and another with thick pancakes) and also a midday meal for whoever was at home. I’d have it for lunch every day when I came home from school. It started off thin on day one, but by the time the end of the week came around it had so many potatoes and lentils in it was thick and still delicious.
But stew like this only works on a commercial basis if you regularly have hungry mouths to feed, so inns situated in out of the way places won’t cook a big pot of stew that they’re unlikely to be able to sell. Neither will they have a huge roast of meat just waiting for travellers who may never come. So your poor travellers may see a lonely wayside inn and stumble through the door only to find that the only available food is the fare the innkeeper had put by for himself and his family.
Making stew on a journey would be a nightmare because it takes a long time to cook to be palatable and for the meat to be tender. However if you’re travelling with a wagon and you have a Dutch oven, or a straw-filled box, you can get your stew started in the morning (get it good and boiling over the fire) then put the covered pot into the straw-filled box and the whole thing continues to cook in the residual heat. When you make camp at night, you simply finish it off over the fire for a much shorter time than would otherwise be required. (Making sure it’s brought up to temperature for long enough to avoid food poisoning.)
Meat plus heat
You’ll probably find that you need good teeth to live off the land. A steak is more tender if it’s aged, but if you’re catching meat on the hoof and cooking it immediately over an open fire (i.e. quickly) it’s probably going to be tough. Also all that hunting takes time. How quickly do you need to complete your journey? You’d probably be wise to pack some smoked or salted meats and jerky. Dried meats are light to carry and keep well.
Who doesn’t remember the bean scene from Blazing Saddles? You? Go and watch it, I’m sure it must be out there on your video delivery service of choice, or on DVD. It forcefully reminds you that beans were one of the most abundant foods in the cowboy’s diet, but only if there was a chuck wagon handy (say on a cattle drive or overland trek). We’re not talking about tins of baked beans, but dried pinto beans, which have to be soaked in water for hours before cooking. And once cooked, don’t save for later.
Comparatively light to carry and it keeps forever (almost). Dried apples, raisins and apricots plus berries and maybe prunes are staples (depending on where you are in the world – this one or an invented one). I’ve tried drying apples (to use up some of the crop from our two small trees) and they are very successful and keep a long time, though it takes a lot of work to prepare them for drying, even with a peeler/corer/slicer. I dry my sliced apple for four hours in a fan oven set really low (60 degrees) and get apple crisps. Unless you keep them in an airtight container they will soften up over time, but they are still edible. As an experiment I kept some of last year’s apple crisps in a clean glass jar, and though they were no longer crisp, but they were edible a year later. (And they didn’t kill me!)
So what do you feed your characters on when they are travelling?