Last weekend I spent as “Cooky” to a very special group of people, the members of CHAS, the California Historical Artillery Society. CHAS sponsors and puts on an American Civil War reenactment and Living History event about the middle of July each year in Duncan’s Mills, about 30 minutes west of Santa Rosa along the Russian River.
Because this is our own event, and we are the hosts, not the guests of the other reenacting clubs, our turnout is high, though we are spread k tent. Somehow I had to satisfy an average of 40 hungry soldiers from Friday night through Sunday afternoon with food, beverage and snacks. Friday night I made the usual spaghetti dinner, cleaned up, set the cook tent in order and laid down to sleep in my nearby canvas A-tent, my alarm set for 5am. I knew that I would have to be on top of every step in the morning because it was crucial to be absolutely punctual for the meal-time. Officers Call was at 8, and breakfast was at 7:30am. And the worst was that my usual helper was handling the front gate. I was on my own!
I love the first half hour of the breakfast preparation. I crawl out of my sleeping bag while it is still a little dark and pull on my wool trousers, brogans, cotton shirt and shell jacket. I smooth down my wild hair with my wool forage cap. The sight that greets me outside the door of my tent is the lone horse watch sitting in front of the fire that has been kept going all night. Sometimes the horse watch is dozing with the cape of his greatcoat pulled over his head, sometimes he greets me with an offer of help.
The first task I must do is to make a big pot of coffee. I fill the 2 gallon pot with water from the water can and set it on to boil on the 3 burner propane stove we have hidden inside the cook tent. Two oil lamps light the well-stocked tent with a homey glow, and the burner heats up the chilly interior comfortably. Once the coffee is out and set on the campfire grate to keep warm, I can begin putting the breakfast together.
Today I am serving ham; sometimes I have sausages, sometimes I cook bacon. I have already cooked 2 ham halves at home and sliced them up. Now I fill up a Dutch oven with the slices and set them over the fire with coals heaped on top. In a cooler part of the fire, I set a Dutch oven filled with tortillas to slowly warm up. I have learned that a big pot of oatmeal will stay warm for a long time, so I like to get that cooked and out of the way early. After it is boiled up, I wrap the pot in a wool blanket and set it out on the planks we use as a serving board.
I try to have 2 kinds of fruit to set out; grapes are always popular, so I have brought a few pounds of those, and I rope a volunteer to cut up a pineapple that I have brought. Someone has donated a watermelon, so I get someone to cut that up also and put the pieces in a bowl.
I’m getting more volunteers for help now, and that’s a good thing because of the other breakfast tasks looming. Two large wash tubs have to be filled and set on the fire; one with wash water and one with rinse water, for everyone washes their own tin plates and utensils after they eat. The drinking water dispenser has to be filled so everyone can fill their canteens, and the hand washing station needs to be topped off with warm water and soap. In between, people are trying to give me their weekend chow bill payment so they won’t have to worry about it later.
Condiments and toppings, all poured and transferred into period correct containers, are being flung onto the serving board by me and by my volunteers. Milk and juice are set out in metal pitchers. The hot Dutch ovens are hefted up on the boards. The last 10 minutes before breakfast call are reserved for the eggs. It takes 10 minutes to scramble them to perfection, and when they are done, I’ll not have my eggs wait! Because of the crowd, I’ve decided to add another dozen and a half eggs to the usual flat of 5 dozen I cook. The big skillet is full of eggs with a half stick of butter to cook them in.
The eggs come out at 7:30 sharp and I ring the triangle. Right on time! For the moment I sit behind the boards in my chair drinking a cup of coffee, taking pleasure in the sight of folks filling their plates and enjoying their meal around the fire and in small clusters near tents and on sitting on “cracker boxes.”
It doesn’t take long for the food to disappear, and guys begin to head off to where they need to be, rolling rounds, Officers Call, the “sinks,” training session for the new drivers. So then I eat a little breakfast too and take a few minutes to relax before it is time to clean up. It won’t be long until I have to start getting the place ready for lunch, and I’m already thinking about how soon 11:30am will be here!
Life is an adventure, and face it, food is a big part of life. Very good food, very bad food, and even mundane, boring food has something interesting embedded in it that can be pried out with a good opener.