Kuron: An SOS, 1812 StyleWritten by Frank Kuron | | email@example.com
My dad served in WWII and occasionally made something called SOS for us kids. You vets know what the acronym means; for the rest, just think “Something” On a Shingle. It was beef, cooked with flour and water, and poured over a piece of toast. I’ve never made it for myself since; it just can’t compete with, well, any other food choice I could imagine. But according to dad, it was the staple dish in his Army life.
Accounts from diaries and quartermasters’ reports show that the 1812 military rations were likewise quite limited in variety, and often in quantity. Meals most often came as flour, jerked beef or salted pork pulled from barrels, and sometimes freshly butchered from animals that were herded alongside the troops.
Today, freeze-dried, vacuum-sealed, essentially spoil-proof food serves as backup rations for our troops when they aren’t able to enjoy a balanced meal. But in 1812, men from all over Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky were either in constant motion across our region or settled into fortresses like Fort Meigs. Strategies had to be developed to feed them in both circumstances. The transportation of the foodstuffs was a daunting logistics challenge.
Wagons got stuck in the muddy waters of the Black Swamp; sleds frequently broke through thin ice and were lost to the waters below. Over time, barrels succumbed to moisture making their contents rancid. In the spring of 1813, even the sudden thaw of the Maumee River wiped out unknowing, grazing pigs and cows as the water and mini-icebergs flooded over its banks.
It wasn’t only the men who counted on food being available. Herds and horses quickly devoured any roughage growing near the forts. If sufficient food and fodder didn’t arrive in time, starvation took down both men and beasts.
Every unit had different rations, but always just the staples. Sutlers, or local merchants, followed behind troops selling luxuries like coffee, tobacco and even chocolate. But when food ran out, it was out; men took to eating whatever they could find along their routes. Ducks, geese, wild turkeys and deer were abundant around Fort Meigs. Walleye, muskies, catfish and sturgeon were plentiful. But there was little time, and a lot of danger of being attacked while hunting or fishing.
After months of nothing but salted meats, flour and water, it’s no wonder that soldiers on their way to Canada relished what they discovered growing all over Middle Sister Island in Lake Erie — leeks, those green onions on steroids. The men clawed and dug them out as soon as they landed and devoured the 9 acre’s worth within minutes.
There are similar accounts of troops coming upon private farms and consuming every vegetable at hand. One beekeeper had his hives destroyed by soldiers who risked the swarms to satisfy their sweet tooth. One soldier sang the praises of the sweet corn he ate raw, because there was no time to cook it.
In the dead cold of January, one Ohio unit, coming to our area to build Fort Meigs stopped on the beach of Sandusky Bay to eat. With no utensils, salt, yeast or shortening whatsoever, they drew their portions of salted pork and flour. After building a fire from driftwood, they roasted the pork on pointed sticks. The flour they scooped into their dirty handkerchiefs or leaves, dipped them into the lake water, and buried them in the ashes of the fire to bake. Others cooked “johnny-cake” style on slabs of bark placed near the flames.
Worse than the monotony of having to consume the same staple foods every day, was that they often ran out. Half, to quarter, to no rations at all, inevitably occurred too often.
I appreciate the abundance of my local grocery.
Frank Kuron is author of the War of 1812 book, “Thus Fell Tecumseh.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.