Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Historical Food Fortnightly Challenge #1 - Meat and Potatoes

To start off the New Year with something new, I joined the Historical Food Fornightly group. This group is similar to the Historical Sew Fortnightly (now monthly) but instead of sewing, obviously, you cook something! I was excited to join since I love to cook and it is easier these days for me to fit cooking time in instead of sewing time.

For quite a few years now I have been interested in the medical side of 1860s culture. Before marriage and babies I participated in a Sanitary Commission group and over the years learned quite a lot about period medical practices and the organization of hospitals and the methods employed to tend sick patients.

The 1862 Hospital Stewards Manual is a delightful peek into practices of the time. This book gives a good overview on the role of the Steward and among other things includes a chapter on various diets (of which there were 3; full, half, and low diet). The Surgeon would daily record each patients prescribed diet and the Steward would then have each diet prepared from the allotment of rations each patient received.

The recipes given in the Hospital Stewards Manual are very basic and, to our modern accustoms, rather bland. For this challenge I wavered back and forth between attempting the recipe for beef tea (which seems to be little more than a watered down homemade beef stock) or the heartier fare of fried steaks and boiled potatoes. In the end, the steaks and potatoes won out, mainly because I knew they would quickly be consumed by my steak-loving sons.

Fried Steaks

Cut the steak in pieces of 8 oz. each; flatten them to the thickness of three-quarters of an inch, taking care that each piece contains a little fat. Put a clean frying pan on the fire, with half an ounce of butter, which when browned a little is ready to receive the steak; keep it on a rather quick fire, turning it several times, and, when cooking, season each side with one-fourth a teaspoonful of salt and a pinch of pepper. Six minutes will do the steak; and by pressing it with a fork or the finger you can ascertain if it is equally done through. When done, suspend the steak over the pan, to allow the melted fat, if any, which clings to the meat, to fall back into the pan.

Boiled Potatoes

Wash the potatoes, and put them with their skins on into the caldron: throw in a handful of salt, and fill the vessel with cold water. Put it on the fire and bring it to a boil. When the water boils, throw in a little cold water to check it: do so two or three times. When the potatoes are very nearly cooked, pour off all the water, and stand the kettle over the fire till the steam evaporates. This process will make the potatoes mealy. 

For my steaks I cut up a larger 2 lb roast. I cut it in half, and cut one half into two 8 oz. steaks. I browned a tablespoon of butter in my cast iron skillet and cooked the steaks a little bit longer than 6 minutes, but it was on lower heat than I probably would have gotten with a "quick fire". Therefore, the finished steaks were medium rare, which is just how my boys like them, instead of being "equally done through". 

The potatoes were very easy, obviously! Cooking them in salted water did give them a good flavor, though. I don't usually salt my cooking water so that was new. 

They were good!

The Challenge: Meat and Potatoes

The Recipe: Fried Steaks and Boiled Potatoes from the 1862 Hospital Stewards Manual.

The Date/Year and Region:
1862 America.

How Did You Make It: The steaks were cut, fried and served and the potatoes boiled.0

Time to Complete: 30 minutes for the potatoes, about 10 minutes for the steaks. 

Total Cost: One-half of a 2 lb roast was about $5 and the potatoes were part of a larger bag. Perhaps 50 cents worth. 

How Successful Was It?: The finished dishes looked nice and tasted quite nice, too. 

How Accurate Is It?: I followed the instructions pretty much but cooked on top of a modern electric oven rather than over a fire. I did want to try cooking over a fire but most of my firewood is wet and/or buried in snow!



  1. A Syracuse standard is "salt potatoes". You boil salt water (they sell 1# salt for 4#s of potatoes, but you usually use a third of that salt), and put in small, new potatoes. The biggest is maybe 2" in diameter. Boil them until they're fork tender, and serve with melted butter.

    It's a summer staple for my family. :-P

    Also, this sounds AWESOME and I think I need to join this group!

  2. Looks like a great meal. I use salt water for a lot of boiling "(potatoes, rice, ect). It really adds to the taste.


Thank you for your lovely thoughts!