December 11th, 1862 Fredericksburg, Virginia
My Dearest Krisanthemum,
It is as always with continued great sorrow that I am compelled to spend more time away from your embrace, but coupled further still with great fortune that I remain in this mortal coil with which I am able to pen these missives. I have witnessed the most unspeakable of proceedings since my last letter. At the Battle of Antietam, there was more carange than could ever have been predicted by either army, and I myself was reduced to making coffee out of peanuts I found on a bayside dock. As both sides strive to make sense of what this war might truly mean to the future of our nation, I’ve managed to get resupplied alongside a cheeky band of Confederates called the 8th Virginia Infantry. I try not to talk politics with anyone that meets my food wagon, but this group of Dixie bros is irking me something fierce. I think I’ll just take my cache of meats and spices and be on my way, as their talk of a just and noble cause makes me uncomfortable beyond reason. I fear that with each victory in battle by the South due to wretched Union incompetence, the States are only to grow further adrift when this conflict inevitably reaches its conclusion. My service is still the people, no matter their cause my dearest sweet flower…but you can fucking well bet the Ted Turner movie about this part of the war is gonna be absolute shit.
As always with omnipotent love and honor,
Matt the Civil War Chef
There’s a lot of debate among the various Civil War forums, books, and online material about the quality of beef jerky produced during the war. Most folks make the claim that salted meats were consumed out of pure desperation, and most of the time were infested with mold and God only knows what else out in the wilderness. We’ll try to keep things as fresh as possible, but I wanted to produce the meat as resourcefully as I could, with only primitive curing and processing. While all of the ingredients were certainly available, the method of preparation seems to be the point of contention. The particular recipe used here, specifically titled “8th Virginia Jerky,” uses a conventional Weber kettle grill to simulate the smoker abilities available at the time. I’m what you would call a jerky “consumer” who has never attempted to make the stuff myself. Moreover, I haven’t used my kettle grill in at least 5 years, so this was going to be quite the spider-filled adventure. I went with basic flank steak for my attempt, cutting the meat into strips while preparing a spice blend of red pepper, black pepper, garlic salt, and table salt. The hardest part of the preparation was denying myself the use of spices and rubs that I had available in my circa 2020 kitchen. I don’t think the Confederate army had access to the Old Bay and Todd’s Dirt seasoning at my disposal, so I would have to save such luxuries for my next batch. After mixing the meat with the seasoning and leaving to marinate in water overnight, it was finally time to blow the dust off the grill and get cooking.
If you have even the slightest experience in working with grills, you’re probably wondering about the amount of time to properly smoke/dehydrate compared to the cooking lifespan of charcoal. Thankfully, I was armed with complete ignorance on the subject and happily prepared the grill with a fresh batch of charcoal while laying out the meat. The recipe here calls for the grill to be on “full choke” for a period of six hours. To be honest I had no idea what full choke meant so I took a guess and assumed all the vents had to be closed and I made sure to double check the placement of the lid once I set things up. I’m guessing this was the right call as six hours later I removed the cover and found several strips of smaller meat that looked quite familiar to the stuff I’ve been paying $15 dollars a bag for at the Jerky Hut.
Mistake number one: I cut the meat too thick. A couple of the pieces didn’t get the proper “jerkying” all the way through, and I only attribute that to my poor cutting abilities. Still, extra thick cuts of jerky exist out in the real world, so this was far from a complete disaster. I eagerly took a bite and was frankly surprised by the result. This stuff actually tastes like jerky! Sure, it’s the thrifty bin jerky you buy almost expired from Ollie’s Bargain Outlet at 11 o’clock at night…but this stuff sure as hell would do the job out on the battlefield! As long as there was enough time to prepare it on the campfire, I could see the 8th Virginia (or any unit on either side) using this to prepare emergency rations to go along with the bacon and hardtack. The shelf life raises concerns, but I’m thinking this would be the first food to eat on the ration tree. I suppose to get the true experience I’d need to keep my jerky in a moldy field bag before a daily 85 mile march through swap and mud (among other things) like the 8th Virginia would endure following the misguided Confederate hubris after victory at Fredericksburg…but I already know what Slim Jims taste like anyway.
Do you have a recipe or idea for Matt the Civil War Chef? Drop us a line on Twitter or by email and we’ll send the stagecoach out to meet the wagon!