What is Corned Beef?

Doing a workshop with year 6 pupils on life in World War 1 provided some interesting points of discussion and as usual led to more questions and revelations.

Fortuitously, in the days before the workshop, transcribing the Pike Report into medical conditions in East Africa, I came across the minimum rations prescribed for the different groups of people campaigning in the theatre (Section 9).
– European and Cape Coloured Corps
– Indian Troops and Followers and local Indians
– African Troops, Arab Company and Gun Porters and Stretcher Bearers
– Carriers
– Cape Boys
– Gold Coast, Nigerian, other West African Troops
– West India Regiment
– East Africa Forces:
o Europeans, West Indians, British West India Regiment, Cape Corps, Indian Christians, Goanese Clerks
o Indian Troops, Followers and Local Indians
o Cape Boys, Somalis
o Chinese
o East African Troops, Followers, Porters
o Arabs
o Gold Coast, Nigerian, other West African Troops (European rations to Native Dressers, Telegraph Operators, Linesmen)
o Prisoners of War (manual labour, children)
o Animals
Despite the contents and amounts having been scientifically worked out, the men were lucky if they got the full quantity on a daily basis, and if they did, able to cook it. Most frustratingly, when India improved the dietetics for those in Mesopotamia, the Indian Government neglected to pass the information onto East Africa which resulted in unnecessary illness due to poor food intake.

Back to Year 6. They were going to get a taste of African food as prepared during World War 1 – without palm oil or ghee. This meant boiling yams, sweet potatoes and beans. The women preparing the food started cooking at 7 am the morning of the workshop, to be ready to serve at 1.30/2pm. They just managed it including about 30 minutes to travel to the venue and 30 minutes to set up. Their cooking had been done on modern appliances. How much longer would they have needed on an open fire? They were catering for about 40 people and only a taster as these young British people had not likely tasted food like this before.

The reactions ranged from ‘this is disgusting’ to ‘is there more?’ The flavour was rather bland – boiled food without spice. Personally, these were the best yams I’ve ever eaten so not sure what it says about me. But it also became apparent while thinking about it that boiling yams and potatoes would help purify water for drinking – not all that tasty at the best of times but it would have retained some of the nutrients usually cooked out of vegetables. Although cooking maize meal to a runny porridge state would have been quicker than to stodge form for fufu or ugali, spoons would have been required – finding spoons would be another challenge as the war progressed. Having the maize meal stiff meant it could be eaten more easily with fingers. If the men were lucky enough to have leftovers, some forms of maize meal would safely last a few days.

One of the featured meat items was corned beef (preserved). This led to the questions: What is it? What corn is mixed with it? We’ve had it for years but not thought until now what it is.

Surprisingly, the corn is salt – large grained rock salt, known as ‘corns’ of salt. It’s the introduction of nitrates which results in the meat turning pink, reducing the risk of botulism. Potassium nitrate – also referred to as salt peter (Source: Amazing Ribs, wikipedia)

Bully/corned beef could be eaten cold if you could get the tin open, it could be cooked, mashed and added to yams, rice etc to make a more filling meal and to provide variation – that is, providing supplies got through.

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