A Bargee’s Pail Dinner

5
I have long been fascinated by how people did things in the pre-industrial age — before electricity, microwaves, cell phones and plastic.  How did people survive before Walmart and McDonald’s?  Did they go naked and starve?  And if they had to make everything from scratch, how did they keep from collapsing from exhaustion?  (A pertinent question for me, since I make so many things from scratch.)
As I thought about the daily lives of women before the industrial age, it dawned on me that they had to have a better way to get food on the table.  Their “men-folk” were hungry.  Somehow, wrangling cattle and growing all your own food while simultaneously building your own house from the trees you just chopped down makes people hungrier than typing at the computer screen.  Go figure.  But these women managed to lay out a serious culinary spread 3 times a day.  That would keep me in the kitchen around the clock.  In addition to their cooking responsibilities,  it was usually the wife’s job to manage the hen house,  the kitchen garden and the dairy.  That involved more than sprinkling a little feed around and gathering eggs.  That meant breeding, butchering and plucking those chickens.  It meant milking the cow twice a day, turning that milk into butters and cheeses and scrupulously cleaning the dairy barn and kitchen, often with nothing more than salt, sunshine and elbow grease to keep the bacteria at bay.  How did they find time to slave in the kitchen for their hungry hoard?
I knew these women had to have some secret short-cut madness going on.
Then I heard about this book:
Food in England was the magna cum laude of a fascinating and eccentric historian named Dorothy Hartley.  Ms. Hartley understood that before the ease of grocery stores, food was central to survival.  All of life and history seems to revolve around food in one way or another — what was available, how to cook it, and how to ensure that we will still have food and land available in the future.  Cottage industries revolved around food and weaving.  Wars were fought over the best land.  Why?  So people could eat.  Raising food, gathering food, eating food.  It’s about the food, folks.  In this nearly 700 page tome, Ms. Hartley explores how English people cooked, slept, and worked for food.  It is a look into history that brings you right into the homes of the common people in the middle ages right through to the early 20th century.  Her illustrations give a visual picture of exactly how people got things done.
Needless to say, I ordered a copy and had it shipped from the UK.  (Thank you, Amazon.)
And look what I found!

 

It’s an entire meal, made in one pot.  I’m not talking about a crock-pot meal (although there are some similarities in principle).  This also isn’t a casserole or a soup.  Let’s face it.  Those are the only kinds of “one-pot” meals we know about these days.  No, my friends.  This is an entree, sides and a desert all cooked separately, but in the same pot.  And it’s genius.
It’s so simple that the Bargees (the men who captained the barge boats in the English waterways) would toss this together and let it simmer while they worked.  When they were ready to eat, they just popped it open and served it up.  Perfect.  I had to try it.
First, I needed a “pail”.  I chose my largest stock pot.  Then I needed a “7-lb. jam jar”.  Hmmm… I haven’t got one of those.  In fact, I’ve never actually seen a 7-lb. jam jar.  That’s a lot of jelly.  But these people were resourceful, so I could be, too.  I grabbed another stockpot that would fit into my huge one.  I had to take the handles off with a screwdriver to make it fit, but it worked beautifully.

 

I studied the illustration and the short paragraph that described the process.  I decided my first attempt would be exactly like the illustration.  First, a layer of cubed turnips, then a layer of pork.  I used a pastured pork roast, because that’s what I had available from a local farm.  In retrospect, I should have either used pork chops or cut the roast to level it out more (it would have been easier to make my layers), but I’m learning here.  Also, any kind of meat would work with this method, not just pork.  Next, chopped parsnips, then sliced carrots.  I added some salt, pepper and seasonings, to taste.  Then I poured some water in there and allowed it to simmer while I made the “huff”.

 

The “huff” is just a pastry crust to seal the layers and keep them separate.  It isn’t meant to be eaten.  It’s made with just fat, flour and maybe a little water, so it’s pretty flavorless.  (I didn’t have a recipe for this, so I just guessed.  It worked.)  The huff is one of those ingenious secrets that cooks used to know about, but somehow was forgotten.  With a huff, you can create seals between layers (as I did, here) or you can shape “pots” that can be placed together in a larger pot as a way to cook multiple puddings, meats or grains at once.  Or, just make a huff pastry anytime you want to be amazing.
It looks a lot like a pie pastry, but it is much firmer and not so nice tasting.

 

I made enough huff for two seals.  The first huff seal went into the pot on top of the meat and veggies.  On top of that, I put a layer of whole potatoes and the second huff pastry.  The potatoes steamed between the layers of pastry while everything else cooked.  They tasted like perfectly moist, baked potatoes, but with a soft skin.  When we pulled them out, we ate them with salt, pepper and real butter, like baked potatoes.  Yum.  If white potatoes frighten you, perhaps you could try sweet potatoes.

 

After the potatoes and the second huff pastry layer, I sliced a bunch of apples.

 

I popped the lid on the pot, and the whole inner stock pot was placed in boiling water in the larger stock pot.  The only thing I didn’t do was the tea jar, because I didn’t have room in my stock pot.  Besides, my tea kettle and teapot are always ready anyway.  I walked away, looking smug.  The entire dinner was already cooking.  My presence was no longer needed in the kitchen.  Adios.
About 3 hours later, I sauntered back into the kitchen, still looking smug.  I opened the lid, scooped the apples into a bowl (I mixed a little cane juice sugar and cinnamon as an apple topping for the kids, but I had mine plain).  I peeled away the first huff and tossed it aside.  I pulled out the potatoes.  I tossed the second huff aside.  It’s been fun, huffs, but I just don’t need you anymore.  Then I pulled out the veggies (a mix of carrots, parsnips and turnips, but any veggies would work) and a wonderfully cooked roast.  Everything was cooked to perfection without any hovering from me.
Next, I wanna get me a huge Cauldron so I do all the meals for several days at once, like this:

 

Of course, I’ll need to knock out a wall to make a big enough fireplace, first…
How do you keep the hungry hoards fed?
Have a great day!
Angela
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5 Comments

  1. Well that is just fantastic! I love reading/learning about the olde (see what I did there) ways, and may just have to get this book! So very much we can learn from our predecessors!!

  2. Goodwife, this book is fantastic if you're interested in this sort of thing. It's never been out of print in the UK (the Brits like their history), but no one seems to carry it in the US. Except Amazon. Amazon carries everything.

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