Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mess Tin Cooking, British Army, WW I (Part 1)

“To cook rapidly and well is an art which can be easily acquired, and which every soldier should learn.”
British Army Manual of Military Cooking, 1910

     Despite the proliferation of mobile field kitchens and prepackaged rations in the 20th century, mess tin (mess kit in the US military) cooking continued, although gradually diminishing in importance. The Manual of Military Cooking describes how a mess tin "kitchen" was set up under field conditions: 
    “No trench should be dug; the mess-tins should be placed on the ground as shown on plan on opposite page, with the opening facing the direction of the wind.
     Eight is a convenient number of tins to form a “kitchen”, but any number from 3 to 10 or 11 can be utilised.
     The handles of the mess tins should be kept outside.
     The tins should be well greased on the outside before being placed on the fire; if this is done and they are cleaned soon after being used they will suffer no damage. The tins when they are hot can be cleaned in a few minutes with turf, soil, or rag.
     Only a small quantity of wood is required for each “kitchen,” a good draught being the object to be kept in view. It is desirable that the fuel used should, whenever possible, be that obtainable in the vicinity of the “kitchens.”
     Each man should be instructed to cook his own dinner, but when once the “kitchen” is formed and the fuel collected one man only should remain with each fire.
The position of the tins in each “kitchen” will require to be changed from time to time, as some will be cooked sooner than others. It will be the duty of the man in charge to regulate this.
     The dinners will be cooked from 1 to 1½ hours.
     The following dinners are suitable for this method of cooking:
     Plain Stew, Irish Stew, Curried Stew, Sea Pies, Meat Puddings.”

Mess tin "kitchen", 

     So, thought I, why not present all of the aforementioned "suitable dinners"? This we will do, in several parts.  For the sake of convenience, I have scaled down the recipes to portions for one soldier, cooked in one mess tin. For those wishing to reproduce the recipes in mess tins, I caution strongly against using original examples of the British "D-shaped" mess tin. Being constructed of soldered tin-coated steel, they should not be considered food-safe. There are stainless steel reproduction versions available (illustration below)

     The meat ration of the British Army during the Great War presents a somewhat confusing picture. The size of the meat ration varied, depending on whether the soldier was in barracks, billeted with contracted civilians, "under canvas", etc., and was adjusted during the war due to meat shortages and a re-evaluation of nutritional needs. By the end of the war, the normal meat ration was 12 ounces, increased to 16 ounces for soldiers in the field, which could be further increased to 20 ounces by order of the GOC (General Officer Commanding). As the ration for fresh or frozen meat included bone, the actual amount of trimmed meat allocated to soldiers could vary greatly. To account for this, I have scaled the recipes to 6-12 ounces/170-340 g of meat. The amount of stock also may vary, depending on the size and shape of the cooking vessel used.
     The British Army’s Manual of Army Catering Services 1954 (MACS) offered a number of useful suggestions on mess tin cooking that were probably in use for many years prior, and are worth noting here.
     In the 60-man recipes for some of the aforementioned stews instruct that the meat should be cut into 2 ounce pieces for a 3 hour cooking time. MACS 1954 recommended cutting meat into a ½” dice for cooking in mess tins. Although no size for meat cuts was given in the instructions for mess tin cooking in the early 20th century, a small sized cut was most likely used. This would make sense, given the reduced 1 to 1½ hour cooking time.  
    To season, the MACS recommended “as much salt as will cover a sixpence for each man, and pepper according to taste”. The “cover a sixpence” is approximately 1/8 teaspoon of salt. As most cooks don’t have a 1/8 teaspoon measure (myself included), I prefer the field expedient method. Some modern equivalents of the size of the sixpence coin (19 mm diameter) are the British, US and Canadian pennies, and the Euro 2 cent coin.
 Plain Stew

US                               Metric                         Ingredients
6-12 oz                        170-340 g                    beef or mutton
1.0 oz                          30 g                             mixed vegetables
0.5oz                           15 g                             onions
0.5oz                           15 g                             flour
to taste                         to taste                        pepper
“cover a sixpence”      “cover a sixpence”        salt
8-12 fl oz                     240-360 ml                 meat stock

1.      Peel and cut up the vegetables and onions into ½” pieces.
2.      Cut the meat against the grain, into pieces of 2 oz. each;
3.      Mix the dry flour, salt and pepper together.
4.      Place a little stock in the mess tin.
5.      Rub the pieces of meat in the dry flour and add to the stock.
6.      Put in the vegetables and onions, barely covering the whole with stock.
7.      Keeping the mess tin covered, let it simmer gently until the meat is cooked, about 1½ hours.

Curried Stew

US                               Metric                         Ingredients
6-12 oz                        170-340 g                    beef or mutton
0.5oz                           15 g                             onions
1.6 oz                          45 g                             mixed vegetables
0.5oz                           15 g                             flour
0.13 oz                         4 g                              curry
to taste                        to taste                          pepper
“cover a sixpence”      “cover a sixpence”         salt
8-12 fl oz                     240-360 ml                  meat stock

Note: Ingredients are the same (with slightly differing amounts) as for plain stew, with the addition of curry powder.
Mix the curry with the dry flour, and proceed as for plain stew.

Irish Stew

 US                               Metric                         Ingredients
6-12 oz                        170-340 g                    beef or mutton
19 oz                           530 g                            waxy potatoes
1.0 oz                          30 g                              onions
8-12 fl oz                     240-360 ml                  meat stock
to taste                        to taste                          pepper
“cover a sixpence”      “cover a sixpence”         salt

1.      Peel and slice the potatoes into ½” slices.
2.      Peel and cut the onions into large pieces.
3.      Trim any surplus fat from the meat. Cut the meat into ½” pieces.
4.      Place a little stock in the cooking vessel, and a layer of potatoes at the bottom, then a layer of meat and onions; season with pepper and salt,
5.       then another layer of potatoes, and so on alternately, until the vessel is nearly full, potatoes forming the top layer; barely cover the whole with stock
6.      Simmer gently for 1½ hours, keeping the mess tin covered.


  1. See if this link works. It's a 1944 film about a field bakery in Kenya. http://www.colonialfilm.org.uk/node/5445

  2. Hi, do you have any information on where to find the above mentioned stainless steel reproduction mess kits

    1. My apologies for the late response.
      I have on rare occasions seen them for sale on ebay, but have been unable to find a vendor. As they were used in the American Civil War, tinned versions are available from a number of websites.
      One is http://www.ccsutlery.com, but they are currently out of stack. I would like to find a stainless steel version for doing historical recipes, as the SS holds up much better. Thanks for commenting.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Can anybody tell me who sells or where to get these reproduction d shape mess kits?

    1. Please refer to my last reply, above.
      Another is www.sofmilitary.co.uk, but if you're shipping outside of Europe the shipping costs can be pretty steep. Periodically these mess kits show up on ebay, especially ebay in US, UK and Canada. If you're doing a search, check "Worldwide" in the Item Location.