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No one loves me like my tomato can
by
Mark (Silas) Tackitt


Many reenactors haul too much "necessary" gear. Some of the "necessary" items include a cast iron frying pan, coffee pot, and iron grate for the fire. These really are not necessary. An item which can lighten your loand and improve your impression is a simple tomato can.

These quiet, unglamourous cans frequently found their way into soldier accounts. During the Antietam campaign, Lt. Matthew Graham of the 9th New York appeased his hunger "with a conglomeration of stuff, the chief ingredient of which was green corn - a tomato can nearly full of it..." "[W]hen on the march, each man had his coffee and a little pail made from an oyster can with a wire bail of our own make," wrote Pvt. Elisha Stockwell of the 14th Wisconsin. "A canteen carried water or coffee, which a man boiled for himself in a tin cup or an old tomato can," wrote 1st Lt. Stephen Pierson of the 33rd New Jersey. And Lt. Seymour Thompson of the Third lowa recorded the habits of "the old soldier on the march" by observing that "outside his haversack hangs all that is left of some merry oyster supper - a small tin can with a wire bail coffee pot." John Billings in Hardtack and Coffee wrote, "Most soldiers boiled their coffee using a pint or quart preserve can, its improvised wire bail held on the end of a stick."

Lt. Col Hinman in the voice of Corporal Si Klegg stated it best: "Indeed, for months at a time, a half-canteen and an old fruit-can, in which to boil coffee, comprised [a soldier's] entire culinary 'kit'. They were simple but they were enough, and in their possession he was happy. The nice coffee-pot and frying pan that he once owned had long since succumbed to the vicissitudes of army life."

For an individual soldier, the ideal size is the 28 ounce can. Purchase a can of peaches, pears, stewed tomatoes or what have you. Take it to an event. Open the can but leave a couple inches intact of the lid. Push back the lid and use the lid as a handle while cooking. Eat the contents of the can. Boil the can to clean out dinner, then punch two nail holes in the can. Run a length of wire through the holes and bend the ends up. That is it. The length of the wire before bending should be about two-thirds the circumference of the can. The bailing wire makes the can usable because it creates a handle for easy extrication of the can from a fire. A grate is not necessary for cooking because the boiler can be placed adjacent to the coals or suspended over the fire by a stick or bayonet. Cooking for more than one is no problem because a number ten can makes enough stew for a four man mess. These larger cans are readily found at Costco and in the recycling bin of your local restaurant.

A tomato can with bail works well for boiling coffee, stew, or cornmeal mush. Should a sticky meal leave a crusty mess on the inside, no problem. Dispose of the coffee boiler and purchase another can of tomatoes.

A coffee boiler is not a substitute for a cup. (At that time, a cup was better known as a dipper.) Veterans poured off, or "strained" their coffee into their dippers, leaving the grounds behind in the cans. Use the boiler for cooking and eating. Use the cup for drinking. This will extend the life of your cup, and there will be fewer things found floating in your coffee or malted beverages.

Due to mechanical innovation, modern cans are not accurate for the period. Today's cans are stronger and more secure. Two things give away a modern can: rippled sides and an uneven top/bottom edge. A period can has smooth sides and a flat bottom with a lipped portion which has been soldered to the body of the cup. The soft lead solder was easily broken by the soldiers. Modern cans require an opener. I normally carry a modern P-38 can opener as it is cheap ($0.15), small (1.5 inches), and handy (fits on a key chain). The P-38's also contain a flat edge screw driver. In a pinch, a bayonet deftly shoved into the top of the can can also work. Some manufacturers of condensed milk use nearly period cans which have curved, not crimped, end closures. The problem is that they are too small. A proper can should hold between 26-28 ounces. Some purveyors of reproduction tinware sell reproduction boilers with period style fruit labels pasted on the outside. Of course, the repro cans are far more expensive than modern cans and require some care (read: occasional cleaning) unlike the disposable modern cans. If the goo does not come out after a couple boilings, it is time for a new can. A modern can with a period label covering the imperfections of the can are passable. Especially after the can has seen a couple smoky camp fires. A little solder where the side of the can meets the top/bottom end closures is a nice touch.

For the next reenactment, lighten you load by preparing a coffee boiler. And when packing all that excess reenacting baggage because you think you cannot live without it, remember the veteran's adage: less is more.


Last updated 29 January 2002 at 2230 hrs.

This page hosted by Mark (Silas) Tackitt and the 44th Tennessee Consolidated Infantry.