Iron Rations
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Until the civil war, I didn't have any particular problem with macaroni. Ever since, I haven't been able to face the stuff - most of the time macaroni was all there was. I have no idea where they were getting it from, but when there was food, nine times out of ten it was macaroni. It got to the point that even the padre was sick of it. Looking into his mess tin one night he sighed, rolled his eyes to heaven and muttered:
"Hebrews thirteen eight" … not his usual grace by any means.
I looked it up after the war … seems our padre favoured the King James Version.

The Rising John Gott

Basic Information

In pretty much every RPG ever made (with the obvious exception of WoDs Vampire games and their like) the PCs will purchase … or be given as part of a startup package … some Iron Rations, on the assumption that these will be consumed down a dungeon somewhere. Very often, that is the last that anyone hears of them … except when all the days have been crossed off and it is time to buy some more. For most of history, long life food has indeed been something best not considered too deeply, but for those that fancy the roleplaying colour they might consist of the following:

Ancient/medieval

  • Hard tack biscuit and similar cakes and preserved breads
  • Dried, smoked or salted meat (jerky, biltong etc.)
  • Dried, smoked or salted fish (dried salt cod was very common - if not popular - in medieval Europe)
  • Parched wheat
  • Dried (or otherwise preserved) sausage
  • Hard cheese (often waxed)
  • Dried fruit
  • Nuts
  • Potted meat (cooked meat sealed under a layer of fat)
  • Porridge oats
  • Flour (for cooking flatbreads and dodgers in the field or for things like tsampa1)
  • Rice (inevitable in Asia)
  • Couscous (in North Africa)
  • Dried beans or peas
  • Pemmican (a mixture of shredded meat and fat, sometimes with dried fruit, much used in cold climates)
  • Wind dried potatoes (in the Americas only)
  • Sago (mainly around the pacific)
  • Dried mushrooms
  • Beer (ironically old-fashioned beers were virtually liquid bread and were as much food as drink)
  • Sugar (initially as lump or loaf)
  • Clarified butter
  • Dried curds
  • Dried pasta or noodles
  • Pickled meat, vegetables or eggs (pickling may use alcohol, vinegar or brine, although the latter two are more common) - some cultures may even partially ferment the food to preserve it (this seems a relatively common approach with fish…).

Some of that can be eaten without preparations (like dried fruit), some must be cooked (like rice) and most falls in between (dried meat can be eaten as is, but benefits from being cooked long and slow to soften it). Obviously all of the above benefits from the presence of a skilled Camp cook - not to mention foragers who can supplement it with fresh meat, fish and vegetables.
Wise explorers - and skilled cooks - will do their best to pack dried herbs, spices and condiments as far as they can (salt is usually a good start) and/or know how to season with foraged herbs … preserving food tends to take a lot of the taste out of it.

For those in fixed locations, with the right terrain, there is also the prospect of "bog butter" - an adipocere like substance created by burying animal fats or butter in a peat bog for a prolonged period. This seems to have been a primitive way of preserving a high value food stuffs which might otherwise have spoiled.

Drinks in the pre-modern period will generally need to be alcoholic to resist spoiling - although tea, coffee and coco/drinking chocolate can all be kept for long periods. Cordials will also be developed in this period, although to varying degrees of effectiveness.

Early Modern

…all of the above plus:

  • Tinned meat and/or vegetables (watch out for lead poisoning in the early years)2 - this may go as far as tinned stews and similar things
  • Portable soup (slabs of dried soup allegedly similar to a modern bullion cube, more reputably similar to hoof and horn glue) and the like (the Union side issued a dried, compressed stew to its troops during the War Between the States … this was about as popular as you might expect).
  • Jams (jellies to our US readers) and other sugared preserves.
  • Condensed fruit juices (as a more widespread version of cordials)
  • Tinned fruit (often preserved in a sugar syrup)
  • Tinned bread
  • Tinned cheese (survived into living memory - in HM Forces at least - in the eldritch form of "Cheese Possessed3")
  • Condensed milk (again, usually in tins)
  • Boiled sweets (aka. hard candies)

The above still tend to be short of key vitamins, although the inclusion of pickled vegetables (we're thinking sauerkraut) and the condensed fruit juices (such as the Royal Navy's inpissated Lime Juice and Lemon Rob) help to supplement this. Such inclusions tend to be more a function a better understanding of nutrition rather than new technology, although improved industrial production techniques make them more widely available. Generally the early modern period sees increasing levels of mass processing of food and standardisation (especially in the case of tinned food), although quality often takes a dive to begin with. It still helps to have a good cook in the party (or crew if travelling by ship) and to keep your shotgun handy in case anything edible passes by.

Modern/Sci-fi

By now, pretty much anything can be cooked and freeze dried or retort packaged so that it lasts for years and is still at least edible once dished up.
Tinned and packaged food and dried soup are still common, but their quality and safety has improved massively since the techniques were invented.
The military in particular start to develop scientifically designed 'ration packs' containing the necessities of life (and, in earlier years, comforts like alcohol and tobacco as well) in a more or less palatable form - these make their first obvious appearance in the War Between the States (arguably still "early modern"), but then submerge again until the Great War, after which they become more or less a fixture.
On land, you have to be very remote indeed to be more than a few weeks from re-supply and if you are in a fixed location (or travelling by ship) refrigeration can keep even unprepared food fresher for longer.
When soldiers and explorers grumble about their rations now, it's more likely to be the monotony than the quality that bothers them.
This is also the era in which the chocolate bar is invented, providing high grade, concentrated energy in a palatable form (albiet one which doesn't really tolerate hot climates) - other concentrated energy bars and drinks powders (which serve to make purified water more palatable as well as adding nutrients) follow in due course.

Some of the more notable products of the freeze-drying revolution will include:

  • Powdered egg
  • Powdered milk
  • Instant coffee and, more debatably tea
  • Stock cubes (seasoning that can also produce very effective instant soup).
  • Actual powdered soup

Foods like pasta and noodles can now be prepared, with flavouring, and then flash-dried into a form that can be quickly rehydrated with hot water rather than needing to be cooked, creating convenient, long life foods. Retort packaging also allows complete meals to be cooked and then sealed away in a form that only requires reheating to be more or less edible again years later - once re-heated such meals can be almost indistinguishable from the sort of commercial ready meals in general circulation.

Packaged drinks, including long life milk and fruit juices and tinned sodas are also available to accompany the food.

Where the improvement in standards is cancelled out by the meme that In the Future, Everything is Worse, the Iron Rations may be replaced by a Protein Item.

Animal food

As noted, the above is mainly about food for humans … however, we have also found it useful to preserve food for animals, whether to keep livestock alive over the winter or to keep working animals alive in places where they cannot feed themselves effectively. A lot of what is used for feed animals will depend on their species - dogs can be fed on dried meat and biscuit and herbivores can be maintained on grain, dried pulses and "horse bread"4. Allegedly the "icthyophagi" encountered by Alexander the Great fed their goats on fish as well as themselves (although seaweed is at least as likely a food source). The following are also noteworthy sources of preserved animal feed:

  • Hay (dried grass)
  • Silage (grass preserved by anaerobic fermentation)

Sources

The story of the antique tins...
Some Germans selling state of the art "iron rations" … including supplies with a guaranteed 25yr shelf life…
Something similar from the UK, including military field rations and a variety of other PC friendly supplies.
Something rather more basic on general foods suitable for long term storage.

Bibliography
1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • This is mainly *ahem* flavour … useful if the players ever speculate about what exactly is in their iron rations, or to mark cultural traditions when the iron rations they buy change from country to country.
  • If you have a character with dietary restrictions or food intolerances then the content of iron rations may be very important.
  • In extremis, your character can also eat (or at least cook with) a tallow candle. Even in the modern era, any candle that appears in a survival kit will probably be made of tallow for this reason.
  • If your game has morale rules, you can apply a minor penalty for eating only iron rations too long (or have the PCs start developing scurvy if it's before the modern era). It's not quite as big as the penalty for not eating anything, or for eating the stuff the Lethal Chef made, but still enough that they don't want to spend any longer in the dungeon than necessary.
  • Like orcish ale, a taste for iron rations could be a sign of an odd character background.
    • This applies particularly to modern military rations - many of these are actually quite palatable, but most veterans can discuss them at length with one another and in some cases will have a pronounced (sometimes over nostalgic) liking for specific items, some of which may be quite repellent to the average civilian (again, cheese possessed springs to mind for some reason…).
  • Iron rations - and long life food in general - is the type most likely to still be kicking about after the end, whether scavenged from the shelves of a zombie infested Wal-mart or found stashed away down a dungeon.
  • They are also likely to be found stored in all sorts of fortifications as siege supplies.
  • Remember to add them to treasure tables - much fun may ensure if the chest the orcs were guarding turns out to be the tribe's flour chest or contain the chief's supply of cherries in brandy rather than being full of cash.
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