Mesolithic Cooking: It’s the Pits
How do you cook without pots or pans?
It’s a question our distant ancestors never asked because pots and pans didn’t exist. They just cooked food as best they could, and it wasn’t always easy. When Europeans first came to North America the first request and the one thing the American Indians wanted most was metal pots. I can’t help but think squaws knew a good thing when they saw one and told the braves “no metal pot, no come into the wigwam tonight.”
Several books and numerous professional monographs have been published on cooking before metalware, particularly in the Mesolithic Age, or the middle stone age. And of course there are hundreds of camping books with various tips about primitive cooking. Not wanting to reinvent the wheel this will just be a random collection of some techniques and food in rough alphabetical order.
Historically, the experts tell us man has been cooking food for close to a million years. For most of man’s history he cooked without pots, pans, or ovens. The first containers would have been wooden, dug out bowls (and canoes.) Baskets can also be made to be water tight or to cook grain in. One would like to think clay pots were instrumental in cooking, and there is some evidence they were, but they seemed to be more a vessel of storage. Clay is fragile and porous. This is how the ancient Greek invented their wine called retsina. They had to line clay pots with pine pitch to keep them from seeping away the wine. The pitch-flavored wine has been drank ever since.
The first metal pots appeared about 4,000 years old in the Old world, which means they are found in digs from about 2,000 BCE on. It is difficult to think of a metal pot as being revolutionary but it was, nearly as revolutionary as the invention of another metal marvel, the stirrup, which dramatically changed warfare. Today we boil an egg within a few minutes over instant fire. We rarely consider that same act took at least a half a day in the past to do, which is why eggs were roasted. It only took minutes. I suspect boiling was used mostly for medicines or occasionally for variety.
More to the point, many of the techniques can still be used. Some are very convenient. Some are still labor intensive. But if you are going to go into the woods and you also plan to eat knowing how cook without pots and pans is a skill every forager should know. In hunter-gatherer societies today they often cook without pots and pans and are very particular how they use their fire. They are using well-proven techniques as old as man.
Acorn mush: Drop hot acorn mush into cold water. It will form a rubbery ball that keeps well. (I am presuming you leached the acorns first.)
Ash cooking: Fish and simple breads wrapped in leaves can be easily and quickly cooked on near-dead coals. There are still coals but they are covered with gray ash. Turn the fish in seven to 10 minutes. Or, put some coals on top. Thin dough wrapped in leaves cook quickly.
Bamboo: Bamboo is hollow between nodes. You can stuff the hollow section with food, plug the top with grass or the like, then lean the tube over a fire. You can boil water the same way or make soup. Another method is to get a three section piece. Punch a small hole through the top and middle nodes (inside.) Put in water and let drain to bottom section, put food in top section. Place the bottom section near the fire, steam will rise and cook food in the top section.
Boiling water: Any boiling in the distant past, which was rare, was done in dug out canoes, wooden bowls, animal skin buckets, or clay pots. Hot rocks were put in the wooden, kin, or clay containers to heat the water. Know that a skin bucket of water suspended over a low fire will not burn. In England at ancient hut sites yard-wide and half as deep holes were carved into the solid rock. With hot coals in the bottom a skin could be stretched partially across the top for making soup or the like. No doubt the hide also added flavor… welcomed or not… Another technique was to put water in a natural shallow rock pit then add hot rocks. Whenever you use hot rocks to boil water the food should be wrapped in grass or leaves. This keeps ash and bits of debris from the rocks from dropping onto the food.
Bread: Bread can be rolled into a long skinny roll then wrapped around a branch like a climbing vine around a trunk and then positioned over the fire. Make sure you pick a safe wood to use such as sycamore, maple, dogwood, willow et cetera. Bread can also be cooked on a flat hot rock or wrapped in leaves (see Large Leaf entry.) If you have a primitive (or modern oven) one way to bake bread is to pour several pounds of honey in a bowl, drop the bread dough into the honey, and put the whole thing in the oven. The result is a sweet bread from a very ancient recipe and cooking method. Bread can also be cooked directly on hot coals. The outside will burn but the inside will be edible.
If you have boiling water and a square of cloth you can mix some spices, greens, bits of meat and flour together with a small amount of water to make a dough. Wrap it in the cloth and drop it in the boiling water. It will cook quite quickly.
Cattails: Take a clean cattail rhizome (root) and put it next to a fire or on coals. Literally burn black the outer layers of the root. This cooks the starch in the root fibers. After the outside is burned, open the root peeling the black part back or off. Pull the white fiber between your teeth to get the starch off. This is very easy and take a minimal amount of energy to get a high calorie meal (see my video on said.)
Clay: Fine clay mixed with a little fine sand was a common means of cooking food where it was abundant. Stuff the food to be cooked, such as a fish or a duck, wrap it in grass, secure, then give it a good coating of clay. Put the clay-covered meat on a flat surface a bit of a distance from the fire and gently dry the clay, turning the meat as needed to ensure all of the clay is dry including the bottom. You do not want any wet spots or holes for the moisture to escape. Once dry the clay-encrusted meat can be put on the coals or closer to the fire. The grasses keep the clay and the flesh apart. Your average duck takes two hours to cook this way, turning once.
Small birds can be cooked without plucking. Smeared the clay onto their feathers, dry, then cook. When done this way the bird’s skin cannot be eaten. Porcupines can also be cooked by covering them with clay. When the clay is removed the spines come with it.
Conch: Lay the whole conch, or similar large mollusk, foot side up directly on coals. The entire shell acts as a pot. It is done when it froths.
Crab apples: Some bitter crab apples can be made edible by roasting them next to a fire.
Crayfish: Dispatch them by putting the tip of you knife into their backs just behind the head. Put them on short skewers, tail to head, then arrange vertically near the fire. Their legs et cetera will wiggle as they cook even though dead. When they are hot and red, enjoy.
Drying meat: Suspend thin strips of meat on a tree branch and put over a small fire. It is the updraft that dries the meat, not the heat. You don’t want to cook the meat. A smokey fire reduces the number of interested flies. Do not use conifer wood for the fire or to make smoke or you meat will taste like a pine tree. You can also put strips of meat to dry in the sun on rocks. If you need salt, you can evaporate sea water.
Eggs: All bird and reptile eggs can be cooked in the coals of a fire, or next to a fire. But you must do it correctly or you will have an egg explosion, not a deadly one but it could take out an eye. Practice with a chicken egg. All eggs have a fat end and a skinny end. Find the fat end. Make a small hole in the tip of the fat end then enlarge the hole to the size of a nickel, a quarter if a goose egg, half a penny if a quail egg. With a small pocket knife or a stick pierce the air membrane and the yoke. Nestle the egg, hole up, in coals near the fire. If using a chicken egg, turn it after five minutes, and cook for another 5 minutes. By then the white should be solid and the yoke semisolid like dough. Quail eggs take about two minutes per side, a goose egg 10 minutes per side.
Want a fried egg? If you have a banana leaf you can arrange the leaf carefully near the coals and fry an egg on the leaf. It has just enough oil and toughness to do the job. (I should add there are two birds in the South Seas that are not eaten because they eat toxic bugs.)
Fish: While nearly every boy scout knows several ways to cook a fish over a fire little thought is given to flavor. The cleaned fish has a natural cavity to put items for seasoning. Among the items one can flavor a cooking fish with in the body cavity are plums, elderberries, bay leaves, blackberries, grapes, nuts, wild garlic, pepper grass, smartweed, sorrel, oxalic, sea purslane, seablite, sea mustard, gorse flowers, dandelion, hibiscus, violets, ramps, pepper grass roots, shepherd’s purse roots and others. (See “Clay” entry.) Small fish can be wrapped in leaves and cooked on a low coals.
Gar and mullet can be cooked as is uncleaned directly on ashes, about 10 minutes a side for a foot long fish. When dons just pull off the skin. Do not eat Gar eggs. They are toxic to mammals.
Flat Rocks: While hot rocks are commonly used for pit cooking they can be used directly. Start a fire one several flat rocks. Let it burn down. Brush away the coals and cook your food directly on the flat rocks. This is good for small game and fish. You can also put a flat rock into the coals or prop a flat rock between two rocks with coals underneath. Grease the rock or your food will stick.
The ultimate flat rock is a polished slab of granite over a fire (or charcoal.) You can hold it up with four bricks or the like. Remember to oil it before cooking.
Hot Rocks: Can be used to open difficult fruit or nuts. Take the rock to the nut, or the nut to the rock.
Insects: Some North American Indians would dig a pit in the middle of a field and build a fire in it. When it had reduce to coals they would fan out around the field and drive grasshoppers and crickets towards the pit. The insects would fall in the pit and get cooked. Once the fire had cooled the insects were eaten. In your backpack you can carry a piece of iron wire to skewer grasshoppers for roasting. Insects must be cooked thoroughly because they have parasites. See “Parching” entry. As for grasshoppers, eat those that are solid colors, such as all brown, all black, all green. Avoid multi-colored grasshoppers especially orange and black ones.
Large leaves: Several large leaves can be used to wrap food for cooking. Sometimes the leaves have to be wilted (burdock, water dock) other times the spine needs to be bent (bananas and Alligator Flag, read Thalia geniculata.) Other leaves, such as Paper Mulberry, can wrap small items. Indians in the southern United States cooked corn bread wrapped in the leaves of the Alligator Flag. Eggs can be fried on a banana leaf and many Asian cultures wrap food for steaming or roasting in banana leaves. The most common packaging via a banana leaf is pyramidal.
Meat: Any piece of meat weighing a few pounds can be easily roasted if you have a leather thong (or boot lace.) Using the thong (or strong string) suspend the meat beside the fire and twist the meat so when you let it go it spins. Depending upon the weight and materials used the chunk can spin back and fourth for 10 to 20 minutes. This assures even cooking. The down side is that it needs nearly constant attending and rewinding. Also if you use string, you should wet the string occasionally to keep it from burning. Cooking time depends upon how close to the fire you suspend the meat and its size. A four-pound chicken a foot from the fire takes about four hours to cook thoroughly, or an hour a pound. Smaller portions of meat can be put on a spit.
Another technique if using a hot stone pit is to wrap a hunk of meat in a simple flour and water dough. The dough cooks to a rock-hard consistency but holds in the meat juices and stays soft next to the meat. If you wrap the meat carefully and take it out with the dough seam on top the dough makes a perfect bowl.
Meat can also be placed directly on hot coals. The outside will get covered with ash and burn but the inside will be edible.
Nettles: Most members of the Urtica genus sting. Usually you collect them with gloves and then boil them. A different technique is to hold or suspend the entire plant near your fire or hot coals until it is very wilted. Remember to turn the plant in the process. The heat renders the chemical in the sting harmless and you can eat the plant raw.
Nuts: Make a bed of sand, bury the nuts in their shells in the sand, one to two inches depending upon the size of the nut. Build a small fire over the nuts. When the fire has died, dig up the nuts. This is particularly good with hazelnuts (filberts.) Do not do this with acorns as they have tannic acid that must first be leached out.
Parching grain: Put seeds in a basket or wooden bowl. Add a series of fire-hot rocks and stir around the bowl, cooking the seeds. When the rock cools remove and add another. Your nose will tell you when the grain is cooked. You might find it interesting that ancient man in Britain had a novel way of storing grain. He would dig a bell-shaped hole in the ground and fill it with grain. Then he plugged the top with a clay clump. The grain on the outside of the hole against the damp earth would germinate. The germinating grain would use up the oxygen in the hole leaving carbon dioxide. Without air the germinating grain died and formed a crust around the rest of the grain protecting it. Research shows the method works better than modern grain storage.
Some Insects, nuts and small tubers can also can be parched.
Pit baking: This technique works for a variety of food, just change the size of the pit, the materials and cooking time. When I was a boy we would often go out to an island at low tide, spend the day, usually over night, and then return on the next low tide. First we would dig a hole, line it with dry rocks, and start a fire in the pit. Then we would dig up clams, knock muscles of the rocks, and rummage around the seaweed for small crabs. When the fire had burned down we put seaweed in the pit, tossed in the shellfish, covered it with seaweed. After about an hour, or when we remembered, we would open the pit and have our feast. A matt or the like over the seaweed made things cook faster.
With large game you dig a larger hole, use more rocks, and build a larger fire. With large hunks of meat you must remove some of the rocks, put the meat in, and put on rocks on top of the meat and then cover it all well. A grass mat helps hold the heat in. Give a leg of lamb three hours. Never use rocks from a stream. They can explode when heated.
Variation: After the rocks are hot, lay in the food and the rest around a stick placed vertically in the middle. Before closing pull the stick out, pour a couple of cups of water down the hole then cover the hole. Good for steaming vegetables.
A second pit method is to dig the pit, line it with stones if you have them, cover the food with leaves, cover that with three inches of dirt and then build a fire over the pit.
If you don’t have rocks you can use clay. Aboriginals dug pits about 4 feet long and 3 feet deep. They put firewood in the pit along with large lumps of clay. After the fire burn down the lumps of hot clay were removed, the pit swept clean, lined with green leaves or grasses, then small game were put in, covered with green grass, weighted down with the hot clay, then everything buried again. Small game took and hour or so, larger game like small pigs or possums two hours or more.
Pumpkin cook pot: Think about. A pumpkin is hollow, has edible pulp and is a natural pot. Take off the top in a manner that allows you to put it back on like a lid. Scoop out the seeds for roasting. Put what you want to cook in the water proof hollow, replace the lid, put near the fire or in the coals. Watch closely. You can also put a spicy custard in the pumpkin for a seasonal treat. Actually nearly every edible squash member with a hard outer peel can be used this way.
Alternative method. Put a series of clean hot rocks in the pumpkin to cook the content, especially if it is a soup or stew.
Salt: Small amounts of salt water can be held on large leaves in the sun to evaporate leaving salt. Or along the shore several plants exude salt on their leaves or contain salt and can be used for salt flavoring, such as glasswort and seablight.
Sandspurs: These highly nutritious and calorie-dense grains are protected by painful spines. Harvest the plant by cutting it off near the ground. Use the stalk as a handle. Hold the seed heads over the fire or near the coals and burn off the spines. This also parches the seed. Once the spines are burned away consume the seeds right off the stem. The only caution is the seed has a lot of oil and burns easily so several passes into the fire is better than putting it in the fire and leaving it there. That usually ends up with it just catching on fire. (See my video.)
Seal blubber: Can be eaten raw or cooked.
Shellfish: Line saltwater shellfish up on a flat rock then rake coals over them. You can do the same with fresh water shellfish but they don’t taste as good and must be cooked very thoroughly because of dangerous parasites. You can also “cook” small saltwater shellfish with citric acid using juice from wild oranges and the like.
Australian Aboriginals cooked saltwater shellfish quickly by putting them on coals next to the fire, foot up. When the frothed they were done. This also helps to avoid overcooking the shellfish and making them tough. They also consumed cockles (mollusks) by the tens of millions. They heaped them into a pile and built a small fire on the heap. That caused the shells to pop open eliminating the need to break them open.
Spit cooking: A spit is a usually green stick skewering small amounts of meats, vegetables. It is held over hot coals. You can hold the spit or prop it with two rocks, one over the end and one under it to regulate height. You can cut a forked branch to hold meat so you can rotate the meat easily. You can also split the spit and run small sticks through the split in the spit and the meat to hold it firm.
Reflector: Any material that can be used to reflect heat can make cooking go faster. A rock wall, piled stones, logs, all can reflect heat. Put the meat you are cooking between your fire and the reflector
Sugar: Young Bulrush (Scirpus) shoots can be harvested green. Dried then pounded and sieved the resulting white powder is sweet. Young peas can be used as a sugar substitute or as a fruit.
Turtles: Their shells make good cooking pots but boil water in them first to clean and disinfect. Skulls can be used likewise. Roast ungutted turtle on coals. When the shell splits they are done. Almost the entire turtle is edible except the lungs, gall bladder, skeleton, skull and nails. You really want to avoid the gall bladder and take steps not to rupture it.
Vegetables: Most roots vegetables can be baked next to a fire or in the coals of a fire. More so, with many root vegetables their peel protects them and dry heat intensifies the flavor. Depending upon the root it can be next to the fire, on the coals, or buried in the coals.
Yeast: Sources of wild yeast are grapes and elderberries. Each have a lot of yeast on their skins. This yeast can be used to make wine, beer, and raise bread.