Pennsic Sanitation for the Compleat Idiot

By Jaji
(mka George Page)

You're at Pennsic! The smells of campfires and wonderfully period food fill the air. Wooden plates, iron pots, and all those things which make period food you want to cook at Pennsic taste better; ya gotta have ‘em! And you've got that cooler for your beer, so why not just throw the bag of chicken for the stew in there too, along with the cheese for a snack. The ice will keep everything cold.

Hold on there, Kimo Sabe! Pennsic is not like the day-long events you are used to. We're there for a week or more in pretty cramped quarters, considering we are outdoors, and a lot of things are different from anything else you may have experienced with food or anything else. For a day event, you can get away with a lot that could be terminally bad for you at the War.

The topics for discussion are the following:

-The care and feeding of coolers at Pennsic

-The set-up of a sanitary camp kitchen

-The scullery

-How to be a period cook or at least look like one

-Sanitary serving, or how not to poison your friends

Without further ado, then, we forge ahead!

The care and feeding of coolers at Pennsic

OK, I exaggerated a bit with the raw chicken example, but you'd be surprised at how many people really don't have that much of a clue. Pennsic comes, and the brain shuts off. "It was in the shade all day, so this egg salad with mayonnaise should be fine" forgetting that it was 90 degrees in the shade that day. Common sense really is the only guide.

Cross contamination can occur if you do not separate the coolers. While we can't run a completely kosher kitchen (easily, anyway), if the meat is kept separate from the dairy (ALL dairy: milk, eggs, butter, cheese, etc) and the vegetables, then there should be no problems. I am referring here to raw foods only. Once foods are cooked, the leftovers can usually be bagged, labeled and put into a separate cooler, with precautions taken with the ice (see below).

Sometimes you must worry about allergies and cross-contamination. It is imperative at that time to ascertain the exact allergies and circumstances under which those allergies are suffered. It makes a BIG difference if someone simply cannot eat something, as opposed to not being able to be in the room with something. Coolers can be allotted for such usage if necessary. Note I didn't say "preferences". Pennsic cooking can be hard enough on the cooks without "fussy eaters"!

At the least, then, 4 coolers are needed for a medium-large camp (i.e. 20-40 or so). I would recommend using the 100-150 qt. size coolers, as they hold a lot and can accommodate several days of food. This prevents multiple trips to the store, except to buy ice. On that subject, unless you are putting ice into drinks (NOTE: DO NOT use ice cubes from a meat cooler in anything other than that cooler!), it is best to use block ice. It will stay colder much longer and you will need to buy fewer blocks of ice. The ice will also last longer if the coolers are kept out of direct sunlight and out of nylon tents. A light-colored fabric cover is great, since it also keeps the cooler out of sight and helps keep the period look of a camp without sacrificing safety or convenience.
To store food in a cooler, it is advisable to use sealable waterproof plastic containers or zip-top bags. In my camp at Pennsic, we have cold cuts available for lunch, and the last thing you want is to pull soggy bags of ham and salami out of the cooler water. Another very useful item is the plastic egg carriers designed for backpacking. Most sporting goods stores (and even Wal-Mart!) carry these for about $2. Buy milk and juices in plastic containers as well.

The coolers should be drained as often as needed. Even though the water feels cold, it actually is warmer than the ice and can melt the ice faster, which can create a potentially unsafe situation. Most of us don't keep thermometers in camp to measure the cooler temperatures and it's not really necessary. Check your ice often, and drain the water often. That's really it. If the ice seems to be melting quickly, then replace it more quickly. If it is your own cooler, that's easy. If it is a camp cooler, assign someone to check the ice and be responsible for it.
When draining the coolers, be certain that you are as far away from camping areas as possible. Often times the coolers can become contaminated with meat juices or food scraps, which should be removed if at all possible (the scraps, anyway). It is advisable to make a bleach solution (1/4 cup bleach per gallon of water) and sprinkle it over the area where you dump the cooler water. Also, take care since sometimes the coolers are not completely empty, so using the drain hole is advisable over just dumping the cooler over.

Setting up a Sanitary Camp Kitchen

Your coolers are ready, but the rest of the kitchen still needs tending to. You wouldn't cook on the floor and put all of your pots and pans there, so why do it at Pennsic? A small wooden trunk with short legs is great to store utensils in, and you might even want to go so far as to build a cook box to contain everything you might need when not in use, provided everything is accessible when needed. It is downright dangerous to keep knives rattling around in a box with other things folks might need. Depending on where and what the cook tent is, a rack to hold pots and pans can be improvised to keep pots off the ground and always at hand.

Having a prep table at a proper work height is imperative, since to be done right, food needs to be prepped. If Spaghetti-O's from a can is what you like for food at Pennsic, put down this paper and walk away. Far away.
Before you begin to prep or cook, wash your hands. I know it sounds trite and your mother always said to, but it really is important. Also wash your hands in between prepping food types. Simply wiping your hands on a towel will not do. Having a supply of non-latex or plastic food-service gloves on hand is also a good idea.
Be certain you have the following ready: A supply of paper towels or kitchen towels, enough cutting boards to not have to re-use them for different food types, sharp knives, and a clean place to put the prepped food before it is cooked (right into the stewpot is good). And start heating your wash water now, before the dishes get dirty. (see "The Scullery" section)

The same "rules of separation" used for coolers apply to the prep table. Meats, dairy, and vegetables (even ones to be cooked) must be done separately on different cutting boards. The knife you cut the carrots with can be wiped off with a cloth and used to cut the meat, but not the other way around. It is good to prep the veggies first, then the meat. This makes for more efficient clean up. Any dairy can be done at the same time as vegetables
Make certain to clean up spills IMMEDIATELY, and if using a kitchen towel, DO NOT re-use that towel for anything other than another spill if needed. Paper towels are fine, and if the roll is kept out of sight and used ones discarded promptly, the period nature of camp will be unhurt.

A boon in recent years has been Clorox Clean-up wipes. After you are finished with the meat, make certain all blood/meat juices are wiped up, then wipe the table (NOT THE CUTTING BOARDS) with the wipes, which contain bleach. Even if the wash water isn't ready, you can still prevent any bacteria from growing in this way. As with paper towels, discard quickly and no one's the wiser.

After prep is done, make sure all prep utensils make it to:

The Scullery

Here is where the mess the cooks just made is cleaned up. In some camps, the cooks wash the pots, etc., and everyone else washes their own feast gear. In some larger camps, disposable feast gear (ie paper and plasticware) is used instead, and the pots & pans are washed by others than the cooks. However your camp decides to organize, the principle is the same.

Wash, rinse, sterilize. That's it. Three containers: one for each of the activities. You can use three large plastic tubs (the rectangular "Rubbermaid-types fit neatly on a table) and heat your water on a stove, or you can put your water in a heavy tin bucket near the fire and pour it into tin washbasins. If you have any tin canning basins, they are perfect since they hold about 7 gallons, and have handles so that the dishwashing basins themselves can be put near the fire to heat. Though it may look cool, I do not recommend using wooden basins or tubs since they may absorb bacteria from the dirty wash water and defeat the entire purpose of this exercise.
The wash water should be warm, the rinse water MUST be hot, and the bleach water can be cold, warm, or hot. It is best to use bio-degradable soap; Ivory dish soap is about the best and nowhere near as expensive as the soaps found in all the natural food stores. To the bleach/sanitize container, add 1/4 cup of bleach per gallon of water. Use only normal bleach, no scents, softeners, etc. Dunk the items to be bleached into the bleach water, swish around a bit, remove and air-dry.

Air-drying is of paramount importance. The amount of bacteria that can grow on a dishtowel is staggering. Even if the towel is used for nothing but dishes, it may not properly dry, leaving moisture to grow mold and other nasty things. Get a wooden dish rack, which can be found in almost any store now for under $10, and set it up where the breeze can get to it. The breeze will prevent insects from settling and will help the dishes to dry faster. If you are not cooking in a period camp, find yourself a stainless steel dish rack instead.

Discarding the dishwater should be given the same precaution as discarding the cooler water, and dump the bleach water last to prevent any bacteria problems.

How to be a Period Cook, or Just Look Like One

OK, not really about cooking, but important nonetheless. As mentioned in the beginning, wooden feast gear and iron cookware are great for adding to the period feel of our game, and it looks awesome in camp to see iron pots boiling over a fire. Care must be taken lest the first clean up destroy beautiful (and sometimes expensive) gear.
In our busy lives at home we can sometimes put off chores like dishwashing until later, or when we get to it. That can happen at Pennsic also. While it may be tempting to let things soak until later, please avoid that temptation and don’t do it!

Woodenware is often either laminated or otherwise made from many different pieces of wood joined together. Leave a cutting board or wooden bowl in a washbasin for a day or two and it will separate and literally come apart at the seams. The handles on wooden tankards are often glued on and will come off, sometime much later when you have a drink in them. If left to soak in hot water, woodenware will discolor and while it will still be safe to use, it will look horrible. Since wood is porous, it will also soak up any soap that is in the water and you'll know it the next time you want some soup. French Onion a la Ivory Soap? Yuck! This same precaution applies to wooden spoons and any utensils made from natural horn.

Cast iron is an animal unto itself. Many do not realize that it too is porous and will absorb odors and flavors, such as soap. The best way to keep cast iron clean is to not let food sit in it for a long time and get stuck.When cleaning cast iron, it is best to use no soap at all, but simply remove all food particles and gently scrub clean with steel wool (NOT A BRILLO PAD) and hot water. To remove food particles, fill the pot about halfway and bring to a boil. Remove from the fire, then scrape the food particles off the bottom using a wooden spoon to move the steel wool. Pour out the water and dry either over slow heat or with a paper towel then add a few drops of oil to the pan/pot while the pan is still warm. Rub the oil into the pan with a paper towel. So long as this paper towel only has the oil and not water on it, you can also save it to help start your next fire. Be certain you also treat the lid in the same manner. Don’t leave iron pots out in the rain or dew, and definitely don’t assume that since the lid was on, the inside of a pot is dry. Many a dinner had to be delayed so that the inside of a “sealed” pot could be de-rusted.

A stainless steel dish rack was mentioned earlier, if you are not interested in the period look. Even if you are, don’t discount stainless entirely. Visit your local dollar store and see what they have for stainless steel cups, bowls, plates, and trays. I have several cups which are virtually indistinguishable from the period tin ones. The plates are excellent as well. This feast gear gives me everything I want: a mostly period look, durability (I’m rough on my gear) and the bacteria resistance of stainless. While food left on these plates may grow mold and bacteria, it takes a lot to stick and it can’t penetrate the metal. Wash, rinse, sterilize, and the nastiest stainless steel plate is safe to use.

Sanitary Serving, or how not to poison your friends

In some larger camps, a breakfast or lunch board is part of the experience. Fruit, bread and spreads, cold cooked meats and hard-boiled eggs are perfect for breakfast, and the addition of some savory spreads and cold cuts made a decent lunch. The key is to keep it all cold.

One way to do this is to obtain either foil or stainless steel chafing pans. Foil can be found in any discount store, and check the bargain newspapers for old restaurant supplies to get the stainless ones. The deepest pan is filled with ice and a shallower one is laid in that. Place the food to be kept chilled into this shallow pan and cover with foil or plastic. A clean cloth towel can be laid over the top if you wish to keep it covered, and it will also stay cold longer. A full pan of ice set up this way should last for the duration of the meal time. (Hint: on those REALLY hot Pennsic days, instead of discarding this melted ice water, pour it into a tub of some kind and soak your feet in it.) Alternately, you can set bowls of food directly into the ice and keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t tip and spill into the ice as it melts.

Whole fresh fruit can safely sit out on the table, but cut fruits including loose grapes and hulled strawberries should be kept chilled. Same goes for veggies: keep all cut veggies as cool as you can and in the cooler between meals.

Cooked meats, lunch meats and cheeses must be kept cold, and so should spreads like mayonnaise and butter. Hardboiled eggs can safely be served unpeeled in a bowl and left out. If you have the room, keep jams and jellies at breakfast cold as well. It’s not imperative to chill them while serving, but they will keep longer and you won’t waste food or make anyone sick.

In our camp, leftovers from dinners happen, and are often served for lunches. If the food will not be reheated, keep it cold. Chances are the leftovers sat out a bit during dinner. We all know that coolers are imperfect beasties, so err on the side of caution. And mark leftovers like you would at home. If they are more than 2 days old, throw them away. Pennsic offers enough opportunities for Plague without adding botulism to the mix.
Lastly, whenever food is out as part of a Pennsic board, keep it covered. A clean towel (white will do; leave the rubber ducky one at home), some damp muslin (evaporation will aid in the chilling process), or even some of those mesh “domes” you see for picnics all work to keep direct sunlight and bugs at bay.

That, as they say, is that. Happy and safe camp cooking and eating!

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Permission is granted by the author for usage of this article in it’s entirety for SCA classes, personal edification, and any other non-commercial educational uses.