One of my co-workers who knows I'm into medieval cooking sent me a link to a video about D&D iron rations and asked me what I thought (seeing as my day job is in the IT department it's not really surprising, I guess, to have people who are interested in Dungeons & Dragons and/or medieval cooking).
Anyways, since I took the time to re-watch the video (I'd seen it before) and jot down some quick notes about it, I thought I'd go ahead an post them here as well. Here's the video ... go ahead and watch it ... I'll wait.
Ok, yes. It's all fun, and the guy in the video himself even noted that “Pemmican and mango and chain mail, they would never have been anywhere near each other historically.” It wasn't meant to be historically accurate. However I do get asked about D&D rations from time to time, and I've even done a couple of seminars on the subject at games conventions. So ...
Salted Fish & MeatSalt has been used to preserve fish and meat since well before the middle ages. It's reliable and relatively fool-proof. You bury the food in salt for a week or so, drain off any liquid that forms, maybe change out the salt, and you end up with something that the bugs and mold and bacteria don't want to mess with.
Of course you've also got something that is so salty that it's no longer fit for people to eat. The typical way to fix that was to boil it in fresh water for an hour or two, changing out the water once or twice. This gives you some edible meat and a lot of salty broth (most of which which will probably get thrown out).
Salted meat was often used by soldiers, even up to the civil war (I believe - correct me if I'm wrong), but for a group of fantasy adventurers going through a dungeon it wouldn't be very practical.
PemmicanPemmican was common among some of the North American tribes and was a decent way to preserve food for rough times. As the guy in the video mentioned, it can stay unspoiled (I hesitate to say "good to eat") for an exceptionally long time provided it's kept wrapped up and in cool conditions. The problem of course is that in warm or hot weather the fat in it can go rancid. Really, unless the adventurers are exploring the tundra, arctic, or great white north, I don't think it would be all that suitable for "iron rations".
CheeseWax sealed cheese is a relatively new thing (e.g. in the last hundred years or so). Most aged cheeses develop a hard rind on their own. While it means that you might lose some of the outer part of the cheese because it's too hard to eat, or even fuzzy in places, the rind protects the inside of the cheese. Wax is meant to do that as well, but wax was actually rather expensive (especially beeswax, which was most desirable for candles). Cheese can also go bad if stored under too warm conditions - that's why "cheese caves" are a thing.
Fruit is great. It's got lots of sugars and it keeps really well when dried. If it gets too dried out you can even boil it in water for a bit and it will soften right up. The problem in connection with iron rations is that dried fruit has also always been a bit expensive.
Parched WheatI'd never heard of this stuff before - strange, huh? I suppose it would work, but it sounds a bit hard on the teeth.
Wheat was available throughout medieval Europe, but the supply would vary by location and from season to season. It was considered the best kind of grain and was therefore much in demand for making the nice white bread favored by just about everyone who could afford it. Poorer folk would get bread made from mixed grains, so I imagine taking a bunch of wheat and roasting it just so Blogg the Barbarian can have something to nibble on while spelunking would be a bit ... rich.
What's more, why not just carry cracked wheat or other grains that can be used for other purposes like making bread or soup?
CrackersOk, crackers are pretty reasonable, but still more expensive and less versatile than a sack of cracked grain.
ChocolateUGH! Not only is chocolate a new world food, but chocolate before the 1700s was not sweet. Even worse, the war ration chocolate mentioned in the video that soldiers carried in their packs was waxy and not very good to eat - the soldiers preferred to give it away rather than eating it (which I believe was the actual intention of the US government).
ConclusionA more accurate version of hard rations would be more like a sack of cracked mixed grain and another of dried meat. These would be used to make some kind of stew. Of course it wouldn't be practical in an actual dungeon, but then no cooking would be.
For a dungeon crawl set in an early medieval European setting, I would expect the party to be eating perishable food for the first two or three days (fresh fruit, bread, fresh meat) and maybe beef jerky and cracker-like breads for another day or two after that. If they're stuck in a dungeon for longer than that with no source of fresh food, and have no way to cook grain and salted meat, then they're pretty much screwed.