Baking bread. Have you ever tried it? You know, yeast bread. Mix, knead, rise, knead, rise, bake. Time consuming. (I cheat and use a bread maker.) Back in the Civil War days, they prepared their bread without the convenience of a mixer or bread maker.
Well, not everyone made their own bread. Some households had servants or bought their bread from a bakery. This created a problem – particularly for Southern housewives – when they had to bake bread on their own.
Compounding the challenge, bread making is best learned from an experienced baker. Mrs. Childs gives wonderfully “encouraging” advice in the opening section on yeast breads in her housekeeping book: “It is more difficult to give rules for making bread than for anything else; it depends so much on judgment and experience.”[i]
Mary Greenhow Lee (a resident of Winchester, Virginia) gives us a glimpse of the “empowering experience” of baking for a Southern lady. This excerpt comes from the 1865 section of her journal when she was residing in Staunton, Virginia, and trying to stay away from the Yankees and the realities of defeat.
Thursday morning [May 11, 1865]
…Lute & I & Ella Stribling breakfasted this morning with the Sherrards and Jeannie showed us how to make bread. I came home to try my hand & sent to ask the Catletts & Mrs. Johnson to spend the evening… I have sent up now for Mr. & Mrs. Stuart & their family; have not got their answer yet…[ii]
Clearly, Mrs. Lee was anxious to share her baking experience with her friends. Unfortunately, they didn’t arrive to partake in her culinary product, but she did report on the baking outcome.
It has rained all evening & the Stuarts would not come; I was disappointed as I had a very nice supper; Lute and I made some very nice cake with maple sugar & my bred was very successful for the first attempt…[iii]
A couple days later, Mrs. Lee felt she had mastered the art of baking yeast bread…and was finally able to share her creation with a friend.
[Ranny McKim] came in this morning & I asked him to come back to tea to try some bread I was making; it proved a grand success & I feel quite independent now; it was equally as nice as Jeannie Sherrards.[iv]
So at age forty-five, Mary Greenhow Lee mastered the art of baking bread. Her account has its humor, but also illustrates a crucial part of a Southern woman’s war experience: learning to accomplish new tasks. Whether it was managing a farm, loading a gun, or the “simple” chore of kneading and baking bread, they learned new skill sets. Those acquired abilities gave ladies a sense of independence and self-confidence.
May your cooking experiences this week be a “grand success” and contribute to feelings of independence in the kitchen…and may your yeast bread (or rolls) be “equally as nice as Jeannie Sherrards”!
[i] Mrs. Childs, The American Frugal Housewife, 1833, page 76
[ii] Mary Greenhow Lee, edited by Eloise C. Strader, “The Civil War Jouranl of Mary Greenhow Lee”, page 520
[iii] Ibid, page 521
[iv] Ibid, page 521