Civil War Cookin’ – Second Helpings?

While food might have been scarce for some military units and civilians during the Civil War, we’re not facing a scarcity of stories about food in the 1860’s!

In 2016 I shared recipes and stories about food from the Civil War era on the week of Thanksgiving. It was a fun mini-series to write, and I’ve been collecting accounts all year to be able to write a second installment in 2017.

But first a few thoughts on stoves and fires… (Yes, you read that correctly.)

Ever toured a historic home and examined the authentic or reproduction furnishings of the mid-19th Century? I love looking at the kitchens and trying to imagine what it might have been like to cook and bake in that room without the luxuries of electricity, gas, or running water.

There are a few types of heat sources for cooking that are typically found in historic homes. First, the hearth where the fire is built (usually in a “fireplace” below the chimney); a long crane-like arm swivels out to hold pots of food over the fire or the cook used long handed pans to hold the food close to the flames.

Second, the stove. By the 1860’s, there were many models of stoves, and each manufacturer boasted that his was the best. Theoretically, a stove made it easier to control the heat which made it easier and a little safer to cook. (Wide skirts near an open fire on the heart? That’s a little dangerous.)

Recently, I learned about a debate over fire fuels. Coal or wood? Supposedly, many mid-19th Century ladies preferred wood because it was easier to regulate the heat in the stove. However, the coal burned cleaner, making less housework, and avoiding the necessity of chopping wood.

There are accounts of Civil War soldiers constructing hearts and stoves, usually in their winter camps. However, much of the military’s cooking was done over a small, open fire. (Think “campfire.”) Their fire fuel? Well, fence rails burned pretty well or other wood items or trees.

Why did I share these facts? Because I think it’s good to remember that the recipes from the Civil War and stories about food involved cooking and baking in ways that are more complicated than our 21st Century kitchens in America. With modern conveniences, heating food can take seconds. Cooking a complete uncomplicated meal can take a half-hour. When soldiers were ready for coffee, Clara Barton needed to make food, or Sarah Broadhead prepared her family’s meal, it took significant time and effort.

It’s easy to take our “easy life” for granted. Most of us don’t have to split the wood, build the fire, light the fire. Oh, and that’s just getting the heat source ready. Haul the water, grind the coffee, make the coffee, keep feeding the fire… That’s only making coffee. We haven’t even started making breakfast or plucking that foraged chicken yet!

Just something to keep in mind as we explore Civil War cookin’…

If you want to read or re-read last year’s articles, here are the links:

Civil War Cookin’: An Introduction

Civil War Cookin’: Cornbread – All American

Civil War Cookin’: Don’t You Want Some Pie?

Civil War Cookin’: Learning To Make Bread

Civil War Cookin’: Don’t Cry…It’s Just An Onion

Civil War Cookin’: A Soldier’s Thanksgiving

Civil War Cookin’: What To Do With Leftovers According To Major Pendleton

A note to all our readers: While we expect to have a lot of fun looking at old recipes, please be sure to use good kitchen and food handling safety when preparing your own food. We’re a history blog (not a test kitchen) so be careful if you decide to try any of these recipes or food experiments in your own kitchen or ’round the campfire.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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