Civil War Cooking: “A Taste of War”

It’s that time of year again…the week of Thanksgiving! Keeping with ECW tradition, it’s time for a week of “journaling”, research notes, primary sources, photos, and time in the kitchen to learn by eating and blogging for the Civil War Cooking Series. If you’re a long-time reader, you’ll remember that this series started with recipe notes and has now evolved into the recreation of historical foods and menus found in primary sources. (View the previous years’ posts here.)

For 2021, I’ve been collecting interest menus and food notes through the year and had a lot of fun (and good leftovers) by recreating the 1860’s dishes in the autumn months. To help inspire and inform the series, I started by reading William C. Davis’s book A Taste of War: The Culinary History of the Blue and Gray. So here’s a quick book review to get the series “cooking”!

Published in 2003 by Stackpole Books and later republished in 2011 with the University of Nebraska Press, this volume is a delight to read for the history buff and food historian alike. The text walks the reader through the challenges of learning to cook in camp, the difficulties and triumphs of food logistics for the army, the practices of foraging, food in prison camps and hospitals, boxes from the homefront, baking bread for the army, and more. Attitudes toward food or opinions expressed through metaphoric food commentary are also briefly explored. The books solidly covers food and supply for the military and even includes a large section of categorized recipes in the back of the book, most of the “edible” ones are adapted or easily translatable for modern kitchens. (In fact, I used a few of the recipes in my historic menus this year.)

As the book progress, Davis points out the dangers of cooking around the Civil War era campfires and how poorly prepared food led to illness. Interestingly, this observation prompted some officers to write cookbooks for the soldiers or send cooks to the camps to teach the men to cook properly.

My favorite chapters focused on the soldiers learning how to cook, including this recorded incident:

It proved more hilarious yet to stand beside the fires and watch the neophytes try to figure out what was supposed to happen to all the stuff they had thrown into the cauldrons and pans, and their chagrin at the result. “I saw the cook, his face beaming like the coals, the perspirations streaming down his cheeks, watching a huge fat mass of salt junk [pork] bubble up and down in the great pot.” The cook kept looking at his watch to assess how long the congealing blob of pork had been cooking and then looking at the sky, scratching his head, and muttering under his breath that he wondered “if the d—-d thing was done yet.”

It was enough to convince the journalist that “the poor fellow was evidently in as big a stew as the object of his solicitude,” a conclusion confirmed when the befuddled man asked the cook at another mess’s fire how he could tell when the steaming concoction was done.

“Stick a stick into it,” came the reply.

“Stick a stick into it!” replied the cook of the first part. “What’ll that do?”

“Why if the thing is done the stick will go easy,” replied the cook of the second part. “It it ain’t done it won’t go in.”

Immediately, the cook of the first part found a pointed stick of suitable length. “He made several vigorous lunges at the white mass in the pot,” noted the reporter,” but all his efforts were unavailing.” In frustration he threw the stick and swore. “No use — the infernal thing won’t get cooked,” he grumbled to the other cook. “It has been boiling for three hours this way. I believe you are hoaxing me.” His only recourse was to ask a woman in town to borrow a cookbook from her “to find out how long pork must be boiled before it was done.” [Pages 1-2]

The menus and recipes discovered in primary sources suggest that many soldiers did learn to cook quite well and hardtack and salt pork — while still the common ration — was certainly not the only dining option in camps during the soldiering years.

3 Responses to Civil War Cooking: “A Taste of War”

  1. I think he needed to be changing out the water. Civil War Digest does a LOT of videos on soldier cooking and that was one of the many salt pork recipes. It took several hours and the water had to be changed constantly. I almost don’t blame soldiers for eating salt pork raw. That’s a ton of work!

  2. Thanks Sarah Key for a interesting post on Civil War cooking.

    With Thanksgiving in a few days, here is how the 127th New York Volunteer Infantry spent their Thanksgiving 1864 in the South Carolina Low Country”

    “The camp of the regiment was just outside of Beaufort and nicely laid out; the tents were floored, and around this was a frame four feet high, which was covered by shelter tents, and in some cases by boards, while the A, or wedge tents, over all made a structure twelve feet to the peak. Each company had a kitchen constructed and a very comfortable mess tent, with tables accommodating four men each, where the meals were served to the men.

    On the 24th, which was a beautiful day, Thanksgiving was observed. At 10 a. m. religious services were held in a large shed just on the edge of camp and a sermon preached by Chaplain Willis, text, Psalms, 4th Chapter, 8th and 9th verses. At noon there was a review by General Saxton. The regiment raised a one hundred foot flagstaff, and the afternoon was spent in sports, consisting of foot races of five hundred yards, sack races, wheel-barrow races, etc. Company A indulged in a Thanksgiving dinner, purchased from their company fund, with a bill of fare of stewed chicken, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, turnips, boiled onions and pumpkin pie. The other companies also celebrated the day with dinners and sports of various kinds.”

    McGrath, Franklin, ed. “The history of the 127th New York Volunteers, “Monitors,” in the war for the preservation of the union — September 8th, 1862, June 30th, 1865.” c. 1898 Pages 118-119

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