Civil War Cooking: Dr. Potter’s Fine Dining on May 31, 1863

The most complicated food menu experience ends the series this year…

Civil War surgeons had a hard and unenviable experience, but some of them ate pretty well between battles. Multiple menus from surgeons’ dining tables caught my eye this year, but Dr. William Potter of the 57th New York Regiment won the prize for the most elaborate to recreate and explore history through taste. It was also one of the most expensive historic menus to recreate thus far. As you’ll see, they were eating well at the surgeon’s dinner party on May 31, 1863.

What’s significant about the calendar date? Dr. Potter kept a diary and made occasion notes about his dining habits, so – assuming he wrote correctly – we know exactly what he had to eat and drink that evening. It’s also between two large campaigns: Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

During the Battle of Chancellorsville, Potter and his assistants at the field hospital “were busy, too much so to think about the ever shifting lines of battle, and to realize that a new line was being laid out which came very near our own position.” As he tried to organize an evacuation, he saw his wounded men injured again and an ambulance driver killed by enemy rifle and artillery fire. For three weeks after the battle he worked in a hospital with a “surgical staff…not adequate to do all the work… [and during the battle] I came near being hit myself several times, so near, indeed, that men on each side of me were killed and wounded. I am nearly worn out with fatigue and hunger, but shall soon recuperate here.” On May 24, Potter returned to his regiment and was relieved to find few men on the sick list, but the unlikely prospect of getting a good furlough to see his family.

His journal entry on Monday, June 1, 1863, reads:

Yesterday, Major [John H.] Bell [57th New York] and I dined with Dr. [James D.] Hewett, surgeon of the 119th New York. The Doctor is a friend of Major Bell’s, and we went by special invitation at 6 o’clock P.M. at which hour, with several other guests, we sat down to the table. The menu consisted of oyster soup, claret punch, spring lamb and mint sauce, potatoes, green peas, asparagus, apple pie, ice cream, fruit, and coffee. The company did not break up until near midnight, and Major Bell and I stayed all night at Dr. Hewett’s. On our way home this morning we called at General Hooker’s headquarters on some friends.

The challenge was on. How did this menu taste and could I recreate it?

One thing that I quickly realized: this menu is suited to spring or early summer. I managed to find all the ingredients, but some of the vegetables are definitely “in season” earlier in the year. Although Potter doesn’t specify if the food was served in courses, I decided to prepare it and eat it that way. It makes sense for 19th Century dinner party and was certainly easier in my kitchen.

Oyster soup is a historic favorite of mine, so it was nice to make it again. It can be light soup and was a good starting course for the meal. Instead of claret punch, I poured some sparkling juice. At some point, I do want to make some of the punches that were served in the Army of the Potomac, but it will have to be at an ECW retreat or some other event where others can help to drink it.

Oyster Soup

Confession – I’d never cooked lamb before, but it was not as difficult as I had imagined. Two small lamb chops served the purpose and I “grilled” them on a cast iron skillet with a little oil, salt, pepper, and thyme. I really wanted to try some of the more complicated recipes, but I wasn’t convinced it would be historically authentic with lots of butter and garlic and other more exotic spices. The mint sauce was made with the fresh herb, sugar, a dash of vinegar, and water—cooked gently and then cooled.

The potatoes, peas, and asparagus didn’t take much imagination to cook or roast and probably would’ve been readily available at a market or from a local farmer in May 1863.

To end the evening came the dessert course. The apple pie surprised me. Apples are not “in season” in May in Virginia, so it could have been made from dried apples or the “bottom of the barrel” apples. I made mine with some apples that needed to be used (slightly soft, but not spoiled) and added some molasses to the filling for a different flavor. Making ice cream was not an ordeal that I felt ready to tackle, so I let the grocer provide that part of the course. Thinking about fruit that is available in May in Virginia, strawberries seemed the perfect answer!

And there’s the recreated menu from the dinner party that Dr. Potter attended. It’s a well balanced set of foods, and it could even make a perfect Easter dinner.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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4 Responses to Civil War Cooking: Dr. Potter’s Fine Dining on May 31, 1863

  1. Kevin randolph says:

    This has been a most enjoyable series and has grabbed my attention among the regular great ECW content. I for one would enjoy seeing this on a somewhat regular basis though granted it’s a time/expense factor for Sarah. Something to think about. This could draw additional people into the community.

  2. Meg Groeling says:

    OMG! Sarah! Are you and I the only two oyster stew fans left in the world??

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