The week of Thanksgiving approaches, and it’s time to begin the yearly tradition of the Civil War Cooking Series on Emerging Civil War. This year I’m delighted to share that Meg Groeling is joining the effort to entertain and highlight some of the 1860’s culinary history by taking us on a tasteful journey of popular drinks from the Civil War era. Meg and I have had fun talking about our food and drink research and kitchen experiments, and we can’t wait to share the results with you.
(Although only time will tell if Meg will forgive me for cooking rabbit. I told her it was ethically raised and butchered, but the conversation is still a little frosty like those mint juleps.)
Similar to the two previous years, I’ve spent the year collecting food accounts from soldiers’ primary sources or memoirs, and this fall I recreated five meals. From simple dishes to a full course meal that might have made a “groaning table,” it’s been fun to learn more about Civil War cooking (and eating) through research and hands-on experimenting.
Many Civil War memoirs and even some regimental histories have the obligatory section about army food. A mixture of fond reminiscence for the “army beans” and some decades old complaining about the hardtack in most writings. However, I was reading the 1899 regimental history of the 27th Indiana Infantry Regiment last week during my lunch breaks and came across this fabulous remembering about soldiers trying to cook. It’s a wonderful blending of tribute to soldiering and the homefront and seemed like an appropriate way to start the 2022 reflections on Civil War cooking and drinking.
[1861 – the regiment has recently mustered] Most of us had our first experience in cooking at Camp Morten, as well as our first trial at eating Uncle Sam’s delicacies. As a rule we had been brought up to have almost anything we liked best in the way of substantial food, and had had it prepared in a way to tempt the palate of a king. Few people the world over have a more liberal or varied store to draw from, and none know better how to cook than the mothers, wives, and daughters of our bounteous Hoosier State. Blessings on them! Some of us are conscience stricken to the present hour that we had not appreciate them more, without the necessity of such a severe lesson. When we came to stand before the fire, our eyes filled with smoke, if not with genuine tears, overwhelmed with doubt and perplexity as to what to do and how to do it, many a spoiled boy and some spoiled husbands experienced a sudden and violent taking down, whose benefit, it is to be hoped, has been permanent.
There was no such thing as a cook house or mess tent at Camp Morton. Rations of pork beans rice, sugar, coffee, molasses and bread were issued; a sufficient number of sheet-iron kettles and frying pans were provided, together with seasoned cord wood, and the men were expected to do the rest. There was some slight pressure or suggestion in the way of forming men of the same company into small messes of say, six to ten men each, though there was nothing binding about that. If an individual wanted his rations apportioned to himself alone, as was the case with a few, it was done.
There is no instance recorded or remembered where anyone either asked for or received instructions in the culinary art. If war was to break out in these latter days [1890’s] there would be myriads of cook books and recipes on sale immediately, covering the whole ground. The sum total of human knowledge and experience relative to the cooking and compounding of such articles of food as are issued to soldiers, in order to make them palatable and wholesome, could be bought for five cents. Not so then. Not so to the end of the Civil War, as far as the writer is advised. What was more strange, no attention was given to the subject by the medical department of the army. The matter of the proper disposition of slops and refuse was looked after later on, but not here. Possibly it was not considered necessary here, the fact being taken for granted that the men would live principally on slops and refuse anyway. In the messes each member too his turn in preparing meals. When one’s turn came, he simply went to do his task and over an open fire, out of doors, with what native sense or ingenuity he possessed, or guided by what he could remember of seeing his mother or wife do, he prepared the meal.
Meg and I armed ourselves with research from a few recipe books that were printed at the time of the Civil War, and I did use modern appliances instead of a wood fire this year. I don’t think we had any tears from smoke or overwhelming unknowns…although I did ponder whether to laugh or cry when the electricity went out exactly one hour before the big dinner party and the rabbit had just been put into the cooking pot! (I laughed.)
Civil War cooking was a bit haphazard and could even be rather dangerous eating, but re-examining the recorded notes about food and drink, culinary preparations, and moments of good cheer has continued to be a rewarding research adventure year after year. Come join us in the kitchen or ’round the dining table as we share our historical notes and cooking projects!
And if you want to see some of the experiments/research from previous years…