Breakfast for dinner? Yes, please! This historical cooking experiment was a journey in expectations – what did this soldier expect when he paid money for griddle cakes and how did it compare to what he got? The inspiration came from the collection of writings from a Vermont soldier that I had read during the summer months, and one evening in October, I gathered the research and started cooking.
Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont Regiment created an interest set of primary sources by writing letters to his hometown newspaper. While he was conscious that he wrote for publication, he presented a rather unglamorous and honest picture of a common soldier’s life. Food makes multiple appearances in his writing, usually limited details about the cooking in his camp, but with strong hints that it left much to desired.
For example, during the Gettysburg Campaign, the regiment camped near Sam’s Creek, located about 30 miles from Hyattsville, Maryland, by Fisk’s estimates. Here, the soldier turned to the business of finding dinner and ideally cooking as little as possible after their long march:
“Tired as the boys were they had strength enough left to ransack the village and purchase everything eatable, from a mince pie to a loaf of brown bread, including chickens, hams, eggs, etc. The stores were drained of all groceries as fast as the goods could be handed out and the money received for them. Farm houses were besieged and everything that extravagant prices could buy was bought, and even then there was hardly half a mouthful apiece. When all other resources became exhausted we resorted to the grist mill, where flour and corn meal could be had, out of which we made cakes and puddings in the most approved primitive style. Probably the most of us manufactured a supper out of material not expressly mentioned in the army regulations.”[i]
Fisk and other Civil War soldier writers seem to have preferred to pay someone else to cook whenever possible. In a postwar speech for a Grand Army of the Republic gathering in 1894, Fisk recalled a civilian/military interaction involving food:
“A comrade and I paid 12 ½ Cents apiece to a lady for making us some griddle cakes. They were made of flour and water and salt, no other ingredient, wet up like paste and fried very thin—just as thin as she could make them stick together and she was pretty skilful at it and we had nothing to eat on them, but I have been to wedding feats when they didn’t seem half so good.”[ii]
She may have called it griddle cake, but that sounds like thin hard tack to me! While the soldiers were hungry enough to eat it, I wondered what they had in mind when they paid for griddle cakes. What intrigued me about this account was the disappointment. Clearly, Fisk and his comrade had something else in mind when they paid for griddle cakes. So what might griddle cakes have been like at their homes? I decided to find out. I’d skip the flour/water/salt mess and instead figure out what “taste of home” the soldiers looked for.
According to one of the few published cooking books of the era, Catherine Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe) wrote how to cook griddle cakes and gave hints for a variety of recipes. For example:
General Directions for Griddle and other Breakfast Cakes.
The best method of greasing a griddle is, to take a bit of salt pork, and rub over with a fork. This prevents adhesion, and yet does not allow the fat to soak into what is to be cooked.
In putting cakes on to griddles, be careful to form them a regular round shape, and put on only one at each dip, and so as not to spill between the cakes.[iii]
Sounds rather similar to “pancakes” and Beecher’s recipes are also similar to the modern breakfast food. Buckwheat seemed to be her preferred flour for griddle cakes and she wrote that sometimes a leavening agent (like yeast) could be used. Soda (like modern baking soda) was also in some recipes, along with suggestions to add a sweetener to the batter. Beecher’s recipes were not particularly detailed, but I started to get the idea for what the soldiers probably expected their griddle cakes to be.
I turned to my trusty resource The American Frugal Housewife (1833) to see if Mrs. Child had hints for pancakes or griddle cakes. Here, I had better success with finding an actual recipe to follow.
“Pancakes should be made of half a pint of milk, three great spoonfuls of sugar, one or two eggs, a tea-spoonful of dissolved pearlash, spiced with cinnamon, or cloves, a little salt, rose-water, or lemon brandy, just as you happen to have it. Flour should be stirred in till the spoon moves round with difficulty. If they are thin, they are apt to soak fat. Have the fat in your skillet boiling hot, and drop them in with a spoon. Let them cook till thoroughly brown. The fat which is left is good to shorten other cakes. The more fat they are cooked in, the less they soak.”[iv]
Here’s my interpretation:
Half a pint is one cup of milk.
Three tablespoons of sugar
A teaspoon of baking soda
Whole wheat flour (enough to make a moderately stiff batter)
I didn’t have rose water or lemon brandy, but the lemon flavoring intrigued me and I wondered if the acid would interact with the baking soda as a leavening agent. So I added some imprecise measurement of fresh lemon juice.
It sounded like there was more oil or melted fat in the pan than I would normally use for pancakes. I decided to cook a couple pieces of bacon and then used those drippings to cook the pancakes/griddle cakes.
Since the goal was to understand what Wilbur Fisk wanted the griddle cakes to taste like and he specifically noted the lack of “toppings,” I decided to put butter and maple syrup on the griddle cakes. (Bonus points since it was actually Vermont maple syrup that I’d purchased on a northern trip for the cooking trail from a Vermonter’s writings?)
And now I see why Fisk sounded disappointed with the flour/water/salt “griddle cakes” that he paid 12 ½ cents for. If he expected something like the griddle cakes or pancakes written about in Beecher or Child’s books, his disappointment is clearly understood. (So was the civilian woman not a good cook or was she cheating the soldiers?)
I know I wouldn’t want to be cheated out of real griddle cakes. They were heavier and much more filling than “modern pancakes” probably because of the whole wheat flour, but they still had a fluffy texture and the lemon added a nice extra flavor hint. While Fisk was hungry enough to compliment whatever “griddle cakes” he got, they were certainly very different from the ones described in 19th Century food writings and compared to what he probably enjoyed at home.
[i] Wilbur Fisk, edited by Emil and Ruth Rosenblatt, Hard Marching Every Day: The Civil War Letters of Private Wilbur Fisk, 1861-1865 (Lawrence: The University of Kansas Press, 1983). Page 113.
[ii] Ibid., Pages 364-365.
[iii] Catherine Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, published in 1846. Accessed through The Project Gutenberg E-Books: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/54965/54965-h/54965-h.htm#CHAPTER_XI
[iv] Mrs. Child, The American Frugal Housewife, published in 1833. Reprinted by Applewood Books. Page 74.