In the regimental memoirs of the 19th Tennessee Infantry, Confederate soldiers remembered a cold winter’s night and their interaction with a civilian family.
Late one evening, about dark, before we reached the river, our command halted for the night. Two of the boys and myself went further on, about half a mile, seeking shelter, for it was bitter cold. We had plenty of raw bacon and crackers and were hunting anything to eat, only shelter. We came to a house where were only four persons, a mother and three children, the youngest perhaps four years old. We asked for shelter for the night, and she granted our request. We found her cooking lye hominy, the only thing, and all she had, in the way of provisions.
The night was dark and gloomy, and the bright light from the old fire-place was cheerful to us, but it revealed a sorrowful expression on the care-worn face of the mother, as she prepared the last morsel of food for herself and children, not knowing from whence the next would come. The hominy, when done, was put upon the table, and she invited us to partake with them. We were not hungry, and did not partake, nor could we, had we been. When they were ready to eat, we all three emptied our haversacks on the table. Soon we lay down upon the floor and slept, more soundly and comfortably than for many a night gone by. The next morning we felt amply repaid for the rations we gave them in the comfortable refreshing rest we had, and bidding them adieu, we fell in with our command.
The scene sadly illustrated the hardships for civilians and the desperation of a mother trying to feed her hungry children. But I wondered if cooking hominy could give more depth to the account?
Starting with a little research, hominy is dried corn kernels cooked until tender and then hulled. The type of corn usually used is sometimes referred to as “feed corn.” I had trouble finding it in stores and eventually ordered a small bag online. It looked like the type of corn I bought in little plastic bags for fifty cents to feed the goats and chickens at the local farm when I was under the age of ten. Just from those details and looking at the dried corn, the sense that this could have been the woman’s last meal to cook for her children intensified. This type of dried corn keeps a long time; it’s what you’d expect to eat when getting to end of a food supply.
How to cook it? The Tennessee soldiers say that the woman was cooking “lye hominy.” That was the traditional way to prepare it; the dried corn would be boiled with lye made from ash. The lye helped to loosen the outer hull of the corn kernels to make it more edible. I’ll go a long way to get a historical flavor, but I drew the line at cooking with lye, especially in a small, confined indoor setting. Instead, I found that baking soda is now recommended in place of lye but for the same purpose and decided to proceed with that option. The corn I had purchased wasn’t whole kernels; it looked more like cracked corn and it didn’t seem to have many hulled pieces to begin with, but I still decided to follow the process.
Two cups of dried corn, a heaping tablespoon of baking soda, and enough water so the corn could boil freely went into the cooking pot. (I read that stainless steel is important; I guess an aluminum pot does weird things to the corn?)
You know the saying “a watched kettle never boils”? Well, I turned away to rinse up some dishes, and the next thing I knew the corn was dramatically boiling over! So much for my recently scrubbed and polished stovetop…
Once I got the temperature adjusted, I covered the pot and let it simmer very gently for three hours. About every 30 minutes, I stirred the concoction and sometimes added more water. It smelled really good, and the type of smell that would be great blended with the smoky scent from a cookstove or hearth fire.
After three hours, it was time to rinse. I went for the modern method of running water from the tap and a colander. Rinsing is supposed to wash away the baking soda water, and if there were hulls on the corn, I would have had to gently loosen those and remove those by rubbing the corn kernels in the cold water. Since my corn was relatively clean already, I just picked out the few hulls that I found and prepared to serve the hominy.
I think I was probably supposed to heat the corn again? But it was lunch time, and I decided to dig and try it lukewarm. I added a little bit of salt and pepper, but wanted to try to keep the first bites as authentic as possible. I don’t know how to describe what it tasted like. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. The texture resembled fresh cooked peas, kind of? The flavor was basically like cornmeal (not surprising).
I’ve got about 6 more cups of the hominy, and I’ve read that it’s possible to freeze it. There are quite a few recipes on Pinterest for adding hominy to soups, so I think that will be a possibility in the coming weeks.
I did not add typical knapsack food to the menu. There has been enough hardtack, salt pork/bacon, and coffee on my table over the years. But in the spirit of sharing and “waste not, want not,” I raided the leftovers in my refrigerator to add to the hominy. Green salad, chilled herbed pork, and fresh apple cider completed the plate, taking the hominy to another level. “Elevated historical dining” to borrow the phrase that another editor recently used!
But…circling back to the point of this historical cooking experiment…
Cooking hominy is a rather lengthy process, but it does turn dried, rough corn into an edible dish. It is filling, even if a little bland and un-flavorful. I wondered what the woman was thinking as she made the kettle of lye hominy. Was she cooking the last of her food supply that night like the soldier thought? At the very least, it sounds like she was rationing food and probably reaching the end of her food supply. I wonder how she felt when that knock sounded on the door. Did she fear that someone had come to take the food?
It was kind of the soldiers to add to the hominy dinner for the woman and children, but what happened to her after they said good-bye the next morning? Did she cook another kettle of hominy from an ever-dwindling food supply? Did she seek help from neighbors? What happened? We don’t even know her name from this account.
But perhaps the nameless woman cooking a meager, but filling dish for her children represents the thousands of other women who struggled with uncertainty and food insecurity because of the Civil War. The conflict created inflation, brought troops through communities who took the food supplies, and pulled men away from home, farms, and jobs sometimes leaving families nearly destitute. And then — like in this account — war came to the doorstep once again. Soldiers peered in to find a domestic scene: a woman cooking for her children. And though these soldiers came with kindness, the woman had to open her door and allow the literal faces of war into her home, even as she struggled to put a kettle of food on the table.
William J. Worsham and Carrick W. Heiskell, Old Nineteenth Tennessee Regiment. Published in 1902. Accessed through archive.org Page 164-165.