Civil War Cooking: The “Rhine Wine” Party

A colorful, modern food board from earlier this year.

Food boards have been one of my hobbies over the last few years—making and eating them. There’s something creative and comforting about laying out a pleasing assortment of flavors and making it looking pretty. Through the fun of learning about meats, cheeses, fruits, nuts, hummus, and more and how to pair the flavors, I’d always thought, “They didn’t really have food boards during the Civil War.” And then the primary sources proved me wrong!

The following account appears in the regimental history of the 34th Massachusetts:

Jan’y 1st, 1863. Lieutenant Colonel Singis, of the New York Artillery Battalion, sent a very polite invitation to the officers of the 34th, to attend a “Rhine Wine” party, to be given by himself and his officers, at 11 o’clock this forenoon. Cold ham, corned beef, pigs feet, bologna sausage, potato salad, Swietzer cheese, very good, and Limberger cheese, not so good to an uneducated palate, wine and lager formed the entertainment. Count Engleheim acted as cup-bearer in accordance with his sentence. The conversation was limited, so difficult was it for us to understand or make ourselves understood; but all could join in camp songs. Distant firing occasionally broke upon our ears, rendering some of us, at least, a little nervous, and the party soon broke up. (emphasis original) [1]

I called one of my hard-core foodie friends and issued my “polite invitation” with full disclosure of what was on the menu. The invitation was accepted, and I headed for the market to find pig’s feet and cheese.

A little preliminary research…and I decided to draw the line against the Limberger cheese – fearing I might never get the smell out of my dwelling. According to online experts about cheese, Brie could be an acceptable substitute in texture and has much less “stink.” As for the pigs feet…I failed to find the type with the hoof attached and so decided that the hock (the next part up on the pigs anatomy) would have to suffice. The small shopping buggy filled quickly with the rest of the meats and cheeses.

Pickled Pigs Feet: The chunks of bone and meat were boiled in vinegar and water until cooked to a safe temperature. With hindsight, I begin to suspect I should have cooked them much longer, but following the recipe, I removed them when at a food-safe temperature, let them cool, and then packed them with chopped onion, carrots, and celery in jars and poured in red wine vinegar. Since they were going to be eaten within a few days, I didn’t go through the process of sealing the jars, just lidded them and put them in the refrigerator.

German Potato Salad: Doing a little research suggested that this might have been a hot potato salad, and almost certainly not the American version with mayonnaise. Potatoes, vinegar, sugar, more onions and celery, and spices completed the mixture which I cooked just before putting together the food board.

The Food Board: The cheeses and meats made me wonder if perhaps these German officers had received a food box or two from home. After-all they hosted the Rhine Wine party on New Year’s Day 1863. With this idea in mind, I decided to set up the food board with parchment paper as if the items had been simply unwrapped and sliced. There was a little trouble regarding “Sweitzer cheese” and I didn’t easily figure out what it was. However, Sweitzer sounds close to Swiss, so I opted for a nice version of that cheese

There were some strong flavors on that food board! But not in a bad way. I discovered I’m a big fan of hot potato salad…though I still struggle to think of it as potato salad. The pigs feet? The flavor wasn’t bad, but the skin was really tough and there wasn’t much other than the bone and the skin. I think maybe I should have cooked them longer or maybe leaving them in the vinegar longer than 24 hours suggested by the recipe might have helped. They were rather disappointing for the effort.

My favorite combination from the “food board” was the cold ham with a bite of hot vinegary potato and Swiss cheese. The German officers clearly knew how to throw a party, and the menu of the “Rhine Wine” Party is a fascinating journey into the cuisine of their original homeland.

Postscript: I did offer to research and procure Rhine Wine and German Lager for the beverages, but my company declined. So we had sparkling cider and grape/cranberry juice – at least the drinks were the right colors!

3 Responses to Civil War Cooking: The “Rhine Wine” Party

  1. Nice article, Sarah. You are braver than I am, trying to eat like a Civil War soldier. Pickled pig’s feet and Limberger cheese! Ithink I’d rather charge a battery. Now the Riesling wine and German lager beer I could handle.

  2. I would have included the pickled pig’s feet and Limberger. I have had both and enjoy them

  3. I have always said nineteenth century cooking is a great way to experience history! If you can walk where soldiers walked or read what they wrote, why not eat what they ate? And thanks for laying out this recipe for us. I’m going to have to try it sometime!

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