Cooking was a battle during the Civil War
PORT ALLEN, La. — Hearth cooking instructor Gayle B. Smith scooped up a shovelful of hot, glowing red coals from the fireplace and told her cooking class audience, “This is your burner.”
Smith, along with West Baton Rouge Museum employees Linda Collins and Tracy Flickinger, were demonstrating what Southerners would have cooked during the United States’ Civil War of 1861-1865, what foodstuffs would have been available and what recipes were used.
For a recent class on “A Battle for Food: Civil War Era Southern Recipe Books,” the three women donned costumes appropriate to the era and demonstrated how to cook on coals on the hearth in the museum’s kitchen, which is set up to reflect the 19th century. They prepared an apple pie (with no apples), potato soup, planked fish, squirrel stew, corn pone and collard greens. All the recipes came from Civil War-era cookbooks.
Smith, who said she has been cooking at the hearth for 18 years, learned the ancient art at Magnolia Mound Plantation in Baton Rouge. She has studied at open-hearth cooking schools in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, visited open-hearth kitchen programs in the South and in Canada, and been a guest cook at Oakley Plantation in St. Francisville and Hermann-Grima House in New Orleans,
Before the Civil War, wealthy Southern families enjoyed a variety of dishes that were usually prepared by slave cooks, who “were given only enough spices for that day’s cooking,” Smith said.
“Dinner, the big meal of the day, was eaten from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. in the afternoon pre-Civil War. Bowls went around the table. At night supper was leftovers. Breakfast could be salads; greens were not uncommon,” Smith said.
Collins pointed out that the kitchen was separate from the “big house” because of the danger of fire and to avoid the smells and heat from the kitchen.
Slaves “might be given sweet potatoes to put in coals at night,” Smith said.
They also received regular allotments of molasses and of pork and corn or cornmeal, which were believed to give strength and muscle, she said.
“At the time of the Civil War, the slaves were gone. Who was cooking?” Smith asked her audience. “Some slaves were still around, but everyone in the South was on the same plane as far as cooking and eating. The small yeoman farmers and the people in the big house were all equal in eating, too.”
Families in the North did not suffer the severe food shortages that those in the South did, Smith noted. Since most of the war was fought on Southern soil, it was Southerners’ crops that were confiscated to feed troops.
Flickinger held up a catfish tied to a plank, which had been propped on the side of the fireplace hearth to cook.
“In southern Louisiana you can fish,” and that’s what people often did to put food on the table, Collins said.
The cook would take “a fresh fish with the look of life in its eyes and place it on hard wood that had been soaked overnight,” Smith said. “Planked fish is a big deal now in restaurants. Back in the day this was what you did to live.”
As Collins untied the fish from the plank, she commented, “I’m not sure about the fish. You can never be sure about fish,” if it has cooked enough to be safe to eat.
People also ate collard greens, seasoning them with bacon, Smith said. “You might have pork from wild hogs and you ate anything from the garden the Union soldiers hadn’t stolen.”
They ate potato soup made with red potatoes and “if hungry, you’d go hunting,” which perhaps meant squirrel stew for dinner.
“Everyone talked about eating bad beef, which didn’t keep well,” Smith said. And, “you can put eggs in the ashes on the hearth and bake them. You put down a layer of ashes and lay the eggs on it. Then, another layer of ashes, then hot coals.
“I’ve learned from experience the egg blows up if the hot coals touch it,” she added.
The recipes the three women demonstrated were from “Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey Lady’s Book” and “Confederate Receipt Book: A Compilation of Over One Hundred Receipts Adapted to the Times.”
Recipes usually didn’t include measurements and those that offered some guidance were often vague.
For example, Smith asked, what is a measuring cup? She showed a variety of cups that might have been used by a cook in a mid-19th century kitchen. They ranged in size from a demitasse cup to a substantial tin cup.
Measuring spoons also present a similar problem for the modern cook trying to interpret the era’s recipes, Smith said.
Gourds were turned into useful kitchen tools, Smith said, holding up a ladle gourd. “You also could have used gourds as cups and bowls or as funnels.”
She also showed whisks made from broom corn and dogwood stems.
Various herbs and spices, some more valuable than others “because they came from far away,” were used for flavoring dishes, Smith said. For example, rabbit soup or squirrel stew might be flavored with nutmeg, pepper, sweet marjoram and mace.
Smith and Flickinger also prepared the flat, coarse cornmeal cakes known as corn pone.
“It was also called hoecakes because slaves sometimes put it on the blade of a hoe to cook,” Smith said. “Pone was water and white cornmeal. In this time frame white cornmeal was what was used. White corn was grown here.”
Corn pone, which comes from the Indian word “apone,” or “apan,” meaning baked, was also known as ash cakes because it was baked in ashes.
Another version went by the name Johnny or Johnny cake, which some have suggested is a derivation of the word “journey,” according to “Around the Southern Table: Innovative Recipes Celebrating 300 Years of Eating and Drinking” by Sarah Belk (Galahad Books, 1991), Smith said.
“Each colony, each community, had its own versions and names, a tradition that faded as the iron kitchen range made all hearth cakes virtually obsolete,” wrote Karen Hess in historical notes and commentaries in “The Virginia Housewife” by Mary Randolph, a facsimile of the first edition, 1824, along with additional material from the 1825 and 1828 editions, published in 1984 by the University of South Carolina Press.
MOCK APPLE PIE
Class participants liked the corn pone, which was served with molasses, better than the “apple pie without apples” that Smith and Flickinger prepared from a recipe from the “Confederate Receipt Book: A Compilation of Over One Hundred Receipts, Adapted to the Times,” with an introduction by E. Merton Coulter (The University of Georgia Press, 1960, 1989 printing).
The recipe calls for using a small bowl of “beaten biscuits,” which were very hard, unsalted crackers.
“The recipe only says make sure the crackers aren’t hard and to soak them, but doesn’t say whether to use water or milk,” Smith said as she broke white unsalted crackers into little crumbs.
It also says to “sweeten to taste” so Smith added a half-cup of sugar.
“Sugar usually was in the form of a cone and you snipped off what you needed, but they could have used sugar — house sugar — which is not brown or white, but honey-colored.”
Collins added, “In Louisiana and Texas, people had plenty of sugar” even during the Civil War.
The recipe also says to add “some” butter so Smith decided to use about 2 tablespoons of melted butter. It was flavored with “very little” nutmeg.
“It would have been baked in a tin in a preheated large Dutch oven with coals under it and on top of it so it was cooking as in an oven,” Smith said. “But, you only can control the heat temperature by practice.”
The consistency of the mock apple pie “looks like mush,” Smith said, adding, “I had my husband taste it. He couldn’t tell what it was. It’s more interesting than delicious.”
Some class participants also liked the squirrel stew, which the three presenters made using an 1861 recipe for rabbit soup.
The original recipe, from the pages of Godey’s Lady’s book, says to strain the soup into a tureen and add the grated yolks of six hard-boiled eggs and some croutons.
“Usually presentation was a big deal” at the tables of pre-Civil War plantation homes, Smith said. “But at this time, the big house was probably not concerned about it, only in not starving.”