Hidden History- Forbears' Fare

Hidden History - Forbears' Fare

My attempt at preparing the foods eaten by Civil War soldiers.

The New Year is here, the parties are over and it's time to get down to breaking those resolutions you just made. There's good news, however, if you're into extended celebrations: 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and since much of the four-year-long conflict happened practically in our back yard, there are plenty of events scheduled within a day's trip to commemorate this noteworthy occasion.

I'm not naive, though. As a high school history teacher, I'm well aware that history is a snooze for some folks. But even people into art or sports or fishing can find ways to pay homage to our nation's deepest crisis. To set an example, I decided late last year to take the lead. As a nod to the Platinum Plates featured in this issue, I researched the types of things that Yanks and Rebs ate on the campaign trail, and tried my hand—and my palate—at a few of them.

A caveat—I realize the foods below bear only a passing resemblance to the chow that sustained, and often sickened, Civil War soldiers. For reasons of time (I can't wait for salted meat to dry when I'm on deadline), safety (my neighbors would have called the fire department if I lit a cooking fire in the back yard), and hygiene (I don't do maggots in my food), I took a few shortcuts. Nevertheless, this experience gave me a new perspective on some of the challenges our forbears faced. This was my bill of fare:

Salt pork
Much of the protein in a Civil War soldier's diet was salt-cured meat, a product that's still readily available in many grocery stores. Salt pork is similar to a side of bacon with the pig's skin still on it. There's no recipe here—just slice it and fry, and when nicely browned, take it out of the pan. The challenge is tolerating the salt, which will make your mouth pucker, and will stay on your lips for days. The added benefit of frying a meat like pork, in a Civil War soldier's eyes, is the deep pool of grease it leaves behind. I saved this fat, as did they, to help render some other foods edible.

Union soldiers often made skillygalee to jazz up their otherwise unremarkable and homely staple—hardtack. Quartermasters issued hardtack, essentially dough with the water baked out, because it would not spoil. Of course, to achieve near-zero moisture, the final product had to be rock hard. Here's an easy recipe:

2 cups flour
1 ½ to 2 cups water
2 teaspoons salt

Combine all the ingredients into a firm (not sticky) dough and roll it out to about a half inch thick. Cut the dough into crackers about three inches square and poke holes in them with a fork. Bake on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 30 minutes on each side.
On its own, the hardtack is outrageously bland. Think of eating a spoonful of plain flour. The most prominent feature is its seeming invincibility. Thankfully, when I finally did manage to gnaw off a small chunk with my molars, there were not, as Civil War soldiers often found, bugs inside of it.
To make the skillygalee, soak the hardtack in cold water for an hour and then add it to the hot grease that came from the salt pork. Fry the hardtack until takes on dark caramel hue on both sides. Along with its new appearance, the hardtack is now a bit softer (like crusty French bread that's been left out on the counter way, way too long) and a lot saltier. But give yourself a few bites and you won't be fooled—this skillygalee is just hardtack, with all its shortcomings, in disguise.

Johnny Cakes
Instead of hardtack, Confederate soldiers were often issued corn meal, and they devised all sorts of creative ways to cook it. One way was to make so-called Johnny Cakes.

2 cups corn meal
1 cup water
1 teaspoon salt

Mix the ingredients together thoroughly and make them into cakes about three inches around and an inch thick. Return to the grease from the salt pork, and when it's hot, fry the cakes, flipping them occasionally, until they're golden brown.
These cakes aren't bad at all. Probably because of the salty fat they're fried in, still a little too pungent for the modern palate, but they're essentially like a fried corn muffin. Unfortunately for the Confederates, the corn meal they were issued was often very coarsely ground, moldy and infested with vermin.

Acorn Coffee
The most common beverage on both sides of the conflict, besides water, was coffee. Because of perpetual shortages, Confederates sometimes made it out of unusual ingredients like chicory, scorched beans or acorns.
To concoct this brew, find a white oak tree and gather a few cups of fallen acorns. You'll have to get rid of the tannin (to remove bitterness) by boiling the acorns for at least 15 minutes. This makes the shells easier to remove and discard, leaving behind the fruit inside. Let the peeled acorns dry for a couple days, then roast them in a 350-degree oven for an hour. Grind the dried acorns and steep them in hot water to make the coffee.
Acorn coffee is dark and rich, with subtle bitterness masked by a robust organic flavor that seems a bit odd, like it can only be made in an oak tree. It's a whole lot of effort for a drink that's a far cry from the real thing. But I suppose if you're jonesin' for java pretty bad—like those Confederates a long way from the real thing— you'll go to great measures to get your fix.

And if, after trying these, you still haven't gotten your fix of Civil War recipes, check out Civil War Recipes; Receipts from the Pages of Godey's Lady's Book edited by Lily May Spaulding and John Spaulding or A Taste for War; The Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray by William C. Davis. Bon appétit!

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