American history seasoned to taste

Hardtack was a brick-like cracker so hard that it inspired jokes, like the one about a Civil War soldier who found something soft in his hardtack Â- a nail. In order to make this early-American staple palatable, cooks soaked it, steamed it, or pounded it into dust.

Fortunately, the book bearing its name is much easier to consume. In "From Hardtack to Home Fries," culinary historian Barbara Haber explores American recipes as snapshots of history. She sees food as "a way of understanding not only individual and group behavior but whole civilizations and major world events."

Haber draws on her considerable resources as curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library of women's history, which also houses some 6,000 historical cookbooks. Chapters pull from dairies, letters, and other documents to explore the contributions of Irish immigrants, the Civil War nurses who saved lives through nourishing cooking, the religious food reformers, and FDR's infamously bad chief cook. She shows how POW nurses survived food shortages in the Philippines during World War II, what role food played in Boston's melting pot of Jewish refugees in the 1940s, how African-American cooks have reclaimed their culinary heritage, and how cookbooks affirm cultural and ethnic identity.

The chapter "Pretty Much of a Muchness: Civil War Nurses and Diet Kitchens" explores how women elevated nursing to a respectable profession. Those who joined the hospital effort found that ailing men were often served off-colored, odd-tasting salt beef and other rancid food that may have extended their hospital stays (or brought them to a morbid end). Southern hospitals that employed women as cooks, matrons, and housekeepers saw mortality rates drop by half.

A luminary in the world of American food service was Fred Harvey, whose chain of eateries along the 19th-century Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad set the standard for excellent traveling fare. That wasn't hard, considering the competition: "What passed for restaurants were nasty shacks that typically offered greasy fried meat, and rancid bacon and stale eggs that had been imported from the East.... The food was generally served by surly, unkempt waiters on cracked and chipped crockery laid out on filthy tablecloths.... A traveler heading by rail from Kansas City to California was in more danger from malnutrition or food poisoning than from hostile Indians and desperate train robbers."

Harvey had a different vision: wholesome food served by professional waitresses in sparkling restaurants. From 1883 to the late 1950s, some 100,000 clean-cut young women left their homes in the East and Midwest to staff the Harvey depot restaurants. In their starched black dresses and spotless white aprons, the Harvey Girls served fillets of whitefish with Madeira sauce, roast sirloin of beef au jus, sugar-cured ham, boiled sweet potatoes, sugar corn, mince pie, and New York ice cream. And while they were at it, they married railroad workers and miners, settling and dignifying the West.

Part of Haber's book is corrective. For generations, cookbooks by white authors brought Southern cooking to America's kitchens, but not until recently did Southern cookbooks credit the black women who created a cuisine of candied yams, okra, collard greens, fried chicken, and potato salad.

Haber follows the lives of several black women, including Sylvia Woods, whose Harlem restaurant put soul food on the map. As these women cooked their way through wars, segregation, and economic privation, their dishes came to represent more than just a satisfying meal. For some it meant a livelihood and connection to their family roots.

A wide-ranging selection of personal stories and recipes, "Hardtack" is a savory history of American cooking and the cultural forces that have shaped it. Those who love food will devour this very readable book. If anything, they may find that "Hardtack," like any good meal, leaves them wanting more.

• Julie Finnin Day is a freelance writer in Boston.

Mock Apple Pie

1-3/4 cups water

2 cups sugar

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 grated lemon zest

Pastry for two-crust 9-inch pie plate

1-3/4 cups Ritz crackers, coarsely broken

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 425 F. In a saucepan, heat water, sugar, and cream of tartar to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Add lemon juice and zest; let cool. Line pie plate with pastry. Place broken crackers in crust. Pour cooled syrup over crackers. Dot with butter; sprinkle with cinnamon. Roll out top crust; place over pie, crimp, and with fork make holes for steam. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes.

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