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Civil War recipes: Hardtack crackers and Confederate Johnny cake

Civil War bayonets were used more for cooking than impaling the enemy.

By Staff Writer / April 12, 2011

Hardtack crackers made with whole wheat flour alongside Confederate Johnny cakes. Hardtack crackers were a main form of (despised) sustenance for all Civil War soldiers.

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Today marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War – a wrenching, bloody, costly conflict that took almost as many American lives as the total of all other US wars combined. The effects of this war still lurk in America's psyche and social fabric.

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Kendra Nordin

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But whether one wore a Blue or Gray uniform in the 1860s, there was a commonality that emphasized the humanity on either side of the line: Soldiers had to eat. I know this because I once lived through a battle. I still remember the chicken stew I ate that day in 1977 from a wooden salad bowl, with a wooden spoon, wearing a calico dress.

Let me explain. My Uncle Dave is a Civil War reenactor and when my brother and I were small we sometimes accompanied him to the battlefield. I remember the roar of the cannons that thumped in my chest and the bluish gunpowder smoke that swirled over the grassy hillside as men fell to the earth. Later, they all got up and joined us for a meal around the campfire.

So I checked in with Uncle Dave, just to make sure the hardtack cracker and Johnny cake recipes I found to commemorate the anniversary were "authentic." His reply was so informative and entertaining, I asked if I could share it here with you.

Dear Kendra,

There can be no better recipe for the Civil War anniversary than one for hardtack crackers. If you put a sheet into the oven at 4:20 a.m. on April 12 – the time the first shot was fired – it should be ready to land as a hot shot into your belly by dawn at 5:20 a.m.

Hardtack is more typically eaten, of course, when cold and hard as an oak shingle. A good, well-tempered piece of hardtack should not shatter, but suffer chipped edges only, when hurled against a wall or when dropped onto a stone floor. The holes (reputedly and jokingly) served as lacing points for stitching pieces together to form a bullet proof vest, like Roman armor.

Hardtack was the most important and common of the Holy Trinity of the Civil War soldier's diet: salt pork, hardtack and coffee – and the three were often combined. Period preparations for softening hardtack to render it chewable included soaking it your coffee until it acquired the taste and consistency of wallpaper paste; or crumbling it into your salt pork grease, after smashing it with a musket butt or pistol handle, to form a greasy mush. Only those daring and reckless few, with large mouths and perfect teeth and the willingness to risk them in an era of rampant tooth decay, took on the corner of a piece of hardtack without some initial softening preparation.

The similarity between Civil War hardtack (which requires endless chewing to soften) and baby's teething biscuits (which are of the same size, shape, taste and consistency) is so obvious, in fact, that the potential for a direct relationship needs investigation. I might take a slight difference with the inclusion of vegetable fat in the recipe below, as the correct period term for this component of the recipe is LARD.

No discussion of Civil War cooking would be complete without some discussion of Civil War cookware.

Your Southern recipe listed below is for the kind of fluffy, home-style cornbread the soldiers could only dream about. Milk? The only creatures regularly encountered around a Civil War camp that produce milk were female rats. They would be hard to catch and and you'd have to milk a lot of them. The actual Southern battlefield "cornbread" was made by stirring one's corn meal directly into salt pork grease to make a sticky paste, twirling your bayonet around in the mix until it clung to the bayonet, and then toasting the mix on the bayonet over a fire. You put a short stick into the portion of the bayonet which fits over the rifle to make a handle, to avoid burning your hand while holding the bayonet. This actually worked pretty well to make a cake, as the bayonet heated the cake from within, the grease in the mix helped it slide off the bayonet when done, and the fire gave it a nice, crispy finish on the outside. Of course, it was still pretty crude, smoky, and dirty.

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