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.
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.
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.
As for cooking salt pork, the soldiers were equally, ingeniously minimalist. After being soaked in water to remove some of the salt, the pork was most commonly fried in a pan. But rather than lugging around the issued, heavy iron skillet for this purpose, our clever ancestors instead made use of easily available, leaking canteens. Civil War canteens were made by soldering together two hemispheres of extremely thin, tin-plated iron. These often began to leak after being battered around on the march. So the soldiers simply put the canteens into the fire to finish melting apart the seams; the more playful added a musket cartridge into the canteen before putting it into the fire to dramatically, loudly, and impressively hasten the seam failure.
Either way, the result was two very lightweight, nestling frying pans, weighing a fraction of the weight of the cast iron GI model, which easily packed with your other necessities. These also doubled as entrenching tools; the Army didn't issue real entrenching tools to every soldier until World War I.
Some recipes omit shortening
2 cups of flour
1/2 to 3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon of Crisco or vegetable fat
6 pinches of salt
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Mix the ingredients together into a stiff dough, knead several times, and spread the dough out flat to a thickness of 1/4 inch on a non-greased cookie sheet.
Using a pizza cutter or a knife, cut dough into 3-inch cracker squares. With the flat end of a bamboo skewer, punch four rows of holes, four holes per row, into each cracker.
Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven, turn crackers over on the sheet and return to the oven and bake another 30 minutes. Cool completely.
Confederate Johnny cake
2 cups of cornmeal
2/3 cup of milk
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Mix ingredients into a stiff batter and form 8 biscuit-sized "dodgers." Bake on a lightly greased sheet for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown.
Or, spoon the batter into hot cooking oil in a frying pan over a low flame. Remove the corn dodgers and let cool on a paper towel, spread with a little butter or molasses.
Hardtack added such misery to camp life that Civil War soldiers wrote this song in honor of the cracker they all loved to hate. To listen, click on the video below.
Kendra Nordin also blogs at Kitchen Report.