"A Taste of the 1860s"

September 09, 1997

Heavy fare was the norm in the Civil War era


Staff Writer

Today's low-fat menus couldn't hold a candle to the heavy fare that local residents of the early 1860s preferred.

Foods of the period were laden in lard, said Carol Anderson, a historical cook who lives in Harrisburg, Pa.

"We've always liked fat, and we always will," Anderson said.

Lard was used liberally to prepare dishes all over the country, said Kevin Rawlings, a Sharpsburg resident who does living history.

Many people lived on farms and were less sedentary, he said.

"People worked harder and burned up more calories," he said.

Nineteenth-century residents also shared our passion for sugar, and pie often was eaten at all three meals, Anderson said.


Pound cake lived up to its name - the rich dessert often included a pound each of eggs, butter and sugar.

Cakes of the period were more like bread because they were made with yeast, Anderson said.

Many women would do a week's worth of baking at one time, producing enough bread, cakes and pies for all meals.

Because cooks couldn't go to the store and buy packaged yeast, they obtained brewer's yeast from a brewery or used friendship yeast, a mixture continually maintained by adding more ingredients.

They couldn't always control the result.

"Any yeast that wandered by in the air would flavor your bread," Anderson said.

Breakfast, which might consist of beefsteaks, pancakes and eggs, is the only meal easy to pin down by name, Anderson said. Some called the last two meals of the day luncheon and dinner, and others referred to them as dinner and supper.

Sunday was a day of rest, and cooking and baking was done on Saturdays.

When people got back from church, the noonday meal would be the biggest of the day. The evening meal would be lighter, including items such as cold meat or slices of bread, Rawlings said.

Meat dishes such as chicken, goose, turkey, pork, beef and ham were popular with 19th-century diners. Other favorites included gravy dishes, soups, broths, biscuits and cornbread.

No conveniences

Food preparation took much longer than today because of the lack of convenience foods.

Cooks worked on cast-iron cookstoves. The stoves were safer than cooking on the hearth, but it still was a dangerous and time-consuming enterprise, Anderson said.

Cooks rose early to get the stove going so breakfast could be prepared.

Before a cup of coffee could be brewed, the beans had to be roasted and ground.

Coffee, tea, beer and hard cider were popular beverages. Civilians of the 1860s used wine more for flavoring desserts than drinking, Anderson said.

People weren't big water drinkers because it wasn't safe, she said. Water supplies often were polluted with raw sewage.

Recipes were known as "receipts," and cookbooks were vague about the amounts of ingredients needed, Anderson said. They assumed that cooks were knowledgeable, and it could be a frustrating process for a beginner.

"You'd see `Use just enough of this.' They'd expect you to know the ingredients," Anderson said.

It wasn't unusual for a recipe to call for a tumbler, wineglass or teacup of liquid.

Manuscript cookbooks which contained collections of recipes passed down over the years were popular, Anderson said.

Anderson, who studies cookbooks from the period, said that pork and beans is one recipe that seems to appear everywhere.

Foods were very regional, and the Southern diet contained a lot of rice, grits and hominy, Rawlings said.

In the North, wheat flour and oats commonly were used, he said.

Cooks on the homefront were eager to provide treats to their loved ones serving in the war, said Rawlings, author of "We Were Marching on Christmas Day."

Soldiers longing for a taste of home were thrilled to receive "care packages" filled with food, clothing and other things they couldn't get in the Army, he said. Butter in crocks, cakes and pies were special treats.

Diets were seasonal during the period, and people made do with what was available, Anderson said.

"It's something we've almost totally lost today," Anderson said.

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