The Monday After: Music of the Civil War
Students rededicate Civil War Monument at BUHS

Sampling the Tastes of the Civil War


Daniel Mowles preparing roasted rabbits for a tasting of Civil War-era food at the Roger Smith hotel on Monday.Photographs by Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times


Beef Jerky

Prepare the dishes yourself.

Daniel Mowles preparing roasted rabbits for a tasting of Civil War-era food at the Roger Smith Hotel on Monday. The chef, it turned out, was from southwest Virginia and grew up in a household that, he said, had inherited some of Robert E. Lee’s silverware.

Those were just coincidences at a tasting of dishes from the Civil War era, prepared according to recipes adapted from cookbooks published between 1861 and 1865.

Here was another coincidence. The tasting was organized by Andrew F. Smith, a faculty member at the New School and the editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, who said he was distantly related to a Miss Leslie.

He said she was famous among culinary historians as a 19th-century cookbook writer from Philadelphia. And it was her stewed mutton chops that were on the tasting menu, right after “Captain Sanderson’s boiled pork-and-bean soup” and before “Mrs. Haskell’s 1861 mashed potatoes.” That accompanied the roast rabbit.

Andrew F. Smith, the historian who organized the tasting.

Andrew F. Smith, the historian who organized the tasting.

The tasting, on Monday, took place at a New York hotel, the Roger Smith, on Lexington Avenue. Mr. Smith and the chef, Daniel Mowles, tried for balance between North and South, so there was fried catfish with “Confederate catsup” to offset the rabbit, which was served with “Boston mustard.”

Before the tasting, Mr. Smith had trouble explaining his affinity for the Civil War.

He grew up in Southern California — “no battlefields around,” he said. He said his great-grandfather might have fought in the Civil War, but the family “never talked about it.” But he said the first 10 books he read as a child were about the Civil War, as is the latest of the 15 he has written: “Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War,” published in April.

It describes how the nation went from a local to a national culinary economy during the war and how the North used food to its advantage — but the South did not.

“In the South, the pre-eminent agricultural region,” he said, “they didn’t have the bureaucrats the North had who could organize the food system, who could say, ‘If we don’t make basic decisions about food we’re not going to make it through a long war.’ So you had starvation and riots. I’ve got records of at least 40 riots that occurred, mainly in Southern cities, particularly with women whose husbands were in the Army and were small landowners. They couldn’t plant crops and they didn’t have the manpower to do the things necessary to keep them alive by the end of the war.”

That contributed to food shortages that hampered the Confederates. The North singled out Southern port cities and cut off the South’s imports of food — imports that were essential because Southern planters continued to grow their profitable cotton and tobacco crops rather than switch to food crops. Mr. Smith said the Confederate Army grew thin while Union soldiers ate well.

South, meet North: Johnny cake, rabbit and Boston mustard.

South, meet North: Johnny cake, rabbit and Boston mustard.

“Where the Union Army occupied Confederate areas,” he said, “they made those same foods available to virtually anyone who would sign an oath of allegiance to the United States. Even when Sherman marched through Georgia and North Carolina, they destroyed food but they also made it available. It was a strange mixture of abundance and organization and trying to get the Southerners back into the union — and food was one of the ways they did it.”

He said that 60,000 Confederate solders deserted in the last four months. “The No. 1 reason was they didn’t have food,” he said.

No. 2, he said, was they did not have money — which they could have used to buy food. And No. 3, based on letters from soldiers’ families that he read in his research, was, “We’re going to starve unless you come home and help us plant.”

So the deserters “voted with their stomachs, and voted for their families,” he said.

The North even created a holiday that featured food — Thanksgiving. It was, Mr. Smith says, the nation’s third national holiday, after Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day. Lincoln established it in 1864, Mr. Smith said, and Northerners sent turkeys, pies and puddings to Union soldiers.

In the kitchen at the Roger Smith, Mr. Mowles, the hotel’s executive chef, had equipment the soldiers did not, like a six-burner Vulcan stove with a griddle and an exhaust hood. He also had memories from growing up in Virginia.

“We’d eat spoonbread a lot,” he said, “and a lot of fried chicken. And we have Robert E. Lee’s silverware that we eat on at Thanksgiving. It’s engraved. Somebody in our family was a doctor. After the war, Lee became poor and couldn’t pay his medical bills.”

So what did the food at the tasting taste like? More like a modern meal than you might expect, according to Mr. Smith.

One reason was that Mr. Mowles had decided not to use lard. “Lard was America’s No. 1 frying ingredient,” Mr. Smith said. “It would have been used in everything where today we’d use vegetable oil or butter. He put butter in a lot of the biscuits, where historically they would have used lard.”

Mr. Smith said the biscuits were drier than 21st century biscuits. “They weren’t using preservatives, so it was make ’em and eat ’em,” Mr. Smith said.

And some of the items on the menu were far less sweet than if they had been made from contemporary recipes. “The apple pie had much less sugar,” Mr. Smith said. “Even in the 1860s, while sugar was plentiful, food would not have been as sweet as we love it today. And he didn’t put as much salt in. Historically, it all would have had a great deal more salt.”

The rabbit, Mr. Smith said, was closer to what rabbit would have tasted like in the Civil War.

“It almost tasted like chicken,” Mr. Smith said after the tasting. “He did it by broiling it, so many of the juices dropped out. It was not stringy, particularly, but it was less juicy, and that was the correct way.”

New York Times

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