Cookbooks can be an overlooked source of history. They reflect not only the culinary values of an era but even the political. That’s exactly what the new book Food in the Civil War Era: The South, edited by food historian Helen Zoe Veit explores, reports Nina Martyris for NPR.
Any connoisseur of Southern cuisine is sure to be aware of how history has shaped the foods of the region. Many foods are the dishes slaves cooked that harkened back to the foods of West and Central Africa and make do with more meager ingredients. (Though some Southern dishes betray unexpected influences — fried green tomatoes, for example, might come from Jewish immigrants and are apparently a recent addition to the cuisine.)
But modern variation in dishes cooked in the Northern U.S. versus the South is the result of decades of influences, simmered and blended over time. To delve into the differences made stark by the Civil War, Veit looks to cookbooks written in that time. "Although direct references to the war were rare in Northern cookbooks," Viet told Martyris for NPR, "a close reading can help us glean hints of the turbulence churning outside the kitchen window."
"There was only one actual cookbook published in the South during the war — but recipes were printed in other forms, especially in periodicals," she says.
That one cookbook shows how stark the difference in ingredient availability was. The Union’s naval blockade kept supplies from reaching the South and starved them of grain, pork and salt. Martyris writes:
While Northern cookbooks continued to call for exotic foreign ingredients like spices, cayenne, pineapple and chocolate for dishes like Calcutta Curry, Mulligatawny Soup and various souffles and ragouts, their Southern counterparts were teaching people how to cure bacon without salt.
The only Southern cookbook of the war years was The Confederate Receipt Book. Published in 1863, it had a revealing subtitle: "A Compilation of over one hundred receipts adapted to the times." And those were the worst of times, most miserably manifested in a recipe for Apple Pie without Apples: "To one small bowl of crackers that have been soaked until no hard parts remain, add one teaspoonful of tartaric acid, sweeten to your taste, add some butter, and a very little nutmeg."
But the lack of salt was the most dire threat to the South. It made curing fish, meat and butter difficult. The Confederate Receipt Book goes so far as to recommend that people build open-topped wigwams that could contain a fire and smoke strips of meat, as the Native Americans had done. People living near the ocean started boiling food in seawater for the salt it offered.
Veit did point out a rare reference to slavery in a Northern cookbook that demonstrates how racist undercurrents still ran strong in the north where African Americans were free. Mrs. S.G. Knight's Tit-Bits; Or, How to Prepare a Nice Dish at a Moderate Expense includes a recipe for "Tessie’s Wheaten Biscuit (From a Contraband). Here, the term contraband is used to refer to slaves who had escaped across Union lines. Martyris writes:
Written in broken English to mimic the speech of a slave, the short recipe used a touch of black comedy, unsavory to our modern ears, to evoke the cruelty of plantation life: It directed readers to "beat the dough 'till it begins to go pop, pop, pop, — it'll crack mos' like a whip, — then you know it's done."
Veit notes that while the other women in the book were referred to respectfully as Mrs. or Miss — such as Mrs. Faben's Economy Cakes or Miss Pindar's Dyspepsia Bread — contraband Tessie was denied that dignity.
It took until 1881 for a black American voice to be heard in the pages of cookbooks. An ex-slave, Abby Fisher, published her compilation of recipes informed by cooking in foods she made in antebellum Mobile, Alabama for people in San Francisco. What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking still ranks as a classic American cookbook, Martyris writes.