Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Civil War Reenacting: Cooking

By Matthew Pizzolato

During the War, soldiers didn't always have access to the best of foods.  They ate what they could and were happy to get anything edible. 

The main fare of a Union soldier was hardtack.  It was made from flour, salt and water in Northern factories and distributed among the armies.  The issues the soldiers had with hardtack wasn't its longevity. In fact, there is hardtack that was made during the civil war that is still around today.

The problem with hardtack was that soldiers often broke their teeth trying to eat it.  Nicknames for the vile stuff ranged from sheet-iron crackers to teeth-dullers.  It was also called worm castles because weevils and maggots sometimes took up residence in it. 

Since it was just about impossible to eat, soldiers broke it up with their rifle butts or softened it in their coffee or in grease from other foods.

The main sustenance of the Confederate army was cornmeal.  They used it in making Cush, which was beef and cornmeal fried with bacon grease, when they had beef and bacon grease. When they didn't, they made Johnny cakes, a concoction of cornmeal and wheat flour mixed in hot water or sometimes fried in animal fat.

Because of Union blockades, coffee beans weren't available in the South, so soldiers made their coffee from things like burnt corn, chicory, potatoes or even goober peas. Don't know what goober peas are? They even made a song about them, but that's a story for another blog.

In reenacting, we are much more fortunate than the soldiers to which we are paying tribute in that we aren't lacking for food. 

We still do all of our cooking using cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens, but our foods are a bit more extravagant. In the mornings, we fry bacon or sausage and then scramble eggs in a cast iron skillet. 

For other meals, we cook pork chops or chicken breasts on iron grates.  There is something about food cooked over an open flame that just makes it taste better.  Some of us bake cakes or make cobblers in Dutch ovens.  There's all kinds of great foods to eat.  At a reenactment, we don't go hungry.

Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He writes Western fiction featuring his antihero character, Wesley Quaid, that can be found in his story collection, The Wanted Man and the novella Outlaw.  
Matthew is the editor and webmaster of The Western Online, a magazine dedicated to everything Western and can be contacted via his personal website or on Twitter @mattpizzolato


  1. HI Matthew-You mentioned that coffee beans weren't readily available in the South because of Union blockades. At the same time, I understand Confederate soldiers had an easier time getting tobacco than the enemy. I've read where it was common practice for Confederate soldiers to trade tobacco for coffee from Union troops, usually when the two sides were on picket duty. Despite the bullets and blood, we gotta have our coffee and smokes. Thanks for this fascinating post.

  2. Matt, I always love your posts--they're so informative and I appreciate the comparisons between reenacting and "back in the day." Talking about the way you cook brought back memories of when I was a Girl Scout leader for my daughter. I had never been a Girl Scout myself, but the day before the first meeting the leader called me and said "I can't do it so it's up to you if there's going to be a troop." Thankfully, a new mom had just moved in that knew all about scouting. She showed us how to make buddy burners with a tuna can, kerosene-dipped wick, and a metal coffee can with a wire handle. We camped and made bacon on top of the coffee can, then cooked scrambled eggs in the bacon grease. Another thing we did was cook french toast in the bacon grease. Half the fun was making it that way and eating it outside. We had a blast. And you are right--food does taste better that way!

  3. Thanks for the great post, Matthew! I swear men on both sides had to have stomachs of cast iron just to survive supper, let alone a war.

    And you're so right about food cooked over an open fire. There's nothing better (well except for the dining options you mentioned from the Civil War. I think I'd stick with Lean Cuisine in that case).


  4. I believe that water and flour are the main ingredients for
    Paper Mache as the glue to hold them together. I can't imagine that a little salt would make any difference. Good God. It's a wonder they had ANY teeth.

    Very interesting about the trading at the picket. People have to survive, and believe me, as a Southerner, I would HAVE to have my coffee!

    We have no idea how spoiled we are. I can't imagine how hard that must have been.

    Great topic!

  5. Goober Peas! This kind of dates me, but of the first things I remember seeing on a television - in my dad's furniture store just after the Civil War - was Burl Ives singing "Eatin' Goober Peas." Had to be that song you were talking about, Matthew. So they had music videos as far back as 1952. :)

  6. So much information, love Goober Peas, and can do without coffee or tobacco. Matt, you are a man of many talents and full of fun and interesting information. Thanks!

  7. I love food cooked over an open fire, but no matter what you do to hard tack or plain old cornmeal, it's just not gonna be good. Your reenactment meals sound much better. I bet you're a good cook, too.

  8. Just goes to show how tough our ancestors were. They lived on nothing for all practical purposes. No nutrients, no protein. Makes one wonder how they had the strength to work and fight.

  9. Great post, Matt! I am not much of a camper, but I do love a nice warm fire. I've always wanted to re-enact but never had the time for it. Bet it's loads of fun! I'm hungry too after reading your post. :-)

  10. Matt: I'm sorry as hell. I was trying to post my blog for 10/1 and posted over the top of yours. I'm trying to figure out how the hell to get it off. Help, anyone?

  11. Great post. Don't know how they had the strength to fight without more protein in their diets.

    Your reference to Dutch ovens reminds me of the phrase "bean hole," which I've wondered about the meaning of. In context, it seems to mean the "hole" into which a Dutch oven was placed for cooking. Have you heard of it?

  12. All square now, Larry--no worries, I just changed the date to a previous day until we can figure out when to post it. Give me a minute and I'll e-mail you.

  13. It was NOT a comfortable thing to be a soldier in 1863. Boots were the same for either foot. Pup tents didn't exist. Minie balls could go farther and faster than musket balls. And the food was . . . well, Matt told you. Almighty good post, Matt. Thanks a lot.

  14. I've read that goober peas were a staple in the south especially during the war. Puts my kids' reliance on peanut butter sandwiches as a meal replacement in perspective.

    Cheryl, I was a Guide and Guide leader (Canada). I became very adept at cooking over an open fire for the simple reason that I didn't trust (and therefore consistently forgot to bring) Coleman stoves.

  15. Tom, that's a fact. A lot a things were traded back and forth between soldiers. Coffee and smokes are two things that just can't be done without.

    Thanks, Cheryl. I didn't know that about Girl Scout cooking.

    Glad you liked the post, Kirsten. Soldiers of the time did have pretty strong stomachs.

    Thank you, Donna. Life was pretty difficult back then.

    I reckon that would be the song I was referring to, Phil. It's a fun song, one of my favorites.

    Thank you, Renaissance. I'm glad you liked the post.

    Jacquie, we do eat much better at the reenactments. I'm pretty good at cooking meat over the open fire, but as to the Dutch oven cooking, I leave that to the experts.

    C.K., out ancestors were pretty tough people. They had to be just to stay alive in a lot of instances.

    Meg, reenacting is a lot of fun and the food is great. You ought to give it a try.

    Thank you, Ron. I've never heard of a "bean hole."

    Charlie, speaking of boots being the same for either foot... I marched a mile down a gravel road at my first reenactment wearing a pair of brogans. Not fun. I immediately invested in a pair of boots. I'm glad you liked the post.

    I grew up on goober pea sandwiches, Allison. :)

  16. Great post, Matt. Interesting info about Civil War food, could come in handy for future writing projects. Thanks!

  17. You're welcome, Lynn. I'm glad you liked the post.