Civil War era food to be served at program 2011.06.15

Written by David Green.


Hardtack, the staple of the Civil War battlefield, was both the most common and the most hated source of nutrient for the armies of the north and the south.

Every soldier carried a ration in his rucksack, but the cracker-like food was described as “indestructible, imperishable, practically inedible, too hard to chew, too small for shoeing mules and too big to use as bullets.”

Hardtack was made by mixing flour and water—plus a little baking soda and salt if available—rolling the dough flat and baking it.

You learned about the infamous substance in American history class; now give your taste lesson a try Friday at the Fayette Opera House.

Following a free Civil War remembrance program that starts at 6:30 p.m., the Opera House staff will present a variety of Civil War era foods—all promising to be tastier than hardtack.

Grace Sly is in charge of refreshments, and in addition to hardtack, she’ll bake Lincoln’s Cake—a vanilla almond dessert favored by Mary Todd Lincoln. Grace will grind blanched almonds in her effort to turn out a cake that would please Old Abe.

Ruth Marlatt was assigned to make gingerbread—sometimes known as molasses cake—a dessert that often served as a comfort food for wounded soldiers.

Grace is leaving Idiot’s Cake for Fayette Arts Council director Tom Spiess to make. The dessert is also known as Idiot’s Delight because, as Grace said, it’s said to be so simple that even an idiot could make it.

When finished, the dish features several biscuit-like cakes in a thick cinnamon raisin sauce.

Grace has no plans to bring along another standard staple of the battlefield—generally unsavory salt pork—nor will she try out a few other recipes she’s come across, including sheep’s head soup, lettuce soup, fried eels and coffee syrup.

She is still thinking about a beverage. She considered lemonade, but then decided that lemons were something troops couldn’t get their hands on. It’s too early for staghorn sumac—the cheap alternative that grows throughout the countryside.

She might go with tea and coffee.

“They made tea and coffee out of a lot of horrible things,” she said.

Coffee was a luxury enjoyed by Union soldiers more often than those of the Confederacy. Coffee beans given to the troops were often still green and had to be roasted and crushed with the butts of rifles. Confederate soldiers often lacked even coffee beans and ended up using the roots of chicory or brewing peas, burnt corn, peanuts and acorns.

Food was often tough to come by and troops had to scrounge for whatever they could find—and sometimes what they could steal.

One of the biggest luxuries for soldiers in the field was fresh fruit.

Maybe Grace would do well by bringing in a few apples and some fresh strawberries.

• The Opera House program Friday features Civil War scholar Dr. Don Buerk who will speak about one of the first engagements of the war when troops from Northwest Ohio defeated Confederate troops near Philippi, W. Va.

A collection of Civl War artifacts will be on display and readings of some local Civil War letters is planned. The program begins at 6 p.m.

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