Saturday, December 16, 2017

Culinary Arts, Part III - Civil War Era

Howdy, heroes & heroines! Today, we're going to talk about some foods that were popular in the Civil War Era in the South. If you missed Part I & Part II, click to read about the Muskogean Era and the Colonial Era. Drop in on HHH January 16th for Part IV: the Civil Rights Era.

But, if you missed Part I & Part II, you might be wondering why I'm blogging about a sampling of food from each of these eras. Well, back in September, I attended a Culinary Arts luncheon at East Central Community College, my alma mater. The history and the food were both palatable in a fun way, and I couldn't resist sharing the whole experience with you.

The Civil War Era Menu with a Sugar Cone

Notice the Sugarloaf or Sugar Cone? Before refined sugar, sugar was formed into conical "loaves" and nippers were used to snip off small sections. This cone is very small compared to some of the large 20-30 lb loaves that would have been produced. The sugar cone was firm and solid, but scraping a spoon down the sides produced sugar granules to sweeten tea or a biscuit.

Clockwise from Back Left: Orange Gingerbread, Sugar Cone, Butter, Hardtack Biscuits

Also, if you've been following each of my culinary arts posts, you'll notice that the serving dishes have changed once again. Instead of wooden charges, reed baskets, and cast iron, silver has become the preferred serving platters at elegant dinner parties during the Civil War Era. 

Orange Gingerbread: The Orange Gingerbread we had wasn't as crunchy as a cookie, but not as fluffy as a biscuit either. It was somewhere in between. They weren't extremely sweet either. Again, a bit of a cross between a biscuit and a cookie. I'm sure they would have been even more tasty with a pat of butter and a liberal sprinkling from the sugar cone.

The Hardtack biscuits were just that. Hardtack. Sea Biscuit. Sea Bread. Actually, Chef Karrh, the culinary arts teacher, reminded us that we really weren't supposed to eat the hardtack dry, but they were to be dipped in coffee, soup, or brine until they softened. The basic hardtack recipe consists of flour and water, and maybe salt. They're baked at least twice, and sometimes up to four times. The hard, dry biscuit can be stored safely for months (even years) to provide nourishment for long voyages at sea and for soldiers in the field.

Red Velvet Cake, Hardtack, Orange Gingerbread

Sugar Cone with Spoon for Scraping

The Culinary Arts Students Serving Guests

Sweet Tea - The Drink of Choice! :)

Red Velvet Cake

And, finally, this yummy Red Velvet Cake was delicious. Even though red velvet cake is still popular in this day and age, I doubt any of us have ever had red velvet cake like they did back in the Civil War Era.

Not even the cake above was made according to the original recipe, which I couldn't actually find. But, word from the trenches is that key ingredient were RED CABBAGE and SHERRY VINEGAR.

I'm no scientist, and it took me a while to find a simple explanation for this phenomenon, but when cooked, red cabbage will turn blue. But in order to retain the red color of the cabbage juice extract, just can add vinegar or acidic fruit to the pot. My notes from the luncheon are sketchy, but by combining red cabbage and sherry vinegar, one could make a rich red color that was used to make red food coloring.

After researching several sites, this one is the easiest to understand in relation to producing red food coloring from red cabbage and vinegar (or, in the case of the original recipe, sherry vinegar).

The rest of the recipe consists of the standard flour, sugar, eggs, flavoring, and a white icing. These days, I'd probably go with a cake mix and a cream cheese icing. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it!

So, there you go. Have you ever heard of making red food coloring from red cabbage? Or from beets or another edible food source?

Isn't it amazing the lengths our ancestors went to to make the yummy delicacies we take for granted these days?


  1. Pam, thank you for sharing your experience about the foods during the Civil War Era. I tasted the old fashioned Gingerbread recently at our local Lincoln Log Cabin Historical Park Christmas event. Merry Christmas!

    1. I enjoyed my taste, too! We have so many varieties of sweets these days, but I'm sure all sweets were a real treat back then, and they were savored. Merry Christmas to you, too!

  2. I love learning new things about the Civil War era! Thank you for this fun and informative post. I confess I never knew they had red velvet cake back then, nor how it was made!