Alcott · Little Women

Book Review: Food in the Civil War Era: The North

Guess what — this is our 100th post! Happy Hundredth!!

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Veit, Helen Zoe. Food in the Civil War Era: The North. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2014.

I’m not much of a history buff, really. I’m only interested in history when it provides context to a fictional story I love … like when you need authentic recipes for a Little Women cookbook! Of the many reference resources we encountered in the midst of our obsessive research for this project, this one was my favorite (along with the incomparable YHF). In Food in the Civil War Era: The North, editor Helen Zoe Veit provides a bit of background so you can understand the trends behind recipes compiled from five Civil War-era cookbooks. I hardly ever read non-fiction, but Veit’s engaging commentary made this one a surprisingly quick read.

From this book, I learned:

  • A lot of Victorian cookbooks have ridiculously long titles, lol. The five cookbooks that were featured in the book are:
    1. The Young Housekeeper’s Friend, which is a perfectly reasonable length for a title. It is also the best historical cookbook we’ve ever tried recipes from.
    2. Tit-Bits; Or, How to Prepare a Nice Dish at a Moderate Expense
    3. What To Do with the Cold Mutton: A Book of Réchauffés, Together with Many Other Approved Receipts for the Kitchen of a Gentleman of Moderate Income
    4. The American Kitchen Directory and Housewife
    5. What Shall We Eat: A Manual for Housekeepers, Comprising a Bill of Fare for Breakfast, Dinner, and Tea, for Every Day of the Year
  • Women were expected to care for the sick at home, which is why there are whole chapters on “invalid cookery” in Victorian cookbooks. It was because women (like Louisa May Alcott!) had this experience that they were accepted as nurses during the Civil War.
  • Immigration patterns had a huge effect on the dinner table. For example, the Great Famine drove huge numbers of impoverished Irish women to America, and many were employed as servants. By 1845, one in four Boston families had domestic workers, and from there, it became only more common to have in-home help in charge of the cooking. (Like Hannah!)
  • We assume 19th-century food must have been bland, boring, and limited, but ingredients were already being imported from all over the world. My absolute favorite lines from this book: “American food systems had been global long before the Revolution, and by the mid-nineteenth century their international reach was thoroughly normalized. It seems likely that readers of these cookbooks rarely thought of imported ingredients like cinnamon or olive oil as particularly exotic at all. The regular use of imported ingredients also highlights how contemporary nostalgia about ‘returning’ to local, regional eating is based on a simplistic understanding of the past.” Burn! Those good ol’ days when everyone was apple-pie American? Yeah, that time never existed.

It’s just so satisfying to find the perfect book for a project, isn’t it? When I first started, I thought, “I’d be so lucky to find anything about food from the Civil War era that doesn’t focus on soldiers’ rations, rich people, or the South — especially if it does touch on the role of women in everyday culinary culture.” And as if the San Diego Circuit Catalog were a magical genie who heard my wish, there this book was.

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