Wednesday, July 2, 2014

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

Edited by Helen Zoe Veit
American Food in History Series
Michigan State University Press:  East Lansing, 2014

Food in the Civil War Era, The North is part of a series of books on the history American food from the Michigan State University Press.  Other books in the series highlight topics such as Civil War food in the south, food during the Great Depression, Eating Ethnic in the Age of Globalization, and Food and Health Fads, among other topics.

The contents of this book include an historic overview of the food in the north during the antebellum period leading up to the Civil War.  Descriptive evidence of the state of the northern economy and how it influenced the northern diet is given alongside a catalog of specific crops that were commonly raised in the north.  The influence of technology on the mid-19th c. northern food supply is also discussed with a specific emphasis on the impact the Erie Canal, railroads, and refrigeration had on food of that time period.  In addition, wartime transformation of the diet is discussed from two very different perspectives:  Scarcity and the need to conserve and economize in the kitchen set against the progressive development of technological advances to preserve food to feed the Union army.

The main focus of the book is an examination of excerpts from five period cookbooks to give “a compelling portrait of cooking and eating in the urban North of the 1860s United States.”  The five cookbooks are:

  1. Mary Hooker Cornelius. The Young Housekeeper’s Friend. Boston: Taggard & Thompson, 1863.
  2. Mrs. S.G. Knight. Tit-Bits; Or, How to Prepare a Nice Dish at a Moderate Expense. Boston: Crosby and Nichols, 1864.  
  3. P.K.S.What to Do with the Cold Mutton: A Book of Réchauffés, Together with Many Other Approved Recipets for the Kitchen of a Gentleman of Moderate Income. New York: Bunce and Huntington, Publishers, 1865
  4. Ann Howe. The American Kitchen Directory and Housewife. Cincinnati: Howe’s Subscription Book Concern, 1868.
  5. What Shall We Eat? A Manual for Housekeepers, Comprising a Bill of Fare for Breakfast, Dinner, and Tea, for Every Day in the Year. New York: G.P. Putnam & Son, 1868.
The range of books gives an interesting look at the culinary transformations that occurred over the course of the war and pointed cooks toward a new culinary direction after the war’s end.  Significantly, the cookbooks offer a juxtaposition of sorts to wartime cooks.  First, they tended to remind cooks that there were facing wartime shortages which demanded great frugality and creativity in the kitchen.  In fact, What to Do with the Cold Mutton:  A Book of  Réchauffés, Together with Many Other Approved Reciepts for the Kitchen of a Gentleman of Moderate Income replaces the mundane word for leftovers with the more elegant sound of the French word réchauffés, meaning the same thing!  Ironically, this need for wartime modesty is set against the fact that all of these cookbooks make prodigious use of ingredients that would have been considered exotic, requiring that they be imported into the north.  This may have been a way to prove that while bothered by the war, the northern economy was not broken, as it was in the South.  Finally, the last book, What Shall We Eat?  A Manual for Housekeepers, Comprising a Bill of Fare for Breakfast, Dinner, and Tea, for Every Day in the Year, was made to show the post-war housewife where the new and elaborate culinary landscape of the soon-to-be Gilded Age future was headed.   

As for the recipes themselves, the excerpts are printed alongside lovely images taken from a variety of period cookbooks and other contemporary printed material.  The range of recipes offered in the book cover a classic 19th c.  repertoire such as pickling, preserving, meats, fish, beverages, wild game, baked goods, puddings, breads, and cooking for invalids.  Overall, this compendium of five cookbooks offers readers a thorough look at the cooking styles, products, technology, frugality, and transformations that occurred during the war beleaguered years of the North during American War Between the States. 

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