In 1861, hundreds of thousands of young American men left home to fight in the Civil War. And to their surprise, when it came to cooking, they were expected to fend for themselves. The result was some of the worst food Americans have ever eaten.
The millions of soldiers who fought in the Civil War were almost all what Virginia Tech historian William Davis calls "culinary virgins," men used to eating what their mothers or wives put on the table but largely unfamiliar with how it got there. "Cooking was simply not a manly pastime," says Davis.
Trial by fire. Without cookbooks or supervision, the men slowly learned to boil and fry for themselves. "It was a case of learning by doing. They had a mortal fear of eating something undercooked. They were terrified of eating raw meat," says Davis. Given the state of preserved meat, they were right to be afraid. Salted pork and beef often had to be scraped free of "rust"--mold--and maggots, then soaked overnight or boiled to unrecognizability.
The typical Union soldier's diet consisted of dried vegetable cakes ("desecrated vegetables," in soldier's parlance), dried or salted meat, beans, and 3-inch square baked bricks of flour and water called hardtack. Conspicuously lacking: fruit, fresh vegetables, and dairy products like milk and butter. The imbalance caused a host of maladies including scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency, and "night blindness," caused by a lack of vitamin A.
But many a soldier did receive care packages from home, and those packages often included canned goods like vegetables or condensed milk. Though too heavy to ever become a regular part of Army rations, canning became popular because of the war. From a prewar production level of 5 million cans a year, the industry boomed to 30 million cans a year by war's end.
But men on the march still had to supplement their rations with whatever they could buy from local communities. "Foraging" was also common: "Our officers told us to take what we could get to eat and not pay for it unless the owner proved themselves to be loyal to the government," wrote one Union soldier.
But ultimately soldiers' diets depended on which side they fought for. The pre-war South was an agricultural society--80 percent of southerners worked on the land, compared with 40 percent in the North--but "the South wasn't exporting food, just tobacco and cotton," says Baylor University historian Rebecca Sharpless. Indeed, it was already importing food from the North and England at the beginning of the war. By the end, most southern soldiers were on near-starvation diets. Yet they fought on. "The Confederacy never lost a battle from want of rations or weapons," Davis writes in A Taste of War: A Culinary History of the Blue and Gray. "It simply never had enough men."
A $10,000 Meal
In 1873, importer Edward Luckmeyer walked into New York's Delmonico's restaurant with $10,000 to spend on a memorable meal. Since 1831, Delmonico's had embodied American haute cuisine, and Luckmeyer knew no other eatery could pull off this feat. His party of 75 sat down to a centerpiece featuring a 30-foot lake surrounded by miniature hills, meadows, and flowers. In the lake floated four geese, on loan from a Brooklyn park. Two birds began mating midmeal, but the dinner--which included shrimp soup, duck wings, and gateau a la Reine --went on.
This story appears in the August 15, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.