What's on the menu for Memorial Day? Fried chicken? Ribs?
How about artificial oysters, salt horse and hardtack?
All three were staples of a Civil War soldier's diet, according to William C. Davis in "The Civil War Cookbook." None was particularly delicious, but the ingredients were available even when food was scarce.Food shortages during wars are common, both on the battlefront and at home. This Memorial Day, we could take a moment to appreciate our steaks, fresh vegetables, coffee and frosted cakes - all foods that were in very short supply during wartime.
During World War I, shortages of eggs and other supplies led to long lines, inflation and black markets. During World War II, rationing limited ingredients from sugar to beef to coffee. Wartime cooks and bakers became expert at making do, either through substitution or by creating new recipes. Perhaps you could add a history lesson - and new dish - to your Memorial Day celebration.
Davis said the poor-quality beef, nicknamed "salt horse," supplied to the armies during the Civil War often was disguised in a hash. The men would mix it with fat, onions and potatoes, form it into balls, flatten it and fry it in more grease. Davis' slightly updated recipe using a higher quality beef, and butter instead of lard, yields tender cakes with a crisp, golden crust.
When no meat, or much of anything else, was available, Davis said Southern cooks would make a dough of eggs, flour and corn, then make little discs shaped like oysters. These "artificial oysters" were fried in a skillet. Hard tack was a staple for both the North and South armies. This 3-inch square soda cracker or biscuit had nicknames like "teeth dullers" and "worm castles." Davis said soldiers crushed hardtack with their rifle butts, then soaked them in water and fried them in grease. Perhaps our Memorial Day menus could do without this particular treat.
During World War II, citizens were encouraged to support rationing through slogans such as "Do with less so they'll have enough." Because sugar was rationed, baking was a challenge.
In "Grandma's Wartime Baking Book," author Joanne Lamb Hayes says substitute sweeteners such as molasses, stewed dried fruit and corn syrup added their own distinctive flavor to baked goods.
"When molasses, maple syrup, honey or corn syrup were used, the liquid in the recipe had to be adjusted," writes Hayes, who also authored "Grandma's Wartime Kitchen." "In general, the use of substitutes for granulated sugar produced products that were denser and coarser in texture, and less sweet."
"Victory Cake" or "War Cake" recipes often are eggless, milkless and butterless, producing a cake that resembled what we now call fruitcake. Or cakes could be sweetened and moistened by the addition of homemade apple butter or sweet potatoes. Hayes' recipe for Sweet Potato Victory Cake can be assembled quickly in one bowl, and is flavored with lemon juice, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Quick breads were popular during wartime, but the lack of butter or white sugar meant shelf life was limited. Thus, Hayes' Orange Marmalade Bread is best eaten within a day of baking.
Cookies were a staple in the 1940s home.
"No matter how busy the family baker was, she was expected to have the cookie jar full at all times," Hayes said. Using molasses or brown sugar instead of refined sugar resulted in cookies that "were everything a wartime snack should be - nutritious, easily stored, and sturdy enough to be shipped overseas."
Hayes includes a recipe for Crybabies, a soft spicy molasses cookie that ships well. She found the recipe in several wartime magazines, but could not find an explanation for the unusual name.
2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup vegetable shortening or softened butter (or a mixture), melted
1/2 cup light molasses
1 large egg
1/2 cup water
Yields about 4 dozen cookies.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Grease 2 baking sheets.
In medium mixing bowl, stir together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt.
In second bowl, beat together brown sugar and shortening; beat in molasses and egg. Stir in dry ingredients alternately with water just until combined.
Drop batter by rounded teaspoonfuls onto greased baking sheets and bake 10 to 12 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool and serve, or pack in airtight container.
3 tablespoons butter or oil
3/4 pound beef, cubed
1 large onion, diced
1 pound potatoes, cooked and diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
Water as needed
Yields 6 servings.
Heat butter or oil in skillet and fry beef and onion until beef is well browned. Add cooked potatoes, and salt and pepper, to taste. Add enough water to make a pliable mixture and stir to break up potatoes. Form mixture into balls and flatten to about 1 inch thick. Fry rounds on both sides until golden brown.
- "The Civil War Cookbook" by William C. Davis.
3/4 cup flour
2 cups whole-kernel corn
Oil, for frying
Yields 6 "oysters."
In mixing bowl, beat eggs. Add flour gradually, mixing until smooth. Add seasonings and corn; mix thoroughly. If too thick, add a little water.
Form into 6 balls and flatten into oyster shapes. Heat some oil in skillet and fry "oysters" until slightly brown on both sides.
- "The Civil War Cookbook"
SWEET POTATO VICTORY CAKE
1 cup mashed sweet potatoes
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup vegetable shortening or softened butter (or mixture)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Yields 9 servings.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour 9-inch square baking pan.
Beat sweet potatoes, sugar, shortening, lemon juice, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg in large bowl with electric mixer on high speed until fluffy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Sprinkle flour and baking powder over mixture and beat on low speed, scraping side of bowl, just until smooth.
Pour batter into prepared pan and bake 30 to 35 minutes or until center springs back when lightly pressed. Cool cake in pan at least 5 minutes before cutting into 9 squares. Serve warm sprinkled with confectioners sugar, or at room temperature topped with frosting. Store leftovers in the refrigerator. - "Grandma's Wartime Baking Book"
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Saimi Rote Bergmann is the food editor for the Canton (Ohio) Repository. Her e-mail address is saimi.bergmann @cantonrep.com.