It’s well known that the Union blockade of Southern ports during the Civil War reduced imports of luxuries and basic necessities to a virtual trickle. A considerable number of common foodstuffs were soon in short supply, including coffee and salt. Southerners had to develop creative approaches for common foods; for example, chicory became a common substitute for coffee beans (and you can still drink coffee and chicory in New Orleans as well as find it on the interest and specialty food stores).
In 1863, the only cookbook compiled and published in Confederacy during the Civil War was entitled, aptly enough, The Confederate Receipt Book. The book included more than 100 receipts (or recipes), but recipes adapted for war-time conditions for soldiers and the home front alike. The book also included recipes for homemade ink and other necessities, cures for various ailments for which traditional medicines were not available, and homemade toothpaste (it’s difficult for me to imagine brushing my teeth with charcoal, but the procedure is included).
Food writer Patricia Mitchell unearthed the recipe book and provided an introduction to a contemporary edition.
You can find instructions for raising bread without yeast and making your own yeast; how to used potatoes for pie crusts; apple pies without the apples; using corn to create fried oysters without the oysters; making tomato catsup; producing your own soap; and making a “Confederate candle.” Several entries in an appendix explain how to use rice flour instead of wheat flour for various breads and bakery items.
Remedies and cures covered instructions for dealing with dysentery (particularly useful in military camps), chills, asthma, croup, scarlet fever, headache and toothache, burns, camp itch, and even warts and corns. The book also provided instructions for preserving meat without salt, curing bacon and bad butter, clarifying molasses, and using acorns to brew coffee.
Do-it-yourself home repairs covered preserving steel pens, cementing home china or glass, purifying water, charcoal tooth powder, sealing wax, preventing rust, and drying herbs.
Patricia Mitchell’s in food and food history began when she was a writer for the Community Standard magazine in New Orleans. Back home in Virginia, she and her husband operated a bed-and-breakfast inn, and guests asked her to compile some of her recipes in a book, which she produced as a pamphlet. A museum director asked for copies to sell in his museum shop, and the rest, as they say, is food history. She’s written and compiled more than a hundred titles, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in bookstores, museums, historic sites, and shops.
We can’t fully know how well received the book was in 1863, but many must have welcomed its instructions and advice. Common foods and household necessities taken for granted before the war had almost disappeared, and the use of substitutes was widespread. The book provides a window on home life and camp life, and how people adapted to shortages.
Top illustration: The Richmond Bread Riot, April 2, 1863.