Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Just Finished Reading

I know one of the first things that many young Civil War enthusiasts try to do is make homemade hardtack. I know I gave it a try as a boy, and it turned out horrible. And, although Civil War soldiers didn't have to make their own hardtack, I suppose they probably had a similar result their first time trying to cook on the campaign.

In A Taste for War, author William C. Davis explains that most Civil War soldiers had little to no experience in cooking before volunteering for armed service. Some soldiers improved their skills over time, others found a comrade to do their cooking for them, others just got by somehow. Most longed for the days back home when a mother or sister or wife did the cooking and the results were tasty and nutritious.

Nevertheless, men had to eat, and eat they did. Sometimes it was a sumptuous meal provided by local ladies, as was common early in the war; sometimes it was weevil infested hardtack and salt pork served in camp or garrison, other times it was dried vegetables that the army called desiccated vegetables, but the soldiers called "desecrated" vegetables. If a soldier found himself in a prison camp he might even eat a rat or be issued a mere handful of corn meal. If a soldier landed in a hospital he may be served chicken soup, often without any of the bird. If he was besieged, as at Vicksburg, a soldier could resort to eating just about anything, including horses, mules, dogs and cats.

Largely, soldiers both North and South, ate food that was unhealthy and not at all nutritious. Meats were often preserved in salt or brine, usually in large enough quantities to damage the taste buds and send one's blood pressure through the roof. The bread rations were usually hard (hardtack) and difficult to digest, containing only flour and water. Soldiers rarely got fresh fruit and vegetables, and often scavenged for wild onions and other natural sources of needed vitamins to keep scurvy at bay. It is no wonder that so many soldiers died of dysentery and other intestinal disorders.

One my favorite things about this book are the many humorous stories that soldiers told about their experiences involving food. Soldiers in the worst of circumstances can often find a humorous angle. Davis relates numerous funny stories of soldiers preparing, foraging, hiding, eating and even dreaming about their meals. Another favorite part of the book was the excellent pictures and images that the author chose for illustration. Tin cups for coffee (the soldiers' favorite drink), tin plates, knives, forks and hardtack crackers appear in photograph after photograph.

Davis closes the book with about 50 pages of Civil War era recipes, many of which were taken from period newspapers and periodicals. Do you want to know how to make possum with sweet potatoes? It's in there!

On a scale of 1 to 5, I give A Taste for War a 4.25

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