National Museum of Civil War and Wartime Food

Rachel Tepper for The Huffington Post, February 23, 2012:

WASHINGTON — What kind of food did people eat during the Civil War? Period food and dining don’t deserve the bad rap they often get, according to George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md.

In an effort to better understand life during the Civil War, the museum has over the last few years extensively researched the foods eaten by soldiers and folks on the homefront. Diet, Wunderlich explained, is not only a colorful way to understand history, but it’s also an important indicator of the population’s health and general knowledge of nutrition.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Wunderlich dished on the museum’s research projects and gave us a peek into the culinary world around the time of the Civil War.

The Huffington Post: When you say you’re looking at what people ate during the Civil War, which people are you talking about?

George Wunderlich: When we think of the Civil War, we think of the men who were in uniform. But there were millions of Americans who weren’t in uniform, so [we want to know] what was their health like and what was their diet like.

HuffPost: Absolutely. So, what sorts of things did people eat back home?

Wunderlich: This idea that everybody in the Civil War was eating this disgustingly plain food just doesn’t play. Bread puddings of all sorts, game pies … with pheasant and turkey and duck and venison. This was not an uncommon diet. … Stuffed crabs, oyster dishes of all sorts were part of a common diet in the major cities throughout the United States. Actually, they were shipping canned oysters and lobster to the western frontier as early as the 1850s, because we have the original cans that show up in steamboat registers.

HuffPost: That’s pretty fancy. Doesn’t sound like battlefield food, though. What was dining like on the front line?

Wunderlich: We tend to think of soldiers eating salt pork and hard tack … The other thing we tend to think of is that Civil War people ate this very simple food, not terribly nutritious food, and certainly among the soldiers, that was not an uncommon occurrence. But that doesn’t mean that people didn’t understand that health and nutrition went in hand in hand.

HuffPost: Did that translate to paying attention to soldiers’ nutrition?

Wunderlich: Civil War doctors were notorious for lobbying the armies to send what were called anti-scorbutics, or those foods that would help fight scurvy. Things with vitamin C in them. Potatoes, believe or not, and especially in the peels; onions; obviously citrus fruit when it could be attained. So there was an understanding that a good healthy balanced diet, would, in fact, make a good healthy balanced person.

HuffPost: So health was something people had an awareness of?

Wunderlich: These people had a much more balanced diet than I think we like to give them credit for … The farm in the 19th century was much more a ecologically sound institution, because they grew various crops in a field rotation. They grew their own fruit, they grew their own vegetables. Basically, you were not only providing for a cash crop, but you were providing for the family for a year. Believe it or not, their diets were pretty balanced.

HuffPost: Off the field, what were the wackier things that people might eat? Have you tried them?

Wunderlich: We’ve done everything from roasted rat, which was something [eaten in] the prison camps, to more delicate foods. We find people are really fascinated by what people ate and what the recipe looked like. While I don’t recommend everyone eats squirrel — I’ve eaten it — it’s not bad. It doesn’t taste anything like chicken, by the way.

HuffPost: No? What does squirrel taste like?

Wunderlich: It’s kind of gamey. It’s a little bit like venison that’s been in a freezer too long. It’s kind of a stronger taste. It’s not like possum. Possum is just, ewww. Did that once, too. I’m not going to that again.

HuffPost: Note to self: Don’t eat possum. What sorts of people ate squirrel? And why?

Wunderlich: You’ve got to understand one thing. Squirrel was probably most commonly eaten on the frontier, and it makes perfect sense that that would be the case … It’s an easy food source, and if you’re on the frontier, an easy food source is a good thing. Squirrels are pretty much ubiquitous, they’re everywhere, they were everywhere back then. It is certainly something that people would eat and did.

HuffPost: How did people cook it?

Wunderlich: Boiling was not uncommon, but it seems like frying was more common. Browning in primarily bacon drippings or lard, which was commonly kept in the house. You’ve got to make sure that it doesn’t cook too fast. That’s the bad thing with squirrel, from what we can obtain from our research … There’s not a whole lot of squirrel to a squirrel. The pieces are fairly thin, and if you cook them through too quickly, you wind up with something incredibly tough. So, you’ve got to cook it a little bit on the slow side with a lower heat.

HuffPost: The museum has recently been posting recipes to its Facebook page, including one for fried squirrel. People have been eating it up (pun intended). Why do you think there’s such an interest?

Wunderlich: When we seek to understand what our ancestors went through, some people go out and they reenact history, they put on the uniforms, they go out and eat food of the Civil War encampments, or they go to a local historic site and they do things. But I think we miss just how connected we become with the past when we can taste it … and it gives me an insight into something that my fourth great-grandfather may have tasted. I can still taste and I can smell it and I can make it. This is a great way to get a deeper appreciation for who we are and what we are.

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