Revelations in Civil War-Era Cooking Paint Vivid Picture of President Harrison's Dinner Table

Many of the era's dishes are characterized by a lack of seasoning, abundance of root vegetables and overcooked meats. Oh, and there's a delicacy called "Cold Ham Cake"

entree dinner
Photo: Courtesy of Alan’s Catered Events

During the Civil War era, what you ate depended on how much cash you had to spend.

“We noticed lack more than any affluence,” says chef Alan Bernstein of Alan’s Catered Events. Along with catering manager Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein, he extensively researched mid-19th-century cuisine for the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site’s Civil War Dinner on November 15th, which is now sold-out. Believing sensory immersion essential for understanding history, site president and CEO Charles Hyde has hired enactors to interact as Harrison and his aide-de-camp while Bernstein sets down historically appropriate cuisine. Dining in Harrison’s 1875 Italianate home among 10,000 artifacts, the trio promises an exclusive step back in time.

But Civil War-era eats for average Americans meant something wildly different from the lavish dining Harrison enjoyed. And when it came to Civil War cuisine, Bernsteins’ team discovered food was scarce overall.

Combing books like Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey's Lady's Book (edited by Lily May Spaulding & John Spaulding), Patricia B. Mitchell’s Northern Ladies' Civil War Recipes and William C. Davis’ The Civil War Cookbook, Cooprider-Bernstein realized a challenge in making a menu “both palatable and serviceable.” The collected recipes guided home cooks to use every scrap. Root vegetables prevailed. When available, pork and beef were often suspected of disease and therefore far overcooked. The affluent might obtain a fattened goose or wild turkey for a holiday, but otherwise even festive food was lean. “The biggest surprise was the almost complete lack of seasoning – food was pretty bland,” notes Bernstein. Spices were so hard to come by not much was noted beyond salt, pepper and the horseradish grown close to home.

In contrast, Hyde saw “rich and varied diets of the era.”

As Brevet Brigadier General, Harrison volunteered for the Union cause and invested personal resources into training and supplying his men. His wife Caroline, or Carrie, acted in the Ladies Patriotic Association and the Ladies Sanitary Committee. Eventually, their advocacy led to Harrison’s election as Indiana senator and the 23rd presidency (1889-1893.)

dollys pecan pie
Courtesy of Alan’s Catered Events

Like contemporary chef’s tasting menus, banquet dining for those of Harrison’s fortune came with so many courses that Hyde’s not sure how people walked away after the final brandy. (Bernstein notes portion sizes were much smaller.) Harrison liked fine wine, and Scotch to the point that he’s credited for popularizing Dewar’s in the United States (so don’t believe what you read about him being a teetotaler), and banquets were replete with intricate wine and liquor pairings.

Such meals were cost-prohibitive for most Americans. So the Civil War Dinner menu combines post-war national sensibility, ingredients local to Indiana, and adaptations of recipes from Caroline Harrison and White House chef Laura Dolly Johnson.

With the 1859 perfection of the Mason Jar and the invention of the pressure cooker in 1874, home and commercial canning increased and pickling became a common winter dish. Along with a Cold Ham Cake, which Bernstein reluctantly describes as a cross between pate and SPAM, Pickle-Lily takes center stage as his hors d'oeuvres: the cucumber, beets, okra and green beans they’ve been gardening and preserving for two decades would have been found in Indiana then, too.

Combing recipes for entrées, they encountered words like rasping and pondered, “What the heck is a teacupful?” As the closed wood stove had only just becoming affordable for the average family, cooking times are marked by how long cast-iron pots sit on top of the open wood fires. “Much happened around that fire,” Bernstein notes romantically of its use for both home heating and cooking. “But I don’t have an open fire to work on.”

While using era-appropriate ingredients, modernity wins out with equipment.

He whips “fresh-churned butter” in a KitchenAid instead of a wooden crock, saving eight hours of manual labor (and triceps fatigue). Adapting First Lady Caroline’s fluffy potato roll recipe, he sets the dough to rise in a proof box (he also swapped “fermented yeast” starter with active dry yeast and pork lard for Crisco). He’ll utilize refrigeration. And to properly replicate those smaller serving sizes, they’ll use nine-inch dinner plates Hyde notes are neither banquet-worthy Limoge nor tin: “It’s recognizing a hybrid,” he says. “We’re trying to bring the best of today and share the context of those meals, seasoning the whole evening with extraordinary content.”

Courtesy of Alan’s Catered Events

Chef Laura Dolly Johnson’s Pecan Pie represents the best of everything.

As a historian, Hyde concludes #23 was ahead of his time regarding his perception of women and their abilities. He quotes Harrison’s stating, “The manner by which women are treated is a good criterion to judge the true state of society. If we know but this one feature in a character of a nation, we may easily judge the rest, for as society advances, the true character of women is discovered.”

Caroline was an active First Lady until her death from illness in 1892: She began archiving the now-notorious White House china, acted as the first President-General of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and pushed funding for the renovation of the 100-year old White House. Harrison hired first female White House staffer Alice Sanger (though possibly only to appease the growing numbers of suffragettes). And he replaced the French chef Madame Petronard with Laura Dolly Johnson, a notorious African-American caterer from Lexington, Kentucky who stayed on for three additional presidencies.

Johnson cooked regionally but adventurously. Bernstein first notes her “pie” is a boozy fruitcake more than anything else. Then that it has “a sublime flavor. It really is wonderful.”

The twelve-pound stunner gets packed with dried figs, dates, raisins, orange and lemon peel, and a pound of chopped “mixed fruit” with warm spices, candied cherries, and chopped pecans. It gets soaked in 1.5 cups of bourbon, and then sprinkled with more before serving. A method commonly used for shipping sweets to the front line, cheap spirits preserved the cakes and prevented them from drying. A proud Kentuckian, Johnson used the best bourbon available. Bernstein uses Jim Bean, and Cooprider-Bernstein notes the cake gives “a nice burn to the back of the throat.”

Hyde posits, “What better way to understand a period than through its food?” Then consider this introduction in Receipt’s from the Pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book: “No one can read the Lady’s Book receipts without being struck by the good sense that pervades them as a general rule.” With food scarce, post-war cuisine meant preservation, reinvention, and taking utmost care to use every last scrap for its savory best.

So to dine like President Harrison take note from the Lady’s and boil that soup “until it is as smooth as jelly, for any curdy appearance will spoil it.”

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