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a taste for war

5 October 2004

A genre that has enjoyed some vogue in the wake of Laura Esquivel's Como agua para chocolate (1989) is the narrative with appended recipes – narratives more or less fanciful, recipes more or less practical. Even academic writing has been affected by the appeal of the book you can read for enjoyment and then keep around to cook from.

And so with William C. Davis's A Taste for War. Davis, a distinguished historian of the American Civil War period (among other things, one of the best biographers of the no-relation Jefferson Davis), gives a bean-by-bean account of the provender that supported Union and Confederate troops. And when you've finished the tales of hardtack, blue beef, and wormy corn dodgers that make up the body of the book, you can turn to the recipe section and rustle up some skillygalee or burgoo.

If you go for burgoo (a sort of chunky soup, prominently featuring squirrel) you are eating better than most Civil War soldiers could. Skillygalee is more like the typical meal: hardtack mashed up with salt pork and stewed into a slosh that made the sheetrock-like biscuit into something at least swallowable.

Atkins was not an option for the Civil War infantryman. Unless he wanted to survive on the occasional pea and the daily chunk of purported salt meat, the Union soldier had to eat the only available form of carbs on offer: government-issue hardtack. Made of flour and water pressed into sheets and baked to desiccation, hardtack was the bane of soldiers' existence – and thus, naturally, their badge of honor. Central to A Taste for War are photographs showing Union boys proudly posing with weapons, souvenirs, and hardtack in hand.

Confederate soldiers ate similar brick-like breads made from corn meal. The soldier with a bagful of crackers was in fact lucky; sometimes rations arrived as raw meal, almost impossible to cook in the field. Sometimes there was even less: besieged Confederates at Vicksburg ate blue beef (mule) and considered it a delicacy. Prisoners in camps on both sides caught and barbecued rats.

Civil War histories used to be primarily about "battles and leaders"; the interests of historians and their readers, however, has moved in recent years into studies of everyday life during the War. While Davis offers some institutional history of how the armies were fed, his main method is to relay anecdotes related to food – anecdotes culled from hundreds of letters, diaries, and memoirs of common soldiers. We learn at one point that Confederate General George Pickett and LaSalle Corbell had turkey salad and roast sora at their wedding (strange to say, Pickett was married just a few weeks after his division came to grief on Gettysburg's Cemetery Ridge). But that's almost an aside; we learn much more about the average Johnny Reb's daily struggle to get enough calories to subsist.

In the end, Davis makes no claims for a decisive role for food in the war. "The Confederacy never lost a battle from want of rations . . . it simply never had enough men" (126). Decisive or not, food was still an absolute necessity, a concern that took up most of a day in camp and many hours on the march. William C. Davis brings to life the struggles and occasional triumphs of the Civil War soldier's quest to be fed.

Davis, William C. A Taste for War: The culinary history of the Blue and the Gray. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2003.