Civil War Recipe: Beef Stew

Stew vegetables

Same vegetables as in my root stew–substituting beef for the ham hock.

Beef stew is such a fundamental and flexible dish that I was pretty sure that the Civil War Soldiers would have eaten many versions of it. However, I recently came across a book that was published in 1862 by the Government Printing Office to give instructions to Union soldiers in the field. It includes a recipe for beef stew.

Note: Camp FIres and Camp Cooking: Culinary Hints for the Soldier is available in digital form at Google Books.

Union Army eating

Army of the Potomac the way they cook dinner in camp Library of Congress

It is a bit surprising–appalling actually, to learn that when the Civil War started, no one in Washington had given much thought to details like sanitary needs, health care and the basic feeding of the soldier in the field.  Captain James M Sanderson was chosen by the “Commission of Subsistence for Volunteers,” to write this book “Published for Districtuion to the troops, Headquarters, Army of the Potomac.” In the book, he suggested that each company should have one man designated as a cook. That might be someone who actually was trained as a cook, or someone who got on-the-job-training.  Additionally, other men would be assigned as the cook’s assistants.

How well this worked in practice, I have no idea. During the “fog of war”, during long marches and some horrible conditions, it is difficult to imagine many men actually thumbing through the Camp Fires and Camp Cooking or Culinary Hints for the Soldier to find a recipe for that evening’s dinner.  Nevertheless, for anyone who did have the luxury of time to look in the book, and the rarity of good ingredients to use, this book presents a handful of very practical recipes and hints for camp cooking.

Remember that beans, badly boiled, kill more than bullets; and fat is more fatal than powder.  In cooking, more than in anything else in the world, always make haste slowly.  One hour too much is vastly better than five minutes too little, with rare exceptions.  A big fire scorches your soup, burns your face and crisps your temper.  Skim, simmer, and scour, are the true secrets of good cooking.

The first and last two sentences there could make it on to embroidered mottos to hang in any kitchen.  However, sentence number two reveals one of the things we 21st century diners do not like about 19th century cooking–or rather overcooking, as blessed by Captain Sanderson.  Of course, with stew, he is mostly right.

Here is Captain Sanderson’s recipe:

BEEF STEW

Take the pieces of beef reserved for frying or broiling, and cut them into pieces about two inches square and one inch thick; sprinkle them with pepper and salt, and put them into frying pans, with a little fat; place them over the fire until half cooked; then turn them into camp kettles, adding a handful of flour and six onions cut in quarters to each kettle, with just enough cold water to cover the meat; add also to each kettle two dozen potatoes pared and cut in quarters. Stew slowly over a moderate fire, skimming every now and then, for three hours and a half; then stir in each two table spoonsful of vinegar, and serve smoking hot. All kinds of vegetables—such as leeks, carrots, parsnips, and turnips—can be added to this stew with advantage.   From Culinary HInts for the Soldier (1862)by Captain James M. Sanderson.


To arrive at my version of the beef stew, I went through two updates.  The first, from the book A Taste For War: The Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray (2003) by William C. Davis uses two pounds of beef. The author assumes that the original recipe is using about 6 pounds of beef, and therefore cuts the ingredients by one-third. Some changes are made for clarity and some apparently just because.

Cut 2 pounds of beef roast into cubes 2 inches square and 1 inch thick, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and put in frying pan with a little pork fat or lard. Put them over a fire until well browned but not fully cooked, and hen empty the pan into a kettle and add enough water to cover the meat. Add a handful of flour, two quartered onions, and four peeled and quartered potatoes. Cover and simmer slowly over a moderate heat for 3 ½ hours, skimming any fat that rises to the top. Then stir in 1 tablespoon of vinegar and serve. Other vegetables available, such as leeks, turnips, carrots, parsnips, and salsify, will make excellent additions. From A Taste for War by William C. Davis

Finally, I looked at the fascinating website History Kitchen where Tori Avery dissects and recreates historic recipes.  In 2012,  she follows Davis’ version, but adds carrots, parsnips and a leek.  I followed her recipe with some changes but found the 3 quarts of water she called for for two pounds of meat was far too much liquid.

The result, at any rate, since it is only seasoned with salt and pepper, can be rather bland for today’s tastes.  The original version was not BAD–it just perked up a lot when I added a mix of Italian herbs and some celery salt and garlic. But, it is after all, army food–so as a sample of what my Union soldier ancestors Henry Allen Butts and Erasmus Anderson were eating, it probably would have ranked high on their list. It was hot. It had some meat in it. It was filling.

So here is my version, with a few suggestions for modernization if you do not want to trade taste for authenticity!

Civil War Beef Stew Updated

Serves 8
Prep time 35 minutes
Cook time 4 hours
Total time 4 hours, 35 minutes
Allergy Wheat
Meal type Main Dish
Misc Freezable, Pre-preparable, Serve Hot

Ingredients

  • 2lb Beef stew meat (cut in 2inch by 1 inch pieces)
  • 2 tablespoons Bacon grease
  • 2 quarts Water (Plus 1/2 for thickening)
  • 4lb Potatoes (peeled and quartered)
  • 3 Carrots (peeled and sliced)
  • 2 Parsnips (peeled and sliced thinner than carrots)
  • 2 small to medium Rutabagas (peeled and cut in pieces roughly the size of potato pieces.)
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1 garlic clove (minced (Optional))
  • 11/2 tablespoons Mixed Italian herbs (Optional)
  • 2 Onions (Optional)

Directions

1. Sprinkle beef with salt and pepper.Brown beef pieces in bacon fat in large pan. If you are using onion, brown it in the fat also.
2. Pour 2 quarts water over meat. Mix 1/2 cup water and 1/4 cup flour into a paste and stir into pot until smooth.
3. Add potatoes, carrots, parsnips and rutabaga to pot. Add water if needed to barely cover.
4. Stir in whatever herbs and spices you are using.
5. Let cook over medium heat for three and a half hours. Taste and add seasoning if needed and add vinegar.
6. Beef Stew is always better if it sets for at least a day before serving.

Note

I do not cook with onions, because I can not eat them.  THat makes a difference in the taste, but even with onions, this would have been a bland recipe without the addtional spices.

I do not usually peel potatoes, but since this is an army recipe--well what are you going to do with the grunts if there are no potatoes to peel?

The celery salt I mention in the text above is a special product that I buy at my farmer's market made with celery leaves and sea salt.

For more stew for winter meals– See Roots Stew or Venison Stew

 

 

4 thoughts on “Civil War Recipe: Beef Stew

  1. Annick H.

    I found a cook book from the French Army published in 1909 on how to feed the soldiers on the field: “Livre de cuisine militaire aux manoeuvres et en campagne” . It was also used during the WWI. It makes for interesting reading too! I wanted to know how my grand-father was fed during the 4 years he fought in WWI in the Somme and around Verdun.

    Reply
    1. Vera Marie BadertscherVera Marie Badertscher Post author

      How wonderful! Leave it to the French to worry about the food! Now you see why I think of ancestors and food in the same breath. You can learn so much about how they lived when you know how they ate.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge