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.
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.
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:
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.
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!