Tag Archives: civil war rations

All Things Corn: Hominy, Grits, Masa and Corn Meal

From corn on the cob to hominy, hominy grits, corn meal, masa, and all the recipes you can make from them–maize/corn has been the most important ingredient in American history. And that includes history on this continent before their was an America or any Europeans.

 corn for hominy

In listing the foods included in his rations, Erasmus mentions hominy. That may be a little surprising, since hominy is thought of more as a Southern staple, particularly when the North embargoed shipments to the South and they could not get wheat flour. But there it was in his letter from Kanawah Virginia in November, “…either rice or beans or hominy.”


If we eat hominy now, it is liable to be from a can, already rinsed free of they lye that it is made with. Or we eat it ground into grits. But what Erasmus got in his rations, hominy, like the beans, would be dried and take rinsing, overnight soaking and then long simmering before it could be eaten.

Reading food history always leads me to speculate how the heck people (meaning women) discovered some of this stuff in the first place.  Hominy is a good example. Why take a perfectly good grain with a variety of uses and soak it in lye or wood ash so that it swells up and then you have to wash it several times before you can use it? And when she first discovered the process, she could not go to the corner store and by a jug of lye. She first had to figure out the process of extracting lye from wood ash.

There are several good reasons why a woman might have experimented with this process.  To get meal out of corn requires a long grinding process. You’ll see grinding stones as artifacts in many museums.

Hominy grinding tools

Metate and Mano from Mexico. Photo from Jim Conrad’s Naturalists Newsletter.

Native women in the Americas spent long hours kneeling in front of that stone grinding the corn in order to get a meal, and get rid of the hull.

The hominy-making process not only swells the grains and makes them softer, but it separates the hull and gets rid of the germ which will make the corn spoil in storage.

“What a great discovery!” she thought! If I mix the corn kernels with some ashes and water and let it sit, I don’t have to kneel and bend my back over that dratted stone for so long. The meal will last longer. And the hull is gone.”

masaThe softer swollen kernels are still used today in Mexican and American Indian posole –a stew of hominy and pork and chiles. But those hominy kernels could be dried and then ground. (Back to the grinding stone!) The resulting finely ground corn meal can be purchased today at the grocery store (particularly in the Southwest where I live) as Masa, used to make corn tortillas. The chemical process for making hominy means that you can use the hominy meal without flour to make  dough–a great boon to the indigenous people of the Americas and also to the Civil War soldiers.

Hominy Grits

Hominy Grits

Or, if it is ground more coarsely, you have hominy grits–that Southern American breakfast staple. Old cook books specify large hominy and small hominy, and in the cook book of Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book that I recently discovered, large means the whole kernel and small means meal. Several Southern food websites that discuss Southern food, like this one by the author of The Story of Corn, confirm that. (This is a delightful article that includes some delicious recipes for grits and hominy.)

So how did the Civil War soldiers use that dried hominy they got in their rations?  My brother gives this suggestion:

It could be mushed up into a “sloosh” with lard (if you had it ) water (if you had it) and an egg (if you could steal one) and wrapped around a stick and poked in the fire to make a sooty corndog (without the dog).  P.W. Kaser

Of course, that mixing of ground corn meal or hominy with lard and water and an egg (if you could steal one) can turn it into pone, which generally is poured into a cast iron skillet or dutch oven and baked either on the stove top or in the oven. I made a tasty pone by using bacon grease instead of lard, and mixing in a cup of mashed sweet potatoes.

Back home, the housewives could get fancier with hominy, as this Baked Hominy recipe from Common sense in the household: A manual of practical housewifery  by Marion Harland (1871) suggests.

I had one disagreement with the recipe, as you will see if you read the recipe below.  The result is an airy on top, heavier on the bottom, relative tasteless pudding that would probably not find a place as a side dish on today’s table. However with some added sugar and maybe a little flavoring, it could make a passable dessert.

Baked Hominy Recipe

Serves 6-8
Prep time 50 minutes
Cook time 1 hour
Total time 1 hour, 50 minutes
Allergy Egg, Milk
Dietary Vegetarian
Meal type Dessert, Side Dish
Misc Serve Cold
From book Common Sense in the Household by Marion Harland (1871)


  • 1 cup hominy (Cold boiled small hominy [grits] *IMPORTANT: See note.)
  • 2 cups milk (room temperature)
  • 1 teaspoon butter (melted)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 3 eggs (separated)


1. Beat the eggs very light, yolks and whites separately.
2. Work the yolks first into the hominy, alternately with the melted butter.
3. When thoroughly mixed, put in sugar and salt, and go on beating while you soften the batter gradually with the milk.
4. Be careful to leave no lumps in the hominy.
5. Lastly stir in the whites, and bake in a buttered pudding-dish until light, firm and delicately browned.
6. This can be eaten as a dessert, but it is a delightful vegetable, and the best substitute that can be devised for green corn pudding.


IMPORTANT: The first step of this recipe is one that the cookbook assumed the reader would understand, but the website that copied it did not apparently understand.

Unless you have leftover cooked grits, bring one cup of water to a rapid boil and stir in 1/4 cup of hominy grits. Turn heat to low and cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally and then cool completely.

Rather than rearrange the directions as they would be in a modern recipe, I have copied this exactly as it appears on the website as they took it from the book, Common Sense in the Household, except that I  disagree with their assumption about "small hominy."

They comment at the end that there is no difference between large hominy, and small hominy, which is what the author of this book called for. I disagree, and think that she was referring to hominy meal--grits--, because it would be almost impossible to "leave no lumps" if you were using the whole hominy kernels. And she specifies that it must be cold, which would only be necessary to say if you were dealing with something that had previously been cooked.

I increased the butter to a tablespoon. If you were going to serve this as a dessert you might want to increase the sugar and add a 1/4 tsp of vanilla.

The "batter" is very thin and runny with the amount of grits I am suggesting.  However, it does bake up into a nice firm pudding when you bake for about 60 minutes in a 325 degree oven.

Preparation times include cooking the grits and cooling them in the refrigerator.


Civil War Rations: Hardtack and O. B. Joyful

In the letter after the Chickasaw Bluffs battle, Erasmus does not talk about farmland, or about food. He is too focused on the aftermath of the disaster. But we know from other  sources, that a soldier’s Civil War rations during battle might consist mostly of hardtack and coffee. And a little something called O. B. Joyful.

It is not just the apron-wearing women folk and restaurant chefs who are creative with food. The soldiers in the field also yearn for variety in their diet and when faced with limited resources can get mighty creative.

The beans that they could soak and cook when they were in camp for a few days were impossible. No time to forage for root vegetables, and even plain biscuits of flour and water were now a luxury they had no time for. In his next letter, when the Union Army is once again on the march, Erasmus says of the Civil War rations:

…part of the time flour, or crackers, sugar, coffee, strong pork and sometimes not that for 2 or 3 days.

“Crackers” refers to what we call hardtack…so hard it could break a tooth if not soaked before eating. Anyone who has ever visited a National Historic Battlefield gift shop has seen small packages of the biscuits that were so essential to Civil War Rations.The soldiers soaked the hardtack in hot coffee or hot water, both to soften it, and to kill off the weevils that had emerged during the sometimes long transport from northern bakeries.


Civil War reenactment

Civil War Reenactment

My brother and his family participate in Civil War reenactments, so he contributed some information about the ubiquitous biscuit.

Erasmus would likely be eating a lot of <strong>hardtack</strong>. Originally known as a “sea biscuit”  by Navy use, the soldier’s version was a three inch by three inch piece of eternal flour called a “tooth duller” and “worm casket.”  

Erasmus and his comrades, it is said, would throw one of these in a pot of coffee and make bets on how many weevils would rise to the surface. It made a reasonably edible<strong> dessert</strong>.

Civil War Rations skillygallee

Hard Tack Skillygallee

There was also something called “skillygallee” that consisted of fried pork mixed with crumbled hardtack.

If soaked in brown sugar and whiskey (“O. B.  Joyful” as they called cheap whiskey). 

If you are wondering where they got the whiskey for the dessert, since I mentioned earlier that alcohol was strictly forbidden in camp and confiscated when found, I should tell you that whiskey was part of the rations during the cold winter along the Mississippi. (Theodore Wolback, “Camp and Field”)

And no, I am not providing a recipe today–not even for an O.B. Joyful pudding or skillygallee–although I do love the names.

If you are just dying to try some hardtack skillygallee–you can find a recipe here.

You can make your own hardtack, and learn more about it at this fascinating site, The American Table.