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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:


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


  • 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)


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.


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



Civil War Recipe: Creamed Celery

Celery is a master of disguise when it comes to taste and presentation.

The leaves have a very slight bite and make a nice “herb” to add to all kinds of dishes, plus making a pretty garnish. Logical, since celery is related to parsley. (Check out the history of celery and a few cooked dishes.)


Celery top and bottom.


Grandma Vera Anderson liked to dip raw vegetables into a little pile of salt on her plate, and it is still indispensable on a crudite tray.

Celery and carrots with salt on Grandma Vera's butter plate

Celery and carrots with salt on Grandma Vera’s butter plate

When my sons were little, they could be conned into eating celery if I stuffed it with peanut butter or Cheese Whiz. Now I’ve graduated to more sophisticated spreads, like this dried tomato cheese spread.

stuffed celery

Stuffed Celery. Take your pick: sun dried tomato cheese spread or peanut butter

Now that I cannot eat onions, I tend to double up on chopped celery in stews, stir fries and such– to get the little crunch you get from onions that I have to omit.

But what I do not do, is cook celery alone as a side dish. Why not, I wondered, when I saw a recipe for stewed celery in the Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book. I  vaguely remember the taste of creamed celery, so maybe grandma cooked it some time. This recipe was published in Godey’s in 1862, so even though I doubt that Anna Butts was a magazine reader back during Civil War days, it probably was a common enough method that she would have known about it. And I imagine she planted celery in her garden. And I know that Hattie Morgan Stout was reading Godey’s, along with her mother Mary Morgan, for whom it was a lifeline to civilization.

This delicious and economical  recipe, like so many from the 19th century, is vague on details, so I am going to quote the recipe verbatim and then give you my version and some notes on why I made changes. It seems that the bitterness that called for stewing of celery in milk and adding lemon has been bred out of the modern plant, because I do not think of celery as bitter at all.

To Stew Celery

Take off the outside, and remove the green ends from the celery; stew in milk and water until they are very tender.  Put in a slice of lemon, a little beaten [grated or ground] mace and thicken with a good lump of butter and flour; boil it a little, and then add the yelks of two well-beaten eggs mixed with a teacupful of good cream.  Shake the saucepan over the fire until the gravy thickens, but do not let it boil.  Serve it hot.

My Version of Creamed Celery

Creamed Celery

Serves 4-5
Prep time 55 minutes
Cook time 45 minutes
Total time 1 hours, 40 minutes
Allergy Egg, Milk, Wheat
Dietary Vegetarian
Meal type Side Dish
Misc Serve Hot
From book Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey's Lady's Book


  • 1 cup Milk
  • Water
  • 1 bunch Celery (2 stalks per person)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground mace (plus some to sprinkle on top)
  • 3 tablespoons Butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 3/4 cups cream


Peel celery and slice the stalks. (Save leaves for garnish). Put stalk pieces in saucepan
2. Add one cup milk and enough water to barely cover.
3. Simmer until celery is tender--about 1/2 hour. Watch to be sure it does not boil.
4. Add mace.
5. Put flour and butter in small dish and mix with fingers until all flour is absorbed. Break off pieces and add to celery and liquid, stirring over low heat until thickened to the point of coating spoon, 5-10 minutes.
6. Beat egg yolks with cream, add slowly to warm celery and liquid, stirring as you add. Heat only long enough to warm the whole dish and thicken a bit more. Do not boil.
7. Put in warmed serving dish and sprinkle with some more mace.


I have eliminated the lemon slice called for in the original. I tried it when I cooked this and it curdled the milk. (Of course!)  Plus, I did not think the lemon taste added anything.

Mace is another part of the same plant that gives us nutmeg. I like it very much. It has a slightly milder flavor. But feel free to substitute nutmeg.

I wound up with a lot more sauce than was necessary. If I were making it again, I believe I would pour off some of the milk/water that the celery is stewed in before adding the other ingredients.

I used only seven stalks of celery and it made enough for two servings and seconds, but if cooking this again, I believe I would use a whole bunch of celery. It takes a bit of work to make this, the leftovers are delicious, so why not have planned overs?




Blackberries to Cure What Ails You

In Pvt. Erasmus Anderson’s last letter home, he mentioned blackberries. In fact he even made a little joke.

The blackberries is getting ripe here and in Ohio they are not in blossom yet.  You are behind time up there ain’t you.


Photo by Martin LaBar, from Flickr. Used with Creative Commons license.

Having a chat with friends over some wine and snacks, I wondered aloud what housewives during the Civil War would do with blackberries–besides just eat them out of hand.

I know that the few times I was fortunate enough to go blackberry picking, it was hard to pick them faster than we ate them as they dropped into the bucket, all warm and juicy and sweet from the sun.

And of course we could make a slump, or a grunt, or a cobbler or one of those other typically American fruit desserts, or a pie–but haven’t we done enough of those desserts?

One of my friends took a sip of her wine and said, “How about blackberry wine?”  Perfect!  Although I don’t have any handed-down terrific recipes (someone promised me one, but she has not come through yet)…I dove into the Internet to see what I could come up with. Surely all those grandmothers and greats and great-greats made blackberry wine or blackberry cordial at one time or another.

How complicated is it? And what is the difference between wine and cordial? And since I live in Arizona with no blackberry bushes between the prickly pears behind my house, will I ever have enough blackberries to turn into Booze?


Blackberry Cordial Medicine

Blackberry Cordial as a Patented Medicine that could cure about anything.

The book Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book, yield a medicinal use for Blackberry Syrup, published in 1860. “A Tablespoon for a child or a wineglass for an adult is a dose.”

Blackberry Syrup After boiling a pound of sugar to a pint of water, add to “expressed juice” of blackberries (same amount as sugar). Add half a nutmeg grated for each quart of syrup, boil for 15-20 minutes, then add half a gill (1/4 cup) of brandy for each quart of syrup.  Let cool, then bottle.

Borden Condensed Milk

Ad1898. The pitch had not changed in thirty-eight years. From Wikipedia. In the public domain

According to a note in the Godey’s recipe book, Union hospitals treated sick and wounded soldiers in hospitals with the same recipe, except it used condensed milk instead of water.

Condensed milk had been recently invented by Gail Borden, who marketed it as New York Condensed Milk (Later Borden’s Eagle Brand). Evaporated milk with sugar added was canned and could withstand the heat of the South. The Union army bought all the Borden factory in New York could make to ensure a supply for their soldiers.

A Non-Medicinal Recipe

I really like the looks of this recipe that I have slightly adapted (but not yet tried) from Billy Joe Tatum’s Wild Foods Cookbook & Field Guide. His introduction says this is an old British recipe. It does become an alcoholic drink with aging, although the alcohol content will vary from batch to gatch. He describes it as thick and dark. (The same recipe can be used for rasberry cordial.)

Backberry Cordial

  • 2 quarts fresh blackberries
  • 2 Cups boiling water
  • 2 cups Sugar

1. Crush the berries well and put them into a small stoneware crock.  Add water.

2. Cover crock with cheesecloth and set in a warm place for 24 hours. Stir occasionally.

3. Push the berries and their liquid through a fine sieve to remove the seeds. Reserve jucie and discard pulp.

4.  Add sugar to the berry liquid.

5. Stir again every 15 minutes for one hour. (Five times.)

6.  Strain mixture through dampened cheesecloth.

7. Bottle cordial and cork bottles.

8. Place bottles on their sides and keep them in a cool, dark place for four months. Decant before using. Makes two quarts.

Photo Credits

(To see the original source of each photo, click on the picture).

Blackberries: Identified in the caption.

Blackberry Cordial: Johnathan Brown from Flickr, used with Creative Commons license.

Borden’s Condensed Milk Advertisement: From Wikipedia, who got it from the site it is linked to–an image of the back cover of a guide book for travelers to Alaska and the Klondike during the gold rush of the 1890s.


Billie Joe Tatum’s book is out of print, but may be available from used book sellers on the Internet.

Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book can be purchased on Amazon in hard copy or as an e-book by clicking on the title here.