Tag Archives: potatoes

Civil War Vittles: From the Vegetable Garden

I can’t think about a particular ancestor without wondering about what they ate. For instance, while my great-grandfather,  Henry Allen Butts, was in the Union Army, marching through the South under General Sherman, his wife Anna Mariah Smith Butts was at home with an infant son.

It sounds like she was  boarding with another family, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she helped out with the family vegetable garden and with the cooking.  After all, she had a reputation within her family for her own vegetable and flower gardens after Henry came home and they had their own place.

vegetable garden

The vegetables she grew were not just a hobby–they were essential to feeding a family during the Civil War and during the recession that followed the war.  So I went back to Lady Godey’s Civil War cookbook to see if I could learn what Civil War era wives were doing with vegetables.

The book, Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book, edited by Lily May Spaulding and John Spaulding, is a gold mine of information for a mid 19th century kitchen. The chapter on vegetables alone can keep you busy for hours just reading.

One of the entertaining things about this book is that it gives all kinds of helpful hints about cooking. Most of these admonitions still apply, although we have learned that some of their “hints” are actually detrimental.  The chapter on vegetables starts with general instructions on cooking all kinds of vegetables–wash them well, boil them and drain them. But I particularly enjoy the warnings generally headed “Bad cooks….”

Bad cooks sometimes dress them with meat, which is wrong, except carrots or cabbage with boiling beef.

So now you know. Don’t go cooking your meat with your vegetables.

On the other hand, serving them on the side takes judicious combining.

Potatoes are good with all meats.  With fowls, they are nicest mashed.  Carrots, parsnips, turnips, greens and cabbage are eaten with boiled meat; and beets, peas and beans are appropriate to either boiled or roasted meat. Mashed turnip is good with roasted pork.

potatoesSince potatoes are good with all meats, I decided to check what they suggest doing with that most common vegetable. Interestingly, baking vegetables doesn’t enter the scene–everything is boiled. Maybe a little sauteing–or frying. And Grilled? Far in the future.

The entry comes from 1863

Many good cooks are bad managers of potatoes, and this esculent, which in most houses is served every day, and which is so popular in many families as to be often the only vegetable at table, requires much care in the cooking.

After a run to the dictionary to find out what “esculent” means–something edible–I eagerly read along to see what “good cooks” do better than “bad cooks” when it comes to potatoes. The advice makes great sense.  The detailed instructions boil down (pun intended) to allowing them to stay hot and dry out after boiling to make them mealy rather than mushy.  In fact, the author of that advice is intent on serving the potatoes hot and recommends serving a few at a time so that “relays of hot dishes of them may be ready to go in with every fresh course with which they are at all likely to be required.”  That makes perfect sense, and I intend to follow the advice to drain the pan and put the potatoes either in a dry pan or in the oven to dry out after boiling.

But there is more to the life of a potato than boiling–so what else to they recommend? I’ve added the year the recipe appeared in Godey’s.

Potato Balls– 1863 (I swear these are really Tater Tots! And they DID eat catsup during the Civil War.)

Saratoga Chips

Saratoga Chips, Photo from Flickr used with Creative Commons license

Potato Chips -1865 (Invented by George Crum in Saratoga Lake, NY in 1853, but rarely if ever mentioned in home cooking books until Godey’s.)

Potatoes Mashed with Onions – 1862 (More of a suggestion than a recipe–just boil the amount of onions you would like and mix with the mashed potatoes.)

New Potatoes A La Francaise – 1867 (The recipe notes “In Italy olive oil is used rather than butter, but butter is really preferable.”)

Potato Salad, Hot – 1861 and 1865 (I have no doubt that Anna and her fellow German descendent families in Ohio made hot potato salad. The dish is described as “A wholesome and pleasant dish for spring and early summer.”)

Sweet Potatoes A L’Allemande – 1867 (Although I thought this meant sweet potatoes, the editors say you should use white potatoes. They say the ‘sweet’ refers to the sugar used in this tart-like dish.  I would like to try it with sweet potatoes also, however.)

So that’s how Annie may have cooked her potatoes if she got tired of boiled.  Next week–more vegetables from Annie’s garden.

If you want to see what the soldier’s were eating during the Civil War, I had several pieces about that last year when we were reading Erasmus Anderson’s mail. Just follow the links to his letters and above or below each one, you’ll find something about Civil War Food. Your favorite was Civil War Rations: Hardtack and O. B. Joyful.

Note: There is an Amazon link here to help you if you’d like to get your own copy of the Lady Godey’s Book Civil War Recipes. You should know that anything you buy from Amazon through these links earns me a few cents, even though it costs you no more. THANKS for your support.


100th Post and a Roots Stew Recipe

Today we celebrate our 100th article at Ancestors in Aprons, (unbelievable!). If you are just getting started at Ancestors in Aprons, I suggest you start the page called All About Food and Family.

For this week’s Civil War era recipe, I am going to tell you about a dish Erasmus could have made in the field. Since we have a grocery store nearby and a kitchen to cook in, we have the luxury of upgrading it with a bit of an East Indian flavor but either way it is a Roots Stew recipe.

Ingredients for Roots Stew recipe

Ham hock, potatoes, carrots, turnip and parsnips

Yes, this is the 100th article in this website that makes a “roots stew” of searching for family roots and thinking about ancestor’s connection to food. We’ll celebrate by cooking up a roots stew recipe–because root vegetables were dependably under the ground as the troops marched south from Ohio. Despite the fact that the troops were forbidden to go foraging (otherwise known as pillaging) we know that it would be difficult to pass up a field of turnips or parsnips. Cpl. Wolbach has some very amusing stories about these forays into field and orchard.

I became closely acquainted with potatoes as I related when I gave you a scalloped potato recipe, but turnips and parsnips are not a regular on my dinner table. After looking at their nutritional benefits, I may add them more frequently, along with rutabagas, that I already put in soups whenever possible. They are very high in vitamin C, high in potassium and manganese and fiber and low in calories.  That’s a big thumbs’ up for humble root vegetables.

root stew recipe in pan

Stew vegetables in pan

If Erasmus were going to make this roots stew recipe, he and some of his friends could just put a hunk of their ration of salt pork in the pot, maybe first cutting off some of the fat to grease the pot, then add whatever root vegetables the soldiers had been able to gather and pour in some water.  

He would probably have some salt left from his weekly rations and could add that, and if any of the men had a knowledge of the wild herbs that grew in the woods, they might season the stew with some wild garlic, or some Judas’ ear mushrooms, some wild mustard seeds, or other free for the picking seasonings still available in the fall south of the Ohio River. (Once they get out of that snow he was complaining about in the last letter we read.)


Roots Stew Updated

Serves 6-8
Prep time 20 minutes
Cook time 35 minutes
Total time 55 minutes
Dietary Gluten Free
Meal type Lunch, Side Dish
Misc Child Friendly, Serve Hot


  • 3 tablespoons olive oil or bacon grease
  • Hamhock or fatty pork
  • 2 parsnips cut in 1/2 inch slices
  • 2 medium potatoes, 1 1/2 to 2 inch chunks
  • 1 turnip, 1 1/2 to 2 inch chunks
  • 3 large carrots, 2 inch long chunks
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon tumeric
  • garlic salt
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 can chicken broth or vegetable broth
  • 1/2 can coconut milk


1. peel or scrape vegetables and cut in pieces
2. Saute ham hock and vegetables in oil until just starting to brown
3. Add rest of ingredients except coconut milk and simmer until tender.
4. If using ham hock, remove. (Save to reuse in another soup or discard). Stir in coconut milk, warm, serve.


Can be made vegetarian or vegan by using olive oil and vegetable broth instead of bacon grease and chicken broth and eliminating ham hock.


The Holmes County Republican series entitled “Camp and Field” written b Cpl. Theodore D. Wolbach and published from February 1881 to August 1882 is available in image and transcription at the official 16th O.V.I. site.

I am indebted to the cookbook Wild Foods Field Guide and Cookbook by Billy Joe Tatum for suggestions on using wild plants.  For this and more cookbooks, see my food books page.

Creamy Scalloped Potatoes

potatoesPotatoes. Such a plentiful and cheap food for my Irish and British ancestors, and the early settlers in America.  But they can get boring (apologies to my sister who never met a potato she didn’t like). So our ancestors in aprons found a variety of ways to cook them.

A dish of Scalloped Potatoes, like Welsh Rarebit ,is a old-fashioned comfort food.

But before I get to today’s recipe for Scalloped Potatoes, I want to tell you about my experience at stoop labor–digging potatoes.

When I was attending Killbuck High School in Ohio, the class always wanted to raise money with various projects. Other than buying something to leave as a gift for the school when we graduated, I don’t know what the money was for.  But I do know of one smart farmer up near Wooster who figured out how to take advantage of the high school slave labor market.

The potato farmer contacted schools and offered to pay some paltry amount to a class if they came and dug potatoes in his fields during potato harvesting time. Our class bit.  It was quite a lark–particularly for the townies. The kids who came from farms may have been thinking we were downright crazy. On the other hand, they probably didn’t go along because they were doing actual work on their own farms.

We piled into a school bus (rules for outings were more lenient in the 50s) and were delivered at the potato field.  The furrows had already been dug up mechanically, so all we had to do was pick up the potatoes and put them in a sack and carry them back to where they were being weighed.  What was a lot of fun with a lot of joking and flirting and competition, got old really fast as dirt caked our arms and legs and muscles screamed from all that hauling.

In retrospect, that day in the potato field might have had something to do with the inordinately high percentage of students from our tiny school who wound up going to college. Anything but potato picking to make a living!

Meanwhile, although that experience might have had something to do with my disdain for eating potatoes, there was one dish my grandma Vera Anderson, and my mother, Harriette Kaser made that I loved for its creamy goodness.

scalloped potatoes prep

scalloped potatoes ready for the oven with flour sprinkled over the slices.

I have tried to find out why scalloped potatoes are called “scalloped”.  Among the various theories, the most likely is that “escalloped” refers to meat sliced very thin.  The secret of success with scalloped potatoes is thin slicing–the term probably moved over to potatoes.  I would have thought that might be a Norman word imported into England, but Google sources say it comes from the Old English word “collops,” referring to shredded meat. Whatever.

Basically, scalloped potatoes require only potatoes, salt and pepper, butter and milk or cream. I learned the hard way that adding flour helps make the sauce into sauce instead of just a bowl of milk.  From the beginnings you can add cheese (for au gratin–or “cheesy scalloped potatoes”) or meat, or different seasonings.

The technique varies, too.  Cook the potatoes first before layering and baking. Cook the sliced potatoes in the sauce before baking. Cook covered. Cook uncovered.  Here’s a heritage recipe that worked well for me (and other than the fact that I don’t recall my mother using flour, seems to parallel the family recipe).

Scalloped Potatoes

Scalloped Potatoes

Scalloped Potatoes

The Rector Cook Book 1928

The Rector Cook Book 1928

From The Rector Cookbook by George Rector (1928)
Wash and peel the required number of potatoes and slice in 1/8 inch thickness.  Butter a baking dish and cover bottom with a layer of sliced potatoes.  Sprinkle lightly with salt, pepper and flour and dot with several small pieces of butter.  Continue layers of potatoes and seasonings until required quantity is used up.  Then pour milk over all and bake in a moderate oven 50 minutes.  Serve from baking dish in which they were cooked.

Oh, wait….you want details? Okay, here’s the recipe as I made it. (Except you have to decide for yourself how much salt and pepper to use.) The pyrex dish in the basket with a wooden base (pictured below) was a practical wedding present given to Ken and me and is still in use in my kitchen.

Creamy Scalloped Potatoes

Serves 8
Prep time 15 minutes
Cook time 1 hour, 15 minutes
Total time 1 hour, 30 minutes
Allergy Egg, Milk, Wheat
Dietary Vegetarian
Meal type Side Dish
Misc Child Friendly, Serve Hot
From book The Rector Cook Book (1928)


  • 6 baking potatoes (sliced thin)
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 4 tablespoons butter (Cut in small bits)
  • 1 1/4 cup Half and Half (Can use milk)
  • salt
  • pepper


1. Butter a Pyrex baking dish. 10" round as I used takes longer to bake than a flat dish.
2. Make a layer of sliced potatoes. Scatter flour lightly and salt and pepper to taste. Dot with pieces of butter.
3. Repeat layers until you use all potatoes.
4. Pour Half and Half over potatoes. You need to have the cream/milk come to the top layer of potatoes.
5. Cover with glass lid or aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Test with fork to see if potatoes are beginning to get soft.
6. When potatoes are no longer crisp, but are not yet mushy, uncover and turn up heat to 400 degrees until potatoes begin to brown on top. (At this point I added three strips of cooked bacon, broken into small pieces.)
7. if you w ant Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes, add grated cheese of your choice in the last step.