Tag Archives: Christopher Newport University

Ironclad Apple Duff: Exploring Recipes from the American Civil War

By Jessica Eichlin and Amanda E. Herbert

USS Monitor crewmembers cooking on deck, in the James River, Virginia, 9 July 1862. Photographed by James F. Gibson, courtesy of Wikipedia.
USS Monitor crewmembers cooking on deck, in the James River, Virginia, 9 July 1862. Photographed by James F. Gibson, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Food rations during wartime do not have the reputation for being delicious, fresh, or even edible, and this was especially true during the American Civil War.  Fought from 1861-1865, the war disrupted supply lines across the United States, making food difficult to acquire for soldiers and citizens alike.  When Union (northern) and Confederate (southern) troops were receiving rations, these usually included hardtack, salt pork, flour, and cornmeal; when soldiers were lucky, this rather grim diet was supplemented by small amounts of condiments such as molasses, salt and pepper, and sugar; beverages such as milk, coffee, or tea; and vegetables such as rice or hominy, dried beans or peas, and “fresh” (although frequently desiccated) vegetables.  And whenever they were able, soldiers and sailors foraged for food, or traded with locals – both free and enslaved – in order to survive.

Finding and issuing nutritious, reliable rations was made even more difficult by the new military equipment that was developed during the Civil War.  Although European countries had begun developing ironclad ships in the late 1850s, American shipbuilders were not prompted to create this innovative type of ship until the American Civil War.  The South was the first to construct their ironclad (the CSS Virginia), followed quickly by the North.  The Union’s USS Monitor, designed by John Ericsson, was ironclad as well as semi-submersible: it was the first ship with its living quarters and engines entirely below the waterline.  The ship was nicknamed “Ericsson’s Folly” and “cheesebox on a raft” as no one thought it could float, let alone sail into battle.  Because the sailors lived almost entirely underwater, provisioning them and keeping them healthy proved to be a difficult undertaking.

Primary source documents written by the sailors on board these ships help to reveal important details about the history of Civil War food.  George Geer, a First-Class Fireman from Troy, New York who was stationed aboard the Monitor, corresponded with his wife Martha throughout the war, describing skirmishes, interactions with other sailors and officers, and especially the food on board ship.  Prior to enlisting, Geer had been unemployed and in debt: as he and his wife had two children, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of his letters focused on food.  But if Geer thought that joining the Union navy would keep him well-fed, his hopes were soon dashed.  His letters are full of funny, sarcastic comments about sailor’s rations.  In regards to the rock-like hardtack crackers, which were a staple of their diet, Geer said that the sailors could “eat as many crackers as [they] may wish which for me is usuly one.”  When the men were given pork, Geer was dismayed that “it is of the Lardy kind and no body pretends to eat it…the balance [is] given to the Fishes.”  Discussing bean soup, which the sailors consumed three times every week, Geer noted wryly that he was “tempted to strip off my shirt and make a dive and see if there realy is Beens in the Bottom.”

George S. Geer, First-Class Fireman, USS Monitor.  Image courtesy of the Mariner's Museum, Newport News, Virginia.
George S. Geer, First-Class Fireman, USS Monitor. Image courtesy of the Mariner’s Museum, Newport News, Virginia.

Geer’s colorful discussion of the food on board the USS Monitor did not stop with mere description.  In his letters, he sometimes provided his wife with recipes for the foods that made up the sailors’ rations.  In order to make navy-style tea, he told his wife to take “abut three times as much of black Tea or Grass as you would take to make a cup of Tea for you and me and about a tea cup full of that muscovada shugar that has such a bad taste.”  The most detailed recipe inscribed by Geer was for a dessert called Apple Duff.  Duff was a steamed or boiled pudding which was consumed frequently in the nineteenth century.  It was simple to make and contained cheap ingredients, usually just flour, water, and a handful of fruit.  Geer told his wife that he would “give you the recpt and you can try it.”  He told her to “take ½ lb Flour to each person and wet it until it is a thick paste then put in one ounce [o]f Dride Apples to each person.”  The apples, he noted, included “cores and dirt” and his wife should add them to the dough “without cutting them up or Washing them.”  This mixture was to be put “in a Bag over night and boil then in the morning until it is about half done through then cut it up with a knife so as to make it as heavy as poseable.”  The resulting lump of half-cooked dough was hard to digest, but it was filling – for although most puddings “will be apt to work out of your stomac in the course of time,” Geer joked, “this Duff is wanted to stay.”

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Interested in the sources used in this post?  You can find them here:

  1. “What Did Civil War Soldiers Eat?” Civil War Preservation Trust, accessed 13 April 2014. http://www.civilwar.org/education/pdfs/civil-war-curriculum-food.pdf
  2. “Duff,” in The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 259.
  3. “Letter No 2,” George S. Geer Family Papers, 1862-1995, MS010, The Mariners’ Museum Library, Christopher Newport University, Newport News, Virginia.
  4. A.A. Hoehling, Thunder at Hampton Roads (New York: Prentice Hall, 1976).

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Jessica Eichlin is a senior History Major at Christopher Newport University.  She found these documents while working as an intern at the Mariner’s Museum and Mariner’s Museum Library, both in Newport News, Virginia.  Jessica is on Twitter @jesseich

Chocolate in the Classroom

By Amanda E. Herbert

Ingredients in Eighteenth-Century Chocolate, Courtesy of the Historic Foodways Division of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Ingredients in Eighteenth-Century Chocolate, Courtesy of the Historic Foodways Division of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Last semester I taught a course on Tudor and Stuart Britain, and devoted one week to study of the Commercial Revolution.  This “revolution” in taste and consumption occurred c. 1650-1750, as exotic goods from British colonies came up for sale in metropolitan British markets.  From Edinburgh to Bristol, and from London to Dublin, early modern Britons began to purchase these “new world” products in great numbers, significantly changing British financial markets and British tastes.  The students readily grasped the economic and logistical details of this historical shift, but I wanted them to understand that the Commercial Revolution also marked a sensory change for early modern Britons, whose senses of smell, taste, sight, and touch mediated their interactions with new goods.  So I planned an experiment for the last day of the unit: the students would drink chocolate in class.

In early modern Europe, chocolate usually was consumed as a hot drink – Amy Tigner explored the many ways that early modern people ate and drank chocolate in her excellent Recipe Project posts on chocolate here and here – with crushed cacao nibs mixed with spices, hot water, and a bit of sugar.  I wanted the students to try early modern chocolate, and (luckily for me) there’s a company that makes it.  Starting in 2003, the Historic Division of MARS Chocolate North America began work on an eighteenth-century-style chocolate drink.  Partnering with historical organizations such as the Colonial Chocolate Society, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Fort Ticonderoga, and the University of California, Davis, MARS created a chocolate blend which it believes is historically accurate.  The mixture is available for sale, and I purchased a container for the class.  After mixing the powder with hot water as directed, I poured each student a small cup and asked them to compose “tasting notes” on the drink, describing the flavors and asking them to identify what they thought was in the recipe.

Some of the students loved the chocolate.  Several thought it contained coffee, reporting that it reminded them of their caffeinated drink of choice:

“The texture and thickness reminds me of Turkish coffee.”

“It’s like thicker coffee which is nice and soothing.”

Most of the students believed that the chocolate contained spices and fruit extracts.  For many, the spicy and fruity flavors in the drink were evocative of banana:

“You can smell the different spices.  It seems to have fruity tones.”

“It tastes like banana after a while…I don’t like banana.”

“It tastes like hot cocoa and apple cider had a baby.  Kinda has a banana flavor.”

Many students commented on the fact that the drink was not very sweet.  In trying to emulate eighteenth-century recipes, MARS included only a bit of sugar in their recipe.

“I wish it was sweeter.”

Most students found the texture and the thickness of the chocolate to be disconcerting.  For these modern American students, chocolate was supposed to be smooth and sweet.  They thought that the texture and flavor were off-putting, even revolting:

“It’s like warm liquid cough medicine.”

“I’m slightly disturbed that there are yellow oily stains inside of my cup.”

“It reminds me of vomit.”

After everyone had finished their chocolate (or discreetly tipped it into the trash) and turned in their tasting notes, we sat down and discussed the recipe.  MARS doesn’t reveal the precise details online, but it does say that the chocolate contains ingredients commonly found in eighteenth-century recipes: anise, chili pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange peel, and vanilla.  One by one, I revealed the ingredients to the class, and then we mapped them onto an atlas, exploring where each ingredient originated in the early modern period, the shipping processes and time required to bring them to British markets, and how much they would have cost.  Many of these ingredients would have seemed strange, and their tastes or textures unpleasant, to early modern Britons themselves.  We finished the class by discussing how consuming fashionable products may not always have been a positive experience for people in eighteenth-century Britain — and sometimes even for those in twenty-first century America.

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Many thanks to the students in “HIST 308: Tudor and Stuart Britain” (Fall 2013) at Christopher Newport University for their enthusiastic participation in this project, and for their permission to reproduce their tasting notes online.