Category Archives: Series: Jokes and Humorous Recipes

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.”

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.
  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).


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

Gunpowder, treason, and plot? Not quite.

In keeping with the theme of my previous post, I wanted to look at another of the numerous trick recipes I’ve come across. The topic I’ve chosen for this post is rather less rude than the last one, however.

In late medieval books of secrets and recipe collections we can find a lot of recipes using dangerous substances like gunpowder (and its component parts) and mercury. The gunpowder recipes in particular are used for spectacular theatrical effects like propelling a dragon across a tether and making it breathe fire.[1] However, these ingredients often appears in recipes of a less spectacular nature – to play good-natured tricks on people or in children’s toys.[2] In many of these recipes the gunpowder and mercury are used to make a household object move about as if under its own strength.

Making a loaf of bread jump about is a common goal. I have come across numerous examples that all employ similar means. This example comes from Oxford, Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1436, page 26:

In order to make a loaf run round about the house, take one hot loaf and put a little mercury on a penny and stamp the end with a little wax and put it in the loaf and it shall be done, it is proven.[3]

There’s a similar principle at play with this recipe from London, British Library Sloane MS 121, folio 91r to make a ring jump about:

To make a ring dance and run throughout the whole house by itself. Make a hollowed out oval ring out of whatever metal you like and fill it with saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur, and quicksilver and then solder it well and firmly so that nothing can come out. And after a while when it is placed in the fire and it is warmed enough it will dance through the house.[4]

With the exception of the example with the ring, these recipes seem to focus on food. Joke recipes like this using food and chemical reactions were one of two kinds of joke cooking recipes (the other kind being parody recipes that created humour by using absurd or disgusting ingredients). They were entertaining while at the same time giving the performer the appearance of having magic powers, but without the threat of performing real magic. This final example comes from San Marino, Huntington Library, HM 1336, folio 5r:

In order to make a stew slip out of the pot. Take vitriol and saltpetre and Spanish soap and grind it all into a powder and throw it in the pot and all the stew in the pot shall run out, [I] guarantee.[5]

Unfortunately, we don’t know how these kinds of tricks went over in the medieval household. We can certainly imagine people’s delight, especially children’s, at seeing an innocuous loaf of bread suddenly start jumping around under its own steam. Gunpowder, quicksilver, and its various ingredients became popular in medieval recipe collections because they could turn ordinary household items like rings, bread, or even stew into fantastic and quasi-magical objects.

[1] Philip Butterworth discusses this use of gunpowder in early modern stage productions and includes a number of recipes similar to what can be found in the medieval sources. Theatre of Fire: Special Effects in Early English and Scottish Theatre (London: The Society for Theatre Research, 1998).

[2] For example, one of the earliest mentions of gunpowder in medieval Europe is believed to come from Roger Bacon describing its use in Chinese firecrackers. There are similar recipes in the c. 1300 Liber ignium of Marcus Grecus. See Pierre Berthelot‟s edition of the Liber ignium in La chimie au moyen âge, vol. I (Paris 1893; repr., Osnabrück: Otto Zeller and Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1967), 100-135; on Bacon see Joseph Needham, Gwei-Djen Lu, and Ling Wang. Science and Civilisation in China. Volume 5, Part 7. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 48–50.

[3] “for to make a lowfe to renne roun a bowte þe house take one hote lofe and put a lytyl quicsyluer on a penne et stape (sic) þe hende with a lytyl wax and put hyt in þe lofe and yt schal be doun ut probatum”

[4] “Ad faciendum Anulum saltare et currere per totam domum per se ipsum. Fac anulum de quocumque metallo quod tibi placuerit et quod sit ouum  modo concauus et imple illum de salpeter sulphure viuo et viuo argento et deinde soldatur (sic) bene et firmiter ita quod nichil queat exire. Et postmodum cum ponatur prope ignem et parum calefacietur saltabit per domum”

[5] “For to make potage slippinn out of þe potte. Take arnement and salt peter and spaynis sope and grynd it alle in poudire and caste it in þe potte and alle þe potage in þe potte xalt rene out a warentise.”
A variation of this recipe can be found in the Liber cure cocorum, a mid-fifteenth century cookery book in verse. The book begins with three trick recipes: two recipes to make cooked food appear raw and to make it appear full of worms and the recipe to make food leap out of the pot. The Liber cure recipe is designed as a trick to play on the cook: “Yf þe coke be croked or soward mane / Take sope, cast in hys potage; / Þenne wylle þe pot begyn to rage / And welle on alle, and lepe in / þat licoure is made, noþer thykke ne thynne.” [If the cook is a crooked or froward man, / Take soap, cast [it] in his potage, / Then will the pot begin to rage / And well above all, and leap in. / That liquid is made, neither thick nor thin.] Text and translation from Melitta Weiss Adamson,  “The Games Cooks Play: Non-sense Recipes and Practical Jokes in Medieval Literature,” in Food in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays, ed. Melitta Weiss Adamson (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1995), 184.  The De mirabilius mundi contains a version to make “a chicken or other thing leap in the dish” using a combination of quicksilver and zinc carbonate. Best and Brightman, Book of Secrets, 98 and Adamson, “The Games Cooks Play,” 177-178, 183-185.

“And it is a marvellous thing”: The Lighter Side of Magic

By Laura Mitchell

In my last post I discussed the line between healing charms and recipes in fifteenth-century recipe collections and how the line between charm and recipe could blur. Healing charms, however, are obviously not the only kind of charm that can be found in late medieval recipe collections. Some of the surviving charms and natural magic experiments reveal a different side to recipe users beyond the altruistic or the practical, and show a more light-hearted, sometimes even lascivious, approach to magic. Here I will discuss two examples that highlight these ludic aspects of magic very well.

My first example comes from Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1435, an anonymous collection of the fifteenth century. This particular recipe is from the manuscript’s very large recipe collection (over 190 items) and is found on pages 14 and 15:

If you want a woman to lift her skirts up to her belly button: take a green frog and cook it and afterward wash its bones in running water and you will find one bone which jumps against the water. Then take that one and touch her with it and it will seem to her that she is walking in a great river and lift [her skirts].[1]

What I find really interesting about this example is the implication that whoever was conducting this would have had to know this woman well enough to get close to her and touch her with a frog bone without raising a lot of suspicion. Presumably this would have been tried in private… although it is possible that some strange man ran around town prodding women with a frog bone and wondering why they weren’t lifting their skirts!

The internal logic of this recipe is fascinating as well. It’s designed to get a woman to raise just her skirts, rather than take off all her clothes (which is a goal of many charms). The fact that there’s a whole production about making the woman believe that she’s in a river and needs to lift her skirts to keep them dry–solely so that someone can sneak a peek–really speaks to the imaginative force that was an integral part of medieval magic.

Let’s turn now to another imaginative recipe and an example of the sillier side of magic. This example is from the De mirabilius mundi, a medieval book of secrets that was attributed to Albert the Great. My text is taken from the first English edition, printed in 1550 as The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus of the Virtues of Herbs, Stones and Certain Beasts. Also a Book of the Marvels of the World.

A marvellous operation of a lamp, which if any man shall hold, he ceaseth not to fart until he shall leave it.

Take the blood of a Snail, dry it up in a linen cloth, and make of it a wick, and lighten it in a lamp, give it to any man thou wilt, and say lighten this, he shall not cease to fart, until he let it depart, and it is a marvellous thing.

Once again, this is a recipe or experiment that would presumably have been done among people who knew each other fairly well. It reads rather like a party trick. One can almost imagine the scene in someone’s home as the host passes around the hilarious farting lamp to unsuspecting guests.

The purpose of these two recipes is clearly for laughs, although perhaps they are a little cruel. They reveal much about the sorts of things that medieval people found funny (fart jokes) and what titillated them (bottoms), which is really no different what interests people today. There are many similar charms and recipes from the medieval period–they can make people dance; make it seem as though someone has three heads, or has a dog’s head; there are more charms to make people take their clothes off; there are recipes that make a loaf of bread jump around. The possibilities are nearly endless and they illustrate another side to medieval magic.

[1] Si vis ut mulier leuat pannos suos vsque ad vmbilicum: accipe viridem ranam et coque illam et postea leva (sic) ossa sua in aqua currente et inuenies vnum os quod saltabit contra aquam. Tunc accipe illud et tange illam illam (sic) cum eo et apparebit ei quod vadit in magno flumine et euellet.