Tag Archives: Civil War

Teaching Schoolchildren with Historic Recipes

By Amanda Moniz 

Last February, I visited the Washington Middle School for Girls, a Catholic school serving girls from underprivileged backgrounds in Washington, D.C., to make cookies from the first African American cookbook, published by Malinda Russell in 1866.  In this post, I’d like to reflect on what I learned about the challenges and possibilities of teaching history in schools through hands-on cooking programs.

First a little background about Malinda Russell.  Born in Tennessee around 1820, Russell lived most or all of her life as a freewoman.  At age 19, she intended to migrate to Liberia, but her plans were stymied.  She married and had a son, worked as a washerwoman, and, in time, learned to cook.  After her husband’s death, she kept a boarding house and then opened a pastry shop.  During the Civil War, she was attacked and robbed for supporting the Union and fled to Michigan.  In 1866, she published her cookbook to raise funds to return to Tennessee, where she hoped to recover her property.

Malinda Russell cookbook photo

The Washington Middle School invited me to explore the life of this determined woman and make one of her recipes with the school’s 35 fourth and fifth graders.  I chose Russell’s recipe for jumbles – a cookie made with rosewater, mace, and caraway seeds.  The school has no kitchen, so we agreed we would prep, but not bake, the cookie dough in the lunchroom.  So that the students could try the jumbles, I would bake the cookies at home and bring them in.

So on a bitterly cold day at the end of February, I found myself nervously unloading grocery bags at the school.  I had taught children before, but never 35 of them.  I wasn’t sure if I knew how to present either the history or the baking lesson in a school setting.

After I set up, the teachers ushered the kids in.  I started by asking the girls what they knew about slavery. They were able to speak knowledgably about slaves’ experiences.  Then I asked what they knew about the lives of free African Americans in the antebellum era, and the answer was just about nothing.  I explained that Malinda Russell was a free African American who had lived when most African Americans were slaves.  I outlined her story and talked about obstacles she would have faced.

It was time to make the jumbles.  I had students read the recipe aloud and identify ingredients.  Next I assigned tasks.  Then, we got to work and this is where things went somewhat awry.  While waiting for ingredients to be passed around, the kids jostled each other and got a little noisy.  I found it challenging to maintain order with the girls.  We got four batches of the dough made, however, and the kids rolled or shaped it into balls or double rings.  Finally, we sampled the jumbles – and they were a hit.

So what did I learn?  Most important, I recognized that teaching history through recipes to elementary and middle school students (and, surely, high school students too) critically depends on K-12 educators who know how to teach schoolchildren and can anticipate their needs and interests in ways that a visitor like myself could not.  I had thought through every step of the recipe and how to make it work even though we weren’t in a kitchen, but the lack of a kitchen turned out not to be a real issue.  Instead, the fact that some ingredients had to be passed from table to table created downtime for the girls to become antsy.  I wanted the kids to measure out ingredients themselves – this is what cooking is – but I should have put, for instance, some flour into a bowl on each table and let the girls measure from it, rather than have to wait for the 5 pound bag to come to them.  An experienced K-12 teacher would not have made that and similar mistakes.

K-12 teachers are paramount in educating our children about history, but academic historians and institutions such as the American Historical Association (AHA) have key roles in broadening our children’s educational experiences too.  Russell does not find a place in elementary, middle, or high school curricula – although she can be fit into the study of the Civil War – and here is where academics can make a contribution.  Scholarly interest in food history is going gangbusters.  Historians would do well, I think, to collaborate with elementary and secondary school educators to identify usable primary sources that can be related to curricula.  The AHA’s K-12 workshop at the upcoming annual meeting in New York, in January 2015, will do just that: The workshop will explore teaching the history of World War I through food.

What worked?  The students loved the opportunity to cook at school.  They were eager to answer my questions and to read aloud from the cookbook.  But the chance to take ingredients and transform them captivated them.  And it created openings to teach history.  The girls at the Washington Middle School, and likewise, the students at the Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, New York, who I spoke with by Skype last February, wanted to know more about foods in the past.  The ingredients – something they could relate to but perhaps had not thought about as having pasts – sparked their historical curiosity and imagination.

Did I do everything right?  No.  Can we use historic recipes to teach history?  Absolutely.

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. 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).


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