July 21, 1861: Manassas, Virginia
My dearest Krisanthemum,
Some grave things are starting to take place in our fair nation. It appears there will be no end to this secession and there is great fear in my heart that it will end in mass bloodshed. I find myself drawn to the conflict in best faith to aid the well-being of my fellow man. They say it is to be a 90 days war, but I fear the Union is underestimating the will and determination of the misguided Confederacy. While I would best like to serve my side in their battle company, they’ve sent me away as I’ve never held a gun, and know not how to fire it. My boyhood job as a chimney sweep’s brush boy gave no skill to which I could call back. General Winfield Scott walked by our company as I was getting my head stuck in a cannon barrel and had a very serious brass to his expression. He exclaimed “LITTLE PICKNEY!” and swatted me away to the edge of town near their ramshackle camps. I know not what the general meant by those words, however I fear my time in combat is at an end. My darling, I will not refrain from my service to my country and its people. If we are to endure as a nation, everyone will need to do their part. I’m setting up a food wagon, and I will follow the conflict wherever it goes, feeding anyone and everyone who chooses to share my time. As you know, I’ve never cooked a meal for a single day in my life, but perhaps these texts will provide my poor soul some guidance.
My thoughts will be of you always, and I vow to return when our nation is mended and whole once again. And as for General Scott…tell him he can blow my fife.
formally of the Army of Northeastern Virginia
Civil War Chef
For the first edition of “Matt the Civil War Chef” we need to start with the most basic Civil War food of them all, Hardtack! Hardtack dates back to the 1700s however it’s best known in American history for its contribution to the war. Dense, flavorless, and frequently remarked by soldiers that it could stop bullets, Hardtack was consumed widely but rarely ever enjoyed. Both sides of the conflict utilized Hardtack in their bags for its duration of the war, as it’s probably the simplest food to make in the history of the universe. All you need is flour, salt, and a little bit of water and you have a hardy dough fit for a fighting man. Spread it out to about a quarter inch thickness and make it into a big square.
The signature to Hardtack are the 16 holes that each 3×3 square of dough is required to have. Using a dowel (I used the insertion end of a liquor bottle spout), the chef pokes the holes in the dough after making the squares. Apparently this is to keep the dough flat during the baking process, as the final product needed to be portable and as non-fluffy as possible. After all, if you’re going to die horribly of disease out in the wilderness of Virginia, it’s best to bring along a snack. Preheating my oven to proper Civil War baking temperatures (250 F) the cut and poked squares were laid on a greased baking sheet. I had a notion that the grease used might possibly make a difference, so I did half the pan in modern Pam spray, and the other half in bacon fat. After baking for 4 hours, yes…4 DAMN hours, the Hardtack was ready to cool and eat.
The bacon grease side had a little darker color to it, but I was more interested in the taste. Fair warning: Do NOT bite down like you’re chewing a regular biscuit or cracker, because you WILL break teeth this way. A gentle grind and a little bit of time and the Hardtack will eventually break down in your mouth. As for the taste…well, I guess I would’ve thrived back in the Civil War because I didn’t really mind the taste at all. It’s still no taste sensation (it doesn’t really taste like anything), but in times of war or emergency I would have no problem eating Hardtack for as long as needed. Granted, my 2019 supply is far less likely to become stale or infested with maggots or weevils thanks to the good folks at Tupperware…but I’m actually going to eat this entire batch!
Thank you for reading the first edition of “Matt the Civil War Chef.” Next time Matt will try recreating another culinary classic, exploring the history and nomenclature of the Johnny Cake. Can Matt actually make a pancake without the aid of Bisquick?!
Do you have any suggestions or requests for our Civil War Chef? Shoot us an email or send us a tweet, we’ll fire up the time machine and send it his way!