Day 6: Beef – Celebrate American Food History

 War and food, a timeless tale. Unfortunately.

Today’s story is about beef, the meat – as we all know – that become synonymous with Britain and went on to become a major force in the American economy in the nineteenth century, as well as providing for a rather mythological view of the American West. (Hint: Think cowboys.)

Beef fueled the Civil War, as did pork and cornmeal.

Between 1861 and 1865, the United States experienced that major war, killing over 620,000 soldiers, although it is impossible to know the exact number with any accuracy. Historian J. David Hacker suggests that as many as 750,000 soldiers died. Many of these people succombed to various diseases and not combat-related injuries. Starvation, of course, played a large role, or at least malnutrition did.

As for civilian deaths, less is known, although historian James McPherson estimates around 50,000 civilians, which may be a somewhat low figure.

The South, and particularly Virginia, bore the brunt of the fighting and the rampant destruction of human life, property, and livestock,   as anyone who’s spent any time in Virginia knows. In short supply was one of the crucial elements for survival: salt. The Union naval blockade against the South created a shortage of salt, since most salt came from the Caribbean islands and Britain, stowed in the holds of ships as ballast, replaced by cotton for the return voyage. And the lack of salt meant that preserving meat became a problem. To “corn” 500 pounds of beef, the producer needed 1 and a quarter bushels of salt (or about 10 gallons).

To put this in perspective, remember that Union solders received, theoretically anyway, one pound and four ounces of salt or fresh beef per day. This figure grew out of suggestions made by a certain W. J. Hardee (see below in the list of references for further reading), but the Southern soldier – due to the South’s mono/duo-culture economy, blockaded ports, and hampered supply lines – rarely could count on the ideal rations.

Because of the lack of salt, various measures cropped up to remedy the situation, as we see in the follow information found in the  Confederate Receipt Book (1863).

Confederate receipt book


We need salt as a relish to our food, but it is not essential in the preservation of our meats. The Indians used little or no salt, yet they preserved meat and even fish in abundance by drying. This can be accomplished by fire, by smoke or by sunshine, but the most rapid and reliable mode is by all these agents combined. To do this select a spot having the fullest command of sunshine. Erect there a wigwan five or six feet high, with an open top, in size proportioned to the quantity of meat to be cured, and protected from the winds, so that all the smoke must pass through the open top. The meat cut into pieces suitable for drying (the thinner the better) to be suspended on rods in the open comb, and a vigorous smoke made of decayed wood is to be kept up without cessation Exposed thus to the combined influence of sunshine, heat and smoke, meat cut into slices not over an inch thick can be thoroughly cured in twenty-four hours. For thicker pieces there must be, of course, a longer time, and the curing of oily meat, such as pork, is more difficult than that of beef, venison or mutton.

To cure meat in the sun hang it on the South side of your house, as near to the wall as possible without touching.

Savages cure fish by pounding it fine, and exposing it to the bright sun. (p. 16)


Those whose teeth are not strong enough to masticate hard beef should cut their steaks the day before using into slices about two inches thick, rub over them a small quantity of soda, wash off next morning, cut them into suitable thickness, and cook according to fancy. The same process will answer for any description of tough meat. (p. 22-23)

For more on beef, food, and the American Civil War:

William C. Davis, The Civil War Cookbook (1993)

_____. A Taste for War: The Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray (2011)

Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering (2008)

W. J. Hardee, Hardee’s Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics (1862)

Roger Horowitz, Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation (2005)

John Hammond Moore, The Confederate Housewife (1997)

Maureen Ogle, In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America (2013)

James M. Sanderson, Camp Fires and Camp Cooking; or Culinary Hints for the Soldier (1862)

Lily May and John Spaulding, editors, Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book (1999)

Note:  It’s soon to be a big, big day for Gherkins & Tomatoes – on July 28 G&T will celebrate eight (8) years (!) of writing about food and food history. Why, that’s 1,181 posts. Yes, there could – and should – have been more lots more, but we must take into account the time spent writing the mushroom book and other stuff.

To celebrate, I’ve decided to post a recipe a day until July 28, and not just any recipes. No, no quick tricks for the kitchen, no instant no-bake cheesecakes, sorry. Each day I will feature a small insight into American food history.

See the other days:

Day 1: Tuckahoe

Day 2: Oysters

Day 3: Chicken

Day 4: Corn

Day 5: Tomatoes

Day 6:

Day 7: Squirrel