Imagine being so hungry, you’d rummage in a field or ditch for prickly thistle, dock or dandelions to cook down like greens.
By the end of the Civil War in 1865, that’s what the majority of Confederates, including those on the home front, were doing. Farmland had become battlefields, laborers were gone, and people fled to areas believed safe from invasion. That caused food shortages in those areas.
In conjunction with its current exhibit, “When the Cannons Fell Silent: Sesquicentennial of the End of the Civil War,” which runs through Aug. 16, the West Baton Rouge Parish Museum recently held a cooking class, “Civil War Ends: Cooking What We Can Find.”
Linda Collins, the museum’s education program associate, and Gayle Smith, who describes herself as an historic foodways enthusiast, demonstrated how hungry Southerners survived by finding substitutions for common foods.
Collins said thistle is “kind of like celery,” and dock, a flat-leaved ditch green, “is good to eat when it is young. When it’s older, it’s too bitter. Its seeds can be used to make flour and the roots can be used for medicinal purposes or flour.” Rub the leaves to keep gnats off and “it’s very good for cleansing the system. You need to strip the leaves from the stem when cooking.”
She explained that dock should be cooked in boiling water, the water cast off and then boiled again “to get the bitterness and toxicity out. Do that three times.”
The women said corn pone, a Southern cornbread made with white cornmeal and water, was a staple for slaves and “after the war, for everyone.”
Acorns, dandelion roots and dock were used as substitutes for flour, and leavenings were made by scorching red corn cobs. In areas where rice was grown, rice flour became common.
Many Southerners had no meat, while others were able to substitute wild game, fish and eggs.
In Louisiana, there was a shortage of hooks, lines, seines and traps, making it difficult to fish off the coast during the war, Smith and Collins said.
At the beginning of the war, people prepared thick squirrel or rabbit stew, Collins said. “By the end of the war, cooks were adding more water to stretch — so it was called soup.”
A lack of salt, which was used as a preservative, led to much of the meat shortage, they said. Cooking oil was made from the seeds of sunflowers, and after the Union troops took control of New Orleans in 1862, the sugar supply dried up.
Of all the food shortages, coffee was the most missed, Collins and Smith told the class. People tried many substitutes, from parched corn and okra seeds to chicory and acorns. The acorns were shelled, boiled, then slow roasted and ground.
“Acorn coffee has a greasy, oily taste. Coffee made from sweet potato is sweeter” and was more popular, Collins said. Sweet potato chunks were dried in the sun until brown and then ground.
Southerners also found substitutes for tea, such as holly leaves, blackberry leaves and dried mint. Wood sorrels, brambles, day lily and common elderberry also were eaten.
When class participants wrinkled their noses as they tasted Confederate coffee, ersatz tea and wild greens, Smith noted, “When you’re hungry, you’ll eat anything.”