Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Brown Flour Soup, Sauerkraut And Humble Pie

A little recipe book I bought at some historic site has sat on my kitchen shelf for years.  Now that I’m researching the Civil War and my Confederate ancestors for a book, I decided it was time to cook an 1860s supper. I consulted the Blue & Grey Cookery: Authentic Recipes from The Civil War Years and determined a menu: brown flour soup, pork with sauerkraut, “rosten ears” of corn and blackberry mush. 

What I hadn’t planned to eat was humble pie*, but by the time I finished cooking a so-called "war supper," I had to consume it for dessert. My story goes like this:
Let’s start with the brown flour soup. This first course sounded like what a deprived soldier might have eaten.  I browned some flour in a melted  “piece of butter,” added water and an egg, then seasoned with salt and pepper. I offered a bowl to my husband Barry.

“It tastes like food, I guess,” he said hesitantly after sampling the oatmeal-like porridge. “Guess if you didn’t have anything else to eat …”

I dumped it down the In-Sink-Erator™.

Simply discarding unpalatable food was a luxury my ancestors couldn't afford. I've been blogging for six months now about four ancestral brothers from Randolph County, North Carolina, who fought for the Confederacy and their father, Joseph Welborn, who opposed secession. Among the war-era letters from them in my possession is one from David Lindsay Welborn.  David, the ninth child among ten children, wrote to Joseph soon after he was assigned to an ironclad gunship patrolling the James River near Richmond, Virginia, in 1864.
Dear Father
. . . i get a plenty to eate sutch as it is . . .

A portion of a letter
from David L. Welborn, 1864.
A descendant punched holes
in the letter to place it in a notebook.
On to the main dish: pork and sauerkraut. I had vetoed “hog maw,” which consisted of vegetables, sausage and seasonings stuffed into a pig’s stomach. I excused my lack of chutzpah and chose to serve pork tenderloin that I bought at Publix. I smothered the tenderloin with canned, “barrel cured” sauerkraut and popped it into the oven. Barry went to the deck and threw two ears of corn onto the gas-fired grill.

The Civil War cookbook stated that sauerkraut took center stage on soldiers’ menus because it staved off the troublesome disease, scurvy.  Authentic sauerkraut consisted of shredded and pounded cabbage, covered with salt and layered between damp cloths in an earthen crock. It took weeks to cure. I thought how lucky my ancestor Robert McFarland Welborn, drafted at seventeen into the North Carolina Junior Reserves, would have been to have sauerkraut with his pork maw.

17  August  1864

Dear Father
. . . we get one pint of corn meal and it not sifted and hardly ground    the grains is cracked    we often find whole grains    we get one bit of hard meat a day . . . i would like to be at home to eat beans and soft meat. . .
                                                                                                                    Your son R.M. Welborn
To end our Civil War meal, I whipped up blackberry mush. I chose this dish for sentimental reasons; blackberries grew wild in the backyard of my childhood home. The recipe called for boiling the berries in water then adding sugar and vanilla.  But gosh darnit, wouldn’t a Pillsbury pastry crust and vanilla ice cream make it just perfect?

After supper I felt sated and smug, and then, guilty. I had utterly failed at preparing an authentic Civil War meal. 

December 1864    Ritchmond

Dear father

. . . it is harde times here and worse acoming   I fear we git a little bred and a little beaf twice a day    we ar  a bout half starved here. . . 

As I reread the letter from ancestor William Lane Welborn, written during the last gasps of a crumbling Confederacy, shame exacerbated my guilt. Here I was in our well-equipped kitchen with a brimming pantry and an delicacy-filled grocery store a mile away, yet I, fair and balanced purveyor of truth, feigned hardship to indulge a whim.

I owed my ancestors — and all the Civil War veterans who fought, whether in blue or gray — an apology. Pass the humble pie.

* Humble pie” has come to mean a figurative serving of humiliation, usually in the form of a forced submission, apology or retraction. The expression derives from umble pie, which was a pie filled with liver, heart and other offal from a cow, deer or boar. The popularity of umble pie among 15th and 16th-century commoners in Britain gave rise to the expression "eating humble pie.”