Today when we want fresh vegetables in the middle of the winter we need go no further than our local grocery. During the Civil War, it wasn’t so easy. In the next series of posts, I will be examining how foods were preserved in the 1860s.
Air and heat drying is one of the oldest means of preserving food. In hot sunny climates almost anything can be left out in the sun and dry effectively. Dried fruits, in particular, were commonly used during the Civil War period. Dried raisins (grapes), currants, cherries, and dried apples are all found as ingredients in the 1858 National Cookbook by Hannah Peterson.
However, probably the most famous example of dried food from the period was desiccated vegetables or what the soldiers called “desecrated” vegetables.
In 1860 The American Journal of Medical Sciences (p. 331) describes the benefit of serving these to the soldiers.
“The introduction of the “desiccated vegetables” into the military service has been of incalculable advantage in the prevention of scorbutus. When the scorbutie cachexy is well established, the desiccated vegetables are not so efficacious in the cure as fresh vegetables; yet, in situations where the latter cannot be procured, are indispensable. Of the two kinds issued by the commissary department—the “mixed vegetable” and the “desiccated potato”—the latter is preferable, as well for the prevention as for the cure of scurvy.”
George Shrady in Volume 2 of the 1861 American Medical Times (p. 148) goes so far as to say:
“The man who ignores the necessity of supplying bodies of men with the needed amount of fresh vegetables, or in default of these, with ample supplies of desiccated vegetables, and other well known antiscorbutics, is unfit to command an army …”
But what exactly were these vegetables and how were they made? Ettienne Masson of Place St. Michel at Paris is credited with perfecting the preservation of vegetables through a combination of drying and pressing. The process is described in the 1852 edition of Newton’s London Journal of Arts and Sciences (p. 28) as follows:
This invention relates to the preparation of those descriptions of vegetable alimentary substances which are obtained or gathered in a green succulent or moist state, such as leaves, fruits, roots, and some descriptions of unripe seeds, as distinguished from those which are obtained in a dry state, such as ripe wheat or other ripe grain. It is applicable to a great variety of vegetable substances, and amongst others to cabbages, cauliflowers, spinach, sorrel, and green vegetables generally, carrots, turnips, beet-root, asparagus, French beans, peas, potatoes, apples, pears, cucumbers, melons, mushrooms, truffles, and many others…The general method of proceeding consists in drying the substances, at a moderate temperature, and compressing them into hard solid masses or cakes; in which state they may be preserved for a great length of time, enclosed in suitable cases; and, when required for use, they are moistened or soaked in water, and then cooked in the ordinary manner, or used without cooking, according to their nature. The means employed to produce the desiccation consists, generally, in the application of artificial heat, obtained by hot air, steam, or hot water, or by currents of hot air…The temperature, generally employed, varies from 75° to 145° Fahr., and it is found that cabbage leaves are dried in from 20 to 30 hours; but the patentee does not confine himself to those particular temperatures and times; asthe same will vary considerably, according to circumstances…The vegetable sub- stances, thus dried, are next submitted to a strong pressure, by means of an hydraulic press, so as to reduce them to the form of hard dry flat cakes, which are then enveloped in tin- foil, and packed in air-tight cases of tin or zinc. In place of an hydraulic press, a screw or other press may be employed; or heavy weights may be used; or the substances may be passed £ a pair of rollers; or any other similar means may be employed to forcibly compress them…By these means, a large quantity of vegetable substance is obtained in a very small weight and space, adapted for the provisioning of ships and armies, and similar purposes. At the same time, the hard solid mature of the cakes prevents the free access of air to the interior, even when the cakes are partially exposed to the air. The mode of using the vegetable substances, thus prepared, consists in moistening or steeping them in tepid water for 30 or 40 minutes, and then employing them in the same manner as fresh vegetables. It is convenient to form the cakes with grooves in them, to facilitate their separation into rations. This is done by forming corresponding projections or indentations on the plates of the press or dies, or on the rolls employed in compressing them.
First used in the Crimean War, armies soon found that desiccated vegetables were a useful way to supply troops in the field. By 1864, several companies were producing them in the United States. The 56th State Assembly of Ohio wrote the following in their Annual Reports for 1864:
The American Desiccating Company of New York, (50 South Street) have works at Williamsburg and Newburg, N. Y., and are able at present to turn out of this kind of food, 150,000 pounds per month, and by spring could increase their capacity to 200,000 pounds per month. 150,000 pounds per month is 5,000 pounds per day, which is sufficient for 20,000 daily rations. 200,000 pounds per month is 6,66G§ pounds per day, which is sufficient for 20,000 daily rations. This would probably be sufficient to supply the army for the present, while engaged in active campaigns. If not, other works could be soon constructed for the purpose which could furnish the desired supply.
The desiccated vegetables met a mixed reaction from the soldiers. Called baled hay or sanitary fodder, the substance was put a wide variety of uses. James Brookes quotes E. N. Gilpin of the 3rd Iowa Cavalry: “We have boiled, baked, fried, stewed, pickled, sweetened, salted it, and tried it in puddings, cakes and pies; but it sets all modes of cooking at defiance, so they boys break it up and smoke it in their pipes!”
Whatever they thought, one thing is certain, desiccated vegetables never became overly popular as regular dining fare. Nevertheless, they still exist. You can find them in dried soups, processed food of all types, camping supplies, and food for astronauts, but with a new name: dehydrated vegetables.
What are your favorite dehydrated vegetables?