I have always wondered whether hardtack, the food staple that Union soldiers called jawbreakers and worm castles, was really all that bad. Historian William C. "Jack" Davis has tried to answer that question in two books on what Civil War soldiers ate and what they had to say about it.
Hardtack, a tough, flat, bland cracker, was often cursed. It became the subject of poems and songs. On a long march, it was often the only food available.
The three-inch squares, turned out by the millions under government contract at assorted bakeries, were made of flour, water and salt. Some of the men tried to alter their rock-hard consistency by smashing them with rifle butts and mixing in river water to make a mush. If a frying pan was available, the mush could be cooked into a lumpy pancake. If not, it was dropped directly on campfire coals.
For dessert, hardtack was sometimes crumbled with brown sugar and hot water. If whiskey was available, that was added. The resulting dish was called a pudding.
The cracker appears to have earned the name "hardtack" during the Civil War, but the military staple had been around for many years. In earlier wars, it was called "hard bread" and "army bread."
Hardtack often arrived at a Union camp riddled with worms if it had been carelessly stored. Davis said it was often left out in the open in huge piles, where flies and other insects would lay eggs. By the time a soldier got his allotment, chances were good that it was wormy.
Davis, in his 2003 book, "A Taste for War: A Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray," relates several accounts of soldiers and their encounters with worm-ridden food.
"A New England soldier advised that the crackers be soaked in coffee first -- some said six weeks was long enough -- and then laid on a plate, taking care not to shake the worms out. 'They eat better than they look,' he said, 'and are so much clear gain in the way of fresh meat.' "
During the siege of Richmond, some soldiers who cracked the hardtack open to find it teeming with worms were disgusted and threw the crackers into the bottom of the earthen trenches they occupied. An officer of the day yelled at the men, asking whether they hadn't been told repeatedly not to throw the hardtack into the trenches.
Back came the reply, "We've thrown it out two or three times, sir, but it crawls back."
In an earlier book by Davis, "Civil War Cookbook," reissued by Running Press last year, hardtack and other camp fare are illustrated with studio-quality pictures that make army cooking look appealing. But Davis's research in both books makes it clear that sanitation was generally disregarded, and that solders pressed into duty as camp cooks often prepared inedible food that led to severe intestinal illness.
At the time, most American men weren't supposed to know about cooking. When the war ended, few who had learned to cook ever did so again.
In "A Taste for War," Davis includes a recipe for hardtack.
"Mix 5 cups of flour to 1 cup of water containing a 1/2-tablespoon of salt. Knead into a dough and roll out to 3/8-inch thickness. Cut into approximately 3-inch squares and pierce each with a fork or ice pick several times. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes or until slightly brown."
I made a batch to see how bad is bad. I used what I had on hand: Gold Medal all-purpose flour, Food Lion iodized salt and well water. Mixing was the easy part. The kneading took about 20 minutes, with repeated folding and pressing until it all clung together.
Lacking a bread board, I used a counter top sprinkled with flour.
I didn't have a rolling pin, so a bottle of California cabernet sauvignon was substituted.
I cut the oddly shaped, rolled dough into a square and then cut that into three-inch pieces. Each got pricked with a fork several times.
Thirty minutes was about right. Fresh from the oven, it was easily broken and tasted warm and bland.
An hour later, I couldn't break it, and the taste was cold and bland.
As tasters, dogs are usually a good panel. The German shepherd in my household sniffed a cracker, quickly turned her head away and moved toward the door. The Newfoundland tried to look interested. He gummed it and then spat it on the floor.
However, I am inspired and plan to make up several more batches as a special Christmas gift, concealed in colorful holiday cookie tins, for friends who share my enthusiasm for the Civil War.
Linda Wheeler can be reached at 540-465-8934 or firstname.lastname@example.org.