An antebellum table: Before food was fast and take-out took over, meals were made the old-fashioned way

April 1, 2009

Jan Swoope - jswoope@cdispatch.com

 

For imaginative visitors, a stroll through the gracious antbellum dining rooms of Columbus Pilgrimage homes on tour through April 11 just may inspire romantic visions of belles, beaus and balls of a bygone era. What few of us give much thought to, however, is the fare that may have filled those sideboards and tables of old. 

 

“Everything would have been very seasonal and territorial,” said Burnette Avakian of the ingredients and main courses readily available. Burnette and her husband, NoNo, acquired Shadowlawn (circa 1849) in 2001 and have operated the Greek Revival home at 1024 College St. as a bed and breakfast since 2007. The dwelling is one of 18 homes, gardens and churches on this year’s tour.  

 

Burnette’s avid interest in period food has inspired her collection of cookbooks dating back to the 1920s, and timeworn periodicals from the 1880s and ’90s.  

 

“Even right behind our house there was a forest. This was a slough; this was the outskirts of the city,” she stated. “They often went into the woods and brought back their food. There was an abundance of wildlife out there.”  

 

Fortunately for NoNo, no hunting is required now to provide the array of 12 to 15 specialty breakfasts the Avakians alternate to treat their guests. From a kitchen adjacent to the dining room (a vast improvement for weary feet from the 1800s kitchens built separate from the house), the couple serves morning repasts ranging from Monte Cristo sandwiches to bananas Foster over French toast. No dairy cows to be milked or eggs to gather from the chicken coop. But Burnette is attuned to the challenges faced by those who cooked before her in this lovely house. 

 

Homegrown vegetable gardens, row crops and orchards, of course, played a dominant role in filling tables of the period. In season, corn, beans, sweet potatoes, turnip greens and fruits were staples. Lack of refrigeration and limited transportation for goods in the early to mid 1800s kept menus close to home.  

 

Of course, whether you dined on oysters, cornpone, hardtack or beans depended on whether you were living in the main house, working in the main house, or battling on the front lines of a divisive war — a war that would, for many of the grand old homes, end the bounty.  

 

 

 

The plantation dinner 

 

In “Plantation Sketches, “ published in 1906, the late Margaret Devereaux offers a glimpse of the typical dinner party at the family’s home on the Roanoke River in North Carolina during antebellum times: 

 

“For a dinner of 10 or 12, including ourselves, there would be a ham at the head, a large roast turkey at the foot, a quarter of boiled mutton, a round of beef a la mode and a boiled turkey stuffed with oysters. In the middle of the table would be celery in tall cut-glass stands, on the sides cranberries in molds and various kinds of pickles. With these would be served either four or six dishes of vegetables and scalloped oysters.” 

 

In less rarefied households, including those of slaves, corn and pork were staples. Food historians’ research gathered from journals, accounts and excavations suggests many slaves were encouraged to grow their own gardens. Cornmeal, yams and rice were common.  

 

 

 

The long arm 

 

James Finimore Cooper provides another take on early 19th century cuisine in “The American Democrat” (1838). The novelist observed that grease, even then, was plentiful in American kitchens. Spices were available but were often expensive and rarely used as habit. “Thus, food tended to be bland. Imagination was infrequently applied to meal planning, so meals lacked variety.” 

 

He also noted that Americans generally ate “quickly and in sloppy fashion.” Since all the food was placed on the table at the same time, the person who ate fastest — or had the longest or pushiest arm — received the most food. 

 

Meals often consisted of beef, eggs, hot biscuits, corn bread, hot cakes, porridge and seasonal vegetables and fruits. Coffee, tea, water or cocoa were consumed in “large quantities.” Whiskey, inexpensive and readily available, was the most popular alcoholic beverage, Cooper recorded, especially in the South and West.  

 

 

 

Research resources 

 

More illuminating glimpses into the culinary culture of antebellum America are easy to find online. A search for “Civil War food” or “antebellum food” will take you to sites like www.foodtimeline.org or www.historycentral.com. 

 

Today’s cooks would never give up the staggering variety of foods available to us now from all over the world — not to mention our modern appliances — to toil over an open fire or primitive stove in a separate kitchen house. But, almost two centuries after some of the folks who dined in homes we visit on Pilgrimage today transformed Columbus from a river trading post to a thriving town, many of the recipes remain. A few are included below. They remind us of a time when the link between nature and nourishment was often just as close as what grew or roamed outside the back door.  

 

 

 

Apple Fritters 

 

Two apples, peeled and diced 

 

1/2 cup water 

 

Two eggs 

 

1 cup milk 

 

2 cups sifted all-purpose flour 

 

1/2 cup sugar 

 

1/4 teaspoon salt 

 

1 tablespoon lemon juice 

 

1 teaspoon lemon rind 

 

Shortening 

 

Confectioners’ sugar 

 

Nutmeg 

 

 

 

Source: “Recipes of Ante Bellum America,” by Helen Claire Duprey Bullock (Heirloom, 1967). (This original recipe was adapted to include sugar.)



 

 

 

 

Dutch salad 

 

One head of lettuce 

 

1/4 teaspoon salt 

 

Dash of cayenne pepper 

 

1 tablespoon butter 

 

3/4 cup cooked ham, diced 

 

3 tablespoons wine vinegar 

 

2 tablespoons water 

 




 

 

 

 

Onions and apples 

 

1 quart of water  

 

1/2 pound salt pork  

 

Four tart, green apples  

 

two large onions  

 

 

 

Source: Contributed by Civil War reenactors on http://www.angelfire.com 

 

 

 

Artificial oysters 

 

 

 

Source: “Confederate Receipt Book, A Compilation of Over One Hundred Receipts Adapted to the Times,” (1863) 

 

 

 

Southern Johnnie cake 

 

2 cups cornmeal 

 

2/3 cup milk 

 

2 tablespoons vegetable oil (lard) 

 

2 teaspoons baking soda 

 

1/2 teaspoon salt  

 

 

 

Source: “Mason-Dixon Line’s Civil War Recipes,” www.geocities.c

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.