The Confederate Housewife: Receipts & Remedies, Together with Sundry Suggestions for Garden, Farm & Plantation by John Hammond Moore (Summerhouse P, 1997)
"There are four things that look very awkward in a woman, viz: To see her undertake to whistle, throw a stone at a hog, smoke a cigar, and climb over a garden fence.
--Southern Cultivator, May-June 1863" (94)
Assigned as a required text in one of my college courses, this book may have been my first academic experience with food cultures and their stories. It was certainly the first time I spent any sustained mental energies on the ways food, women’s work in the home, and a cultural identity were entwined activities.
The book contains innumerable recipes and wives’ tales, often in the vague language that my elders use when describing how to make a family favorite: amounts are often estimates. Several recipes include suggestions for wartime substitutions. There’s even a “Virginia Stew” that would weed out traitors: “If, after a fair trial, you pronounce this an unpalatable dish, then your loyalty to the Southern Confederacy ought to be questioned.—Southern Recorder, September 2, 1862” (52).
Other household tips are included, like how to tell a horse’s age by counting its wrinkles (133), how to make shoes from squirrel skins (140), how to make soap from various materials (77-78), how to preserve corpses to disguise the odor (119), and how to cure cancer three different ways (100). [Hint: it would be a good idea to have plenty of turkey figs, sheep sorel juice, and dock root lying around.]
And let’s not overlook timeless advice, like “TO KEEP MEAT FROM SPOILING IN SUMMER. Eat it early in the spring.—Confederate States Almanac, 1865” (55).
Hammond conducted a great deal of archival work to compile these recipes and tips from various periodicals published during the Civil War, focusing on South Carolina and Georgia. He includes a brief introduction explaining his motivation, but there’s not much apparatus; the book presents as a household manual for women of the Confederacy.
Hammond’s compilation of advice for homemakers reads pretty authentically, without any retrospective sensitivity to the role that slavery played in maintaining these homes and plantations. That reality is acknowledged almost accidentally at times, including the admission in the introduction that the reader would find few recipes for barbecue in the book: “Slaves did the cooking; and, as with sliced cucumbers and garden salads, there was little reason to record a recipe, if indeed any existed” (14). Advice concerning slaves is collected in the chapter called “Care of Fowls, Animals & Property” (120-144). If read as a primary source, with an eye for analyzing such references, the collection acts as a curio. However, as the book was compiled with an editorial eye, with items selected from various period publications, a word about the selection and omission of advice about proper ways to own other humans seems warranted.
What strikes me now, as I review this 21 year-old book of 150+-year old advice, is the significant amount of power women wielded then (and now). If we can take this book out of its political context for just a moment, and see it not as a totem of adoration but an artifact of historical record, we can see that women were presumed to have a great impact on the domestic sphere and – via that impact – upon the culture they identified as their own. Gaston Bachelard acknowledges “women’s construction of the house through daily polishing” (The Poetics of Space, 69), and by extension, with the house as a site of cultural production (á la Lefebvre and De Certeau), women’s daily activities defined a national identity. These recipes and remedies reveal priorities, worldviews, and class structures, and they remind us that though our kitchens may be small (I’ll speak for myself, here, and my tiny Queens closet of a kitchen), they serve as a portal through which the world may enter our homes and – conversely – we may leave a mark on the world.