This isn’t your grandmother’s cooking … or your great-grandmother’s. But great-great-grandmother likely cooked food during the Civil War, and you can taste food that Maine soldiers would have known in that era as the Bangor Museum and History Center publishes “The Sanitary Fair Cookbook Bangor 1864.”
The United States Sanitary Commission was established to improve the wretched conditions that wounded or sick Union soldiers encountered at military hospitals. Cleanliness was not next to godliness circa 1862-1863; often finding badly wounded soldiers hospitalized in unsanitary conditions, civilians banded together to help those p[oor men.
Established in 1862, “the Bangor Sanitary Commission … sent a lot of supplies to the [Maine] soldiers,” said BMHC Executive Director Jennifer Pictou. “They made blankets. They made towels, quilts. They sent wine, brandy, whiskey — always very important in war — jellies, and pickles, things that would make the trip” to Virginia or other southern states where Maine units were stationed.
According to Pictou, “the Bangor Sanitary Commission also held fund raisers” to purchase supplies needed by Maine soldiers. During a three-day Ladies’ Fair held in December 1864, the Bangor Sanitary Commission raised $15,000, “equivalent to about $220,000 today,” Pictou said.
Throughout the three days “they had dinners. They had items for auction. And they sold food. There was a lot of food, a lot of jellies, a lot of cakes, a lot of creams, a lot of different types of foods,” she said.
One unidentified woman painstakingly “wrote down all of the recipes that were sold at the Sanitary [Commission] fair. The collection of recipes found its way into a little book that is about 4 inches long by about 6 inches high. The opening page says, ‘Sanitary Fair Cookbook Bangor 1864,'” Pictou said.
Soon after its compilation, “this book was lost to time,” she said. Then an envelope postmarked “Palos Verdes, Calif.” arrived in the Bangor Historical Society’s mailbox in 1967; inside the envelope was the original 1864 Sanitary Fair cookbook.
“This has been sitting in our collections for well over 40 years,” Pictou said.
Last May the Bangor Museum and History Center unveiled an exhibit titled “Women in War: 1861-1865.” The exhibit, which will run through next March 30, highlights the roles played by various Bangor women during the Civil War.
“In honor of the women that we are talking about with our exhibit, we decided that we would republish” the 1864 cookbook “this year,” Pictou said.
The cookbook “includes original handwritten recipes from the original book. It includes transcriptions, modern updates and nutritional information provided by Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen and Laurel McFarland,” she said.
“It also includes images and wisdom collected from Bangor kitchen over the [Civil War] years,” Pictou said. “We’re trying to keep it to the Civil War era, so anything you read in it will be from that era.
“It’s a real neat step back in time,” she said.
Before the BMHC could publish the 1864 cookbook, Laurel McFarland volunteered to “update it for the modern cook.” She represents the Bangor-based Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen.
“A lot of the recipes were interesting because they were missing a lot of things that are found in traditional recipes today,” McFarland said.
“They don’t tell you the temperature to put the oven at, because it was a wood stove; there wasn’t a temperature,” she explained. “They don’t tell you a [cooking] time, because it depends on how hot your oven is; you just cook things until they’re done.”
Spending “a little over a month” recreating the book’s 99 recipes, McFarland “tested them and made sure the amounts made sense. It was interesting.”
She mentioned one recipe that called for “‘flour to make it stiff enough as pound cake.’ A modern cook doesn’t quite know, ‘How much flour is that exactly?’ That’s what I had to find out.”
Most recipes involve “baked goods and then pies and things like that, mostly just baked goods: a few breads, cakes, puddings, steamed puddings,” McFarland said. “I think the majority of the cake recipes are very easy for the modern cook.
“The amount of savory recipes are very, very few,” she commented. The book has “very few recipes with meat, but there is one recipe that is a lobster salad.”
One particular recipe challenged McFarland. “It’s called ‘quick puddings.’ I would look at the recipe, and I just wouldn’t understand how it would work,” she said. “It was milk and eggs and a few tablespoons full of flour. You’re supposed to bake it for 15 minutes, and it becomes a pudding consistency.
“But I was going through old cookbooks, and I had a wonderful cookbook from 1930,” McFarland recalled. “It talked about similar puddings. The flour kind of rises to the top, and it does become a pudding. I followed her instructions to the letter, and I was able to be successful with it. You flavor it with extract. It’s not sweet. You serve it with sugar.”
Among the other recipes that McFarland recreated were “a recipe for making 600 pickles” and a recipe incorporating “kind of a liquid yeast that people would make for themselves. It’s made with hops and potatoes and a little bit of flour.
“That’s a little more complicated to replicate, but it’s certainly very doable,” she said.
McFarland discovered some “yummy” recipes, including a wedding cake that “was great because of the way it smelled.
“The savory recipes, the meat recipes, were a lot of fun because the tastes were different than what we’re used to, but were still very good,” McFarland said. “There’s a veal loaf that is very heavily spiced with salt and pepper and nutmeg. It’s very different from the meatloaf that I’m accustomed to, which is tomato-based and on the sweeter side. It was very good.”
Each “The Bangor Sanitary Fair Cookbook Bangor 1864” costs $12.00. A commemorative bamboo baking spoon costs $4.00, but the cookbook and spoon can be purchased together for $15.00.
To place an order, call the BMHC at (207) 942-1900 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.