Tuber Time:
The Potato During the Civil War


They call it the Columbian Exchange, the great migration of products, principally foods, which began to go back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean after the first European contacts with what they called the New World. While other products from tobacco to wheat have had dramatic impacts on both sides, few can match the record of the humble potato.

Early settlers sought out anything they could find to ship home to make a profit for those who had put up the money to finance their colonies. Some things caught on quickly--tobacco, for one, was popular enough to be condemned by health nuts like King James of England as early as 1604. The potato took a little longer to catch on.

The tubers apparently came first to Spain where, for once, it was decided to give them some investigation rather than just start chowing down. This was motivated in part by a rumor that the plant was something of an aphrodisiac, apparently because the Incas of Peru used the vegetable to ease childbirth as well as to treat wounds and injuries. Natural philosophers (as scientists were known at the time) and religious zealots alike felt that there was enough natural impulse to procreation already present in the population, and the invention of Viagra could await a later day.

What potatoes did contain, however, was not only vastly more important than mythical sex stimulants but explained the Peruvian customs quite well: the potato is, it turns out, loaded with Vitamin C. The main staples of the European diet at the time, wheat and barley and such, contain none at all. (Citrus fruits, being imported except in the far south, were available only to the royal or otherwise rich.)

Besides the vitamin content, which would not come into the realm of scientific understanding for some centuries yet, the potato is high in protein (unlike the other staple American food, maize) and minerals. As it came out of what passed for laboratories in those days and into larger cultivation, the potato was first fed to livestock. People were still a bit skeptical of it. It was a relative of the tomato, the morning glory (which its flowers greatly resemble) and the deadly nightshade.

Before long it was noted that the pigs to which the potatoes were fed persisted in thriving. People eating the pigs were likewise unharmed, so the matter proceeded to its logical conclusion. Famed economist Adam Smith ran the numbers:

"The food produced by a field of potatoes is not inferior in quantity to that produced by a field of rice, and much superior to what is produced by a field of wheat. Twelve thousand weight of potatoes from an acre of land is not a greater produce than two thousand weight of wheat. The food or solid nourishment, indeed, which can be drawn from each of those two plants, is not altogether in proportion to their weight, on account of the watery nature of potatoes. Allowing, however, half the weight of this root to go to water, a very large allowance, such an acre of potatoes will still produce six thousand weight of solid nourishment, three times the quantity produced by the acre of wheat."

Potatoes were also a whacking lot easier to raise. Take a few from the year previous. Cut them up, making sure that each chunk contains an eye, which is usually easy enough to determine since by spring they will probably be sprouting. Hoe out a row, or heap a hill, and plant. They promptly begin to grow and cover the surrounding area with leafy vines, the leaves of which discourage weeds from growing up in the patch.

Similarly, they are easier to consume. Wheat must be harvested, then the grain separated from the stalk and head, then the resulting nuggets must be ground into flour either by hand or a complicated mill. At this point you are left with flour, which must then go through more complicated proceedings to be turned into edible material such as bread. A potato needs only to be dug up from the ground and can, if need be, then simply eaten out of hand. Further processing as simple as placing it in hot ashes in the fireplace elevates it to the level of elegance.

Come back in the fall and dig them up, and you're set for another winter. They can, should need arise, be dug up at earlier stages as well. While such "new potatoes" will be quite small, they compensate by being tender and flavorful, and just as nutritious as their older counterparts. They can even be left in the ground and dug up a few at a time as needed if the winter climate is mild enough, although too much rain or a hard freeze will damage them and lead to rot.

So we have our potatoes planted, raised and harvested. What now?

Before we get down to the recipes, there are still some care-and-feeding considerations to keep in mind. Potatoes should not be exposed to sunlight either before harvest (sometimes rain will wash soil away and leave potatoes exposed above ground) or after. This will usually indicate itself by the potato turning green. Remember the early fears that potatoes were poisonous? They weren't entirely wrong....but the problem is solved by cutting off the green parts, and prevented by treating a potato like a powerful politician treats you: keep it entirely in the dark as much as possible.

Many of the varieties of potatoes we take for granted today were not developed until after the Civil War. The best known is often called simply the "Idaho potato" thanks to the ceaseless efforts of the Idaho Potato Marketing Board. It is more technically termed the Russet Burbank as it was developed by the famed botanist Luther Burbank in 1872.

While we are not yet back to the diversity enjoyed by the Incas, who are said to have had thousands of different varieties of potatoes, things are at least improving. In the Civil War period we see pretty much the basic white (large, often called "Irish") and red (small, often called "new") potato. (The entire subject of sweet potatoes and yams, which are different species both from the white and from each other, will be left to another time.)


[All recipes until noted otherwise are from The Cook's Oracle, and Housekeeper's Manual, by Dr. William Kitchiner M. D., published New York, 1832. Items in (parenthesis) were put there by the original author; items in [brackets] are added by your humble modern compiler.]

Potato, alone and naked


Wash them, but do not pare [peel] or cut them, unless they are very large. Fill a sauce-pan half full of potatoes of equal size (or make them so by dividing the larger ones), put to them as much cold water as will cover them about an inch: they are sooner boiled, and more savoury, than when drowned in water. Most boiled things are spoiled by having too little water, but potatoes are often spoiled by too much: they must merely be covered, and a little allowed for waste in boiling, so that they may be just covered at the finish.

Set them on a moderate fire till they boil; then take them off, and put them by the side of the fire to simmer slowly till they are soft enough to admit a fork (place no dependence on the usual test of their skins' cracking, which, if they are boiled fast, will happen to some potatoes when they are not half done, and the insides quite hard.) Then pour the water off (if you let the potatoes remain in the water a moment after they are done enough, they will become waxy and watery), uncover the sauce-pan, and set it at such a distance from the fire as will secure it from burning; their superfluous moisture will evaporate, and the potatoes will be perfectly dry and mealy.

You may afterward place a napkin, folded up to the size of the sauce-pan's diameter, over the potatoes, to keep them hot and mealy till wanted.

Potatoes, cold and fried

Put a bit of clean dripping [fat left over from meat previously baked or roasted] into a frying-pan; when it is melted, slice in your potatoes with a little pepper and salt; put them on the fire; keep stirring them; when they are quite hot, they are ready.

Potatoes fried in Slices or Rounds

Peel large potatoes; slice them about a quarter of an inch thick, or cut them in shavings round and round, as you would peel a lemon [or apple]; dry them well in a clean cloth, and fry them in lard or dripping. Take care that your fat and frying-pan are quite clean; put it on a quick [hot] fire, watch it, and as soon as the lard boils, and is still, put in the slices of potato, and keep moving them till they are crisp. Take them up, and lay them to drain on a sieve; send them up with a very little salt sprinkled over them.

As mentioned above, this recipes was printed in the US in 1832, and was an admitted reprint/rewrite of an English cookbook of an even earlier date. This recipe for fried potato "shavings" we consider an obvious precursor of potato chips if not the exact item itself. Claims that the product originated in Saratoga NY in 1853 may be looked at with appropriate skepticism.

Now we have citations of potatoes sliced into very thin strips and fried. These we now call "potato chips." We have further examples of them sliced into thicker circles and fried, which we call, um, "fried potatoes." What we seem to be lacking is a final geometric development, potatoes cut into long thin rectangles and fried, which we call "French fries." Unless we are French in which case we call them "pommes frites" or "fried potatoes" which is straightforward enough. (Actually that means "fried apples" as in French the potato is known as a "pomme de la terre" or "apple of the earth." Your linguistic lesson du jour, as it were.

What we do not call them is "food of the Civil War era." So onward we go.

Potatoes roasted

Wash and dry your potatoes (all of a size), and put them in a tin Dutch oven, or cheese-toaster: take care not to put them too near the fire, or they will get burned on the outside before they are warmed through. Large potatoes will require two hour to roast them. N. B.: To save time and trouble, some cooks half boil them first.

Potatoes smothered in various substances

Potatoes mashed

When your potatoes are thoroughly boiled, drain them quite dry, pick out every speck, &c., and while hot, rub them through a colander into a clean stew-pan. To a pound of potatoes put about half an ounce of butter, and a table-spoonful of milk: do not make them too moist, ; mix them well together. After Lady-day [note: March 25, one of the traditional "quarter days" of the English calendar], when the potatoes are getting old and specky, and in frosty weather, this is the best way of dressing them. You may put them into shapes or small tea-cups; egg them with yelk of egg, and brown them very slightly before a slow fire.

The reference to "Lady-day" means that the potatoes in question are ones left over from the previous fall's harvest. Perhaps the greatest difference in cuisine from the 19th century and that of today is how cheap transportation has lessened the influence of the calendar on the availability of food. It comes as a shocking and unusual event for the price of tomatoes to skyrocket because a hurricane the previous fall wiped out the plants which would in normal years have been shipped from fields in Florida to the rest of the country. In the Civil War era, one had better have canned enough tomatoes to get one through the winter and spring, or one was, we mean "simply", out of luck.

Potatoes mashed with Onions

Prepare some boiled onions by putting them through a sieve, and mix them with potatoes. In proportioning the onions to the potatoes, you will be guided by your wish to have more or less of their flavour.

(Nobody likes a smartass, Dr. Kitchiner. )

Colcannon (mashed potatoes with spinach)

Boil potatoes and greens, or spinage, separately; mash the potatoes, squeeze the greens dry; chop them quite fine and mix them with the potatoes, with a little butter, pepper and salt; put it into a mould, buttering it well first; let it stand in a hot oven for ten minutes.

This recipe seems to have fallen pretty universally out of favor. The closest item we can find mention of today, also known as colcannon, calls for cabbage rather than spinach, and may involve additions of kale, leeks or other oniony items, as well as ham, tongue or other meats.

Potato Balls

Mix mashed potatoes with the yelk of an egg; roll them into balls; flour them, or egg and bread-crumb them; and fry them in clean drippings, or brown them in a Dutch oven.

A brief note on Dr. Kitchiner's spelling: the superfluous "U" in his "flavour," "savour(y)" &c., reflect the fact that he is simply rewriting an English book, where such spellings were, and are to this day, considered correct. Even in the US they are correct for the period although a tad obsolete. "Yelk" for the yolk of an egg falls into much the same category although the current spelling is also used in much older sources. Spelling was simply not as standardized then as it is today.

"Specky" on the other hand is just a lovely word, apparently now completely obsolete in this usage. It means something that has specks on it, or an imperfection larger than a mote but not big enough to render the whole potato unusable. This is unrelated to a term in Australian rules football which we would explain if it were not so hopelessly off our topic here.

Potato Balls Ragout

Are made by adding to a pound of potatoes a quarter of a pound of grated ham, or some sweet herbs, or chopped parsley, an onion or eschalot, salt, pepper, and a little grated nutmeg or other spice, with the yelk of a couple of eggs: then are then to be dressed as [Potato Balls, above.]

Potatoes and Meat

Beef Cakes (Miss Leslie's Directions for Cookery, 1851)

Take some cold roast beef that has been under-done, and mince it very fine. Mix with it grated bread crumbs, and a little chopped onion and parsley. Season it with pepper and salt, and moisten it with some beef-dripping and a little walnut or onion pickle. Some scraped cold tongue or ham will be found an improvement. Make it into bread flat cakes, and spread a coat of mashed potato thinly on the top and bottom of each. Lay a small bit of butter on the top of every cake, and set them in an oven to warm and brown. Beef cakes are frequently a breakfast dish.

You know, a restaurant that often had leftover patties of finely minced cold roast beef, and leftover quantities of previously prepared potatoes, could probably come out with this recipe as a completely original new creation and make a fortune, the market being as overcrowded and desperate for innovation as it is. We ask a mere 5% licensing fee, and request that negotiations be done through our legal department.

Other Peculiar Things People Used to Do With Potatoes

Potato Cheese (from Mrs. Child's American Frugal Housewife, 1833)

Potato cheese is much sought after in various parts of Europe. I do not know whether it is worth seeking after or not. The following is the receipt for making:--Select good white potatoes, boil them, and, when cold, peel and reduce them to a pulp with a rasp or mortar; to five pounds of this pulp, which must be very uniform and homogeneous, add a pint of sour milk and the requisite portion of salt; knead the whole well, cover it, and let it remain three or four days, according to the season; then knead it afresh, and place the cheeses in small baskets, when they will part with their superfluous moisture; dry them in the shade, and place them in layers in large pots or kegs, where they may remain a fortnight. The older they are, the finer they become.

This cheese has the advantage of never engendering worms, and of being preserved fresh for many years, provided it is kept in a dry place, and in well closed vessels.

Wow, Lydia, you think you could make this sound any less attractive? One gets the impression that Mrs. Child either had a page count to fill up, without which she would not get paid for the book and her children would starve, or an editor holding her at gunpoint to include a treasured recipe from said editor's mother. Often the travails of widow-women are lost to history.

Potato Starch (Dr. Kitchiner again)

Peel and wash a pound of full-grown potatoes, grate them on a bread-grater into a deep dish, containing a quart of clear water; stir it well up, and then pour it through a hair-sieve, and leave it ten minutes to settle, till the water is quite clear: then pour off the water, and put a quart of fresh water to it, stir it up, let it settle, and repeat this till the water is quite clear; you will at last find a fine white powder at the bottom of the vessel. (The criterion of this process being completed, is the purity of the water that comes from it after stirring it up.) Lay this [powder] on a sheet of paper in a hair-sieve to dry, either in the sun or before the fire, and it is ready for use, and in a well-stopped bottle will keep good for many months.

If this be well-made, half an ounce, (i.e. a table-spoonful) of it mixed with two table-spoonfuls of cold water, and stirred into a soup or sauce, just before you take it up, will thicken a pint of it to the consistence of cream.

Obs.--This preparation much resembles the "Indian arrow root," and is a good substitute for it; it gives a fullness on the palate to gravies and sauces at hardly any expense, and by some is used to thicken melted butter instead of flour. Potatoes, in whatever condition, whether spoiled by frost, germination, &c., provided they are raw, constantly afford starch, differing only in quality, the round gray ones the most.

Potato starch has rather fallen out of favor today, replaced by cornstarch which is easily and cheaply made by mechanical means, and arrowroot which is making a comeback.

Potato Pudding (from "The Good Housekeeper" by Sarah Josepha Hale, 1841)

Boil three large mealy potatoes, mash them very smoothly, with one ounce of butter, and two or three table-spoonfuls of thick cream; add three well-beaten eggs, a little salt, grated nutmeg, and a table-spoonful of brown sugar. Beat all well together, and bake it in a buttered dish, for half or three quarters of an hour in a Dutch oven. A few currants may be added to the pudding.

Currants were very popular ingredients in puddings, pies, even beer in Civil War times. As they propagate easily, frequently growing wild nearly everywhere, they were easily obtained even by the poor. Unlike raisins in the days before seedless varieties were bred, they did not have to be "stoned" before use. Whether they make an ideal partner with potatoes is a subject left to the discretion, and digestion, of the reader.

Irish Stew (Dr. K, who credits it to "Mr. Morrison of the Leinster hotel, Dublin")

Take part of a neck of mutton, cut it into chops, season it well, put it into a stew-pan, let it brase for half an hour, take two dozen of potatoes, boil them, mash them, and season them, butter your mould, and line it with the potatoes, put in the mutton, bake it for half an hour, then it will be done, cut a hole in the top, and add some good gravy to it.

Onions, frequently in massive quantities, are a frequent addition to Irish Stew. The direction about "cutting a hole in the top" and adding things (gravy) through it implies that a layer of either pie crust or, more likely, mashed potatoes is used as a covering for this dish. It is certainly not a stew in the sense we know it today!

Potato Pie (Dr. Kitchiner again)

Peel and slice your potatoes very thin into a pie-dish; between each layer of potatoes put a little chopped onion (three-quarters of an ounce of onion is sufficient for a pound of potatoes); between each layer sprinkle a little pepper and salt; put in a little water, and cut about two ounces of fresh butter into little bits, and lay them on the top: cover it close with puff paste. It will take about an hour and a half to bake it. N. B.: The yelks of four eggs (boiled hard) may be added; and when baked, a table-spoonful of good mushroom catchup poured in through a funnel.

And what the devil, you may well be wondering, is a "mushroom catchup" supposed to be? Our Ketchup page should fill you in nicely.






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