Tuesday, October 23, 2012

War is Hell

Of all the work I’ve done on this project so far, this week’s cooking has been the most…interesting.

I began with the Sago jelly. Which became Tapioca Jelly due to my inability to find sago. The internet informs me that sago and tapioca, though from different sources, are both starches and are used for many of the same things. Going into it, I had no idea what to expect of the process, of the end product, of anything really. If the number one rule of cooking is “be flexible,” rule number two is “follow directions.” That’s exactly what I did as I added tapioca, sugar, port and lemon peel into water and turned up the heat. I stirred and watched as everything coagulated into a gummy mass. It was flubber. It was the blob. It was Civil War Jello. My taste-tasters and I took spoonfuls that proved very difficult to swallow. The taste wasn’t bad, a little bland maybe, but pleasant and fruity. However, the texture was almost unmanageable. It had to sit on the tongue and dissolve for a bit before it would go down. Very strange and very inedible in large doses. It is hospital food, and I can see how, if you were incapable of eating much else, this jelly, like modern Jello, might provide nourishment and be easier to manage than some solids. But honestly, it makes one grateful for modern hospital food.

Next, I moved on to “Apple Pie without Apples” in a “Potato Crust.” Making the cracker “apple” filling was fairly easy once I had tartaric acid (cream of tartar in modern terms). The potato crust on the other hand, was difficult to make the same consistency as actual crust. It was more like spreadable mashed-potatoes, but the finished product looked more or less like apple pie. The consensus on taste was, that though it was not very good, it was surprisingly like apples. The potato chunks in the crust even contributed to an apple-like texture. However, those who had tried mock apple pie before suggested that without the potato crust, it would taste more like traditional pie. As it stood, it was more like odd shepherd’s pie, described by one friend as “three different flavors of mush.”

This is the only cooking session where I ended up with leftovers that needed discarding. Taste-testers said that, if they were in the Civil War, the Apple Pie without Apples would likely be welcome and fortifying, but that they would have to be extremely desperate to make the Jelly worth it. This day of cooking proved to me that food quality is not a forward-progression; it very much depends on circumstance. The recipes of early 1800s peacetime America were much fancier, much more akin to what we would consider good food today. These recipes from the Civil War books were literally the best looking I could find. The desperation, need, and adaptability of people in wartime came across for me stronger in cooking these recipes than ever before. Rarely have I more poignantly felt an appreciation for the ease and comforts of life in modern peacetime America.

Many thanks to my brave taste-testers, assistants, and in this week’s case, photographer- later this week, I’ll post a photo diary from this cooking session.

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