On the day 150 years ago when the Battle of Fort Sumter started, kicking off the conflict that almost ripped the United States into shreds, Andrew F. Smith introduced his book “Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War” at an event hosted by the Culinary Historians of New York. Appropriately, this gathering was held with dishes featuring foods of the South provided by the members of the organization. 61 Local, which opened fairly recently in Brooklyn, was the meeting site.
I had to chuckle quietly when Smith asked the audience who among the group had become fascinated with the Civil War as a 12-year-old, as he had, and then had proceeded to read as many books about the era as he could find. He also shared the fact that, growing up in Los Angeles, he’d wished that there had been a battlefield nearby to visit. I wanted to let him know that had he grown up in Virginia, as I did, he would have gotten his wish and might have grown sick of being dragged to see historical sites on every fieldtrip. His indoctrination into the North-South divide would have also started at a much earlier age, as we spent a whole semester on this timeperiod in fourth grade.
This book, which I have to confess I bought only last night so I haven’t yet read it, covers a variety of tactical decisions that had an impact on the ability of the Confederacy to feed its soldiers and citizens. Cutting off of the troops’ supply lines was one way that the North was able to force the hand of the Southern generals. The blockade of the South, making it impossible to sell cotton and other goods, thereby not giving them the income to purchase grain and foodstuffs, was another contributing factor. These actions eventually led to riots by the public, who could not feed their families, and greater numbers of desertions, which the South could not afford as the conflict dragged on. With no way to feed the men, and with the men’s families suffering at home, controlling the access to food became a factor in winning the war by demoralizing the Confederacy and its supporters.
What was also very interesting to me was the insight Smith provided into the changes to the infrastructure of the United States in the years leading up to the Civil War. I sort of thought the modern, industrial food system was rooted in the 20th Century and the innovation that took place as a result of the two World Wars. On the contrary, there were four key events that took place that led to this development. The development of the railroads had expanded, linking major cities on the northern part of the East Coast to each other and to major cities in the Midwest. This enabled the quantities of food produced in the areas where there was land for farming to be shipped to the cities. The South had far fewer rail lines.
Abraham Lincoln signed three acts which also had an impact on creating our modern system. By his pen, he created the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862. In that same year, the Homestead Act came into being. When you fly over the Midwest, you can still see the boundary lines of many of the lots, all evenly carved up. This program helped to settle the area, which has been one of the main food growing regions in the country, especially with the railways in place to move the food to markets. The fourth factor was the establishment of Land-Grant Colleges. According to the Morrill Act of 1862, among the missions of these institutions is the teaching of agricultural sciences.
Another feature of what I had thought was a more modern era invention is canned food. The canning process was invented as a military necessity in France in the early 1800s. Because it was expensive to produce and to ship, it was hardly the convenience food that it is in today’s diet. Instead, it was considered a luxury item gracing the tables of the upper class. With the expansion of rail transportation and investment by the North in large facilities to can goods, the prices for them dropped enough to become a greater feature in the American diet, as well as a means to nourish their troops.
Brunswick Stew – another Virginia dish, made with chicken, not squirrel
I’m looking forward to diving into this book and to finding out some more tidbits about the change of the food environment in the United States during this time. Even though I know from my own family history that the men were pulled off of the farms to fight in the war (on the Northern side), as the battles continued on, I really didn’t consider that food was actually an active part of the strategy of the conflict. As Smith pointed out, the aftereffects were that the country moved from a system that was largely local and partially regional to one that became national and industrial. What’s also very interesting is how much of this we are trying to turn around today to create a healthier model for feeding our citizens.