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History in the Kitchen: Civil War Cornbread

History in the Kitchen: Civil War Cornbread Activity

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Mixing up a batch of old-fashioned cornbread can be a great context for learning about life in Civil War era America. Recipes back then looked similar to recipes today, albeit with a few unfamiliar ingredients! Our historical cornbread recipe calls for saleratus, a mystery ingredient with a modern day equivalent. Can your child guess what saleratus is called today? Bake up this simple cornbread and give your child a real taste of 19th century American cooking.

This cornbread was traditionally crumbled into a main dish to absorb liquid, and thus has a crunchier texture and less sweet flavor than modern cornbread. Enjoy it with honey and milk, or crumbled over beans the way Civil War soldiers ate it!

What You Need:

  • Measuring cups
  • 2 cups stone ground cornmeal
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 mixing bowls
  • Measuring spoons
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • Whisk
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 medium egg
  • Fork
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • Cast iron skillet or saucepan

What You Do:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Start by reading the original cornbread recipe from The Young Housekeeper's Friend, published in 1863. How many ingredients can your child find without translating?
    • 2 cups Indian meal
    • 1 cup flour
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 1 teaspoon saleratus
    • 1 pint sour milk
    • 1 egg
    • 2 tablespoons molasses
  2. Have your child measure the cornmeal and flour into a bowl. The colonial name "Indian meal" is still found in cooking dictionaries today!
  3. Next, help him measure the salt, baking powder, and baking soda and add them to the bowl. Have you guessed what saleratus is yet? Saleratus is a leavening agent, made of either sodium or potassium bicarbonate. The modern equivalent is baking soda! In this recipe, we use a combination of baking soda and baking powder (which is baking soda mixed with cream of tartar) to leaven the bread.
  4. Combine the milk and yogurt in another bowl and whisk until smooth. In the 19th century, fresh milk was reserved for drinking and sour milk was used for baking. In our recipe, the yogurt lends a sour note similar to the flavor of sour milk.
  5. Next, beat the egg in a small bowl. Civil War era eggs were half the size of eggs today! Use one medium egg for authentic texture, but if you prefer a more modern, cake-like texture, use two eggs. Add the beaten egg and molasses to the milk mixture and mix well.
  6. Check the temperature of the oven. Once the oven has reached 400 degrees, help your child slowly add the milk mixture to the dry ingredients and stir to combine. Remind him to work quickly!
  7. Carefully pour the batter into the cast iron skillet or saucepan. 19th century bakers traditionally used a Dutch oven, a deep cast iron pot with a heavy lid that could be covered with hot coals.
  8. Place the cornbread in the oven and bake uncovered for 35 minutes.
  9. When the time is up, invite your child to test the cornbread for doneness. Have him insert a clean, dry knife in the center; if it comes out clean and dry, the cornbread is done! If batter clings to the knife, put the cornbread back in the oven and bake another 5 minutes. Repeat this process until the cornbread is done.

Once the cornbread has cooled a little, it's time to dig in!

Updated on Nov 8, 2012
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See more activities in: Fifth Grade, Sides
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