Why did people eat what they ate during the Civil War? How did they prepare it? What can cookbooks from that period in American history tell us about politics, economics, and life at the time? Michigan State University Press delves into these topics and more in Food in the Civil War Era: The North, the first title in the 11-book American Food in History series, which launched last month. The second book, Food in the Civil War Era: The South, will be released next spring.

The idea for the series originated with a conversation between the press’s director, Gabriel Dotto, and Peter Berg, head of special collections at the MSU library. Berg mentioned that the university has one of the largest collections of cookbooks in the country—its Cookery and Food Collection houses more than 25,000 historical cookbooks and related items—and Dotto was immediately intrigued.

According to Dotto, the series is about cookery and food at its core, but also, “historical context, changing ideas of nutrition, attitudes toward food preparation, and entertaining as central moments of social contact, as well as the economics of food delivery and availability over different key periods.” Each book in the series will offer a selection of recipes, commentary about related issues, and an in-depth historical essay written by a specialist in that time period. The recipes in the first two books have been “modernized and tested by a professional food editor, so that readers can enjoy a taste of the times,” said Dotto.

Mary Hooker Cornelius’s 1845 book The Young Housekeeper’s Friend includes a section on Food and Drinks for the Sick, and for Infants (including an alternative to coffee made from boiled bread crusts), while Ann Howe’s The American Kitchen Directory and Housewife (1863) notes that “If a goose is tender under the wings, and you can break the skin easily by running the head of a pin across the breast, you may rely upon its being young and tender.”

Series editor Helen Zoe Veit is assistant professor of History at MSU, where she specializes in American history in the 19th and 20th centuries, focusing on this history of food and nutrition. Veit was finishing her book Modern Food, Moral Food (UNC Press, 2013) when Dotto approached her about editing the American Food in History series. “I learned a lot while working on this book,” she said. “My hope is that the books will be useful for academics, but I see the main audience as people who are interested in food.” Teachers are another target market. “Having essays to give readers context alongside the primary sources, right there in the book, will help raise good questions in a classroom setting,” said Veit.

After the two initial books about the Civil War, the series will move forward in history; future titles include Food in the Jazz Age, Food and the Depression, and Civil Rights, Black Power, and Food. Veit, who is currently finishing the second Civil War–era book, about the South, notes that cooking during that period in American history was especially affected by current events. “The cookbooks don’t talk directly about the war,” said Veit, “but when you read between the lines, they can reveal an enormous amount about politics, economics, how people eat, and what they want to project about themselves in what they choose to eat.” In her essays in the books, Veit gives historical context for topics like class mobility or the importance of preserving food. “In the South, what does it mean for a white woman when her slaves leave and she has to cook for herself?” said Veit. “Or what about a family that comes into money? The woman of the house has to learn how to throw parties and act a certain way. Cookbooks of the time helped teach these things.”

Reaching Its Audience

To get word out about the series, MSU Press has done print, online, and social media marketing, including ads in gastronomica.org and the New York Review of Books. Julie Reaume, sales and marketing manager at Michigan State University Press, said that sales and marketing efforts are targeting a broad range of readers interested in both food and history. “People are accustomed to thinking of cookbooks as a source of recipes, and not much else,” she said. “They will be surprised by how much information cookbooks can reveal about the lives of people of the past.”

To keep readers engaged in the series, marketing is planning to release a special edition this fall, between the publication of the first two books. According to Reaume, it will be “a smaller book that will include a selection of modernized recipes to be used for promotional giveaways to retailers, as well as for sale to a trade audience.”

Food in the Civil War Era: The North was released with a 2,500-copy first printing; subsequent print runs will be determined by how well previous titles sell, as well as the popularity of the time period of the remaining volumes.

While the press hasn’t published a vast number of books about food, what they have done has been popular. More than 10 years ago, the publisher released English-language versions of Mes Confitures and Mes Tartes by renowned French pastry chef Christine Ferber. “As you can imagine, they have sold very, very well,” said Dotto.

Food in the Civil War Era: The North, edited by Helen Zeo Veit. Michigan State University Press, May. ISBN 978-1-61186-122-8