Civil War Cookin’: Turkey For Dinner?

Civil War soldiers mention eating turkey (or wanting to eat turkey) for holiday meals. If they were lucky enough to catch, forage, or receive a turkey, that glorious moment would come when the big bird on a platter landed at the head of the table or on the central “cracker box table” and it was time to “dig-in.”

As exemplified by Samuel Fiske’s account, holiday meals were not always exactly what a soldier wanted. For a Thanksgiving Feast on November 25, 1863, this Union soldier sent a request to the brigade commissary, asking for 1 turkey, 3 chickens, 11 mince pies, 200 oysters (on the half shell), 5 gallons of cider, 2 bushels of apples, 10 pounds hardtack, 4 pounds pork, and some ingredients for pumpkin pie – 1 pumpkin, 8 dozen eggs, and a gallon of milk. Unhappily for Mr. Fiske, the commissary only sent the pork and hardtack that year.[i]

In honor of the day (and perhaps as a helpful hint to curious readers), I found directions for carving a turkey. Courtesy of Mrs. Child’s 1833 cookbook and with all appropriate warnings to vegetarians.

TO CARVE A TURKEY – Fix the fork firmly on one side of the thin bone that rises in the centre [center] of the breast; the fork should be placed parallel with the bone, and as close to it as possible. Cut the meat from the breast lengthwise, in slices of about half an inch in thickness. Then turn the turkey upon the side nearest you, and cut off the leg and the wing; when the knife is passed between the limbs and the body, press outward, the joint will be easily perceived. Then turn the turkey on the other side, and cut off the other leg and wing. Separate the drum-sticks from the leg-bones, and the pinions from the wings; it is hardly possible to mistake the joint. Cut the stuffing in thin slices, lengthwise. Take off the neck bones, which are two triangular bones on each side of the breast; this done by passing the knife from the back under the blade-part of each neck-bone, until it reaches the end; by raising the knife, the other branch will easily crack off. Separate the carcass from the back by passing the knife lengthwise from the neck downward. Turn the back upwards, and lay the edge of the knife across the back-bone, about midway between the legs and wings; at the same moment, place the fork within the lower part of the turkey, and lift it up; this will make the backbone crack at the knife. The croup, or lower park of the back being cut off, put it on the plate, with the rump [facing away] from you, and slit off the side-bones by forcing the knife through the rump to the other end.

The choicest parts of a turkey are the side-bones, the breast, and the thighbones. The breast and wings are called light meat; the thighbones and side-bones dark meat. When a person declines expressing a preference, it is polite to help to both kinds.[ii]

And now you’re ready to carve a turkey and serve Thanksgiving Dinner as a gallant and talented host. Happy Feasting!


[i] William C. Davis, A Taste for War: The Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray, 2003, page 119.

[ii] Childs, The American Frugal Housewife, 1833; reprinted by Applewood Books, pages 122-123.