The country’s first Memorial Days were focused on lost loved ones following the devastation of the Civil War. Those events were big group affairs, in which entire towns pitched in to clean up winter damage at burial sites and decorate graves with early blooms.
And of course, the day’s work would end in a picnic.
Eric Colleary, a historian and food blogger behind The American Table, said picnic menus after the war were simple, portable and centered on spring cleaning.
“A lot of vegetables haven’t come to season yet,” he said. “So you’re really depending on the last of your preserves. You would normally want to kind of free up space for the next round of food that you’re going to be canning. Cleaning out the pantry.” Pickled okra and watermelon rind, “euchered plums” and fruit jams would whet winter-weary appetites for summer treats ahead.
After the Spanish American War, Colleary said, celebrations moved from Civil War grave sites and – especially in the North – widened to include more general patriotic themes. The WPA program of the Great Depression created new parks and public spaces for people to spend days off, and slowly big community events gave way to family picnics and backyard barbecues of today.
Colleary found an evocative Memorial Day account from a 1912 New York Times article that illustrates those changes. The unnamed interviewee recalls larger community events before the turn of the century, and blames trollycars for spoiling the fun of old “picnic wagons.” The article lays out a “modest” picnic list.
“We weren’t hard to please. A few cold fried chickens, some peanut sandwiches, a big paper sack full of Saratoga chips, some potato salad in a fruit jar, two or three kinds of jelly and bread and butter, a couple of chocolate cakes and a cocoanut (sic.) cake and a freezer of strawberry ice cream and a few accessories were practically all we expected at a picnic dinner in those days.”
Roasted Chicken The Very Old Way
For an old-timey way to cook chicken outdoors directly on a fire, Colleary turns to a vintage Buckeye Cookbook, charmingly dedicated “to the plucky housewives of 1876.” The method dates back to ancient Rome and perhaps beyond, he said.
A delicious way to roast potatoes, birds, or poultry, or even fish, is to encase them in a paste made of flour and water, and bake in the embers of a campfire; or build a fire over a flat stone, and when burnt down to coals, clear the stone, lay on the potatoes, birds, etc., wrapped in wet, heavy brown paper, cover with dry earth, sand, or ashes, and place the hot coals over these, adding more fuel.
Thankfully, the same cookbook includes a simpler method for picnic-ready fried chicken on a skillet.
Fried Spring Chicken (From Buckeye Cookery, Estelle Woods Wilcox, 1877)
- 1/2 tablespoon lard
- 1/2 tablespoon butter
- 1 chicken, cut into pieces
- 2 cups as needed flour
- to taste salt and pepper
- Put skillet on the stove with about one half tablespoon each of lard and butter.
- When hot lay in chicken, sprinkle over with flour, salt and pepper, place lid on skillet, and cook over a moderate fire.
- When a light brown, turn the chicken and sprinkle flour, salt and pepper over the top as at first.
- If necessary add more lard and butter, and cook slowly until done.
Earth Eats asked Colleary to chase down a recipe for the coconut cakes mentioned in the New York Times article, which turn out to be something like simple macaroons.
“Coconut, as it turns out, has a long-standing history in American foodways,” he said. Even American colonists likely imported fresh whole coconuts from colonial growers in the Caribbean. “By the mid-19th century, pineapple and coconuts were being shipped to the more northern part of the United States from Florida, Cuba and parts of Central America.”
Drawing from the pages of old Fannie Farmer and Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston cookbooks, Colleary boiled down some “unnecessarily” complicated instructions into a simple recipe.
Cocoanut Cakes (Eric's Adaptation)
- 1 pound (about 5 cups) fresh grated coconut
- 3/4 pound (about 1 1/2 cups) sugar
- 3 large egg whites
- Preheat oven to 325° F.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat.
- Beat egg whites and sugar until thick and foamy and the sugar is dissolved.
- Fold in coconut.
- Dip your hands in cold water, and shape the mixture into small balls.
- Bake for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.
- Let cakes cool completely before removing them from the pan.