ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Gadsby's Tavern in Old Town is hosting a five-course Civil War wine dinner on Oct. 14 with a menu that includes beef in puff pastry, spinach and goat cheese quiche, mushroom soup in an herb broth, filet of beef wrapped in a puff pastry with mushrooms and beets, and a chocolate charlotte russe with a custard filling. The food is paired with wines from Gray Ghost Vineyards, named after "Gray Ghost" John S. Mosby, a Confederate cavalry battalion commander .
The meal sounds good -- maybe a little too good. Would Civil War-era diners really have been eating mushroom soup and goat cheese quiche? Probably not, said Helen Zoe Veit, an assistant professor at Michigan State University who is now finishing a book about food in the Civil War era.
Veit told The Huffington Post that she's never seen either goat cheese or quiche mentioned in any mid-19th century cookbook. While corn products were eaten regularly in the 19th century, they wouldn't ordinarily have been served at a formal dinner. And forget about any vegetarian options at a formal meal like this in Civil War times.
"The one thing that it definitely would have included more of is meat," Veit said. The soup, for example, would almost certainly have been meat-based -- maybe a turtle soup, or a mock turtle soup, or even a clam chowder. Meat, Veit said, was considered an integral part of a healthy diet. There wouldn't have been enough vegetarians in Civil War times to justify a special meal. A book about the history of vegetarianism says that vegetarian Civil War soldiers, however rare they were, ate meat or starved.
After soup, "almost definitely a fish course. Mackerel, or cod, or perch, or crabs, or salmon, or oysters, or eels. Any of these would have been relatively typical at an 1860s dinner," said Veit. And then either with or after the fish course would have been other meats as well.
"A roast beef, or a roast veal head," said Veit. "They loved to bake heads in general. They were not nearly as afraid of organs. That would served alongside a kind of fowl, like pigeon or duck, or turkey. It could have been woodcock, or squab."
Veit said that for a formal dinner, there also would have been a choice of desserts. Charlotte russe might have been one of them, but it probably wouldn't have been made with chocolate. "Much more common would have been a plain custard, or a fruit-based dessert. Or even a lemon syllabub."
For drinks, Veit said that wine would almost certainly have been served at a formal dinner, though the wine may not have been paired with courses like it will be at Gadsby's. Water would also have been available, especially for women who were involved with the temperance movement.
All that said, the Civil War Wine Dinner menu has achieved what seems to be its goal, Veit said: it's a meal inspired by history, rather than one married to it. And the vegetarians, not to mention the woodcocks, squabs, veal calves and eels, are grateful for this nod to modern sensibilities.
If you're interested in going, it's $100 per person; buy tickets here.