Common Food Substitutions for Hard Times

Common Food Substitutions in civil war recipes

Recently I was looking through an old Civil War Recipe book and came across some common food substitutions. I was really surprised at some of them, so I thought you would be interested in them.  These recipes came about because of the war and people having food shortages

I am sure that many of these same substitutions were made during the great depression and during other periods of hard times.  The more of these we can learn the better.

 Common Food Substitutions

Butter: the South didn’t have the dairy products available in the North, so pork lard (or bacon grease) was frequently substituted for butter.

Hot chocolate: This was invented from peanuts. The peanuts were roasted, skinned, and pounded in a mortar. The result when blended with boiled milk and sugar was found delightful.

Coffee: Coffee was becoming popular during the war, but hard to get so some  of the substitutes used for coffee where; parched and ground acorns, beans, chicory, corn, cottonseed dandelion roots, groundnuts, okra seeds, peanuts, peas, parched rice, rye, sweet potato and wheat.

Meat: when game was short they ate mules, dogs, cats, rats and other usual sources of protein. Groundnuts are a good source also.

Molasses: They suggested watermelon syrup as a good substitute for molasses.

Saleratus: (Baking Soda) because it was manufactured in the North it wasn’t available in the South.  A substitute for Saleratus was lye or potash, which acted as a leavening agent.  (I have found some additional information on how to do this; as soon as I get it together, I will post it.)  Here are some links to old blogs What do You do When Your Yeast Runs Out or Gets Old?  Soda Bread with Vinegar Salt Rising Bread.

Sugar: The main substitute for sugar was sorghum, but other substitutes could be used: honey, maple sugar, boiled sap from butternut or walnut trees, sugar beets and persimmons

Vanilla: The leaves of the peach tree were used as a replacement for vanilla.

Vegetables: When they became scarce in the cities, herbs and flowers were eaten. The only fresh vegetable available in Richmond was watercress.

Wheat Flour: Substitutes included cornmeal and rice flour, seed from the white beech, as well as ground doura corn.

The subject of common food substitutions is one that greatly interests me.  If you have a favorite, please post it in the comments. Thank You

Preparedness Mom

2 thoughts on “Common Food Substitutions for Hard Times”

  1. Exerpt from: Sam Thayer, The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants

    “…a vigorously growing herbaceous vine that wraps around shrubs, small trees, and larger vines. It also sprawls across low vegetation and open ground. The vines grow from ten to twenty feet each season, dying back in the fall….hopniss plant has several edible parts. The flowers are fairly good raw or cooked, and the seeds are edible…but the most important edible part …Hopniss tubers range from the size of a grape to the size of a grapefruit….Most commonly they are about one inch thick, one and a half inches long, roughly egg-shaped…

    …Hopniss is known by an unusually large number of common names, including Indian potato, ground potato, potato pea, pig potato, bog-potato, wild bean, wild sweet potato, white-apple, pomme de terre, and most commonly, groundnut…The scientific name Apios americana means “American pear.”

    …widespread in eastern North America. It grows from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Great Plains to the East Coast. The favored habitat of this herb is sandy river bottoms, floodplains, lake edges, creek sides, and brushy wet areas. It thrives in full to partial sunlight. Common associates include swamp white oak, elderberry, poison ivy, and riverside grape. Hopniss, like most river-floodplain species, is adapted to both well-drained and very wet conditions. The most vigorous stands of it that I know of are in spring seepage areas with very loose, dark soil…

    ….an important food for Native Americans throughout its range. There are probably more historical and ethnographic accounts of the use of this tuber than of any other root vegetable in North America; …planted near village sites to provide a readily accessible food source, expanding its range in places. “Hopniss or hapniss was the Indian name of a wild plant which they ate . . . The roots resemble potatoes, and were boiled by the Indians, who eat them instead of bread. . . . the Indians who live further in the country do not only eat these roots, which are equal in goodness to potatoes, but likewise take the pease which lie in the pods of this plant, and prepare them like common pease.” – Peter Kalm, 1749 (from Kindscher, 1987)

    “A woman will dig from a peck to a half bushel a day. The Indians eat them, simply boiled in water, but prefer them cooked with fat meat.” – Philander Prescott, Patent Office report on Agriculture,1849

    Hopniss is famous for having helped the Pilgrims through their first hard winters in North America… Thoreau wrote of them extensively, saying, “In case of a famine, I should soon resort to these roots.” (Wild Fruits, 2000, pg. 134) In 1874 the famous botanist Asa Gray said that, had civilization started in America rather than in Asia and Europe, “our Ground-Nut would have been the first developed esculent tuber and would probably have held its place in the first rank along with potatoes and sweet potatoes.” (Havard, 1895, pg 102).

    …Hopniss can be dug at any time of the year, provided that the ground is not frozen solid. This is one of the plant’s greatest attributes: in early to mid summer, when starch is hard for a forager to come by, hopniss provides a ready source….Colonies of this plant are often large and prolific…

    …a digging stick or even bare hands can be functional. Sometimes the tubers will be right on the surface of the ground, but most often they are one to four inches deep – and sometimes they are as much as eight inches under the surface. Locate a vine and follow it to the point where it enters the soil. Insert your spade here and pry up a large scoop of dirt. Loosen the dirt from around any tubers or rhizomes, then follow them with your hands as far into the soil as you can before breaking them off. When there is thick growth of the vines, I just dig anywhere within the patch.

    …Look for places where spring floods have exposed hopniss chains…Thoreau wrote of the rising waters of Walden Pond in rainy years creating similar conditions. Occasionally, construction projects will expose a windfall of hopniss…very best places for gathering hopniss that I know of are all around springs and seepages, in very dark soil near skunk cabbage…

    …The best tubers are medium-sized, young, very firm, and as smooth as you can find them. An average patch of hopniss is still a superb place to harvest food. In most places it takes two to three hours to gather a half-bushel. (Or five minutes to get enough for a meal.) You can select a colony and return to it yearly. As long as you leave some tubers behind, they will take advantage of the ideal growing conditions that you leave them (loose soil and reduced competition) and produce a generous crop the next season. And once you know what conditions hopniss thrives in, you can transplant a few tubers to a promising locality nearer to home, if need be.

    …Hopniss is something like a cross between beans and potatoes, nutritionally. The tubers contain 11%-14% protein, which is far higher than potatoes or any other commonly eaten root vegetable, and matches the protein content of wheat. The amino acid profile mirrors that of beans, which means that hopniss complements most grains to form a complete protein. (Blackmon, 1987)

    …flavor of this vegetable is between that of peanuts and potatoes, but unique and quite distinct.

    …To make hopniss flour, I first dice up the tubers and then roast them over low heat until they are dry. (These dry hopniss cubes will store perfectly for years.) I then grind them in my flourmill. Since flourmills are designed for wheat, they handle many other foods poorly. When I first ground my dry-roasted hopniss, I therefore got a mixture of coarse and fine meal. This was an unintended blessing, for it allowed me to discover that not only is hopniss flour excellent in pancakes, bread, and other baked goods, but the coarse meal, when boiled, produces a hot cereal remarkably like Malt-o-Meal in appearance. It doesn’t taste the same, but it’s still pretty good with milk and brown sugar.

    …fresh tubers can be baked whole or cut up and used in many dishes. They are a bit harder than potatoes and have quite a different flavor, which sometimes goes well in potato recipes but sometimes does not. Few people find them good alone, but prefer mashed and served with gravy or fried and seasoned. Diced hopniss is also excellent in casserole, stew, and stir-fry.

    …good served like refried beans as filling for burritos and tacos…peel, boil them, and run through a meat grinder then add a proper dose of taco seasoning and something tart such as lime juice. Such burritos will please most lovers of Mexican food…mix refried hopniss with ground venison, delicious.

    …Unfortunately, some people are intolerant of hopniss. Three people who I know well become sick and have vomited after eating this plant. All had eaten the plant on several occasions before experiencing this reaction. On the other hand, I have fed hopniss to well over a hundred people, and none of them have had any adverse reaction, and no wild food instructor that I have ever spoken to has had a problem with the plant making people sick, ever, so I’m not too worried that an occasional individual is unable to consume this otherwise excellent plant.

    It is advisable to cook hopniss before consumption, since it contains trypsin inhibitors and this renders it more digestible. Poorly cooked hopniss, like beans, can cause horrendous gas. I also suspect that the potential for an adverse reaction is increased if the plant is eaten raw or undercooked. Neither the texture nor flavor of the raw tubers is appealing anyway.

    …I make refried hopniss in large batches and store the excess. The paste gets spread less than a quarter inch thick on baking trays and dried near my woodstove or in an oven. When doing this, it is very important to flip the layer over when it is about two thirds dry, otherwise it will stick to the tray with inconquerable tenacity. It is also important to complete the drying process in a day or so to prevent spoilage. This dried, mashed hopniss becomes quite hard. It needs to be simmered about an hour to fully reconstitute when you choose to use it, unless you pre-soak it as one would with dry beans. I also pressure can some pre-seasoned hopniss burrito filling each year, so that a jar can be conveniently opened and heated quickly for use.

    …Within its native range, this is certainly one of the most important wild edibles that a person can learn. Hopefully, this article will motivate you to go out and try this marvelous plant. Some day, then, you will be able to pass on that knowledge and excitement. And every day, the woods will look a little friendlier because you know the secret of hopniss.

    Blackmon, W.J. Reynolds B.D. et al Domestication of Apios americana. In Advances in New Crops, eds. Janick and Simon, 1990, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 436-442.
    Kindscher, Kelly, 1987. Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence.
    Prescott, Philander. 1849. Farming Among the Sioux Indians, U.S. Patent Office Report on Agriculture, pp. 451-455.
    Thoreau, Henry David, 2000 (ed. Bradley Dean) Wild Fruits. W.W. Norton, New York.


  2. Hunting absolutely anything when there’s a lack of food makes perfect sense to me. I probably wouldn’t sacrifice a household pet any time soon, but I’m not sure I’d feel bad about eating a feral dog or cat if things were very rough. Food substitutions are definitely interesting, and it makes you think of how versatile we can be as a species in terms of dietary need fulfillment.

    Thanks for the article!

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