Lisa Martin sees both differences and similarities in the cooking styles of the Civil War era.
In anticipation of the 22nd Annual J.E.B. Stuart Civil War Encampment, which will take place Saturday and Sunday at Laurel Hill in Ararat, Martin cooked up a traditional Civil War-era meal.
“I’ve never used so much lard in my life,” Martin said, laughing. “I don’t use pure shortening anymore.”
Martin explained that cooking oil largely has replaced shortening in modern kitchens. Other significant ingredient changes have taken place as well, she added.
“I had to buy a sifter,” Martin said, in order to sift the flour used in several of the dishes. Now that baking powder and all-purpose flour are commonplace, sifting is “certainly not a common practice,” Martin said.
Martin has been cooking since she was a little girl. Her parents, Melba Spencer of Stuart and the late Virgil Spencer, both worked, so Martin learned to cook for herself and her little sister. She often would have dinner ready when her parents returned home from work.
She also learned a great deal from her grandmother, the late Sallie Rakes Spencer.
“We always had gardens growing up,” Martin said. “I remember seeing Granny washing turnip greens at the sink.”
Martin was able to use several of her grandmother’s methods when preparing the meal. For example, to grease the pan when making her cornbread, she put a dollop of bacon grease in the center of the pan and then briefly put it in the oven to melt the grease.
“It was really fun to go back and do things the way I used to see my grandma do them,” Martin said. “I hadn’t used a rolling pin in many, many years.”
To make the dishes, Martin used recipes from authentic 1800s cookbooks. She also used all local ingredients, including apples, beans and turnip greens.
“Most places were very self-sufficient” in the 1800s, Martin explained.
Although the spread Martin prepared may seem extravagant, it was “a pretty common” meal, she said.
When the time would come to eat the meal, an 1860s family seldom would eat together, Martin explained. Children ate separately from adults, often taking their meals in their own rooms. The men would eat first, followed by the women.
Martin served the meal in the restored R.J. Reynolds home on actual dishes used by the Reynolds family. R.J. Reynolds was the founder of Reynolds Tobacco Company, perhaps best known for creating Camel cigarettes. Shortly before his death in 1918, he was the wealthiest person in North Carolina.
Though opinions on tobacco have changed since the 1800s, “tobacco founded the South,” Martin said.
Martin has two children. Her son, Alexander Martin, 25, is a 2011 graduate of Radford University’s Outdoor Recreation and Tourism program. He works at Primland in Meadows of Dan. Her daughter, Sydney Martin, 22, is a 2012 Virginia Tech graduate. She is pursuing a master’s degree in classical studies from the University of Sheffield in South Yorkshire, England.
Martin, a Stuart native, is the senior program manager at the Reynolds Homestead in Critz. She serves also on the board of the J.E.B. Stuart Birthplace Trust, assisting with marketing and event coordination.
Martin, who declined to give her age, has worked at the Reynolds Homestead for six years. Her majors at Longwood University were English and history, and she has a master’s degree in English from Radford University. Her master’s concentration was Appalachian studies, a course of study which has served her well in Patrick County.
Patrick County is rich in history, Martin said, and the community has been “keeping that history alive from the time we became official in 1791.”
“To be a small county, we’ve had some very significant people” born in the area, Martin said, including former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles, former Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry and Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart.
The 22nd Annual J.E.B. Stuart Civil War Encampment and Living History Weekend will take place at Stuart’s birthplace, Laurel Hill Farm in Ararat. Admission is $8 per person, with children 12 and younger admitted free. All of the proceeds will go toward preserving the birthplace.
The event will feature two re-enacted Civil War battles, an 1800s fashion show, a dance on Saturday night, a candlelight tour and many other events.
“People come from all over to participate in this,” Martin said. “There’s something for everybody... Anyone interested in history will have a good time.”