How Civil War Soldiers Improvised A 4-Ingredient Chicken Fricassee Dish

Improvising has always been a central tenet in the art of cooking. Whether you're a champion of "Chopped" or simply a home chef that has had to make a meal without a key ingredient, we've all improvised in the kitchen. But in today's world, with recipes galore, it isn't a given to cook off-the-cuff. In Civil War America, though, it was an absolute necessity. Soldiers in the 1860s had to travel light, and with whatever food they did have, they didn't have the luxury of keeping it in a refrigerator or an otherwise safe storage container. If they wanted to be fed, troops had to improvise — and this led to some basic yet creative recipes, such as a four-ingredient chicken fricassee dish.

To fricassee is simply to saute a protein, typically chicken, until just-cooked before adding it to a broth or gravy to complete the cooking. With a built-in gravy, this stew pairs well with starches, such as mashed potatoes, buttered noodles, or steamed rice. For a lighter dish, the chicken and gravy can also be complemented with spring vegetables, such as asparagus, peas, and carrots. 

In their iteration, Civil War soldiers fried the meat until golden brown, then removed it from the pan. Flour and boiling water were then added to the remaining grease to create a gravy. Finally, the meat was tossed back in with the gravy, seasoned with pepper and served — a simple cooking experience that yielded a reliably delicious meal.

How does the soldiers' version compare to a traditional chicken fricassee?

The biggest difference between the soldiers' method and the traditional method is in the initial meat-cooking process. Likely because they wouldn't have had meat thermometers on them while traveling through a war-torn America, soldiers would cook the meat until it was golden brown, ensuring safe-to-eat food; whereas in a modern fricassee, the meat is typically sauteed until it is cooked thoroughly but still visibly pretty white, leading to a brighter stew.

One of the major similarities is the cooking vessel — the Dutch oven. Invented just over a century before the Civil War, the Dutch oven was a common cooking appliance among troops with its heat and seasoning-retaining properties, and still today, it remains the recommended pot for this recipe. Cooking the rest of the stew remains similar between the two eras.

The French fricassee has come a long way since the Civil War, with unique ingredients being added to the simple dish to create complex, far-more-than-four-ingredient recipes. Try adding some flavoring when you make the chicken yourself, such as Jamaican jerk or Cajun seasoning, or switching up the blander bases with something spicy, like dirty rice, or something different, like cannellini beans. Or, try this full-on French spring chicken fricassee, heavy with artichoke and tarragon.