Skillygalee Was The Civil War Dish That Put Hardtack To Better Use

It's 1863. You're a Union soldier looking over your rations for the day, rations that thankfully arrived on time. Today, your allowance consists of one pound of salted meat, about 14 ounces of "hard bread," maybe some dried, mixed vegetables, and, if you're lucky, some coffee beans or sugar, though those were not a daily luxury. You look at your options, wondering what you could make from the same ingredients you've had every day for months. Maybe, you think, today is a Skillygalee kind of day. 

Skillygalee was a meal crafted during the Civil War to feed soldiers a hearty meal while also breaking up the monotony of eating stale bread and plain meat each day. The dish consists of just four ingredients: hardtack, water, pork, and bacon grease. The instructions for the meal rely on understanding hardtack and why it was a necessary evil for soldiers. 

Hardtack has been around for centuries, but the version that became the main source of nutrition for Civil War soldiers was produced by Josiah Bent in 1801. The cracker was made simply of water, flour, and salt (if it was available), which was combined to create a dough, cut into squares and docked (adorned with holes on the top to remove extra moisture), then baked approximately 30 minutes on each side around 375 degrees Fahrenheit. This process created a tough cracker that could last for decades, would not crumble in a soldier's pocket, and was a versatile item that could create meals like Skillygalee.

How to make Skillygalee

Soldiers were not a fan of hardtack because, well, it was plain and very, very hard — it even gained names like "tooth duller." So, something like Skillygalee was a perfect way to utilize the hard cracker in an inventive way. The first step in making the dish is to break up the hardtack, which is often done with the butt of a rifle, and soak it in water for at least 10 minutes. 

Once the hardtack is soaking, fry up your salted meat, ideally bacon, then remove the bacon, chop it up, and add it back to the pan. Finally, drain the soft hardtack and add the cracker bits to the pan of bacon and grease. Combine everything and cook until heated, then serve.

In the Civil War, because rations were unpredictable and often late, soldiers would receive hardtack infested with weevils and other pests. Skillygalee provided a way for that hardtack to still be edible; instead of throwing it away, they would use the soaking process of the recipe to force the pests out of the cracker and scoop them out of the water. It's not a pretty process, but it reduced waste and helped stretch the limited rations.