There Was a Lot of Crochetting During the Civil War

That’s what I gathered from the Battle of Nashville stuff. All the women were crocheting. As you may remember, I’m on a quest to try to understand why Nashville doesn’t have a sheep-eating culture, even though we seem to happily eat anything else., since nm pointed it out to me.

So, yesterday, I talked to a Civil War reenactor who raises sheep for wool out in Wilson County and she has a theory I think may be the correct one. Almost all sheep in Middle Tennessee were, first and foremost, for wool. People out in the country who raise sheep, even wool sheep, do eat lamb at Easter. Even now. But it’s got to be a special occasion that you’d be willing to eat something that’s going to make you money for the rest of its life.

If you were eating the sheep from your herd regularly, it meant something had gone really wrong for you–that you were so desperate to eat that you couldn’t wait for wool to sell. So, she thinks that eating sheep, except at Easter, may have become associated with deprivation and hard times, here. And that may be why there’s not a lot of sheep eating here. It had for a long time, the connotation of hard times, and, even when it didn’t have those connotations anymore, we didn’t have the years of recipes and traditions about eating it.

I don’t know. But it seems plausible.

6 thoughts on “There Was a Lot of Crochetting During the Civil War

  1. I’m not sure this quite works. Ultimately, ewes are much more valuable than rams. A ewe gives you wool, but also lambs. A ram is necessary for breeding, but you probably don’t want to keep them all. I’m no expert in sheep, but I suspect that extra rams could cause all kinds of problems. (Fighting? Inbreeding? More difficult to control?) I suppose it’s possible that those extra males are removed early and most of the sheep eating is at the lamb stage?

    I just can’t imagine any kind of sensible herd management strategy that didn’t involve any systematic culling.

  2. Where there’s extensive (over time and/or territory) sheep-farming, all but a few rams are castrated (becoming wethers) and left with the flocks. They are considered pretty steady, leading to the term “bell-wether” indicating the animal to follow.

    B, I am willing to accept the idea that in an area where sheep-farming is an afterthought, for a historically short period of time, eating sheep doesn’t catch on b/c every fleece is precious. I would just point out that areas where sheep-farming is (one of the) main source(s) of income and historically extended tend to eat lots of mutton (England/Scotland, Native American groups in the US southwest) or lamb (Mongolia, Spain — and Spain was also historically a great source of leather). So I’m willing to go with the idea that Tennessee historically had a little sheep-farming, but not a lot, and only as an adjunct to other forms of agriculture, so that no area locally ever had flocks that were considered sustainable. In a case like that, maybe you’d be scared to eat much of your flock. It’s just not like any other sheep-farming population I know about.

  3. Also, I don’t know about Nashville in particular, but 19th-century southern cookbooks all include mutton and most include lamb. They are dealt with in the books after beef but before pork, which tends to indicate that sheep-flesh was preferred to pork-flesh. That’s no longer the case. I really think that eating sheep is something that used to be habitual (for those who could afford it) in Nashville but then ceased to be. Which could have been due to a post-bellum turn away from keeping sheep, as woolen cloth became more widely distributed from national centers, or a Depression-era turn away from keeping any animals that needed to be fed (though sheep can graze, so maybe that’s not relevant), or something else altogether. It’s just curious.

  4. nm, that’s an interesting observation about 19th c cookbooks. Pork was the national dish in the 18th through the mid-19th century, so much so that if you said you didn’t want bacon with breakfast while traveling, everyone assumed you were Jewish. That started to change right around the Civil War, with beef consumption (especially salted beef) eventually replacing pork consumption somewhere around 1885…with distribution from national center (Chicago) as pork had been from Cincinnati before that.

    Maybe the order was alphabetical rather than preferential?

  5. Bridgett, that’s a real possibility (the alphabetical order). But sometimes venison came before pork! So maybe the meats were listed in order of preference for perceived classiness? And pork would have been an “old-fashioned” taste? Granted that most of the cookbooks I’ve seen are from the 1870s onward.

  6. I live in KY, where to the south of Louisville (Lexington, Owensboro, Berea, etc) there’s a long tradition of mutton eating–Owensboro style BBQ and burgoo feature mutton. I’ve been told that folks in central KY eat more mutton than the rest of the country combined. A funny statistic, if it’s true! I think our taste for mutton and for raising sheep is attributed to the lifting of tariffs on wool production in the 1820s (?)…and that sheep are pretty well suited to grazing in the rocky foothills of Black Mountain and the surrounding regions. Tangential to your thoughts on wool production in Tennessee, but given the geographical proximity, maybe there’s something to it?

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