Ingrid Ban

“Letter From Nathan P. Neal to His Parents, Aaron and Elizabeth Neal, September 2, 1857”

(Neal, Nathan P. “Letter from Nathan P. Neal to Aaron and Elizabeth Neal, September 2, 1857”.
In the Neal Family Papers, published by William H. Pleasants. Chapel Hill, North Carolina.)

On September 2, 1857, Nathan P. Neal sent a letter to his parents documenting his experience as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill while living in the Eagle Hotel.[1] At this time, a majority of the students attending the University lived off-campus in boarding houses owned by women in the community, professor’s wives, or the Eagle Hotel, which was the only hotel on Franklin Street at the time.[2] Thus, it is fair to assume that Nathan P. Neal ate most of his meals where he lived.

Records from Ann S. Hillyard, the owner of the Eagle Hotel, and other proprietors at the time, suggest that these boarding houses were often run by slaves who most likely prepared the guest’s meals and cleaned the rooms.[3] In Nathan’s letter, he describes the Eagle Hotel as “pritty sorry” and “filthy” with flies in the food and bed bugs in the sheets.[4] He continues by listing the kinds of meals he typically ate including corn pie, beef, gingercake, and weak coffee.[5] While Nathan does not describe these dishes favorably, these staple meals were symbolic of the time and the recipes offer a taste of what it was like to live in Chapel Hill during the 1850s.

For example, in a cookbook titled, “The young housewife’s counsellor and friend,” written in 1875, Mason describes a dish called “Green Corn Pie”.[6] The dish consists of one quart of “scraped” green corn, three egg yolks, butter, salt, red pepper, and tomato juice.[7] After creating the base, the cook is directed to fill the dish with “plenty of butter” and then add two “stewed chickens”.[8] Then, he/she is instructed to cover the dish with the “corn batter” and bake in a “moderate oven till well done”.[9]

In conclusion, based on the dishes Nathan describes in his letter, the reader can develop an understanding of what types of foods were available in Chapel Hill during 1857. Even though the recipe for corn pie did not appear in a southern cookbook until 1875, this recipe helps us to visualize exactly what Nathan was eating, and distinguishes the southern Chapel Hill palate. Finally, based on the status quo of the era and records from homeowners, we acknowledge that slave ownership was prominent and provides a look into who was preparing the meals and taking care of the rooms and grounds of the Eagle Hotel.


[1] Neal, Nathan P. “Letter from Nathan P. Neal to Aaron and Elizabeth Neal, September 2, 1857”.  In the Neal Family Papers, published by William H. Pleasants. Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Accessed October 3, 2018

[2] Bryant, Bernard Lee. Occupants and Structures of Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, North Carolina   at 5-Year Intervals, 1793-1998. Chapel Hill: Chapel Hill Historical Society, 1999. Accessed October 3, 2018

[3] “12 June 1849. “Trustees in account with Ann S. Hillyard.”,” UNC Libraries, accessed October 3, 2018,

[4] Ibid., 1

[5] Ibid., 1

[6] Mason, Mary Ann Bryan. “Vegetables.” In The Young Housewife’s Counsellor and Friend : Containing Directions in Every Department of Housekeeping; Including the Duties of  Wife and Mother, 234. New York: E.J. Hale & son, 1875.

[7] Ibid., 6

[8] Ibid., 6

[9] Ibid., 6