Friday, March 14, 2014

Log Cabin Cooking

 By Anna Kathryn Lanier

Two things I like are historical books about the old west and cookbooks.  Lucky for me, I discovered both in one when I found LOG CABIN COOKING: PIONEER RECIPES AND FOOD LORE by Barbara Swell.

You've gotten your family moved clear across the country (a four to six month trip via covered wagon) and now you've set up house in a hand-hewed log cabin. Along one wall is a fireplace, used for heating and lighting as well as for cooking.  Swell tells us, “Kettles were hung on poles built into the fireplace. Other foods were prepared in the coals or on pots over the coals.  The lucky family had an oven for bread baking built into the hearth.  A fire was built up in the oven and allowed to burn down, then the ashes were swept out and the bread was put in to bake.”

The pioneer cook had to ‘make-do’ with what she had on hand. Few cooks had measuring instruments, so they became good at ‘eyeballing’ amounts of ingredients needed, the textures and the appearance of food in various states. Swell goes on to say, “Notice how a teaspoon of salt looks and feels in your hand. Feel the weight of a cup of sugar. Notice the texture of a medium batter. What does soft butter, the size of an egg look like? Taste your food as you go along, adjust seasoning when needed.”

On page nine of LOG CABIN COOKING, Swell gives a pioneer cook’s measurements for ingredients:


1 Tbs (heaped) = size of a hickory nut
2 Tbs (heaped) = size of an egg (1 stick)
4 Tbs (heaped) = one teacup (2 sticks)
1 pound butter = 2 teacups well packed (4 sticks)


5 Tbs sifted flour or meal (heaped) = one teacup
1 Tbs sugar (heaped) = one ounce
7 Tbs granulated sugar (heaped) = one teacup
1 pound coffee = two teacups (heaped)
1 pound sifted flour = 4 teacups (level)


8 oz = one teacup

When we want to make a yeast bread, we usually just reach for that little low packet of yeast, but commercial yeast and baking powder did not become popular until the late 19th century. So, what was the pioneer cook suppose to use instead? Saleratus, or baking soda as it’s known today, could be combined with sour milk to produce the carbon dioxide needed to rise breads.  In addition, “homemade baking powder was by combing saleratus with cream of tartar and corn starch.”

Reading for pioneer recipes? Remember, many of the recipes Swell shares are ‘inexact’, so you have to refer to her measurements given above when making these recipes.


2 cups flour
4 Tbs shortening (size of an egg)
¾ tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
2/3 cup sweet milk

Cut shortening into flour, salt, and baking powder. Add milk, roll out on a floured board and cut into shapes. Bake on a greased sheet in hot (450°) oven until browned.


Boil 2 cups water, add ½ tsp salt, and sprinkle in cornmeal slowly until mush becomes thick. Eat warm with butter and honey or molasses or put in bread pan and chill until set. Slice and fry in frying pan with a bit of butter until crisp on both sides, then serve with maple syrup or honey.

Since many cooks were illiterate, they would remember recipes by setting them to rhyme.


Two cups Indian (cornmeal), one cup wheat;
One cup good eggs that you can eat.
One-half cup molasses too,
One big spoon sugar added thereto;
Salt and soda, each a small spoon.
Mix up quickly and bake it soon.
                From: My Folks Come in a Covered Wagon


This is a fruit coffee cake that tastes great and is a snap to make.

2 Tbs. butter
1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1 tsp baking powder
1-2 cups berries, any kind

Melt butter in iron skillet. Stir dry ingredients together and add milk, mixing until no lumps remain. Pour into skillet with melted butter. Sprinkle berries over the top and cook at 350 ° oven for about 35-40 minutes. Sugar sprinkled on top before baking adds a great touch.


Here’s a modern version of a tasty, economical mock pecan pie.  This is REALLY good.

2 eggs
½ cup sugar
¾ cup old fashion oats (not quick cooking)
¾ cup dark corn syrup
¾ cup coconut
2 Tbs. melted butter

Combine ingredients and pour into an unbaked pie shell.  Bake at 350° until it looks done. The oats will be on top. The pie will look brown and bubbly.

Available at Barnes and Noble.

Just a note: aside from purchasing this book and loving it, I have no connection whatsoever with the author.

Anna Kathryn Lanier
Never let your memories be greater than your dreams. ~Doug Ivester 


  1. These sound like some awesome recipes and should be easier to cook on a modern stove rather than in a fireplace. I have the Little House on the Prairie cook book, and it's interesting to read the recipes and imagine Ma Ingalls cooking them.

  2. Nice post, Anna Kathryn. I'm so happy I don't have to cook on a fireplace! Still, it's interesting to read about that style cooking and it's helpful to us historical writers.

  3. This is interesting reading. But I'd be stuck at "the size of a hickory nut." I don't think I've ever seen a hickory tree...or nut. But I could use my imagination.
    My Granny cooked this way. When I was very small, she cooked on a big cast iron wood-burning stove. I assume that was messy. As I grew into elementary school, she got a kerosene burning stove. Sadly, she passed away before she turned 60.
    My mother cooked somewhat like Granny, in that she might get out a recipe, but would change it or estimate some items, and still her meals were great. She was a wonderful cook.
    Thanks--these kinds of posts bring back a lot of memories.
    And...your photo is beautiful!

  4. Hi, Anne-Marie. Thanks for stopping by. I would love to have a Little House on the Prairie cookbook. I recently bought two complete sets of those books to give to my granddaughters. Not sure if I will keep them for Christmas or not.

  5. Hi, Caroline. I have never cooked in a fireplace either, I'm not sure how I'd do with one.

  6. Celia, thanks for stopping by. The book included a gauge for judging how hot a woodburning stove was by holding your hand over it and timing how long it took it to get hot. Thank goodness we have dials today!

  7. What a great resource, Anna Kathryn! Thanks for letting us know about this book. I intend to pick up a copy right away. :-)

  8. Hi, Kathleen. You're welcome. It's full of recipes and tid bits! I love it.

  9. How very cool--thank you for sharing! Does the book only focus on open hearth cooking, or does it also cover cooking on a wood stove?

  10. I can't wait to try the cobbler with strawberries! I live in strawberry country. Great recipes. Yum. Xo

  11. Yvonne, the recipes are set to be cooked in a modern oven. But the tidbits she offers include woodstove cooking.

  12. Tanya, thanks for stopping by. I hope the cobbler works out for you!


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