Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Cooking on the Western Trail

by Anna Kathryn Lanier

Happy Valentine’s Day!  I thought about doing something in honor of the day, but decided against it.  Most other bloggers are doing such blogs, but really, truly I just didn’t feel like doing research on the history of Valentine’s Day.  So instead I found an article on cooking on the western trail in THE OLD WEST: THE PIONEERS, from Time-Life Books. One of the articles includes recipes, so here’s a blog on cooking on the western trail.

Though the pioneer women were used to cooking, doing so on an open flame was not something they knew how to do.  Cooking on the trail was not easy and they learned by trial and error.  Helen Carpenter, a new bride making her way west on her honeymoon, wrote: “Although there is not much to cook, the difficulty and inconvenience in doing it amounts to a great deal—so by the time one has squatted around the fire and cooked bread and bacon, and made several dozen trips to and from the wagon—washed the dishes….and gotten things ready for an early breakfast, some of the others already have their night caps on—at any rate it is time to go to bed.” (1)  She also comments, “It is hurry scurry to get breakfast and put away things that necessarily had to be pulled out the last night…nooning is barely long enough to eat a cold bite—and at night all the cooking utensils and provisions are to be gotten about the camp fire, and cooking enough to last until the next night.” (2)

THE OLD WEST says that pioneers built campfires twice a day (in the morning and at night) using what fuel they could find: buffalo chips, sagebrush or weeds. “Bread, bacon and coffee were staples of their diet, augmented by any random harvest they could reap en route: fresh buffalo meat, rabbit or sage hen.” Eliza Ann McAuley writes “In cutting a way for the road, the boys find thickets of wild currants. There are several varieties, the black, the red and the white. The boys cut the bushes, some of them ten feet long and loaded with ripe currants, which we strip off and make into jelly, currant wine and vinegar, dried currants and currant pie.” (3)

THE OLD WEST tells us that in the early years of emigration, the pioneers could find and kill buffalo or antelope along the trail, but “a more dependable supply of fresh meat was a herd of cattle led behind the wagon.” And the milk provided by the milk cow was highly prized.  Not only was there a supply of fresh milk, but butter could be churned during the day’s journey by hanging pails on the jolting wagon; by day’s end, the butter was ready for the freshly baked bread.

The pioneer cook had to be resourceful and ingenious when it came to cooking.  She would have to improvise when supplies ran short, because no matter how well one packed the wagon, supplies did not always last as planned. For example, bacon if not protected from the heat of the plains would go bad.  It was standard for bacon to be packed in a barrel of bran to insulate it.  Eggs were similarly packed in corn meal to keep them from breaking, but also because they’d be used to make bread. 

The women usually cooked breakfast and dinner.  Lunch would have been ‘leftovers,’ often baked beans or stew with bread or biscuits from the night before.  Below are a few recipes from common ‘trail’ foods. Thankfully, THE OLD WEST updated the recipes for us.

Soda Bread:

To make dough, mix 1 teaspoon of baking soda with 1 cup warm water, add 2¼ cups flour and 1 teaspoon salt. Knead well. The dough may be used at once or allowed to rise overnight in a warm place. In either case, flatten dough to a thickness of 1 inch. Place on a greased cookie sheet and bake in a 400° oven for 25 minutes.

Dried Apple Pie:

Soak 2 cups of dried apples in water overnight. Drain off water and mix apples with ½ cup sugar and 1 teaspoon each of allspice and cinnamon.  Line an 8-inch pie pan with a crust, and add the apple mixture. Dot with 3 tablespoons butter and cover with a second pie crust.  Make a few slashes in the top for ventilation and bake in a 350° oven for about 1 hour or until crust is golden brown.

And just for fun – Buffalo Jerky

Slice buffalo meat along the grain into strips 1/8-inch thick, ½-inch wide and 2 to 3 inches long.  Hang them on a rack in a pan and bake at 200° until dry.  To prepare outside, suspend them over a fire or drape them on bushes to dry in the sun.

Other references:
(2)    PLAINS WOMEN: Women in the American West by Paula Bartley and Cathy Loxton
(3)    COVERED WAGON WOMEN: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, 1852 by Kenneth L. Holmes
Anna Kathryn Lanier
Never let your memories be greater than your dreams. ~Doug Ivester 


  1. I am so glad I don't have to cook over a campfire or in a fireplace. I would have been a bad pioneer.

  2. LOL, Caroline. Now you'd make a bad pioneer, but back then, you most likely would have been used to cooking in, at least, a fireplace. One pioneer I've blog about, Keturah Belknap, stated in her diary she'd never cooked on a stove. She used the fireplace in their house.

    It was the upper class I feel sorry for. They usually had cooks back home and most likely didn't know how to cook on a stove or fireplace, let alone on a campfire. I've read at least one diary where the writer was commenting on another woman who had trouble cooking, as she'd never done it before.

  3. I've cooked over an open fire when camping. We went on a three day pack trip last summer, and three days was enough. Those women were amazing.

  4. As much as I fantasize how fun it would be to go back in time and cross in a covered wagon... I don't think I would have enjoyed the chores those women faced. Great post!

  5. No wonder pioneer women didn't live to a ripe old age, what with all the work, and having so many children, sometimes without doctors how could they. But you gotta give them credit, they tried and if not for them we would not be here. So I salute them, they must have worked from sun up to sun down and then some...
    Rita Hestand

  6. I'd like to think I could've cooked or done whatever else was required of the pioneer woman. We all do what we have to do in our particular situation; I just wouldn't have wanted to! That tells a tale on me!! Great post, Anna, Thanks!

  7. We live in the mountains and during the winter we lose power for days if a tree falls through the power lines. We do have a woodstove to cook on and we have gotten creative to cook. A few years back we got smart and changed the electric stove to gas so now can at least cook without power.

    Interesting blog.

  8. Loved this post! Some of my favorite childhood memories are camping out with my family, and waking to the smell of coffee brewing in a speckled tin coffee pot, and bacon being cooked by my mom. I can still see her standing there, smiling and surrounded by nature. And I can also remember making an impromptu stove out of a big Maxwell House coffee can in the Girl Scouts. The bottom of the can was used as your cooking surface, and we had cut an opening around the rim that (when you turned the can upside down) became your fire pit inside. Real sense of accomplishment as a little girl building a little fire and cooking bacon and egg on that!:)

    However, I can certainly appreciate how must more difficult it was for our pioneer matriarchs. Just building the fire (as you noted), and problems with inclement weather -- would make it stressful. I'd like to think the menfolk helped and did that! But, I come from pioneer stock and think I could have done it. haha!

    I think many of us can also relate (even in our modern times) to the pioneer bride who stated by the time you are done cooking, cleaned up and put away the dishes and pots, then perhaps set-up what you will need for the morning, everyone is ready for bed. Or, what about by the time we finally sit down to eat our breakfast, everyone is done, especially when you've been making pancakes and different style eggs for different tastes. Plus, this happens every Thanksgiving (or holiday) for me. By the time the prep work, cooking, serving, and kitchen is cleaned, all anyone wants to do is sleep -- especially me. LOL We may have modern stoves, ovens, a dishwasher, or still have to wash dishes by hand, etc., but I think anyone who cares for a family and prepares meals can understand and appreciate how much MORE difficult it was for these women on the western trail or even in a log cabin where they often cooked on an open hearth or, if they were lucky, a wood-burning stove.

    Anyway, GREAT topic. I LOVED THIS!!! Can you tell? :))) ~ Ashley

  9. I wanted so bad to be a pioneer when I was little. We got a little taste of it on our wagon train trip around the Tetons. As a kid, I guess the closest I got was making a one-pot dinner in a coffee can at a Girl Scout Campout.

  10. Hi, everyone! Thanks for stopping by. I do not envy the women on the trail. They had a really tough time. One diary I read spoke of cooking in the rain. Not fun.

    I have camped with my girl scout troops and we cooked on the can stove, Ashley, as well as a roast in a hole and on an open flame. Fun, but not something I want to do every day, twice a day.

  11. I did a lot of camping cooking where our kids were in Scouts. I can cook a full meal (roast, potatoes, carrots and onions) in a Dutch oven. Acutally had two ovens so I made bread or biscuits in the other.

    I've read many books where the heroine cooks over an open fire, and they never have the smoke blow in their eyes like I always did.

  12. I enjoy cooking over the fire when we go camping, but a few days of it is more than enough!

  13. I found this article very interesting. I like that I can actually make some of those recipies in this day and age. Thanks for sharing.

  14. And a lot of those women were pregnant. I'm way too much of a pansy to be a pioneer woman. Caroline and I can camp out at Super 8.

  15. Wow, and we think WE'VE got it hard! I can't imagine that! But I'm glad you blogged on this, because I'm working on a book that is about a wagon train and this looks like a great research book. I'll have to lay my hands on a copy of it. Very interesting blog, Anna--I loved this. So informative and it really made me appreciate my life as I was reading it. LOL

  16. Well, I didn't like cooking before I read this delightfully informative article but I can tell you right now that I would have really hated cooking on the trail. I'd rather wash the dishes all day.
    My grandmother used to cook on a coal burning stove and I thought that was hard. Whew!
    Great blog.

  17. Wow, that was interesting. I don't like cooking now, but in those conditions, I think the family would hve starved. Like Caroline, I would have been a very bad pioneer.



  18. Wow, lots of new comments since I stopped by. Thanks to everyone who did leave a comment. I find the period very interesting. It was really hard work. Keturah's diary was very interesting. Cheryl, I'm not sure what book you're talking about, but Time-Life did a whole series on the 'Old West.' I found my books at antique shops. I don't have the whole set, but I have at least three of them, Pioneer Women is one, and The Pioneers is another. Very interesting reading.

  19. Fascinating post! Hearty food for hearty souls!


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