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.
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.
(1) WOMEN’S DIARES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY by Lillian Schlissel
(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