Pioneer Lessons From The Past That Can Save Your Life In The Future
Have you ever wondered what life was really like for pioneers living in the American West during the late 19th century? How did they fare without the modern conveniences we take for granted? Could a modern-day family handle a pioneer family’s lifestyle? Join us as we try to answer some of these questions.
This history lesson plan explores some of the foods eaten in the pioneer world. Read this history lesson plan with your American history students, then do the attached history worksheet with your students to reinforce what they have learned about pioneer foods.
In the pioneer world, people were not able to go to the nearest grocery store to pick up food for dinner. If you had used the term “fast food” with one of the pioneers they would have thought you picked something from the garden and ate it, because preparing food in the pioneer world was an art, as well as a chore.
Have you ever had to get creative to make something to eat at home? Pioneers constantly had to get creative and try new things in order to survive. Read below to see what kinds of things the pioneers would have eaten and how they were prepared.
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Though our mouths may water at the thought of daily servings of fresh-baked bread and homegrown vegetables, sickness, malnutrition, and starvation were very real possibilities for homesteaders. Finding and preparing food on the frontier was a ceaseless, daily task that took the majority of a settler’s time.The bulk of homesteaders’ diets were harvested from their claim or gathered from the wilderness that surrounded them. “Store-bought” items consisted of those few items which could not be grown, shot, picked, or made on the farm. Aside from being too pricey for any regular “grocery shopping” (as all goods had to be imported from “the East” or elsewhere), stores and shops on the frontier were a far cry from the popular image of the well-stocked, cozy “mercantile.” Prior to the early 20th century, there were no laws governing tampering with food products; storekeepers on the frontier quickly discovered that it was profitable to “stretch” their inventories. It was not uncommon for a pound of flour purchased in a general store to be half plaster. Cornmeal was “plumped” with sawdust. Coffee might contain dyed navy beans, dry-roasted peas, or even small pebbles. Luckily for the homesteaders, they often lived a prohibitive distance from the nearest store, and “trips to town” were few and far between. Jennie C. Forsythe, who settled in Sweet Grass County, Montana, in the 1880s, remembered that “The nearest trading point was Bozeman (that was also the nearest doctor).
Father would make two trips a year and do all our trading at that time. If he didn’t get something then, we did without it or made due with what we had.”One basic food source for almost every frontier family was the vegetable garden, or “kitchen garden.” Many families planted two gardens a year: one in the spring, which would supply greens, peas, and radishes, and one in the summer, which would provide heartier vegetables such as pumpkins, beans, potatoes, and squash. Settlers brought seeds with them to their new homes, bought them once they arrived on the frontier, or wrote to relatives “back East” asking for a hasty shipment. Creating bountiful gardens required constant vigilance against gophers, deer, bears, crows, and a host of other “invaders.”
Pioneers often ate heavy meals. But there was virtually no obesity. Why is that? All their foods were natural with no chemicals and they were constantly working so they never had a chance to just sit! History often repeats itself and you can see that in the foods around you now. The next time you go to the grocery store, look around you and you will notice more and more dried fruits and nuts and organically prepared foods. These are the types of foods pioneers ate and they are much healthier than any type of fast food you may buy!
A successful garden was critical to homesteaders’ ability to feed themselves and their families; a single heavy storm or an unexpected frost could, in fact, destroy half a year’s supplies.Though ice-boxes were available beginning in the 1830s, most settlers did not have regular access to ice. To chill foods such as butter, homesteaders placed them in earthen crocks in springs or wells.In addition to the fruits and vegetables grown in their gardens, settlers also quickly grew to recognize edible plants growing wild near their homes. In southern Montana, where the Frontier House participants settled, watercress grew wild along the rivers, and great thickets of chokecherries and huckleberries supplied homesteaders with fruit. Even berry-picking could be an adventure on the frontier, since berry patches were frequented by bears. Settlers quickly learned to pick in pairs, with one settler assigned to “lookout duty.”
he majority of vegetables grown in the garden or fruits picked from the wild were immediately preserved for the long winter months, since scurvy was a constant threat and settlers did their best to keep a well-balanced diet. Catharine Beecher, sister of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN author Harriet Beecher Stowe, and a sort of 19th-century version of Martha Stewart, wrote in 1873,”A thrifty and generous provider will see to it that her store-closet is furnished with such a variety of articles that successive changes can be made in diet for a good length of time.”By far, the most common method of preserving fruits and some types of vegetables was to dry them. Fruit was set under cheesecloth in the sun (one homesteader insisted that the cabin roof was an ideal place to dry fruit), until it became shriveled and hard. This dried fruit was then hung in a cellar or storeroom until needed.
Months later, when the fruit was eaten, it was soaked in water, and then stewed with sugar, to make it palatable. Even so, stewed fruit was often leathery and tasteless. The 1858 introduction of the Mason jar, with its rubber ring and wire clamp, did little to decrease the amount of time dedicated to preserving settlers’ scanty supplies of fruits and vegetables.
Pioneers ate lots of vegetables because they could be grown in large amounts and canned if the pioneers had the materials to can with. If they did not have the materials to can with, then they would simply dry out what vegetables they could and cook them later. However, one frost could destroy an entire crop and there were no grocery stores to go to in order to get more!
As you drive down the road in the summer, you may notice signs for “U-pick” fruits such as strawberries and blueberries. Pioneers had to go into the forest to pick their berries. In doing so, pioneers would have to be aware of any bears that might also want to be picking berries! Fruit was dried for later use or canned if the materials were available. Fruit was often the only “sweets” that pioneers had access to!
One popular “Coffee substitute” recipe advised settlers to roast molasses-soaked bran in the oven until it was charred black.
The bran could then be ground like coffee beans, and the resultant brew was “a very tasty drink for a number of months.Drying and stewing fruit was a picnic compared to the elaborate rituals involved in the preparation and preservation of meat. If settlers lived near a sizable town or city, they relied on a meat market. Homesteaders who had been on their homesteads for a period of time might have a few chickens, but it took a substantial period of time to build up a sizable flock. Most homesteaders obtained their fresh meat by hunting. In an area such as Montana, homesteaders would have had access to deer, pheasant, wild turkey, rabbits, bears, and a variety of fish. However, once game was killed, it almost immediately had to be prepared or preserved. In summer months, meat would go bad in an afternoon.
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If meat was to be kept for a few days, settlers par-boiled or par-roasted it, and finished cooking it immediately before eating. If it started to go bad, women’s magazines suggested to “try rubbing a little salt on it, to restore its nourishing qualities.”Settlers had other means of preserving meats for longer periods of time. To pickle meat, homesteaders essentially salted it to the point that it would no longer rot. Catharine Beecher offered the following procedure in her Homekeeper and Healthkeeper’s Companion:”To preserve one hundred pounds of beef, you will need four quarts of rock salt, pounded fine; four ounces of saltpeter, pounded fine; and four pounds of brown sugar. Mix these well. Put a layer of meat in the bottom of a barrel, with a thin layer of the mixture under it. Pack the meat into the barrel in layers, and between each layer put proportions of the mixture, allowing a little more to the top layer.
Then, pour in brine till the barrel is full … if the brine ever looks bloody, or smells badly, it must be scalded, and more salt put to it, and poured over the meat.”Brine was saltwater that was traditionally “strong enough to float an egg.” Preserved in this way, homesteaders could keep meats for weeks and months at a time. However, like the other staple of pioneer diet, salt pork, “salted down” meat had to be laboriously rinsed, scrubbed, and soaked before consumption. One of the few positive aspects of winter on the frontier was that meat could be hung outside and frozen, or, as Catharine Beecher noted, “packed carefully with snow in a barrel.” Settlers with access to wood also cured their meats in smokehouses, a process that involved feeding a smoky fire under the meat for days — and weeks — at a time.
Meat. Pioneers hunted for their meat, but the work did not stop there. Once they made the kill, they would have to clean and prepare the meat for storage. First the meat would have to be skinned and the insides removed. Then it would have to be cut into manageable chunks. Once the meat was cut up, pioneers would often salt their meat heavily in order to preserve it for long periods of time. The result was that when the pioneers went to cook the meat, they first had to scrub it in order to remove the salt and make the meat taste good.
Period stove purchased for the series
.reparing the foods that they had laboriously raised, dried, hunted, or smoked was another time-consuming aspect of food preparation. For many frontier families, the fireplace was the primary means of cooking. Fireplace cooking necessitated the use of a complicated system of hooks and brackets over the flames, from which pots and kettles were hung. Settlers also made great use of “dutch ovens,” half-cylinders of tin which sat in front of the fire and cooked meats.
Though cookstoves were increasingly available, and offered such startling conveniences as broilers, ovens, and hot water heaters, they still had to be continuously supplied with fuel and banked at night. Cookstoves also tended to belch ashes into the air, and fill the home with a variety of noxious fumes.
Homesteaders were often short on containers for food storage. Former kerosene cans were pressed into service, and could be used “for two or three years, until the can discolored the fruit, or until it made the juice black, and tasting of tin.”The success of cooking in either fireplaces or stoves was largely based on intuition, guesswork, and luck.
One popular guide advised, “You know your oven is ready for baking when you can hold your hand in it for twenty seconds but no longer,” while another suggested the following scientific method:”To test the oven put a half a sheet of writing paper [in it]; if it catches fire the oven is too hot; open the dampers and wait ten minutes, then put in another piece of paper; if it blackens it is still too hot. Ten minutes later put in a third piece; if it gets dark brown, then the oven is right for a small pastry. This is ‘Dark brown paper heat.’ Light brown paper heat is suitable for vol-au-vents or fruit pies. Dark yellow paper heat for large pieces of pastry or meat pies, bread, etc. To obtain these various degrees of heat try the paper every ten minutes till the heat required for the purpose is attained.”Recipes were equally sketchy.
Though cookbooks existed, most dishes were handed down orally from mother to daughter. Rather than careful measurements of ingredients, foods were prepared with “a pinch” of this and “a fistful” of that. Many frontierwomen would have been dumbfounded if asked to write down their favorite recipes.Lack of supplies and lack of cash led many pioneers to dream up “alternative versions” of favorite dishes, as well as to substitute, improvise, and invent while cooking.
Molasses stood in for sugar. Vinegar could be used to imitate lemons. Boiled, mashed beans mixed with plenty of nutmeg and allspice made a lovely pumpkin pie. Catharine Beecher revealed that “two tablespoonfuls of snow, stewed in quickly [to the batter] is equal to one egg in puddings or pan cakes.” Another frontier cook determined that you could stew up “orange marmalade” by boiling carrots in a sugary syrup flavored with ginger.
While contemporary stomachs might turn at the quality of the salty, fatty dishes served in frontier houses, it must be kept in mind that most homesteaders were engaged in relentless daily physical labor. The conditions they lived with on a daily basis — including the tasks associated with preparing their food — burned far more calories than the average twenty-minute workout. A nice green salad with tofu wouldn’t serve you too well if you were sleeping in a room where it was 20 degrees below zero. Frontier food on the tended to be simple, heavy, and “rib-sticking.” Nebraska homesteader Myrtle Oxford Hersh observed, “We had food which met the needs of growing bodies, and we did not have to keep a bottle of vitamins from A to Z to keep us in good health.”
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A Melting Pot of Pioneer Recipes
Velvet Chicken Soup
3 or 4 pounds chicken
3 quarts cold water
1 tablespoon salt
6 peppercorns (or 1/4 teaspoon white pepper)
1 small onion, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped celery
2 cups rich milk or cream
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon butter
Salt and pepper
2 eggs, well beaten
Thoroughly clean chicken and cut into pieces. Put in covered kettle with cold water and salt. Bring to boil quickly and simmer until chicken is tender. Remove chicken from stock and remove meat from bones (saving meat to use in croquettes, pie, etc.) Return bones to soup stock and add peppercorns (or white pepper), chopped onions, and chopped celery. Simmer together until a little more than a quart of stock remains in pan; strain, cool, and remove all fat. Add rich milk or cream, bring to a boil, and thicken with cornstarch that’s been mixed smooth with a little cold water. Add butter and season to taste. Beat eggs with a little cream. Pour 1 cup soup over egg mixture, stirring well, then pour egg-soup mixture back into soup, stirring constantly, and cook 2 minutes. Serve hot in soup dishes, adding bite-size croutons if desired.
Side Pork and Mormon Gravy
Mormon gravy, common fare among the early settlers and apparently a creation of necessity expressly for the times, is still hearty and nourishing for many of this generation who like to make it with ground beef or frizzled ham or bacon and serve it over baked potatoes.
8 thick slices side pork (or thick-cut bacon strips)
4 tablespoons meat drippings
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
Salt, pepper, paprika
Cook meat on both sides in heavy frying pan until crisp. Remove from pan and keep warm. Measure fat and return desired amount to skillet. Add flour and brown slightly. Remove from heat and add milk, stirring well to blend. Return to heat and cook and stir until mixture is thick and smooth. Season to taste. Serve with side pork on potatoes, biscuits, cornbread, or even pancakes.
The years 1862 and 1863 saw thousands of Scandinavian Saints leaving their homeland to come to Zion. With them came some of their favorite recipes, including Norwegian fruit soup and Swedish jam cake.
Norwegian Fruit Soup
1 cup water
1 tablespoon dried currants
1 tablespoon raisins
1-inch stick cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons sago or quick-cooking tapioca
To each cup water, add amounts given above of prunes, currants, raisins, and cinnamon. Cook until fruit is tender. Add sugar, vinegar, and sago or tapioca and bring to a full rolling boil. Remove from heat, remove stick cinnamon, and allow to stand for a few minutes before serving.
Swedish Jam Cake
1/2 cup butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon soda
1 cup buttermilk
2 1/2 cups sifted flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 cup strawberry jam
Cream butter and sugar; add beaten egg yolks and salt. Dissolve soda in buttermilk. Sift together flour and spices and add to creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk, adding flour last. Beat well and add jam. Fold in beaten egg whites. Bake in greased and floured 8×8-inch pan at 375° F. for 35 to 40 minutes.
Native Currant Whirligig
Of English origin, “currant whirligig” was made in pioneer times with native wild currants. It is equally good made with other tart berries, such as cranberries.
3/4 cup sugar or 2/3 cup honey
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup hot water
3 cups cleaned and washed black or red currants (or other tart berries)
Mix sugar, flour, spices, and salt together. Pour slowly into hot water, stirring constantly. (If using honey, use cold rather than hot water and blend ingredients together before heating.) Cook until thickened, stirring. Place currants in 8×8-inch square pan or baking dish and pour hot sauce over them. Set into preheated 350° F. oven while making topping.
1 1/2 cups sifted flour
3/4 teaspoon soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup lard or shortening
1 large egg
3 tablespoons milk (soured with 1/2 teaspoon vinegar)
1/4 cup sugar or honey
3 tablespoons melted butter
Sift flour, soda, baking powder, salt, and sugar into mixing bowl. Cut in shortening, then add egg and milk. Mix to stiff dough. Roll into 9×12-inch rectangle; spread with honey and melted butter mixture. Roll from long side as for a jelly roll, pinching edges, and cut into 9 pieces. Remove berry sauce from oven and place dough swirls at even intervals on top of hot fruit filling. Bake at 350° F. for 15 minutes. Serve warm with or without whipped cream.
Spiced Red Cabbage
Typically German, this recipe for spiced red cabbage has been passed down as a favorite. It is still used in many homes today, traditionally in some as part of the Christmas feast.
4 cups shredded red cabbage
2 onions, thinly sliced
1 medium-sized apple
1 small potato, sliced
2 tablespoons vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon shortening
Combine cabbage, onion, apple, and potato in small amount of boiling salted water and simmer until tender. Drain and combine with remaining ingredients.
This currant bread recipe was brought from Wales in 1856. The Welsh people often used it as a Christmas bread. The Saints found wild currants when they first arrived in the valley, and it is possible that they dried them for winter use. Raisins were not available until later, when cuttings for grapes were brought from California.
1 yeast cake
1/4 cup lukewarm water
9 cups flour
2 cups shortening
1 pound raisins
1 pound dried currants
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup molasses
3 halves candied lemon peel, cut fine
1 tablespoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon salt
3 cups (about) water
Soften yeast in 1/4 cup lukewarm water. Cut shortening into flour. Add remaining ingredients, including yeast mixture, except water. Mix thoroughly, then add enough warm water (about 3 cups) to make a soft but not sticky dough. Let rise overnight (about 7 hours), then form into 4 small loaves. Let rise again (about 2 hours) and bake at 300° F. for 1 1/2 hours. Especially good with cheese.
This potato cake recipe came across the plains with a young woman from Austria over a hundred years ago. Potato cakes are delicious served hot or cold with any kind of meat, fish, poultry, or salad.
6 medium potatoes
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup milk
1 cup flour
Wash and peel potatoes, then grate medium fine. Combine with salt, milk, eggs, and flour. Drop mixture by spoonfuls into hot shortening in skillet and fry to golden brown on both sides.
With the wild fruits—plums, cherries, grapes, gooseberries, currants—and the glorious fresh fruit cultivated so successfully from imported cuttings, the early pioneer women were soon making some of the delicacies that reminded them of “home.” Two of the favorites were Swiss apple-cherry pie, a recipe that came into the valley with a young Swiss convert who was famed for its making, and 101-year-old pastry, as good today as it was in the early days.
Swiss Apple-Cherry Pie
4 large cooking apples
6 tablespoons butter
2 1/2 cups pitted sour pie cherries, fresh or canned
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Make pastry for two-crust pie. Pare, core, and slice apples. Melt 2 tablespoons butter and brush on bottom of pastry shell. Arrange a layer of apples on bottom of pastry shell. Mix dry ingredients and sprinkle portion over layer of apples. Arrange layer of red cherries, then sprinkle with some of dry ingredients; then layer of apples and dry ingredients; layer of cherries and dry ingredients; and end with layer of apples. Top with dots of remaining butter. After top crust is added to pie, rub crust with cream or evaporated milk and sprinkle with mixture of 1/2 teaspoon sugar and 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon. Bake at 425° F. for 30 to 40 minutes.
2 1/2 cups sifted flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup lard or shortening
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon vinegar
Cut shortening into flour and salt. Beat egg lightly in a 1 1/2-cup measure; add vinegar and fill cup with cold water. Add just barely enough liquid to dry ingredients to hold dough together—about 4 tablespoons—reserving remaining liquid for next batch of pastry. Handle dough as little as possible. Roll out into pastry and use as desired. Makes two 9-inch pie shells.
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