Sunday, July 25, 2010

Food Fit for a Pioneer

Food Fit for a Pioneer

My Grandma Rose made amazing meals on her wood-burning stove. I can still see her lifting one of the iron plates with a removable handle (which I believe is called a botch handle) and feeding the fire to heat things up. My favorite was hot dogs wrapped in bacon. Probably not something that would qualify as a “meal” to health-minded folks today, but the aroma of bacon in the farmhouse kitchen and the warmth the stove gave off combined to create great memories. Of course since my childhood didn’t consist of any worries of going hungry, I can wax nostalgic about wood-burning stoves and such. I’m thinking that the women I write about wouldn’t share the sentiment.

One Nebraska pioneer shared this description of biscuit-making in late nineteenth century Nebraska: “first stoke the stove; get out the flour sack; stoke the stove; wash the hands; mix the biscuit dough with the hands; stoke the fire; wash hands; cut the biscuit dough with the top of the baking powder can; stoke the stove; wash the hands; put the biscuits into the oven; keep on firing until the hot bread is ready for the table, not forgetting to wash the hands before taking up the biscuits.”

Of course the ability to make biscuits assumed the presence of flour, fuel, and baking powder. In 1872, a pioneer woman living in Fillmore County, Nebraska shared a new recipe in a letter home: “I tried a new way to make custard I use water instead of milk and it does real well. . .If you was living in Neb you would try a great many projects that you never think of in Indiana.”

Another woman homesteading near Red Cloud, Nebraska, in 1874 wrote, “One who has never tried living on coarse bread, salt, meat and milk, without vegetables or fruit, can hardly realize much about it . . .Old Bonie had a calf three days ago and great is the excitement, while visions of butter to eat, and butter to sell, much milk and bowls of milk gravy float before our dazzled eyes.” She then waxed philosophical about the deprivation her family endured:

If we had everything all the time we wouldn't know how good they were.

How true that is. I tend to take things for granted sometimes. Like the gas range in my kitchen, the half-gallon of milk, the pound of butter, the five-pound bag of freshly milled flour. . .and the knowledge that, when I run out of anything I need, there is abundance waiting at the grocery store just a short walk away. I am blessed. . . no water-based custard here in Lincoln, Nebraska, and no need to milk Old Bonie before enjoying “butter to eat and butter to sell, much milk and bowls of milk gravy.”

Hope your week gets off to a wonderful start. . . . custard, anyone?
--Stephanie G.


  1. Hi Stephanie:

    My question is: did the pioneer food taste better and can this difference, whatever it is, be conveyed in fiction? Very interesting post.



  2. Hi Stephanie -

    I appreciate when historical fiction writers avoid romanticizing their time periods. Many lived on the edge of starvation, while others dreaded the onset of disease.

    Thank you for this look at the past. I enjoy visiting here often.

    Susan :)

  3. You just reminded me of some of the stories I've collected about the grasshopper "plagues" in the late 19th century. Thanks, Susan! You just gave me an idea for my next blogpost! Those critters actually ate the green stripes out of one farm wife's dress before she could get to the house! YIKES!