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Food for Thought
Eating on the Oregon Trail
Years ago my husband and I visited the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City, Oregon. Though I vaguely remembered studying the Oregon Trail in school, most of my knowledge came from novels I had read, and believe me, it was definitely lacking.
Have you ever been to a movie that was so compellingso completely absorbingthat you had a hard time re-entering the real world when you walked out of the theater? That is exactly what I experienced at the Interpretive Center. I simply did not want to leave. Displays were so realistic and informative that my fascination with that time period began to grow.
Last month I tried some heirloom recipes (with mixed success) and promised to try some Oregon Trail dishes this month. You will have to bear with me, because even though I tried to be selective, I didn't even attempt any of the breads, so I think we'll be visiting the Oregon Trail for one more month!
This month I'll show you a day's worth of trail recipes. Next month I'll finish my trip to the past by trying out some bread recipes used by the pioneers. Get your sourdough starter ready!
The menu I created was probably pretty excessive, more typical of a rest day, or possibly a celebration like the Fourth of July. A typical day on the trail is hard to pin down; in the beginning of the trip there would be more fresh food available and certainly more energy for cooking it! The earliest pioneers found it easier to find game, greens, and berries on the trail. By the time the railroads came through and the emigrants slowed to a trickle, game was hard to find, and so was firewood to cook it with.
Some families brought a milk cow. Buckets of milk were hung from the wagons and by the end of the day the milk had been "churned" into butter. Eggs were often brought on the trip, tucked in barrels of cornmeal. When they ran out or went bad, the only eggs available were from the few families who brought chickens or by being lucky enough to find fresh wild turkey eggs.
Breakfast was a hurry-up affair, because the wagon trains wanted to be moving when the sun came up. Cornmeal mush was standard, as were biscuits and cornbread. Sometimes there was bacon, though you probably wouldn't recognize it as such; it was actually closer to what we know as fatback. Coffee was a must. I read that the people who survived the trip were those who drank coffee and tea because the water was boiled, keeping them from getting diseases like cholera.
For my pioneer breakfast, I made flapjacks that are a cross between cornbread and pancakes. Trying to keep them as authentic as possible, I ground my own dry corn and used a flour that is a finely ground whole wheat, since white flour was saved for special occasions, and bleached flour didn't exist yet. I fried them on a cast iron skillet in hot bear fat.
Before you run right out and buy some freshly ground corn and bear fat, I assure you that yellow corn meal and lard (or shortening) will work just fine!
Lunch was usually whatever was at hand. Cold leftover beans, jerky, dried fruit, and the inevitable hardtack (a very hard, almost tasteless biscuit) were commonly eaten. Take your pick!
Preparations for supper sometimes began in the wagons during the day. Bread dough was made and timed carefully so that it was ready to bake once the wagons stopped for the night. Noodles were cut and hung to dry, and dry beans were soaked. Once camped, I would imagine the women scurried to get the meal ready quickly.
Though lightweight reflective tin ovens were sometimes used, Dutch ovens buried in the coals of a campfire were more common for baking. Think of the challenge those women faced, trying to bake things at an even temperature! It makes me want to go in my kitchen right now and kiss my stove.
The trail dinner I made is a special one, because instead of the more common prairie chicken or antelope, someone was a good shot and got an elk. If you would like to try this recipe, beef will work just fine. Or to be very authentic, pick up a package of buffalo meat! I made elk and gravy with wild onions over homemade noodles, with beans and biscuits on the side. It's an awfully "brown" meal, but vegetables were hard to come by on the trail. Trust me, after walking all day it would taste mighty fine!
For the noodles, I again used the wheat flour, and they turned out surprisingly goodchewy and flavorful. The original recipe suggested drying the noodles over a chair, but I learned that this recipe made a fairly fragile dry noodle, and half of them ended up on the floor when I tried to remove them. So . . . I recommend drying them on a cooling rack!
Beans were a staple on the Oregon Trail. When game was hard to find and the supply of bacon and jerky was depleted, settlers counted on beans for their protein needs. I soaked beans, cooked them, and seasoned them, but didn't bake them. Maybe the pioneers left pots of beans to bake in a Dutch oven all night, but there certainly wasn't time to bake them for supper. They were delicious this way, just not the sticky, sugary beans I'm familiar with.
I made biscuits using the fine wheat flour, bear fat, and buttermilk. I used a teaspoon of baking soda (similar to the saleratus the pioneers brought with them) but cheated a little and used some baking powder. I've made biscuits using only baking soda (accidentally . . . one of my famous mistakes) and this was not an option as far as I was concerned. The biscuits were pretty good; not as light as I'd like, but probably a lot lighter than those made on the trail!
Even with the handicaps the women enduredlack of supplies, primitive cooking conditions, time constraintsthey still managed to produce decent food and an occasional pie or cake, for the sake of morale. They often included dried fruit (usually apples) as a treat. Dried raisins, apples, and peaches were the most common fruits used by the pioneers. In fact, dried apples were so common they were despised by some before the long trip was over.
I tried two desserts, both of which were very good. When I saw a recipe for Apple Dumpling Soup I realized it would have been a very easy and satisfying dessert on the trail. I'm going to pretend this apple dessert is a welcome treat in the early part of the adventure!
My last recipe is for Steamed Huckleberry Pudding that is somewhere between a cake and a soft bread in texture. One version I found called for suet, but lard is interchangeable for suet in this type of recipe. Since I didn't have lard, I used bear fat. You may (of course) use shortening.
A steamed dessert would have been easy to cook on the trail, with the batter put in some kind of mold and set into water in the Dutch oven, then cooked over the fire. I used two one-pound coffee cans, lined with foil, and steamed my dessert on the stove in a large pot. Use any berry you would like, or raisins if you prefer.
After a day of experimenting in the kitchen, I faced a sink that was heaping full of pots, pans, and whatever hadn't fit into the dishwasher. I was feeling a little bit sorry for myself until I thought of how amazed those pioneer women would have been to see hot water coming out of my faucet, liquid soap squeezed from a plastic bottle, and the array of implements in my cupboards and drawers. I could throw the dishtowels in the washing machine and run the dishwasher before I settled down in my recliner to read from my Kindle.
I washed those pans with a great big smile on my face for once!
Contact Lorinda at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lorinda resides in Eastern Washington, where she joyously combines her love of cooking and gardening. Baking is her passion, and licking the batter off the spoon after making a cake is her reward. When she's not in the kitchen, she's out in the garden pulling weeds and snacking on young peas. Also enjoy Lorinda's blog, The Rowdy Baker.
Food for Thought copyright 2014.