Category Archives: FAVORITE BOOKS


Let me share with you a few thoughts on old friends and old books.

Years ago—when I was young and cute and the mother of only two little boys instead of four (1965, actually), I was working at Weber Aircraft when I found myself in need of a new babysitter. A friend suggested her neighbor, a woman named Connie, who herself was the mother of three young children, the youngest a boy the same age as my son, Michael.

Those two five year olds could get into more mischief than half a dozen other children their age. Once I came home to find Connie attempting to put together half a dozen bicycles and tricycles. Michael and his buddy Sean had taken apart all the bikes and trikes—to see how they worked, I think—but they were careful to keep all the parts in one pile. What one five year old didn’t think of doing, the other one came up with. Another time I came home to hear they had painted circles on the fences and whatever else they came in contact with.

Connie became my babysitter and more importantly, a close friend. She was godmother to my youngest son, Kelly, when he was born. Connie and I shared so many interests that it’s impossible to say which one was the most important—and we shared a love of books. One of our interests focused on the White House and anything Presidential; one time we bought a “lot” of used White House/Presidential books, sight unseen, from a woman somewhere in the Midwest. I think the books cost us about $50.00 each and when they arrived, we sat on the floor divvying them up.

We shared a love of cookbooks and began collecting them at the same time, in 1965, although Connie was a vegetarian and leaned more towards cookbooks of that genre. She was also “Southern” and shared with me a love of “anything” Southern. We shared a love of diary/journal type books and books about the Mormons, books about the White House, Southern cookbooks and religious groups that formed in the United States in the 1800s. These were just a few of our mutual interests.

It was because of Connie that I started working for the Health Plan where I was employed for 27 years, until I retired in December of 2002.—I only went to work “part time for six weeks IN 1977 to help out”, and there I was all those years later, casting an eye towards retirement and pleased that I had a pension. My job literally saved my sanity when I went through a divorce in 1985.

Our sons started kindergarten together, and Connie’s oldest daughter lived with me for about six months, as a mother’s helper, when she was in high school.

More than a decade ago, on June 29, 1998, Connie died of lung cancer. It seemed incongruous that someone so devoted to eating healthy should die of such a terrible disease. In 1971, Connie and I quit smoking together, at the same time. I never went back to smoking but a year later, Connie began smoking again. It was hard to understand—why would you take up something again that had been so hard to give up in the first place? (I don’t have the answer to this).

One night, Connie’s oldest daughter brought three boxes of books to the house, explaining that it has taken a long time to go through her mother’s collections—many of her books were divided up amongst her children and other friends, but there were some that Dawn thought I would especially like.

After she left, I opened the boxes and began laying books all over the coffee table and chairs. Books about the White House – some I had never heard of before! I wish I could have had them when I was writing “WHAT’S COOKING IN THE WHITE HOUSE KITCHEN”. Intriguing titles such as “DINNER AT THE WHITE HOUSE” by Louis Adamic, memoirs of the Roosevelt years, published in 1946, and “DEAR MR. PRESIDENT; THE STORY OF FIFTY YEARS IN THE WHITE HOUSE MAIL ROOM” by Ira Smith with Joe Alex Morris, published in 1949.

There was a Congressional Cook Book – #2 – and a very nice copy of “MANY HAPPY RETURNS or How to Cook a G.O.P. Goose”, the Democrats’ Cook Book. There were several books about soups that I had never seen before another subject I have written about previously, first for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, and again on my blog. One was “THE New York Times Bread and Soup Cookbook”, another “The ALL NATURAL SOUP COOKBOOK”.

More books about Southern cooking – a few duplicates but others I was unfamiliar with, “RECIPES FROM THE OLD SOUTH” by Martha Meade, a copy of the “GONE WITH THE WIND COOKBOOK” – actually, a booklet – which was given away free with the purchase of Pebeco Toothpaste which is long gone from the drug store scene while “Gone with the Wind” is as famous as ever. (The first time I saw “Gone with the Wind” was with Connie.

My best friend and I drifted apart some years ago, after a difference of opinion –we remained friends but were not as inseparable as we once had been. She made new friends and so did I. But it was she who urged me to return to work in 1977, for which I remain forever grateful.

But I am deeply touched that some of her treasured books have come into my possession. Running my hands across the covers, I imagine that Connie had done the same thing, many times, dusting them, touching them. For in one aspect, if no other, we were kindred souls. We loved books. I still do.

Old books and old friends have a lot in common. As I have grown older, some of my dearest friends have passed away—but their books, now mine, remain treasures in my collection of books.

–Sandra Lee Smith


Some years ago, I wrote an article on figs for the University of California Extension Service which, at that time, published a newsletter…the article was “everything I ever wanted to know—and share with the world” on the subject of figs. Oddly, I had titled it, “Who Gives a Fig?”

So, you ask, “What’s the point?” the point is, I had just finished reading (and salivating over) a book newly published in 1994 titled “A FRESH LOOK AT FIGS…TRADITIONS, MYTHS, AND MOUTH-WATERING RECIPES” published by Hill of Content, in 1993. The very first chapter is titled “Who Gives a Fig?” and contains pages and pages (about twenty—I counted)  on the history of figs throughout the world, including biblical quotes and superstitions (i.e., the Italians say fig leaves are unlucky and believe that evil spirits lurk in them during the summer months).

There is a wealth of reference material here – for instances, there are over 700 fig varieties in the world, and we learn that the fig is a member of the mulberry family. It is one of the oldest known plants in the world, and some writers have even suggested that the unspecified fruit that Eve offered Adam was actually a fig, not an apple. We do know that the earliest biblical reference to figs is the account of the fall of Adam and Eve, whereby they sewed fig leaves together to form aprons to cover their nakedness.

She discusses how the fig has featured in the mythologies of the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Greeks, as well as in Buddhist beliefs and in Christian tales.

Author Pamela Allaardice certainly did her homework—included in this book are two pages of bibliography.

As the owner of two prolific fig trees [until we moved to the Antelope Valley in 2008] I was constantly searching for good new fig recipes—and if you have a fig tree or if you just enjoy the taste of figs–Pamela Allardice’s book is for you.

Recipes? Try one o the many desserts—from chocolate fig mousse to fig and ginger pudding…or perhaps figgy pears or figs flambé. There are recipes for figs at Christmas, such as Christmas pudding, or Dutch Christmas bread…a fig and nectarine ice cream, or perhaps figs and mangoes in syrup. The author provides recipes for a Hungarian Fig Wine (that I wish I had tried) and baked figs with cherries and cinnamon…three are recipes for jams, sauces and preserves—from jellied fig and walnut relish to fig and watermelon preserves…fig butter and fig/apple spread.

For the adventurous, who want to try something different, there are recipes for a roast pork with figs and apples, or perhaps you might want to try a Medieval Meatball recipe.

I checked with both and—because I was startled to discover that A FRESH LOOK AT FIGS has maintained a distinct value—possibly because so little has been written about figs. has pre-owned copies starting at $8.00.  A new copy starts at $35.00. has copies, all starting at $35.00 and up. It originally sold new for $18.95.

A FRESH LOOK AT FIGS was originally published in Australia where author Pamela Allardice was editor of NATURE AND  HEALTH MAGAZINE and was a regular contributor  to AUSTRALIAN COUNTRY STYLE and HOUSE & GARDEN. At the time A FRESH LOOK AT FIGS was published, Allardice had written ten other books with fascinating titles – LOVE POTIONS and MOTHER KNOWS BEST.

Southern Californians may find themselves with a fig tree—last year I discovered that a fellow bowler on the league I had joined –had fig trees. Hers are a different variety from the black mission figs we had in Arleta—these are a small green fig—but they ground up the same way in a blender and I was able to make strawberry fig jam, often called Mock Strawberry Jam.  If you enjoy figs—or even have a fig tree, you might want to find a copy of A FRESH LOOK AT FIGS—worth the price if only for the well-written history.

–Updated Review by Sandra Lee Smith

My blog 10-21-13


BOUNTIFUL OHIO, subtitled “Good Food and Stories from where the Heartland Begins”  by James Hope and Susan Failor, and published by Gabriel’s Horn in Bowling Green Ohio, (1993) is the kind of book you will read again and again, with heartland recipes to refer to time and time again.

I hardly know where to begin—this book is so jam-packed with information and recipes.

Mr. Hope is rightfully Professor Hope; he taught at a university in rural Ohio. A native New Englander, James Hope set out, one summer, along with professional home economist Susan Failor, to “discover” Ohio.

Cincinnati, Ohio, is my birthplace; I was a native buckeye up to the age of twenty-one when my husband, baby, and I set out to drive across country to California.  But Ohioans never forget their roots and I have spent many summers, with my children, visiting relatives and friends in Cincinnati suburbs.

During those summer vacations, we made numerous trips to the famous chili parlors for platters piled high with Cincinnati chili, a concoction like none you have ever eaten. (A Four Way consists of spaghetti, topped with Cincinnati chili, chopped onions and grated cheese, topped off with oyster crackers. The best place to go to is Camp Washington Chili Parlor).

We ate wonderful German sausages with sauerkraut, farm-fresh sliced tomatoes and sipped Ohio’s famous Meier’s wine….so imagine my delight, discovering BOUNTIFUL OHIO—An entire cookbook devoted not only to recipes                              and foods cherished by Buckeyes, but filled, also, with the foodlore of Ohio.

I always knew that Cincinnati was famous as a meat-packing town, most notably Kahn’s, just as I always knew that Proctor and Gamble’s first company was located in Cincinnati. What I didn’t know is that P&G owed its origins to the meat-packing industry, too, that candle maker William Proctor and soap maker James Gamble married sisters and combined forces to form one of the most successful American business enterprises ever. This business owed its foundation to the fats and scraps collected from meat-packing plants.

Comment the publishers, “The recipes in this book range from cheesy cornbread to Sara’s Amish dressing and from Firelands Braised Beef Noir to Di’s Ohio sour Cherry Pie (winner of the best pie in America). They are the wholesome flavors of good food from home in Ohio”.

I also discovered an apple maple chutney recipe that I can’t wait to try, and along with an authentic recipe for Johnny Marzetti, the story behind its origins.  If you have very many regional cookbooks in your collection, you most likely have an assortment of Johnny Marzetti recipes, with Marzetti spelled many different ways. Here, then, is the true story behind Johnny Marzetti.

While not a community cookbook, BOUNTIFUL OHIO is definitely a regional cookbook, a book you will thoroughly enjoy and treasure for many years to come, whether or not you are from Ohio–or neighboring Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, West Virginia or Pennsylvania.  While numerous books have been published, extolling the virtues of Midwestern cooking, few have delved so deeply to explain why it is so good.

In the Preface, James Hope and Susan Failor write “You don’t have to travel far to go a long way in Ohio: the state is so diverse—geographically, economically, ethnically—but the scene outside your window changes constantly. Sometimes that makes it hard for Ohioans to figure out just who they are—but it intrigues and delights the authors of this book, and is one of the reasons we decided to write it…”

The authors say they’re glad they did. Being interested in food, they ate their way from border to border and found a lot of it, in a variety ranging from five star virtuosity (The Maisonette in Cincinnati that held that rare ranking for decades, closed its doors in 2005).

The authors say that Ohio is one where farm and cookie factory literally exist side by side.  Ohio is smaller in land area than 33 other states, so it packs a surprising amount of agriculture and industry into a small space.

“Midwesterners that they are,” write Hope and Failor, “Ohioans don’t toot their own horns much. But Ohio ranks among the nation’s top ten or twelve states in corn, soybeans, wheat, fresh vegetables, dairy products, chickens, egg, hogs and vegetables for processing. It does more than grow food, too; it also processes vast amounts of ketchup, pickles, soup, ice cream, Swiss cheese, cereal and many other things. Most people don’t realize what an efficient little cornucopia this state is…”

The authors owe the success of BOUNTIFUL OHIO to all the people listed at the end of the book—farmers, grocers, chefs, food processors, homemakers, extension agents, professional government officials and dozens of other Ohioans who helped them write this book.

Chapter One is titled “IN SEARCH OF BOUNTIFUL” and Professor Hope explains that he took to the road in mid-August, a few days after teaching his last class of summer session at a university in rural Ohio and was now free for a year, on leave to do research of the kind that is supposed to add to the world’s body of knowledge. He would do that, but had something else in mind, too.

He says that like William Least Heat-Moon in BLUE HIGHWAYS and Ishmael in MOBY DICK, Hope was in search of something. While those writers were trying to fill gaps  in their souls, he was hoping to fill a different kind of vacancy—he was looking for good things to eat.

(Many books have been written in the past three or four decades about finding good food to eat throughout the USA—I know because I have collected a lot of those books–but this was the early 1990s and a lot of those books hadn’t been written yet).

Professor Hope confessed that after years of gulping quick lunches between classes, he was hungry and intended to eat leisurely and well—but there was a deeper purpose to this as well. He had a theory (as professors often do) that food, and the search for it, would help him come to know Ohio, perhaps become even more of an Ohioan.

Culture, he writes, is all the things a people value—it is how they establish their identity, their sense of who they are, their uniqueness. Culture, he says, is art, music and literature but it is also film, furniture, car ornaments, roller coasters and merry go rounds. And, says Professor Hope, it is food. Especially food: our foods are among the common statements of who we are; we create and consume them all day long. (I would have said it’s also our cookbooks. In the mid 1960s when I first began collecting cookbooks, I started with a church cookbook my father bought from a co-worker at Formica. Dad bought several copies of this Cincinnati Methodist church cookbook, for my sisters and my mother and me.  I cherished that cookbook and began to wonder if there were of it “out there.”  I have learned a great deal over the years about places from the cookbooks published by churches and clubs).

Professor Hope says that getting to know this place and its culture—to become part of it—was important to him.  He had lived in Ohio for more than a decade and a half, but still felt like a New Englander, someone from away. “I couldn’t blame the Ohioans,” he writes, “they seemed friendlier than the taciturn Yankees with whom I was raised.  The problem was this: I had never really taken the time to get to know the place, and Ohio seemed more like an address than a home.”  (This is something I can relate to—when we first came to California in 1961, I didn’t feel like a Californian. We returned to Ohio in 1963 for the birth of our second son, Steve, – but before the year was over, I knew we had to return to California. Ohio was no longer my home. I had somehow become a Californian).

But, back to James Hope and BOUNTIFUL OHIO – in which he says that New Englanders know exactly who they are and they have the sights, the sounds, the ancestors and the flavors to prove it to you, whether you ask them or not. They claim a sense of place as birth right and have all the materials for it. Professor Hope says he grew up surrounded by mountains and Indian trails, Revolutionary War battlefields, home ports for clipper ships and brooding houses with small-paned windows that concealed secrets.

Further on he writes how, in the sixth decade of his life, he knew where he had been; he did not know where he was now and meant to do something about it.

There is a great deal more to the Preface to BOUNTIFUL OHIO but I would be remiss to write too much of it and take away from you the experience of seeing my home state of Ohio from another’s eyes. (I have been seeing Ohio through my birthright eyes and then, later on, I began seeing Ohio in a different light—becoming more appreciative as I got older and would visit places with one of my brothers or one of my nephews. With my brother Bill over the span of several years – we visited Hale Farm and Cuyahoga National Park, as well as Stan Hywet mansion in Akron, Ohio. This is a 65 room Tudor style mansion built in 1912 by Goodyear Rubber company founder F.A. Seiberling and his wife.  It was touring the house and gardens that made me realize how much I love old houses. Curiously, the house is not named after a person, as commonly believed, and it took 4 years to build at a cost of $150,000.

You can spend a lot of time reading BOUNTIFUL OHIO—it’s the kind of book to read a little at a time, relishing all the history—and the recipes!

BOUNTIFUL OHIO can be purchased on at one cent and up for a pre owned copy.  Mine is a softcover (oversized) cookbook.   A great addition to collectors of regional material. has pre-owned copies of BOUNTIFUL OHIO starting at 99c.

A great regional cookbook to add to your collection!

Review by Sandra Lee Smith





The concept may have originated with Duncan Hines, but Jane and Michael Stern have forged a career out of traveling throughout the country and then compiling cookbooks about the foods they have tasted while traveling hither and yon.  And I suspect, being a writer myself, that some of the non-cookbooks written by the Sterns were offshoots of their travels and research into the cookbooks they have been writing for more than a few years now. I know that when I am researching one thing, others pop up and you fish around for some paper and pen or pencil to jot down other ideas that surface. Some of the books appear to be a nod towards favorite people or topics.

In 2003, I reviewed a beautiful Cookbook titled THE LOUIE’S BACKYARD COOKBOOK” by Jane and Michael Stern, with recipes by Doug Shook. This compilation at the time of publication in January, 2003, was the latest in a series from Rutledge Hill Press of Nashville, Tennessee, celebrating America’s best regional restaurants.  Louie’s Backyard is a restaurant, located in Key West, Florida. While I lived in North Miami Beach, Florida, for three years, I’m sorry to say I never made it to Key West. Louie’s Backyard Cookbook makes me yearn to go.

That said, a number of other cookbooks, well-compiled with beautiful dust jackets have been created by the Sterns. These include:

*THE BLUE WILLOW INN COOKBOOK/Voted Best Small-Restaurant in the South by Southern Living Readers, published in 2002;

*THE DURGIN-PARK COOKBOOK/Classic Yankee Cooking in the shadow of Faneuil Hall, also published in 2002;

*FAMOUS DUTCH KITCHEN RESTAURANT COOKBOOK/Family Style Diner Delights from the Heart of Pennsylvania, published in 2004;

*COOKING IN THE LOWCOUNTRY FROM THE OLD POST OFFICE RESTAURANT/Spanish Moss, Warm Carolina Nights and Fabulous Southern     Food, also published in 2004;

*SOUTHERN COUNTRY COOKING FROM THE LOVELESS CAFÉ/Fried Chicken, Hams, and Jams from Nashville’s Favorite Café, published in 2005;

(Asterisk denotes the cookbooks in this series that I have.   But to get a better picture of what Jane and Michael Stern were writing before they latched onto the concept of the series named “A Roadfood Cookbook, Celebrating America’s Best Regional Restaurants” we have to go back in time.  In my collection, I have the books preceded with an asterisk. To date, this is the list of literary accomplishments achieved by the Sterns, possibly incomplete. Mostly, I searched on Google for titles I didn’t have, checked for titles in the ones I do have, and then ended up in ordering half a dozen more.  The books I ordered should be coming in the mail anyday now.

Here is a list of books written by Jane and Michael Stern:

TRUCKER: A PORTRAIT OF THE LAST AMERICAN COWBOY, 1975 Jane Stern only. One critic wrote: “like many early 70’s books on culture of the USA, it was written with heavy realism with nothing hidden-no gloss. The tone is reverent but lays out all the harsh realities of truckin’, great photos, great poetry, almost punk. 70’s graphics set the tone to this gritty ode to the “last American cowboy”. a REAL slice of American pie”.

ROADFOOD, 1977, 8th edition in 2011,Roadfood: The Coast-to-Coast Guide to 700 of the Best Barbecue Joints, Lobster

AMAZING AMERICA, 1978 – out of print (and hard to find), described as: Unusual, interesting, and extraordinary sights, events, and attractions throughout the United States, ranging from the Campbell Museum in Camden, New Jersey, to the Calaveras Jumping Frog Jubilee in Angels Camp, California.

AUTO ADS, 1978

DOUGLAS SIRK, 1978, Michael Stern only (Sirk was a film director who was born in Germany to Danish parents, raised in Denmark but moved to Germany when he was a teenager. He started his film career in 1922 but left Germany in 1937 because of his political leanings and his Jewish wife. He made numerous films, including Magnificent Obsession in 1954 and All That Heaven Allows, in 1955)

HORROR HOLIDAY/Secrets of Vacation Survival, 1981



ELVIS WORLD, 1987 – Has been described as a vast universe defined by all that Elvis stands for: the music, of course, and the movies, the life and the legend, but also the cascade of material things he collected and consumed (from pink cadillacs and the cheeseburgers to diamond rings and Graceland), the glitter and the mammoth success (one billion records sold, more than anyone else in history starting with its four page-gate fold title page, this book is bursting with rare photographs, with wonderful Elvis memorabilia (1950s fans magazines: “Elvis – Hero or Heel?”  Elvis wallets, Elvis handkerchiefs, Elvis bedroom slippers with the Elvis with the Elvis phenomenon as it exists today. Elvis Presley has become an American symbol as recognizable as the American flag. He is a landmark in almost everyone’s life, and his image continues to mesmerize. Elvis has transcended his previous status as merely the most popular entertainer in history, and “Elvis world” explains and revels in this phenomenon. With affection and wit – and a touch of irreverence – the Sterns guide us through Elvis world, showing us an Elvis we’ve never seen before. –This text refers to an alternate hardcover edition.

*A TASTE OF AMERICA, published in 1988

STERNS GUILD TO DISNEY COLLECTIBLES VOLUME 1 by Michael Stern,  published in 1988




*AMERICAN GOURMET, published in 1991



STERNS GUILD TO DISNEY COLLECTIBLES VOLUME 3 by Michael Stern,  published in 1995

*EAT YOUR WAY ACROSS THE U.S.A. published in 1997 (My favorite Cincinnati eatery, Camp Washington Chili, is featured in this book)

THE BEATLES, A REFERENCE & VALUE GUIDE, Barbara Crawford & Michael Stern, 1998




*UP A COUNTRY LANE, BY EVELYN BIRKBY, JANE AND MICHAEL STERN 2000 (This title came to my attention when I was writing about old time radio programs, WHEN RADIO WAS KING – Don’t touch that Dial” (June, 2009)

*BLUE PLATE SPECIALS AND BLUE RIBBON CHEFS: THE HEART AND SOUL OF AMERICA’S GREAT ROADSIDE RESTAURANTS, 2001 (does not have the logo of “a Roadfood Cookbook Celebrating America’s Best Regional Restaurants”- it appears that the logo was adopted and appears for the first time on the Blue Willow Inn Cookbook-sls)

*THE BLUE WILLOW INN COOKBOOK/Voted Best Small-Restaurant in the South by Southern Living Readers, published in 2002;

*THE DURGIN-PARK COOKBOOK/Classic Yankee Cooking in the shadow of Faneuil Hall, also published in 2002;



*FAMOUS DUTCH KITCHEN RESTAURANT COOKBOOK/Family Style Diner Delights from the Heart of Pennsylvania, published in 2004;

*COOKING IN THE LOWCOUNTRY FROM THE OLD POST OFFICE RESTAURANT/Spanish Moss, Warm Carolina Nights and Fabulous Southern     Food, also published in 2004;


*SOUTHERN COUNTRY COOKING FROM THE LOVELESS CAFÉ/Fried Chicken, Hams, and Jams from Nashville’s Favorite Café,  also published in 2005;

FRIENDLY RELATIONS, a novel, published in 2005

*TWO FOR THE ROAD/Our Love Affair with American Food, published in 2006





Obviously, not every book compiled by the Sterns is a cookbook! For those who like to compile a complete bibliography of favorite authors, this should give you something to work with. I counted 39 titles. One of the articles I read in Google lists more than 40 books.

Jane and Michael Stern, who are both baby boomers born in 1946, got their foot in the door by writing books about travel and food (after college graduation, neither one could find employment in the fields they had majored in).

They may be best known for their “Roadfood” books, website and magazine columns, such as the now defunct GOURMET MAGAZINE, for which they were staff writers for 18 years. The Sterns have won many awards, including three James Beard awards and the James Beard Perrier-Jouet Award for lifetime achievement. They were inducted into the Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, in 1992. (When I first began delving into their titles, my first impression was that my younger brother Bill, also born in 1946, would appreciate the Sterns’ early books more than I, being a baby boomer himself. But the deeper I delved, the more fascinated I became.

The Sterns met as graduate students in art at Yale University, married in 1970 – and much to my surprise, divorced in 2008. While they now live in different cities, they continue to write and travel as a team, despite the divorce.  The Lexicon of Real American Food was published in 2011, the same year that Jane published CONFESSIONS OF A TAROT READER, based on her long-standing (but little known) career as a tarot card reader. And, although my blog articles focus primarily on cooking, cookbooks, recipes and favorite cookbook authors—I find myself intrigued by the titles of the Sterns collective or individual non-cookbook accomplishments.  It’s almost like thinking you have known somebody for a long time and suddenly discover there are layers of other interests, like the layers to an onion.

Normally, I would give you ordering information on various cookbooks—but there are too many titles to do this. I suggest, if you are interested in one of these titles, that you visit or (many of their cookbooks can be purchased very reasonably); I obtained a lot of my information on the Sterns’ books from these websites and Google. or, read my post Louie’s Backyard Cookbook, posted in June, 2012 on this blog for a sample of their  “Roadfood”  series.

Review by Sandra Lee Smith









(The following, with some changes, was previously posted on my blog Nov 11. 2011).

“When we were young, there were moments of such perfectly crystallized happiness that we stood stock still and silently promised ourselves that we would remember them always. And we did.” (From the “FOUR MIDWESTERN SISTERS’ CHRISTMAS BOOK”, published in 1991 by Holly Burkhalter, with Kathy Lockard, Karol Crospie and Ruth Bosley.)

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. (From “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott.

This is the wonder of Christmas,

Sleigh bells and holly and snow,

Church chimes and mittens and pine cones,

Warmth from a fireside’s glow.

This is the wonder of Christmas,

Trinkets bedecking a tree,

Tinsel and strings of cranberries,

Children, all shouting with glee.

This is the wonder of Christmas,

Merriment, loving and caring,

This is the wonder of Christmas,

The happiness that comes from sharing.

This is the wonder of Christmas,

See the manger, there, under the tree,

With small statues symbolic of all that

The Christ child would want it to be.

Hobbies come in all shapes and sizes. I have various friends and acquaintances that enjoy hiking, horse-back riding, camping, and/or bowling. Some people collect stamps and call it a hobby, although to my mind, collecting something takes it out of the realm of hobbying and into the jurisdiction of collecting. Or perhaps the two are synonymous. I consulted my trusty friend, Webster, and was advised that “A hobby is something that a person likes to do or study in his spare time or avocation”. Another rare definition of hobby offered by Webster is “A subject that a person constantly talks about or returns to”.  I like the latter definition; it describes how I feel about Christmas.  Christmas is my hobby.

Back in medieval times, preparation for Christmas feasting began months in advance even though the common folk might only a few hours away from their duties, working for the upper classes and royalty Christmas celebrations would last two weeks, until the Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6th. It’s said that King Henry VIII of England raised revelry to a new high—few kinds could party as hearty as Henry.

Curiously, however, most historians agree that it’s very unlikely that Jesus Christ was actually born on December 25th. There is an interesting book titled “Christmas Feasts from History” by Lorna Sass, (published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Irena Chalmer’s Cookbooks, Inc. 1981), in which the first chapter is devoted entirely to the Roman Saturnalia Banquet. Ms. Sass quotes the poet, Virgil, (70-19 BC) who described the Saturnalia as a merry festival that was the traditional culmination of the ancient Roman year. “Named for Saturnus, the Roman god of seeds and sowing, the celebration probably began to commemorate the end of the autumn sowing season in southern Italy, a time of brief respite from the yearly round of farm chores, a time to pause and exchange good will with neighbors and friends..”

Saturnalia began around December 17 and all work was suspended for seven days…“Romans took to the streets with carnival-like abandon, shouting ‘To Saturnalia”. Slaves were free to do and say what they pleased and a mock king was chosen ruler. Characteristics of what was to become Christmas were already in evidence: halls festooned with laurel leaves, gifts exchanged—often little dolls made of clay or dough—and small wax tapers lit as protection against the hovering spirits of darkness…the week-long festival reached its peak on or about December 25, a day set aside for special reverence to the sun..”

Early church leaders often attempted to substitute  a Christian holiday for a pagan one and it is thought that Christmas became the substitute for Saturnalia. (Personally, I have often speculated that Jesus was born around in March—I think it’s plausible that He was a Pisces, the sign of the fish – for the fisher of men). In any event, the early church habit of substituting pagan holidays for Christian ones does not detract in the least from what it is that we are actually observing.

In medieval times, the court jester, or fool, was often called upon to entertain guests while they enjoyed their meal, along with tumblers and minstrels, and other paid entertainers.  Maggie Black, in her book “THE MEDIEVAL COOKBOOK” tells is that “Entertainment was the main part of any feast, especially a great one, and at the end when the alms baskets were carried out to the poor, and the last Twelfth Night toast was drunk, it was to be hoped that one and all could say “that was a good feast. The year ahead will go well!”

Centuries later, I find that I am some other kind of Christmas fool. I’m not likely to wait until Thanksgiving or after to start thinking about Christmas. It’s on my mind all year long.

My childhood Christmases are cherished memories. It seems that our holiday season began with the Feast of St Nicholas, on December 6th. We hung stockings (usually long white stockings of my father’s) and the next day found them filled with walnuts and tangerines and hard candies…sometimes a little toy. I had my own tangerine tree in Arleta, where we lived for 19 years and tangerines always remind me of the Feast of St Nicholas (I don’t remember ever having tangerines at any other time of the year, when I was growing up).

Many years later I had all but forgotten our family observation of the Feast of St Nicholas, part of our Dutch heritage, until one year when my sons were something like 8,5, 2, and 1 years old and turning into unholy terrors as Christmas approached and television commercials assaulted their impressionable little minds with the wonders and glories of toys that every-kid-just-had-to-have. The momentum continued to grow until I was ready to disown all four of them, whose every sentence began with “I want—“. Then I remembered the Feast of St Nicholas. We reinstated the tradition of stockings being hung on December 5th and observed this tradition for many years after. It was something to tide the children over until Christmas finally arrived.

Snow flakes. Pine needles. My grandma’s diamond shaped walnut and sugar studded butter cookies*. Grandma’s homemade pumpkin strudel (with Filo dough made from scratch!); A Christmas tree glowing with bubble lights. Weeks of rehearsing Christmas carols at school, which took on new meaning when I joined the choir. As a small child, the shivering anticipation of being allowed, one a week, to put away pencils and books, while we made cards and calendars and “tie racks” out of construction paper, library paste and cardboard tubes. On Friday afternoons, song books were passed out to the students and we learned the words to “Jolly Old St Nicholas” and “Up on the House Top”, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night”.  At home, we bought sheet music and learned the words and music to “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman”. I sang “Rudolph” with two clowns at a Christmas party sponsored by my Grandma Beckman’s club that year.

We took piano lessons and flute and clarinet, and practiced our favorite Christmas songs until everyone in hearing range was tired of hearing them. When we tired of listening to each other, my mother would sit down at our old upright piano and play “Silver Bells” which was, I think the only Christmas song she knew how to play. (My mother never learned to read music; she played entirely “by ear” and was really quite good).

I will always remember the Christmas that my older brother gave me five brand-spanking new Nancy Drew books—the first books of my very own. Such bounty! The first book that my mother ever bought for me was, incidentally, “Little Women”, which I practically memorized from reading it so often.

One year my mother was terribly sick in the hospital—but came home long enough to spend Christmas with us.

We children ironed the wrinkles out of the previous year’s gift wrap; we ironed out old ribbons too. We made our own gift tags out of index cards and those little glue on stickers—the kind that never stuck to anything else. (I wouldn’t say that we were poor, exactly, but we certainly were frugal.)

We did all our own Christmas shopping—my two younger brothers and I, making a once-a-year shopping excursion to downtown Cincinnati where we prudently shopped for cards of bobby pins or lilac splash cologne—or handkerchiefs with our daddy’s initial on them, or one of our favorites, “Midnight in Paris” which came in a distinctive blue bottle that we loved. We managed to see all of the Department store Santas (as much motivated by free candy canes as the desire to cover all our bases since you never could e sure which one might be the REAL Santa.)  We carefully guarded our meager pennies against potential shoplifters we had been warned about, and somehow bought presents for our parents, grandparents, siblings and dearest friends. Most incredibly, we usually managed to have some lunch at the Woolworth’s lunch counter—a grilled cheese sandwich with dill pickle slices, and a coca cola, split three ways—was, I think, about twenty-five cents. I should add, we did ALL of our shopping in Woolworth’s, Newberry’s and Kresge’s five and ten cent stores. They had the best “stuff”.  (Once, my childhood friend Carol confessed that she had always been jealous of me on those shopping trips.

“Me?” I exclaimed. “Whatever FOR?”

“Because,” she replied, “You could buy so much more with a dollar than anyone else”)

Over the years I have thought long and hard about those shopping trips which, incidentally, also cost us five cents bus fare to and from downtown Cincinnati.  How did we manage to do it?  I often think of loaves and fishes in the bible. That was the three Schmidt children shopping for Christmas presents for at least ten people, not counting anything for friends. We always, somehow, managed to have just enough. And, let me add – we didn’t have allowances or anything that frivolous in our lives. Every penny was a penny earned or money from cashing in pop bottles for the two cent refund.

We loved downtown Cincinnati during the holidays, the lights of Fountain Square, the “living crèche” in Garfield Park, all of the sidewalk Salvation Army Santas ringing their bells, and the gorgeous window displays in all of the department stores.

When we got back home with our treasures, we smuggled everything upstairs to my bedroom where we engaged in a frenzy of wrapping. We often ended up at my grandmother’s on Christmas Eve day; eventually my father would arrive with his cousin – my godmother, Barbara, who I only saw during those holidays and always seemed to me to be something like a fairy godmother. We would pile into the car to go home; we would see the lit tree from the street—for we NEVER had a Christmas tree before Christmas—and seeing the brightly lit tree, framed by the living room window, we would just know that Christmas had arrived. We would rush through the front door only to be told by our mother that we had “just missed Santa—he just went out the back door” whereupon we rushed to the back door to try to catch a glimpse.

We’d open the presents handed out to us one at a time by my mother and later, if you could stay awake, you might be able to go to midnight mass with the adults.

What I remember most clearly about Christmas mass is the crèche—the statues of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, finally uncovered (for they had been draped with cloths throughout Advent.)

There was singing and incense and the smell of wet coats and gloves—for it seems that it almost always started to snow on Christmas Eve. The choir sang “Silent Night” and “Adeste Fideles” and “Away in the Manger” – and IF the Baby Jesus was not actually born on December 25, it matters not a whit for we believed in Him and we believed in His birth.

Christmas Day—when I was a young child—usually found us having dinner at my paternal grandmother’s—it’s a wonder to me that in later years when she lived in the two front rooms of the first floor of her apartment house, she somehow managed to fit all of us—my parents, siblings, two aunts, two uncles and various cousins ALL into those two rooms. As soon as we had eaten, my Uncle Al gave us each a quarter for the movies—fifteen cents for admission, ten cents to spend—and then would drive us all to the movie theatre. (We thought Uncle Al was rich—handing all those quarters out so freely!) and by the time we got back, everything would be brought back to the table for a late supper. (While we were gone, the adults all played cards. You knew you were “of age” when you were allowed to join the adults playing cards).

So, is it any wonder that the love of Christmas spilled over into my adult life?  That we, in my household, think about Christmas all year long—beginning with the after Christmas sales but gaining momentum around in May when the first strawberries and blackberries ripened and could be made into jams and preserves, cordials and jellies. By August, the first Black Mission figs were ripening on our trees and the grapes in my arbor were slowly turning purple. Around in October, pomegranates turned ruby red and could be converted into pomegranate jelly  or a luscious liqueur. Pumpkins began to be displayed at produce stands (and now my youngest son and his son—my nine year old grandson, Ethan—have taken to growing their own pumpkins). From the pumpkins we made pumpkin bread and pumpkin butter.

We searched for just the right presents for everyone on our gift list, all through the year, and I discovered that Christmas shopping while on vacation in July could be a lot of fun, especially if you were doing it with a sister. We were all catalogue buffs and carried bundles of Christmassy mail order books all over the house, dropping thinly veiled hints in our wake. By September, some of my packages had to be wrapped and mailed to meet overseas deadlines—so September was never too soon to drag everything out of the Christmas closet and do an inventory.  I make up lists. Extra rolls of film (I DO still take photographs using actual FILM). Sugar and flour and jars of molasses go onto my list. Lots of scotch tape! (and WHAT do you suppose people did before Scotch tape was invented?)

I remember one year—in the 1970s, I think—when the price of sugar skyrocketed to something like $5.00 for a 5-lb bag of granulated sugar—even as I write this, the price sounds astronomical (even though a FOUR pound bag of sugar, on sale, now, is about $2.50). I hardly baked a thing that year and it was a terrible disappointment. For years after, I stockpiled sugar months in advance to safeguard against it ever happening again.

Sometime in August, maybe as early as July, I would be digging through cookbooks and recipe files, pulling out the favorite cookie and candy and confection recipes.  October is not too soon to start mixing cookie dough, If you have a freezer to store it in and you have a lot of favorite cookie recipes. Some cookies can be baked well in advance—the ones that thrive on aging in a tightly fitted tin or Tupperware container—the Springerle and Pfeffernusse and cut out gingerbread cookies and those decadent rum balls. I try to get all of the cookies made a few weeks before Christmas, so that I can make up gift baskets and fill tins with cookies for neighbors and friends—and nowadays my favorite post office clerks and our mail lady, my manicurist and our family mechanic.  When Christmas is getting close, THEN it’s time to make the delicate Spritz cookies, lemon Madelines, and Russian Tea Cakes.

Back in the day – when my sons were growing up – we’d often make several dozen different kinds of cookies; they’d take them to school for their teachers, I’d take them to work for coworkers.  We’d make fruitcake bars and peanut brittle, Mamie Eisenhower’s fudge, and English Toffee, and my favorite New Orleans pecan pralines, Sherried walnuts and my Aunt Annie’s Opera Creams, my sister’s Buckeye Balls, Truffles, Caramel Corn—and the family favorites; Kelly’s M&M party cookies, Chris’ oatmeal raisin, Michael’s Butter Cut Out Cookies (*When Michael was five years old, I stayed up one night until about 4 am decorating each and every Butter Cut out cookie with frosting. I had them spread out to dry on every counter and table top. When I got up the next        morning, Michael had eaten the frosting off every single cookie. I’m not sure what happened after that—but Michael told me years later that the sight of frosting on butter cookies made him feel slightly queasy.

I believe it was that same year that Michael, then in kindergarten, questioned me persistently about reindeer.

“Mom,” he said “Can reindeer fly?”
“Hmm,” I hedged, “Well, I’ve always heard…certainly Santa’s reindeer—you know, Dasher and Dancer and then there’s Rudolph—why do you want to know, son?” to which he replied, matter-of-factly, leaving no room for doubt, “m TEACHER says they CAN’T!” and as anyone who has ever had a kindergartener knows, if teacher says they can’t, that’s the end of it.

When I was an 18 year old bride, in 1958, I clipped some cookie recipes out of a woman’s magazine and then into a 3-ring binder, and a tradition was born. Now, fifty-something years later, I have seven or eight 3-ring binders filled with JUST the cookie recipes, most clipped out of magazines. (I also began using those 3 ring binders for many other recipes as well—there are four or five just for my canning recipes—jellies, jams, chutneys, pickles, preserves, two for cakes, and so on.  Now there are over 50 of those 3 ring binders stuffed with recipes.

We built our own memories, my children and I.  We laughingly recall the year my husband & I stayed up until 4 am putting together a hot-wheels-type of racetrack that Michael, then about four years old, had dismantled by 5 am. There was the year that my girlfriend and I and our children made bread dough ornaments that didn’t quite turn out. We had bits of dough in our hair, clothing and all over the floor. (You may have discovered, as did we, that not everything turns out quite like the magazine illustrations, does it?)

One of my favorite stories involves my dear friend, Neva. She wanted to make a candyland house with me one year, such as I would make using a cardboard frame taped together to look like a cottage. Then I would liberally spread the exterior of the house with royal frosting and decorate it with small candies before the frosting dried. (Writing about how I made the candyland houses was one of the first articles I sold to Tower Press magazines). It would be some years before I worked up enough nerve to actually make a real gingerbread house. Anyway, Neva wanted to make a candyland house too – except for one thing – she wanted to make hers a castle. (it actually went with her house that looked somewhat like a miniature castle). No problem, I assured her. We could make a castle. I whipped up batch after batch of royal frosting, running around the house digging up cardboard tubes and digging through kitchen drawers for suitable accessories – while Neva, her daughter and my sons constructed and decorated a castle. It was truly an impressive work of art but I confess to being nonplussed when, some weeks later, the local Valley News ran a story (with photographs!) about Neva and her candyland castle, which – according to the newspaper story—was her “family tradition”.

One year when we lived in Florida, I was tearfully distraught trying to make one of our favorite Christmas cookies – like lace cookies, which wouldn’t harden, or stained glass cookies – that dripped away the stained glass part as they hung on a tree. I also set the oven on fire trying to make graham cracker houses  (which we had made successfully in California) because the melted sugar wasn’t hardening. I had a vague notion that putting them into the oven would help them dry out. Instead, the melted sugar dropped all over the coils of the electric oven and caught fire.

Somewhere along the way I began collecting Christmas ornaments. Like Topsy, it just grew and grew, until the time came when we needed a second tree for all the ornaments. I began searching for ornaments where ever I went on vacation and more than once found a Christmas store.  My favorite one is in Carmel California. The store is filled with year-round trees decorated with ornaments made by local artisans. Some of these are my absolute favorites.

One year my sister and I were there oohing and ahhing over the ornaments.

“Will you take a check?” I asked the owner.

“Of course,” she replied.

“Do you need to see some identification?” I asked.

“No,” she said, complacently, “Christmas people don’t cheat.”

These are some of my stories; if I thought long and hard I could come up with many more—but I want to tell you about some of my favorite Christmas cookbooks.  As you know, I collect cookbooks – and possibly my favorite topic in my cookbook collection are the Christmas cookbooks – along with cookies. A few years ago, a friend set up a database for me and I managed to get all of the Christmas cookbooks logged on before we had to move. There are over 500 of them.  But some are really FAVORITES—the cookbooks I turn to, year in and year out. If you need to get into the holiday mood, I guarantee that reading Christmas cookbooks will get you there. Maybe you can write to me and tell me about your favorite holiday recipes or your favorite Christmas cookbook!

I like THE FRUGAL GOURMET CELEBRATES CHRISTMAS and MYSTIC SEAPORT’S CHRISTMAS MEMORIES COOKBOOK; There’s MARTHA STEWART’S CHRISTMAS, (with directions for creating a gingerbread mansion) and 365 WAYS TO PREPARE FOR CHRISTMAS. I like John Clancy’s CHRISTMAS COOKBOOK and A YANKEE CHRISTMAS by Sally Ryder Brady; ROSE’S CHRISTMAS COOKIES by Rose Levy Barenbaum, and my beloved LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK OF CHRISTMAS ENTERTAINING by Dawn Navarro and Betsy Balsley. I love re-reading Mimi Sheraton’s VISIONS OF SUGARPLUMS and Virginia Pasley’s THE CHRISTMAS COOKIE BOOK (1949).

I need to mention the Farm Journal’s HOMEMADE COOKIES compiled by the Food Journal’s food editors and published in 1971—back when I didn’t have hundreds of cookbooks, this was my favorite go-to cookbook for baking Christmas cookies. (In fact, we collected all of the Farm Journal cookbooks back then. I think it was my penpal Penny who got me started on those).

Years ago, the Junior League of the City of Washington published a book titled THINK CHRISTMAS (originally published in 1970 but often reprinted); the Junior League must have done well with their first effort since in 1983, they published JOY OF CHRISTMAS, both filled with great holiday entertainment ideas. One of my well thumbed and spattered Christmas cookbooks is titled TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, compiled in 1974 by the Junior Women’s Group Pioneer Museum up in Stockton, California. I no longer remember where or how I found my copy which was already well worn and spattered when I acquired it – I DO know I have been making their recipe for Spinach Delight for over thirty years. Another favorite is THE GREATER CINCINNATI CHRISTMAS COOKBOOK compiled by the Greater Cincinnati Citizens Council in 1984; my sister Becky learned about it and we both invited to submit recipes—we both sent in many of our favorite Christmas recipes, congratulating ourselves for finding a way to get them all in one book. Of course, one downside to all of this is that some of your favorite recipes have a tendency to change from year to year. In 1984 I was making Texas fruitcake and “five pounds of fudge” while in more recent years I find myself reaching for the recipes of my youth—the Lebkuchen and Springerle my grandmother would make, or those wafer-thin Moravian Ginger cookies and Pfeffernusse.

More up to date Christmas cookbooks that you may want to search for might include CHRISTMAS WITH PAULA DEEN, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster, or The Goodhousekeeping little book THE GREAT CHRISTMAS COOKIE SWAP COOKBOOK, published in 2008 (and offering 60 large batch       recipes to cook and share) or you might want to look for a Favorite Brand Name 100 BEST HOLIDAY COOKIES published in 2007 by Publications International—both of these cookbooks are well illustrated with hidden spiral binding so they will lay flat on your kitchen counter. Personally, I don’t like having cookbooks in the kitchen so I usually copy the recipe on my  printer and stick it on the refrigerator door when I am baking.


These are a few of my favorite Christmas cookbooks—there are so many more! And amongst my treasures are pamphlets and leaflets published by the various gas companies in many different states—some of these were very well done and are so collectible!

And then there are all the gift-giving cookbooks and candy-making cookbooks!  But I see this post has grown very lengthy!  However, before I close I wanted to let you know about previous “Christmassy” posts on my blog.

Look for –

Christmas is Right Around the Corner 9/13/09

Homemade Christmas Candies 9/20/09

Oh, Fudge! Making Christmas Candy 9/16/09

Make Mine Light – Fruitcake 10/1/09

It’s Christmas Cookie Time, posted 11/22/09

Christmas 2009 Cookies 12/31/09 (PHOTOS)


A Few of my Favorite Things, Part 2 Cookies 12/16/09

Christmas Memories 2010

Happy cooking and happy cookbook collecting—Sandy


THE SETTLERS, (Survivors of the Oregon Trail) PART 4


“My most vivid recollection of that first winter in Oregon is of the weeping skies and of Mother and me also weeping” (written by Marilla R. Washburn Bailey, age 13 in 1852),


In my personal collection of fiction and non-fiction, you will find a preponderance of books devoted to the subject of pioneer life in the United States.  This from a woman who nearly failed American History in high school! (I found high school text to be incredibly boring–it was only after marriage when I began to discover fascinating books about American pioneers, the White House, First Ladies and our American Presidents, that I really began to delve deeply into This subject).  Years ago, I discovered an author by the name of Janice Holt Giles. I loved her books and characters, so much that I collected all of her books and then began collecting sets for all of my friends and some of my penpals. One time I wrote to Ms. Giles, who lived in a “holler” in Kentucky, and was delighted to receive a response from her, which I still treasure.

Ms. Giles was a city girl who married a country boy and went to rural Kentucky to live with him. There she wrote, and wrote and wrote – The Kentuckians, Hannah Fowler, The Believers, The Land Beyond the Mountains, Johnny Osage, Savanna, Voyage to Santa Fe, The Great Adventure, Six Horse Hitch – and quite a few others. All fine books, Janice Holt Giles made history come alive.  I was hooked.

And, I discovered—this great country of ours was settled by emigrants, pioneers and settlers all the way from the Atlantic Ocean on the east coast, to the Pacific Ocean on the west—and they all had stories to tell!

Another set of books which I found to be particularly enlightening were THE WEDDING DRESS/Stories from the Dakota Plains, and NOTHING TO DO BUT STAY/My Pioneer Mother by Carrie Young.  Ms. Young writes about the life experiences of her parents, particularly her mother.  Carrie was the sixth child of Norwegian-American homesteaders, writing of her childhood on a farm in western North Dakota. (Published by HarperPerennial, a Division of HarperCollins, these books are available in paperback, ranging from about $10.00 has NOTHING TO DO BUT STAY for $8.49 new or $2.26 pre-owned. They also have THE WEDDING DRESS for $10.58 new or starting at eleven cents for pre-owned.Carrie is also the author of PRAIRIE COOKS/Glorified Rice, Three-Day-Buns and Other Reminiscences.

What made Carrie’s mother particularly unique for the times in which she lived, is that she was an unmarried female homesteader. If that were not enough, it was her mother’s ambition–which was realized–to have all of her children, including the girls, go to college.

You might also re-discover Willa Cather’s O PIONEERS! and MY ANTONIA. Cather’s greatest success as a writer came, I think, when she began writing stories based on her Nebraska background. Although Cather was born in Virginia in 1873, her family moved to Nebraska in 1883. Considered classics, these are available in most bookstores as well as internet book sites. Re-discover the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

There are a wealth of cookbooks with “Pioneer” in the title. One of my favorite cookbooks about pioneer cooking–sans pioneer in the title–is a book called FOOD ON THE FRONTIER.  One tidbit of information I had been searching for was found in FOOD ON THE FRONTIER. Marjorie Kreidberg writes  “…it was the availability of land that attracted many.(newcomers)…The Homestead Act passed by Congress in 1862 generated a powerful impetus to settlement in Minnesota and elsewhere. The act granted a settler title to 160 acres of land in exchange for five years of continuous residence and the payment of nominal registration fees”

They arrived at their destination-whether pioneers or settlers taming the wilderness of the eastern shores or the Midwest, or emigrants traveling the Overland Trail to Oregon or California..the most important business at hand was to find shelter and food.

Minnesota, in the 1860s, attracted many European immigrants–Germans and Norwegians, Swedes, Irish, English, Scots, Welsh, Swiss and Czechs, Danes, Bohemians and Hollanders…along with migrating Americans, primarily from New England, the Middle Atlantic states and parts of the middle west.

Emigrants journeying on the Overland Trail, to Oregon or California, were often farmers from the Midwest. Lillian Schlissel, author of WOMEN’S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY explains it like this, “..In a fashion that men and women of the twentieth century will never fully understand, farmers of the Mississippi valley and the Plains states had begun to feel ‘crowded’…”  Thus it was, driven by a great depression and the failure of banks in 1837, and the desire for great open spaces that people continued to make the trek westward.

But, along with knowing how to farm–the homesteaders had to know, too, how to preserve, salt, pickle, smoke, dry and can foods–housewives had to know how to adapt, by substituting and making do with what they had on hand. Necessity surely is the mother of invention, for just as the emigrants gathered alkali on the plains, calling it “saleratus” (an old term for baking soda) and using it for baking, they had to become acquainted with a variety of different fish (such as salmon)and foods, and learn how to prepare them for meals. (At least one group of emigrants refused to eat salmon offered to them by Indians, thinking it was bad because of its pink color).

“After traveling those thousands of miles in their portable canvas homes,” writes Susan Butruille in WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL “those women must have been grateful for some place–any place–to call home…”

“Some of the women had overcome their revulsion towards guns,” says Susan, “and learned how to use them on the trail or soon after their arrival”. She goes on to describe how one such pioneer lady shot bears, deer, grouse and pheasant, and became so expert with a revolver that at 50 to 100 feet she could beat most men. Cookbooks of pioneer days abound with recipes for preparing pigeons, quail, turtle, doves, duck, rabbit, squirrel and even – snake! One cookbook provides recipes for Sioux Jellied Snake, Sand hills Fried Rattler and Velvet Tail Rattlesnake…a little disconcerting, perhaps, because the latter recipe instructs the reader that, “Due to reflex action, the snake will squirm and wiggle for some time after the head is removed, and may crawl out of the pan if left unattended…” (ew, ew.  No, please don’t tell me it tastes just like fried chicken).

If it were not enough that these emigrants had survived and after tremendous ordeal had reached their destination—many newcomers to Oregon didn’t stay; according to Lillian Schlissel, two out of three settlers had moved again within ten years of their arrival.  They “hankered” for some place else–many of the men went to the gold fields, leaving their women and children behind to fend for themselves. “After bringing their mostly-reluctant women across that God-forsaken land,” writes Butruille, “to a place with no home, no plowed field, no crops, the men left…”  (Some of the men died of disease. Most returned home. A FEW struck it rich).

“That first winter” says Butruille, “the families survived on whatever food they could get: salmon and potatoes, boiled wheat and peas, milk, butter and deer meat, coffee from dried wheat, barley or peas, ground in coffee mills…”

Although many of the cookbooks devoted to this period don’t always say so, we can assume that soup was an important part of pioneer diets. Gertrude Harris in FOODS OF THE FRONTIER writes that soup and meat or fish were simmered all together with whatever vegetables, dried or fresh, wild or domestic, were on hand. “During the long winters,” writes Harris, “great soups were made from old hens, beef, sheep or ox parts, or game such as wild hare, rabbit and venison—even bear’s food which was, however, much preferred roasted.  As to the vegetables, in winter one had only stored or dried vegetables; in spring, one used what was ‘up’.  Spices were, naturally, very hard to come by and very expensive when available but wild and domestic herbs were used with a generous hand…”

Seeds were especially precious to the homesteading women. Butruille recounts the story of one pioneer woman whose rooster, Dominic, made the trip all the way to Oregon, only to tempt fate one day in the garden patch. He helped himself some “cowcumber” seeds ready to be planted. The lady of the house had her daughters hold down the thieving rooster while she took her husband’s razor, slit open Dominic’s craw, retrieved her seeds, and sewed the rooster back up with needle and thread. Dominic, we’re told, went on to live a long and happy life. (I confess I laughed out loud reading this. I bet Dominic never again strayed near the cowcumber.)

Telling of the early days of Nebraska–one of the plains states that the Overlanders crossed–Kay Graber writes, in NEBRASKA PIONEER COOKBOOK “Like the Indians, early white explorers, traders, and missionaries lived largely off the land, carrying only as much of the basic items like flour, sugar, and coffee as their packs could accommodate.  Even these were not in their present convenient form. Until the last decades of the 19th century, refined white sugar was scarce and expensive on the frontier; and when it was available, it was supplied in the form of loaves, or cubes. Brown sugar, much coarser than that we see today, was used extensively, as well as molasses.  The flour, unbleached and perhaps unbolted, was subject to an unpleasant rawness (some recipes of the period instruct the cook to dry the flour in front of the fire before using it).

Flour was generally purchased by the barrel, says Marjorie Kreidberg in FOOD ON THE FRONTIER. “Ideal conditions dictated that the barrel have a close fitting cover to ‘keep out mice and vermin,’ and that it be placed in a cool room where it would not be subjected to freezing temperatures or to intense summer heat. Sometimes the flour arrived less than fresh–one family found their purchase of flour so ‘musty’ that they had to chop it from the container with an ax. Housewives were generally advised to sift the flour and warm it before using it for baking.

Only green coffee was sold, and it had to be roasted and ground before brewing.  Salt pork was a frontier staple because it kept almost indefinitely and was easily prepared: after soaking a few hours or overnight in fresh water to remove the salt, it was generally fried…”

Dried apples, says Kay Graber, were a common item of frontier food. Most likely, pioneers dried any kind of fruit and vegetable that could be dried, but many found dried apples dirty and tough. “Their sentiments were expressed in a ditty,” writes Graber, “SPIT IN MY EARS AND TELL ME LIES, BUT GIVE ME NO DRIED APPLE PIES”.

Peaches, corn, pumpkins, squash, string beans and even rhubarb were preserved by drying, writes Graber. When sugar was available, fruit leathers (enjoying new popularity in the 1980s and 1990s) were a favorite way of preserving peaches and other fruits.

Carrie Young, author of PRAIRIE COOKS writes that her mother could never stand to see anything go to waste, especially food. “She preserved everything in her garden” Carrie recalls, “The potatoes and onions went directly on the earth in the root cellar.  The carrots were placed in a box of fine sand. The beets and cucumbers were pickled. In the unlikely event there were any surplus peas, my mother canned them, boiling jars for hours in her wash boiler”.  In a chapter titled “ENTIRE COUNTY SAVED BY RHUBARB” Carrie humorously recounts how her mother’s rhubarb patch produced–even in Dust Bowl years. Apparently, the rhubarb patch produced prodigiously; Carrie’s mother would cut up the rhubarb and boil it with sugar, seal it in quart jars and store the jars in the cellar, where there were already dozens of jars on the shelves from previous years. The rhubarb “sauce” was served as a dessert and when it didn’t all get eaten, Carrie’s mother would surreptitiously feed it to the pigs. (I have to confess—I can relate to Carrie’s mother. I can and pickled everything I have a surplus of or fruit and vegetables given to me, even though there is just one person—myself—and none of my children are crazy about my various pickled foods. I think I was a squirrel in a former life).

PRAIRIE COOKS and Carrie Young’s THE WEDDING DRESS and NOTHING TO DO BUT STAY are entertaining slices of life (with recipes) – that you really need to read all of her books and see for yourself. Carrie’s parents were Norwegian American homesteaders in western North Dakota.

                                                       ****

Until the settlers could plant a garden and acquire livestock, they often had to do without eggs, milk butter or any kind of shortening, such as lard. (The planting of vegetable and herb gardens was surely second only to building a shelter).

This didn’t deter most homesteading women.  One young homemaker, entertaining unexpected guests, described how she gathered wild gooseberries, rendered out some grease from meat to make a pie crust, and managed to bake a pie. Then she made a cake using her shortening, vinegar and salteratus, prepared fried bread and coffee and made a dish of stewedgooseberries.

On the plains, pioneers grew corn, which in turn produced corn meal–a major staple in Nebraska–while the cobs were used for fuel.

Nebraska homesteaders made imitation sweeteners with corn cobs, which they boiled down, and boiled down watermelon juice.  “Homesteaders” writes Graber, “acquired chickens, cows, and hogs as soon as possible, not only for their own food supply but for produce to exchange for other goods…”

[Corn Cobs could also be boiled to make a foundation for making a light delicate jelly. I wanted to see what it tasted like, so a few summers ago when my youngest son had a bountiful crop of corn, I removed the corn—blanched and froze it—and then used the cobs to make corn cob jelly. It was delicious!]

Hogs provided an important source of food–everything from ham to bacon. Scrapple was made with fresh organ meats and was a kind of breakfast dish. Scraps of pork–the head, heart or other pieces–were boiled. Then the fat, gristle and bones were removed and the meat chopped fine.  The liquid in which the pork was cooked was heated with the meat and cornmeal slowly poured in as it all cooked. When this was done, it could be poured into pans and chilled. Scrapple was cut into slices and fried as one would mush. (Scrapple is a very old Pennsylvania-Dutch recipe—my sister in Tennessee often made it for her family). Enterprising pioneer housewives even made fruit cake using pork (ew, ew!). They pickled the pigs feet, (or skinned them to cook with beans, cabbage or sauerkraut) and used the pig’s intestines (and pig blood) to make sausages. (Cleaning the pig’s intestines was an unpleasant job generally left for women to do). The lard from the pig had to be cut into cubes and rendered (cooked, over a low flame, until the fat melted). Directions for making lard can be found in some of the old pioneer cookbooks. The finished product could be poured into pans, covered with muslin and kept in a cool place, or it might be kept in wooden kegs with close-fitting covers. What remained were “cracklings”, the rind that’s left after the lard is rendered, used to flavor corn bread or even eaten like a snack.  Sometimes, pioneer women packed sausage down into a crock and baked it slowly in an oven for several hours; the grease would rise to the top and then a plate or cover of some kind would be placed over the crock and the whole thing stored in a root cellar or some other cool place. (Potted meat is a centuries-old technique, described in British cookbooks describing medieval foods and recipes).

Ribs, back bones, liver and heart of the pig were kept in a cool place and eaten fresh. Nothing was ever wasted.  (There is an old joke that the only thing that got thrown away was the squeal). Sometimes the pig’s bladder was cleaned and blown up for children to play with!  A pig’s stomach might be cleaned out and then scraps of meat–head, ears, feet, liver–would be cooked or ground up, with vinegar and onions added to it and then the whole mess pressed into the pig’s stomach and smoked. This was usually sliced and eaten cold. Even pigs tails could be roasted until they were crisp. (Rumor has it, these are delicious with sauerkraut).

If the homesteaders were fortunate and had the know-how, they might make a smoke house. A smoke house could even be improvised from an inverted barrel with holes bored in the sides for the insertion of sticks, on which the ham was hung. The barrel was placed over a smoky fire in a small trench. Once the hams had been smoked, they would be wrapped in gunny sacks coated with a flour paste to provide an airtight covering.

According to Kate B. Carter, long-time president of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers and author of numerous historical works, including Pioneer Recipes, Our Pioneer Heritage and The Pioneer Cookbook wrote, “the owner of a smoke house–someone who not only knew how to build one but how to use it as well–smoked meat for his neighbors as well. People might come from miles around and then would leave a part of the meat as pay for having the rest of it smoked. Bartering appears to have been a vital part of life on the frontier–when a homemaker was able to raise chickens or was fortunate to have a milk cow, she could trade eggs and butter for other badly needed household items, such as sugar, salt, or flour…”

A recipe booklet compiled by Volunteers of the State Historical Society of Colorado, (published in 1963), provides interesting glimpses in pioneer life in Colorado. Included is a recipe for preparing beaver tail, which I will forego sharing with you, and another for pioneer vinegar.  In covered wagon days, every family carried two or three five gallon kegs of molasses. When the family finally settled somewhere and a keg was emptied, vinegar was started by filling the container with water, leaving in about a pint of molasses and adding a softened yeast cake. A piece of brown paper 8″ square was smeared with molasses and added. The keg was covered with cloth and set in the sun where it soon soured and “made good vinegar”. [I’m unable to figure out what the piece of brown paper smeared with molasses had to do with this recipe considering that a pint of molasses was left in the bottom of the keg to begin with….but ours not to wonder why….]

Another pioneer recipe booklet provides a recipe for curing pork; the contributor says meat cured in this brine, following their instructions, is never rancid. After six weeks the meat would be removed from the brine and hung up in the smoke house. [I thought I’d mention at this point—my grandparents, city folk in Cincinnati, butchered a pig once a year when I was a child. All of the adult members of the family were involved in this production, which my sister Becky recalled watching from the cellar steps as the men made sausages. My grandparents had three garage spaces with their 3-storied house, and one of those garages was converted into Grandpa’s smoke house. Grandpa also made his own wine from grapes grown in their backyard. He had a  wine cellar in the basement, under the front of the house.]

The Dodge City Centennial Receipt Book also provides directions for curing hams which starts out with “…To every one hundred pounds (i.e. pork) take best coarse salt eight pounds….”

Perhaps you didn’t have any pigs running around the farmyard (or wild boar in the woods–directions for roasting wild boar can be found in FOODS OF THE FRONTIER by Gertrude Harris). Perhaps you lived in an area where there were bears. You might find many good uses for the bear, including its pelt, which was as valuable to pioneers as the food it provided.  (One half-expects these recipes to start out with “first catch your bear”). The bear meat was cut up and carried home in the pelt. The fat was rendered and could be clarified with shavings of slippery elm bark which was considered a preservative as well. The tongue, sides and ribs were treated like pork, salt-cured and smoked.  The pelt, when treated properly, provided a warm blanket or a rug and could be used as legal tender at many trading posts.

Many early pioneers swore by bear fat; they said the lard was especially good for pastry or whatever called for shortening. One pioneer contributor said that it was excellent for leather and great for gun oil or for making soap. Soap making, says Gertrude Harris in FOODS OF THE FRONTIER was done by every frontier household, “and continued to do so in many parts of this country until well into the last quarter of the 19th century…Like many other frontier tasks, soapmaking was a continuing activity. All year round the huge lye barrel, with its perforated bottom, stood outside the kitchen door to catch the good clean ashes from stoves and fireplaces. Underneath it was the lye basin, used to catch the lye drippings as rainwater strained through the ashes. To get the lye good and strong, the basin was often emptied back into the barrel…the best time to make soap was immediately after the annual slaughtering; large quantities of animal fat was then available…”

The lives of homesteaders, where ever they were – whether they were pioneers on the plains states or emigrants who wound their way across the Oregon Trail to the Western States, were surely complex and challenging.  What I have attempted to demonstrate here is simple a glimpse of what life was like ‘way back then. Generally, it’s a life we can’t begin to fathom. Despite the dangers and the hard life, many Oregon pioneer women lived to a ripe old age – well into their 80s and 90s!  Many of these women pioneered in yet another way – they built schools and churches, they became suffragettes for equality and the right to vote. Because of their efforts, Wyoming has the distinction of being the first government in the world to grant women equal rights.

One example is the story of Nellie Cashman, a native of Cork, Ireland who came to the United States and eventually became known as The Angel of Tombstone (Arizona), first opened a restaurant in Tucson, then a hotel and another restaurant.  Through wise investments she acquired a grocery store and a saloon. However, she was best known and remembered for her personal kindness and generosity. Because of her efforts, St.  Mary’s Hospital was opened in Tucson; it was the first non-military hospital in the territory. Often her own hotel doubled as a charity hospital. Because of her efforts, the first Catholic church was built…not only all that, she raised three nieces and two nephews as well.

Susan Butruille writes, “For many pioneer women, chores in their new home must have seemed like ‘deja vu all over again”. The work was a lot like it had been back on the farm, with added dangers and fewer friends and family to rely on for help and support.

It’s sweeping at six and

it’s dusting at seven.

It’s victuals at eight and

it’s dishes at nine.

It’s potting and panning

from ten to eleven

We scarce break our fast

till we plan how to dine

–from Housewife’s Lament”


“The new frontier” Butruille concludes, “is one the women moving westward couldn’t imagine: women and men working together as equals to build home and community in a world here masses of people still have no home, still seek a better Some Place Else.

Kate B. Carter provided the following poetic glimpse of homesteading life, written by Eunice B. Trumbo,


When the last green tomato was pickled,

And the last blushing peach had been peeled;

When the last luscious pears had been quartered,

And the last can of plums had been sealed;

When the last yellow quince had been honeyed,

And the last drop of chili sauce jugged;

When the last stalk of cane had been sorghumed,

And the last barrel of vinegar plugged;

When the grape juice was all corked and bottled,

Corn made into salad or dried;

When the beets and the apples were buried,

And the side-meat and sausages fried;

When the catsup was made and the sauerkraut,

And potatoes were stored in the bin;

When the peppers were stuffed full of cabbage,

And the pumpkins were all carried in;

When the flower seeds were gathered and packaged,

And the house-plants were potted and in;

When the fruit cakes were baked for Thanksgiving,

And the mincemeat was canned up in tin,

The celery blanched and nuts gathered,

And the beans had been shelled out and hulled;

Sweet potatoes dry-kilned in the oven,

And the onions were pulled up and culled;

When the honey had all been extracted

Comb melted and beeswax in molds;

When the jellies were all glassed and labeled,

And the horehound juice syruped for colds;

When the tallow was made into candles,

And the ashes were leached into lye;

When the rushes were bundled for scouring ,

And the walnut hulls gathered for dye;

When the cheeses were unhooped and ripened,

Beef corned in the brine to be dried;

Ham and shoulders well browned in the smoke-house,

Lard rendered from cracklings and tried;

When the popcorn was tied to the rafters,

And the wood was piled high in the shed;

When the feathers from goose and from gander

Were picked for the warm feather bed;

Women folks were most ready for winter,

To rest as they knitted and sewed;

spun flax, carded wool, and pieced quilt blocks;

Is it strange grandma’s shoulders are bowed?


Doesn’t this say it all?


THE END!  (even though, for many, it was just a beginning)

–Sandra Lee Smith










IT’S BEST WE DON’T DELAY”  (From Overland 1852)


UNCLE SAM IS RICH ENOUGH TO GIVE US ALL A FARM” –                                   (From a popular camp song)

”You can’t pass a park without seeing a statue of some old codger on a horse. It must be his bravery; you can tell it isn’t his horsemanship. Women are twice as brave as men, yet they never seem to have reached the statue stage” – Will Rogers

(Actually, Will might have been interested in seeing a statue of a pioneer woman with two young children clinging to her, that I saw in South Dakota).

“The longing for Some Place Else grabbed the men again, and pulled them clear across half a continent toward the unsettled and unknown land in the fabled place of Oregon…”   (From WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL).


“It’s natural for a body to think if you could begin over, your life would be better. You would do it different from any of the people or places where you’d already failed or proved to be just ordinary. Every girl has a dream of being carried off to some better place, by a big handsome feller.

It’s the appeal of being saved, of being born again, as the preachers say. To start a new life and shed the rags of this old one…that’s why the old don’t like to pick up and move on. Some of them come across the water when they was young, and cleared up a new place, and even learned a new tongue. You could say they don’t have the will anymore, or you could say they know better…

The women standing by the wagons had tears of joy, some of them, and others tears of grief. I’ve heard it said men like to up and move on and women want to nest and stay. But I’ve never noticed it was so. I’ve seen just as many women with a hanker to move on, to light out and try a new place. Couldn’t have been so many people settled here if the women didn’t want to come too….” (from THE HINTERLANDS, by Robert, Morgan, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1994)

While I was elbow deep in researching material for this article, I came across a copy of THE HINTERLANDS at a discount book store one day. It sounded like “my kind of book” so I bought it, not expecting that some of the story, which is a tale of fiction, would provide me with a bit of enlightenment.  For, as the first character, Petel, telling the story to her grandchildren, in the beginning of the book,  explains, “…Couldn’t have been so many people settled here if the women didn’t want to come too”. From the HINTERLANDS by Robert Morgan.

Are you looking at this picture from the wrong end of the telescope? I wondered.  Maybe some women wanted to travel west, to start anew. Maybe the prospect of new land for themselves–and their children–was too great a lure to pass up. Haven’t we all, generation after generation, wanted something more, and better, for our children?

Many historians writing about the Oregon Trail have made the observation that the United States had been mired in deep depression for a number of years prior to the great migration west, beginning in 1837.

Writes Lillian Schlisel in WOMEN’S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY “By the year’s end, banks across the nation had closed, and by 1839 wages fell 30 to 50 percent.  Twenty thousand unemployed laborers demonstrated in Philadelphia and in New York two hundred thousand people were wondering how they would survive the winter…”

During those years,” writes Mary Barmeyer O’Brien in HEART OF THE TRAIL “the West seemed like a land of promise. Potential emigrants had been told that free land, gold, and a new beginning awaited them…”

Why go West? Asks the Oregon Trail Cookbook. “The hope of promise and undeniable curiosity led many settlers across a wilderness trail that was originally traveled by Indians and later followed by fur traders, trappers and missionaries. The West promised something better–richer soil, bluer skies, a brighter future and a challenge to be met. The American quest for better opportunities and more room could not be squelched by reports of a bleak prairie desert or perilous mountains…the financial collapse in 1837, which caused New York banks to close their doors and agriculture prices to drop, provided farmers with enough reason to look for better opportunities.  Visions of blue skies and clean air moved city dwellers plagued by epidemics such as typhoid, dysentery and cholera to see a healthier life out West…”

“For most of the women who made the westward journey in the 1840s and early ’50s, home was a farm in a Midwestern state–Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri. They were family people. Rural people, Farm people. They were neither rich nor poor. The rich had no need to go and the poor couldn’t raise the money…” (from WOMENS’ VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL)

Between 250,000 and 500,000 people traveled west on the Oregon and California trails between 1843 and 1860, with more than half heading for California. Ninety percent of those who started out made it. However, no one knows how many failed, turned back, or died on the trail, although it is believed that tens of thousands died on the trail itself. Most of the families heading west on the Oregon Trail hoped to start new with free land, promised by the government.

Mary Barmeyer O’Brien, author of HEART OF THE TRAIL also notes that, “Immediately they found the stunning western landscape could be as harsh as it was spectacular.  Hundreds of miles of rugged routes stretched to the horizon crossing rushing rivers and treacherous mountain passes, as well as long barren stretches without life-giving water or food .  The pioneers worked themselves to the bone carving trails through the almost impassible wilderness. But to reach the West, it seemed worth the intense struggle…”

THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK notes that “The Oregon Trail remained in use from the early 1830s until the completion of the trans-continental railroad in 1869. Some pioneers and freighters continued to use the trail into the 1880s but by then, the days of mass migration by wagon train were over…..Originally called ‘The Emigrant Road’ by the early pioneers, the route commonly became known as ‘The Oregon Trail’ and later as ‘The Overland Trail’.  Regardless of its name, emigrants always referred to it as ‘the road’ and not ‘a trail'”.

Hundreds, – if not thousands – of books have been written about the settling of the West. Some of the books are truly wonderful and some are mediocre, but you can learn something from all of them.

People often ask me how I write – how I manage the research (while keeping up with a full time job and a huge house and yard). I can only explain it by telling you that I immerse myself in the subject. If I am writing about cowboys and Indians, I am reading about them. There was a unique store in Burbank, close to my office, called Geographica, which sold maps and travel books. They had a map of the western United States and territories, as it was in 1849. (They did have to dig deep into their stock but were piqued with interest over my request). It now hangs above my computer. If I could take off work for a couple of months, I would travel the Oregon trail, from Missouri to Oregon. No, it wouldn’t be the same as the trip taken by the Emigrants, but I would see much of what they saw, for the famous landmark–Courthouse Rock and Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, Emigrant’s Wash Tub–are all still there.  As I read, I often traced the emigrants route on my map. I tried to picture what these people endured. I don’t think anyone, today, really can.

Imagine my surprise when I found a book written by someone who has done just that! Susan G. Butruille is the author of WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL, published by Tamarack Books in 1993 as well as WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE WESTERN FRONTIER, also by Tamarack Books, published in 1995.  Susan with her mother as her companion, did exactly what I have longed to do—she drove first to Independence, met up with her mother and then drove west along the nearest proximity of the Oregon Trail. Susan, a 15-year teacher, student, writer and speaker on women’s history, thought it would be fun to trace the trail, learn moiré about it and track down and write about places of interest. (Recently, I discovered there are groups and organizations also devoted to the Oregon Trail. Susan Butruille notes they are “rut nuts” and that there is even an organization called Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) located at the National Frontier Trails Center in Independence, Missouri. I also learned that through ELDERHOSTEL, an organization for people 55 and over, you can sign up to take a day trek offered by the University of Wyoming along the Oregon Trail—mind you, travel is on a bus and meals are in college cafeterias and restaurants but it gives you some idea of what our emigrant forefathers and foremothers saw and endured.

WOMENS VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL, published by Tamarack Books, is filled with excerpts from real women’s diaries and is one of the finest books I have discovered on this subject.

“The National Frontier Trails Center,” Susan writes, “is a low-key corner of Independence, a few blocks away from Harry Truman’s place. Here you can take an intriguing journey–three in fact. A huge map on the wall in front of you shows the three westward trails that took off from Independence and changed our history…from the map you can choose from among the three paths through the center that trace the major trails west. Poignant diary excerpts, photographs and paintings tell the traveler’s stories…”

“At the National Frontier Trails Center” Susan explains, “You learn an important distinction. While the people were traveling to their destination to settle, they were emigrants or immigrants, depending on whether they thought of themselves as going or coming). (Once they settled, they were pioneers. That’s why you hardly ever see the word “pioneer” as you travel the Oregon Trail).

The Oregon Trail became known as “the family trail”. The reason for this is that single men, unencumbered by family, were likely to go to California in hopes of striking it rich in the gold fields.

Another clarification was made by a guide at the National Frontier Trails Center The Oregon Trail wasn’t really a trail at all as it crossed the prairie. Emigrants often spread out as much as four or five miles across to stay out of each other’s dust and one would imagine, to better be able to find grass for their livestock. (Some shrewd travelers would cut and dry grass, when it was available, to have feed for their livestock when grass would not be available—without, presumably, any consideration for emigrants who would follow them). They would come together at night at a river or narrow hill or at mountain crossings. This is why you aren’t likely to see trail nuts when you are traveling in prairie country.

(Also – the Indians blazed many trails across the United States, one of which became the Oregon Trail. They called it Big Medicine Trail. The trail climbed from the Great Plains through a break in the Rockies in south Wyoming, which the pioneers called South Pass.)

The trail then followed the North Platte and Sweetwater Rivers across the Great Divide, passed through the Green River Valley, around the Wasatch Mountains and traced the Bear and Snake Rivers into Hell’s Canyon. There it turned northwest over the plateaus and valleys into the Columbia River, which descended into the Pacific. (From the Oregon Trail Cookbook).

“The overland journey was twenty four hundred miles long from the Missouri River” write Lillian Schlissel in WOMEN’S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY. “The first stops along the road were at Fort Kearney and Scotts Bluff in Nebraska Territory. Emigrants could stop for water, rest and provisions. When the travelers reached Fort Laramie in Wyoming, they had traveled about six hundred and thirty five miles. It was summer. The days were hot and the nights cool as the road climbed to higher altitudes. Inevitably there were hailstorms and virtually no diary omits mention of a fierce pelting with ice the size of snowballs. The road then traveled through Sioux territory and although the emigrants were anxious, they most likely met with no Indians at all save those who wished to barter or be paid for guiding them across the rivers…”

The Oregon Trail Cookbook notes that it was Joe Meek, a mountain man from Virginia, who in 1840 first proved that wagons could be driven across the prairie grass, sand and mountains into the Columbia River Valley.

Susan Butruille describes an exhibit at the Center–a most fascinating collection of artifacts collected by Irene D. Paden, who traveled the trails during the 1930s and wrote THE WAKE OF THE PRAIRIE SCHOONER.

It should be noted—a covered wagon might be called “a covered wagon” or a “Conestoga Wagon” – or a “Prairie Schooner”.

Ms. Paden found tools and utensils–nearly a century later!–of things emigrants had packed to take with them on their journey and later had to discard.  What is particularly tragic about the emigrants on the Oregon Trail is that they often packed foolishly, sometimes relying on guidebooks that had been written for men and sometimes by authors who hadn’t even been over the routes they recommended. In packing for their long journey, they often left behind the very things they would need for survival, in order to take along a favorite piece of furniture, tools, or items that could be replaced.

Notes Jacqueline Williams, in WAGON WHEEL KITCHENS, “If the emigrants did not begin discarding goods shortly after their departures, they usually did so by the time they reached Fort Laramie, where they had to prepare for crossing the Rocky Mountains.  Worn out animals and tired people needed all the relief they could get….Forty-niners often dubbed Fort Laramie as ‘Camp Sacrifice’ because of the massive unloading that took place there by the many wagon trails …”

According to WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL “…The guidebooks neglected such topics as women’s and children’s clothing, cooking with buffalo chips, personal needs and medicines…”  In the end, treasured pieces of furniture and utensils were discarded on the trail, as the trail became more and more rugged and the beasts of burden laid down and died from exhaustion. (One of the most heart-wrenching stories you will ever read about these beasts of burden is that of Mary Rockwood Powers, in a chapter titled “Chilling Journey”, in O’Brien’s HEART OF THE TRAIL.)

Writes Butruille, “Basic outfitting costs ran close to $1,000 (equivalent to roughly $20,000 in today’s dollars), including the wagon draft animals, food, whiskey, firearms and gear…”

”They called it Oregon fever,” Susan writes, and it must have been.  It was the lure of the land, land described as rich and fertile beyond anyone’s imagination.  Imagine, if you can, a country that had been mired in a deep depression that swept across the country, closing banks.   And there was the great adventure of it all.

To really appreciate the lives and the lot of the emigrants, you should read their diaries and journals. There is a wonderful series of books titled COVERED WAGON WOMEN (subtitled Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails) edited and compiled by Kenneth L. Holmes, (subtitled Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails) published by Bison Books in 1995, told in volumes which begin with 1840-1849 in volume one. There appear to be eleven volumes all together, available through Amazon.Com on the Internet. I bought my copies some years ago at the Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles.

Kenneth Holmes, professor of history at Western Oregon State College, edited and compiled the Covered Wagon Women series, drawing on archives and private sources. As Kenneth Holmes’s acquisition makes clear, new diaries are being discovered today, almost 150 years after their recording.

As one reviewer so succinctly put it, “the entries from these pioneer women are alternately rich with optimism, stark with tragedy and always laced with the mind-numbing details and foot-blistering discipline required to keep to that inexorable march toward the western horizon”.

Another reviewer observed, “Until about 20 years ago, the Overland Trail story was generally understood as a male adventure epic.  The vast majority of known diaries were by men “rushing” to California after gold was discovered in 1848.  Because of the preponderance of these Gold Rush accounts, the smaller Oregon migration was neglected, and so was the family nature of it. In contrast to the temporary intent of California-bound travelers, families went to Oregon to settle, to farm, and to stay…”

As Mary Barmeyer O’Brien points out, “Women played an extraordinary role in the westward movement, but sometimes their contributions and sacrifices were overlooked. As their covered wagons jolted them over the two-thousand mile long trails, they had to summon every bit of their strength and courage just to survive. They knew they had left friends and family behind, in many cases forever. For most women, it was not their decision to travel off into an unknown land far from the schools and churches they cherished. But of necessity they toiled on, bearing children and raising families on the unrelenting trail…”

From WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL comes this song, from “Overland, 1852”, by songwriter Linda Allen:

“My name is Emma Logan and I come from Tennessee,

and there I spent my childhood with my friends and family,

I married young John Logan, back in 1844  that day he promised Pa we’d never go far from his door.

The children came so quickly, but my ma was so close by,

she’d help out with the births, and then she’d hold them when they’d cry,

I thought my life was settled ‘til the day John said to me,

Pack the wagon, woman, we are leaving Tennessee.” (from Overland 1852)

In the introduction to the Bison Books series (published by the University of Nebraska University Press), Anne M. Butler writes, “Happily, the concept of a women’s west no longer surprises us.  Women were shaped by the West, but they did their own share of shaping, leaving a female signature on land and lives. It took America several decades to acknowledge this historical reality. The recognition came slowly, but we have moved beyond an earlier perception of the West as an arena reserved for male exploits…Noted historians have turned out revealing and important works about women in the West…(yet)…the more we know, the harder it seems to be to pinpoint the meaning of life for pioneer women in the American West. Did migrant women look to the West with quivering fear or joyful anticipation?”

As explained in the Covered Wagon Women series, “…the woman in the sunbonnet has told her own story. She has painted word pictures of the road she traveled with her family. The words were written right in the wagon on the way west. Sometimes it was in the form of a letter written to the folks back home and sent off from Fort Laramie or Fort Boise, or from the end of the trail in Oregon or California or Utah or some other western locale….”

And throughout it all, danger lurked everywhere.  Would most of those women have agreed to go, or would they have fought harder against it, had they known of the dangers of children getting lost, drowning, falling under wagon wheels, getting sick, starving to death and, in some cases, being taken captive by Indians, (as in the case of the Oatman sisters, recounted in a book called CAPTIVITY OF THE OATMAN GIRLS, by R.B. Stratton, published by the University of Nebraska Press).

Or would it have made no difference to women in the 1800s, who had no rights of their own?  (Can any of us, from the perspective of 2012, truly understand what that must have been like? You have no right to vote. You have no equal say in decisions being made that will affect the lives of you and your children). Another important factor, explained by Lillian Schlissel in her book “WOMEN’S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY”, is the women’s all-consuming intent to keep their families intact. Their husbands were bound and determined to go. To keep the family unit together, there was nothing to do but go.

In spite of all the mishaps that took lives, both animal and human, disease was the greatest killer on the Oregon Trail. At least 20,000 emigrants–1 out of every 17 that started–were buried along the Oregon Trail: most succumbed to the very illnesses the pioneers were trying to escape. Fatalities on the trail were so numerous, notes THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK, that the emigrants averaged one grave every 80 yards between the Missouri River and the Willamette Valley. Most of the writers of diaries and journals, says Kenneth Holmes, were housewives and mothers.  About ten percent were teen age girls, fulfilling a mandate of friends back home who at a going away party presented them with a blank diary as a gift in which to record the great adventure. Most of the writers had the care of children, often large families with as many as six or eight of them.

But–let’s get back to basics!!

What we really want to know is what people cooked and ate, what recipes they used, and how they managed, whether traveling the Oregon Trail or homesteading on a western prairie.

How did families, limited to about 2400 pounds maximum–manage to pack everything they would need for a journey that might take as little as four months, but more likely as many as six or even eight months to complete?

Susan Butruille writes, “The men packed firearms for protection and for killing animals to supplement the food supply, along they would actually provide little of the food on the trail…Now picture putting everything you will need for six months on the road and setting up housekeeping at the road’s end into a wooden box that measures four by ten feet. It’s a delicate balance. Too little food and supplies and you risk starvation or freezing, or breaking down for lack of adequate equipment for repairs. Too much and you risk breaking down, wearing out the oxen or the wagon, or getting behind schedule and getting caught in winter storms…so how would you know how much to pack?  The staple diet would be bread, bacon, and coffee. Lansford Hastings (author of one of the guidebooks) recommended for each emigrant 200 lbs of flour, 150 lbs of bacon, 10 lbs of coffee, 20 lbs of sugar, and 10 lbs of salt. Women made linen sacks for these staples. Some goods would be packed in barrels that would hold water when empty of food. Add rice, chipped beef, dried beans, dried fruit, pickles, herbs and spices…”

“The emigrants found ingenious ways to pack their wagons,” writes Butruille. “They sewed pockets in the canvas slides to tuck treasures in, kept eggs inside flour and corn meal, and bacon inside bran to keep the meat from turning rancid…”

According to THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK, published in 1993 by Morris Publishing, “Cured pork was also packed in this manner, but did not usually keep as long and had to be eaten up more quickly.  Flour was packed in hundred pound sacks.  To keep sugar from dissolving, it was packed in India-rubber sacks. Butter could be taken along by boiling it thoroughly and skimming off the scum as it rose to the top. It was then placed in canisters and soldered shut.  This method of preservation kept it sweet for quite a long time…”

As for preparing meals, THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK explains “Twice a day, in the morning and evening, pioneer cooks built cook fires and prepared their meals. Cooking conditions were primitive. Pioneer kitchens had the sky for a roof and prairie grass for the floor. Since there was little wood to be found, dried buffalo chips were gathered from the prairie and used to build fires. It is said the chips burned like peat and produced no unpleasant taste.  Since the heat from such a fire was quite unreliable, a cook never knew if her bread would come out burnt on the bottom or uncooked in the middle….”

One emigrant 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 (with no place to drain them)…and gotten things ready for an early breakfast, some of the others already have their night caps on….”

Just as they did back on the farm,” writes Butruille, “the women would prepare, store and preserve most of the food eaten on the Oregon Trail. Food at supply stops would be scarce and expensive. Meat from wild animals would be a treat but not to be counted on…for some, chickens would provide fresh eggs, and ‘milch’ cows might accompany emigrant parties clear to Oregon, giving milk daily. Kept in a churn in the wagon during the day’s bumpy trek, extra cream would turn to butter by evening…”

“Breakfast,” states THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK usually consisted of bread with fried pork, bacon or buffalo meat, and coffee.  The noonday meal had to be eaten quickly, and there usually was no time to build a fire.  Typically, the menu consisted of a sandwich and coffee.  The evening meal was usually hot, though not elaborate, and varied from day to day by adding pickles, baked beans, biscuits, or as a special treat, dessert…”

One emigrant wryly commented, “One does like a change and about the only change we have from bread and bacon is to bacon and bread”.

“Baking on the trail,” according to THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK, “could be accomplished in a variety of ways. A sheet of tin arranged around the fire reflected the heat back onto the bread or pies, browning the top crusts while the fire baked the bottom. A better option was a portable metal box with an open side turned toward the fire and two or three shelves, so that several layers of bread, biscuits or pies could be baked at one time. When fitted with a domed top, which intensified the temperature inside, meat could be successfully roasted. If this option were not available, the meat was simply placed on the end of a long, sturdy fork, and held over the coals…”

Virtually all of the books I have read asserted that the most useful cooking utensil to the emigrants was the Dutch oven. THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK was no exception.  “Virtually anything could be baked or roasted in this round, cast iron pot by placing the base on top of the hot coals and then placing more on the lid to provide heat from both the top and bottom.  Its versatility allowed pioneer cooks to experiment with different recipes that would normally be baked in an oven….”

But, as Susan Butruille explains, “Cooking would become more difficult as the emigrants would confront hostile country, little water, and exhaustion of body, soul, and supplies. Some would abandon their prized stoves and some, their Dutch ovens. Most would dig trenches for cooking, often with air tunnels to keep the fire going. Pots would be suspended from improvised scaffolds, placed on rocks over the fire, or on iron bars placed over the trenches….”

When there was no wood or buffalo chips, emigrants used anything that would burn, including sage.  For some, not only food became scarce, but good water as well.

“Even when available,” writes Butruille, “the water could carry deadly poison or disease.  Women were finicky about drinking water, and according to author Irene Paden, refused to drink water with ‘wiggle-tails’ in it. So, they would kill the critters by boiling the water for coffee or tea, unknowingly killing deadly germs as well….” (Imagine drinking coffee or tea made with dirty river water, with creepy-crawlers swimming around in it! ew, ew!)

According to HISTORICAL COOKERY OF THE BLACK HILLS, by Alex Adamson, published by the Mountain Company in Keystone, South Dakota, Hay Box Cooking was practiced extensively by the pioneer women in their covered wagons, as well as by ranch books on the trail.

”A suitable wooden box was prepared by lining it with straw–the pioneer women used flannel–and shavings. A nest was left for the receptacle, which was usually an earthenware pot. A stew was partially cooked at breakfast, and as soon as the wagons began to move, the stew was poured into the earthenware pot, and put into the hay box, and covered with the remainder of hay or flannel.  The meat continued to cook in the insulated box, and at the end of the day a hot meal was ready for immediate serving…”

This was no doubt another early version of the fireless cooker. Yet another detailed description of preparing meals without fuel can be found in other cookbooks. One writer comments, “Our great-grandmothers and grandmothers used a the hay box in the old country and in the armies of the continent this same method of fireless cookery has been used with success for many years..”  They go on to say that the primitive hay box evolved into the “asbestos box” and the “copper double-tank cooker” but go on to explain in detail how a hay box was created.

Dutch oven recipes provide directions for making a Dutch Oven roast and also suggests that “burying” your Dutch oven is a great way to slow cook a dish and will tenderize the toughest game or beans.  Tongue in cheek, the authors tell us never soak or scour your Dutch oven as it will rust (true) and “never blame anyone but yourself if you can’t remember where you buried dinner”. (One time, a friend gave me all of her cast iron skillets, complaining that they rusted too easily–mine have never had any rust on them—but we are always careful how we clean them!).

THE HISTORICAL COOKERY OF THE BLACK HILLS by Alex Adamson  (published by the Donning Company in 1982), also provides a nice assortment of “Hay Box” recipes.

There are two fairly-recently published cookbooks devoted to cooking and food on the Oregon Trail.  One is a nice spiral bound cookbook appropriately titled THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK, published by Morris Publishing Company in 1993. This cookbook is a collection of nearly 400 recipes and remedies, some dating back to the era of the Oregon Trail. The other, by Jacqueline Williams, is titled WAGON WHEEL KITCHENS, subtitled “Food on the Oregon Trail. Also published in 1993, the latter is a University Press of Kansas Publication.

Ms. Williams certainly did her homework – she researched diaries and journals, even old newspapers of the era, finding proof, for instance, that many of the immigrants knew how to dry fruits and vegetables and carried these items with them on the Oregon Trail.  She found an intriguing advertisement in the St. Louis Missouri Republican for people crossing the plains; it was called Meat Biscuit and was patented by Gail Borden, (the same Gail Borden who would make condensed milk popular).  The ad claimed “…one pound of it contains the nutriment of five pounds of the best beef; one ounce will make a nutritious soup…”

Ms. Williams notes that the meat biscuit was apparently similar to “portable soup”, which was made by boiling meat or fowl with the bones in to make a rich broth until the soup was thick, like jelly. This substance was then set in pans and allowed to dry until it was hard and could be broken easily.  By adding the dry substance to boiling water, the traveler had instant soup!

American women often made portable soup, popularly called ‘soup in his pocket’ at home,” writes Williams. “E Smith in THE COMPLETE HOUSEWIFE (1742) had written that the tablets were good for woodsmen against the influxes which they are very liable to from lying too near the moist ground and guzzling too much cold water. Eliza Leslie, who reportedly adopted her work for the period’ provided instructions for making portable soup for the pioneers settling out for the West…”

Meat biscuit was similarly made, with the addition of flour–instead of drying out the gelatin, large amounts of flour were mixed in and the product was baked. (Portable soup had received endorsements from some early explorers, including Lewis and Clark, who purchased 193 pounds of portable soup in Philadelphia).

Williams notes, however, that “we cannot infer that either portable soup or meat biscuit was popular with the ordinary emigrant. Few diarists and letter writers mention either product.  Was it because the biscuits were so ordinary, too expensive, not tasty?…”

Most emigrants followed the advice given by guidebooks, such as the one written by Hastings. Bill Bullard of the National Frontier Trails Center considers Hastings one of the great villains of the westward movement, writing about routes without having traveled them. He wrote about what would become known as the Hastings cutoff, which resulted in the tragedy of the Donner party. (There are a number of books written about this most famous and tragic Wagon Trains, but perhaps one of the most captivating I’ve ever read, years ago, was a book called THE MOTHERS. (*I don’t recall who wrote the book and have been unable to locate a copy—I think it may have been Vardis Fisher).

The women who wrote letters home, or penned lines in diaries, often wrote little about what they ate or how it was cooked, unless they happened to find–as some did–wild berries or currants and were able to make them into pies, surely a special treat.

Williams notes that “Scarcely any diary of a western crossing fails to mention the bonanza of finding luscious berries, such as wild grapes, currants, gooseberries, and strawberries. Like fresh greens, they were a culinary delight and a luxurious substitute for dried fruit…the women served them for tea where ‘they relished well and turned the succulent berries into jams and pies’. When the overlanders found strawberries and if the cows were still producing milk, a special treat of strawberries and cream was served. The surplus berries were dried for later use…”

Williams also notes that gathering berries not only added to the larder, but served as a social event for the young people. (Accounts of berry-picking can be found in some of the COVERED WAGON WOMEN” series…for many young people on the trail, the journey, and foraging for berries, was a lark until they experienced the harsher realities of crossing the Great Divide, the desert and the final exhausting climb over the Columbia mountain range).

The journalists and diary-keepers never wrote about unmentionable subjects, such as how they dealt with bodily functions–indeed, some women were pregnant as they toiled across the plains, sometimes giving birth on the trail or shortly after they reached their destination. The problems of sanitation must have been enormous…but those writing diaries or penning letters back home commented more frequently on the number of graves they counted as they traveled west.

Lillian Schlissel, author of WOMEN’S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY says that over 800 diaries and day journals kept by those who made the overland journey have been published or catalogued in archives and many more are still in family collections, as proven by Kenneth Holmes when he set out to compile and publish the “COVERED WAGON WOMEN” series.

Schlissel writes, “No one who reads the diaries on the Overland Trail can escape feeling the intensity with which the women regarded loss of life. Cholera, illness, accident–these were central facts in the minds of the women who were the ritual caretakers of the dying and the dead. In the diaries of such women there is an unmistakable tension and sense of resistance to the journey.  These were the women who seemed to judge the overland adventure to be an extravagant expense of human life…”

Susan Butruille notes, “We have few accounts of pregnancy and childbirth from the women who traveled the trail. A woman might write that she feels ‘sick’ and then suddenly a baby will appear. Some historians who have contrasted original diaries with those transcribed by families have discovered that the families have censored out references to pregnancy and sex! So between censorship of self and family, such matters often have been left to the imagination….” (From WOMENS VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL).

“Salting and pickling were the primary means of preserving fresh meat and produce in the mid-nineteenth century” writes Jacqueline Williams in WAGON WHEEL KITCHENS.  “The canning industry was just getting started and not until after the Civil War would it be equipped to supply large amounts of canned goods through the country.  At any rate, cans were too heavy to carry in the prairie schooner…”  (not to mention that the earliest versions of canned food weren’t always safe to eat, either).

Says Williams, “Various types of pickles took up room in almost every prairie schooner…pickles and pickled foods were popular because these foods did not spoil, they added salt and spice to a meal of plain bread and crackers, and most important, many emigrants believe that pickled foods prevented scurvy…”

She says that the emigrants knew that fresh fruits and vegetables prevented scurvy but they did not know why (Vitamin C was not identified as a necessary ingredient in the prevention of scurvy until 1935). And although the emigrants worried about scurvy, no one knows whether this was a disease that actually presented a problem for the travelers, since there are so few accounts of the disease. But then, as Williams points out, emigrants never mentioned pregnancies either, yet many babies were born on the trail or soon after emigrants reached their destinations.

And sickness WAS referred to; diaries were filled with references to people having diarrhea, stomachaches and toothaches, while deaths from cholera are recorded, as Williams notes, “As if the writers were making a statistical survey”.

”The basic list of provisions” writes Williams, “was supplemented by culinary extras that the overlanders brought from home, purchased in the jumping-off places, or found at trading posts along the way. As best they could, families made every effort to have good food on their long journey, at least in the beginning.  By the time the emigrants reached Fort Hall and made the last push to their new homes, the emphasis was more on quantity than on quality…”

What is incredible, as noted by all the authors of books about the Oregon Trail, was the enormous amount of baking that was done. “Incredulous as it may seem,” writes Jacqueline Williams, “during the myriad of daily chores, the cooks found time to prepare apple pies, mince pies, peach pies, pot pies, pumpkin pies, apple and strawberry dumplings, gingersnaps, fruit cakes, nut cakes, doughnuts, light bread (salt rising) and sourdough bread…”

One diarist who knew nothing about baking bread visited a neighbor one night to ask for information. The neighbor not only gave her bread making instructions but lent her a Dutch oven as well. “I did just as my kind neighbor directed and in the morning had two loaves of elegant bread,” wrote the emigrant. She was surprised that “making fires of sage twigs on the lid and under the oven” did any good but noted that the bread came out a beautiful brown. (Proving once again the value of the versatile Dutch oven).

Pies, says Williams, placed a close second in the baking department after bread, with apple pie heading the list. The fruit used was usually dried, except for those occasions when fresh fruit was found. “A spider or Dutch oven” writes Williams, “made an excellent pie pan; pies could be fried or baked…”

Knowing that they always had to plan ahead, emigrants preserved buffalo meat by ‘jerking it’. The emigrants sometimes strung the meat on ropes and hung it on the outside of the wagon cover to dry until it was cured, when it could then be stored for future use. One diarist wrote that the wagons looked as if they were decorated with coarse red fringe. Another method of drying the meat, borrowed from Native Americans, was to build a scaffold and smoke the strips over a slow fire.

In addition to buffalo meat, notes Jacqueline Williams in WAGON WHEELS KITCHENS, the emigrants dined on antelope, sage hens, geese, ducks, rabbits and fish. Antelope meat was often compared to veal and considered juicier and sweeter than venison or buffalo. Everyone in camp rejoiced and feasted when the men were able to come back with fresh game. A meal of fish ranked as high as antelope, says Williams; fish were avidly consumed by emigrants whenever they were lucky enough to purchase or catch them. Although fried fish was the usual way to prepare it, at least one journalist writes about making a fish stew. When the emigrants got nearer to the Oregon territory, they were able to catch or purchase salmon from the Indians. Most emigrants considered the salmon a fine feast but at least one group of emigrants declined buying the salmon, because of its color–they thought it was spoiled!  They wrote that the Indians tried to convince them it was good but that they were as ignorant of the language as they were of the salmon.

Sage hens, if caught, might be roasted or even made into a soup. Ducks and geese might also be made into soup, sometimes with dumplings. Occasionally prairie dogs were eaten and some emigrants found them to be delicious.

Williams observes that “most meal preparations were probably both tedious and difficult”. One emigrant wrote that she baked until 12 0 clock at night–the women on the trail sometimes commented on the enormous energy spent cooking, baking, even washing and ironing.

“Yet in the first months,” writes Williams, “when supplies were still adequate, many emigrants welcomed mealtimes as a break from the hours spent riding or walking.  The aroma from the stewing pot of dried apples and simmering meat and beans surely prompted a sense of camaraderie and encouraged the overlanders to press on and make a new home…”

Emigrants often wrote in their journals or in letters back home about their experiences of dining around campfires, this sometimes being a novel experience for many of them. Writes Williams, “A food writer observing the cooking that occurred during the journey across the prairies and plains easily could have written about the typical travelers’ cuisine replete with foods that would not spoil and dishes that could be prepared by cooks unaccustomed to cooking outdoors. Indeed, if that writer compared the foods used on the Overland Trail with those that might appear in a camper’s pack today, more than a few similarities would turn up.Jerky, crackers, dried fruit, bouillon cubes, lemonade mixes, and flour and baking powder mixes for making bread could be found in the emigrants provision box and in the campers pack.

The emigrants, of course, had to cook outdoors for four to six months; the typical camper might be in the wilderness for only a few days or at most a couple of week. And the camper knows his mixture of flour and baking powder will work; the hardworking emigrant never knew for certain if the flour would be too wet for baking, the crackers a crumbly mix, or the dried fruit soft enough for putting into a piecrust. The emigrant cooks, working under adverse conditions, converted the standard traveler’s cuisine into unimpressive array of crowd-pleasing meals, and the success of these cooks attests to their culinary ingenuity…”

In spite of all the hardships endured, most of the physically and mentally exhausted travelers made it to the Columbia River Valley” states THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK, “finding it was every bit as beautiful as they had heard.  Emigrants soon became settlers and claimed the rewards of their paradise. They quickly settled and began building homes.  Before long, the pioneers covered 250,000 miles of land with wheat fields, dairy farms, sawmills and towns…”

Lillian Schlissel is Director of American Studies at Brooklyn  College and the author of several other books. She holds a PhD in American Studies from Yale
University and is the author of WOMENS DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY, first published in 1982 and reprinted in 1992.

“In the end”, notes Professor Schlissel in DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY, a woman who came through the journey felt she had won her own victory. The test of the journey was whether or not she had been equal to the task of holding her family together against the sheer physical forces that threatened to spin them to the four winds of chance. It was against the continual threat of dissolution that the women had striven. If ever there was a time when men and women turned their psychic energies toward opposite visions, the overland journey was that time…”

Schlissel adds, “In the very commonplace of their observations, the women bring us a new vision of the overland experience; they bring it closer to our own lives. They do not write of trailblazing or of adventure but of those facets of living that are unchanging. In reading their diaries we come closer to understanding how historical drama translates into human experience. Through the eyes of the women we begin to see history as the stuff of daily struggle…”

And, in the preface of Schlissel’s book, Carl N. Degler writes, “…in the end, the sharpest difference between men and women on the Trail was that the great majority of the women did not want to make the trip in the first place. No clearer measure of the power of the nineteenth century patriarchy need be sought. We do not know, of course, how many wives refused to leave their settled homes to create one on the move and in the West, and by doing so prevented their husbands from going.  But we do know that of those women who agreed to head into the New Country, few did so with enthusiasm.  Yet, most of these women survived–many more men died on the trail than women, despite the dangers of childbirth. But they also managed to sustain their families during the ordeal and then went on to create homes in the West.”

–Sandra Lee Smith


“Every cowboy thinks he knows more than every other cowboy. But the only thing they all know for sure is when’s payday and where’s grub – L.L. Royster, Amarillo, Texas, 191 (From COWBOY WISDOM rounded up by Terry Hall, Warner Books, 1995).



“When a Cowboy is too old to set a bad example, he hands out good advice (Teddy Blue, from SOWBELLY AND SOURDOUGH



  1. Be neat and clean.

1.2. Be Courteous and polite.

1.3. Always obey your parents.

1.4. Protect the weak and help them.

1.5. Be brave but never take chances.

1.6. Study hard and learn all you can.

1.7. Be kind to animals and care for them.

1.8. Eat all your food and never waste any.

1.9. Love God and go to Sunday School regularly.

1.10.Always respect our flag and our country.


Jan and Michael Stern, (whose names you surely recognize from the many cookbooks they’ve written, including AMERICAN GOURMET, ROAD ROOD, SQUARE MEALS, THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF BAD TASTE and one of my favorites A TASTE OF AMERICA assisted in the writing of HAPPY TRAILS, The life story of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and explain it this way, “Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were simply the most popular cowboy and cowgirl the world has ever known.  Their West as a magical American landscape full of promise and hope in which goodness was always rewarded and bad guys always got what they deserved.  They reigned at a time when the cowboy ideal seemed to signify everything decent about a nation in which all things were possible if you were a good guy with a solid handshake and a sense of honor.  They were, in the words of H. Allen Smith, “purity rampant” at a time when we Americans wanted heroes pure and yearned to believe that dreams come true.  They fought fair and didn’t swear or even grumble when the going got tough…”

Like the song title, my heroes have always been cowboys, starting way back when, with Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy,and Gene Autry, and the Saturday afternoon movie matinees. Even though we all knew – didn’t we? – that this was not the real West?)  My younger brother, Bill, was so determined to become a cowboy that he did — I have no idea how many horses he has today…all three of his daughters learned to ride, starting at the age of six months, propped onto the saddle in front of mommy or daddy. My niece, Jenny, their oldest daughter, has wall to wall ribbons from competitions she has won and became a jockey.

The nearest I have ever come was a guyfriend who actually did ride in the rodeos and gave me his rodeo jacket, which I still treasure, while my friend Mary Jo went and -can you believe it? -actually married a cowboy and rode off (in a car, not a horse) to Arizona to live with him.  One other treasure in my collection of stuff (you can never have too much stuff), is an autographed photograph of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

When we were kids (my siblings and the neighborhood children, engaging in imaginary play), we often fought over whose turn it was to be the horse. This was a greatly coveted role to play; usually, who ever could whinny the best got to be Trigger, Buttermilk, Topper or Champion.  Hardly a Christmas went by that my two younger brothers, Biff and Bill, didn’t ask Santa for (and receive) cap guns-and-quick draw holsters.  The guns shot caps which sometimes provided a wisp of smoke.

Much of our image of cowboys, of course, is the Hollywood variety-and if you are ever in my neck of the woods, visit the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Burbank, California,, where you will learn a great deal about cowboys, both the Hollywood version and the real thing.

So, what’s the real story?  What were–and are—cowboys really like?. And more importantly to us, what did they cook and eat, on the range? Isn’t this, perhaps, how the west was really won? Luckily for us, there are quite a few wonderful cookbooks available today, on this very subject–though most old time cowboys would have laughed heartily over the notion of “cowboy cuisine”.

We need to step into the past–and work our way forward—and fortunately for us, there are any number of excellent books to lend us a hand.

“When cowboys first rode onto the prairies, they could travel for days without seeing another human being. Parched lips and tongue, a sand-filled scalp and a stiff back were the cowboy’s way of life. They beat their shirts between rocks to kill bugs and ate breakfast in the saddle to loosen up after sleeping on the hard ground. Through hundreds of miles of cattle drives, they created new trails for the homesteaders heading West…”A roundup cook is a sort of human that was kicked in the head by a brindle cow or a cross-grained mule when very young..Nobody with good sense could be a roundup cook…takes a special talent to wrangle Dutch ovens and feed fifteen or twenty men that eat like walruses all hours of the day or night, right through wind, dirt, snow, cold, rain and mud…They’re temperamental as wimmin too. Also, they is very cranky”. (This was written by a writer from the Prescott Courier, reprinted in A TASTE OF THE WEST FROM COORS, produced by Meredith Publishing in 1981).

And if that isn’t enough to dispel any romantic notions we may have had of the Old West and cowboys, listen to what B. Byron Price has to say in NATIONAL COWBOY HALL OF FAME, CHUCK WAGON COOKBOOK, published by Hearst Books in 1995: “Long before the great roundups and trail drives of the nineteenth century, small squads of cow hunters working cooperatively fanned out each spring and fall to gather their herds for branding or market. Participants in these events carried meager provisions with them on their saddles, either slung over the horn, stuffed in saddle pockets, or rolled in coat or slicker and tied behind the saddle cantle.  Most men packed a few days rations in a ‘wallet’, a cloth or canvas sack with two compartments separated in the middle by a wide mouth. An early cow hunter’s fare was simple: a little flour or cornmeal, chunks of corn bread or biscuits, some salt, perhaps a little sugar, and coffee.  Many also carried a hunk of salted side meat whose fat tended to discolor the wallets, thereby earning their owners the colorful, if unappetizing, label ‘greasy sack outfits.'”  Ew, ew.  Still think the life of a cowboy was romantic?

Scott Gregory, author of SOWBELLY AND SOURDOUGH describes the American cowboy this way: “…They were a tough bunch. They worked long n’ hard and never knew when they might get trampled or thrown, let alone shot or snake bit! They slept on the ground, washed from a bucket, and owned only what they carried horseback. For their skills, they demanded fair wages ‘n good food. Chuck as they called it. If the chuck was no good, then the outfit wasn’t worth riding for!…”

(Cowboys never referred to their food as grub, says Gregory. Grub was the term miners used for their groceries).

When we think about cowboys, the chuck wagon quite naturally comes to mind, but, in the very early days, each cowboy cooked for himself. Utensils were sparse–cowboys on the range had no use for toting hefty iron skillets around with them; they usually cooked their meat and bread dough on sticks over a fire.

“During longer roundups,” B. Byron Price tells us in THE NATIONAL COWBOY HALL OF FAME CHUCK WAGON COOKBOOK, “Cow hunters often lashed more extensive provisions, cooking utensils, and bedding on pack animals, forming a train of mules and horses. While in the field, roundup outfits often entrusted their packs to neophyte cowhands, some of them as young as ten years old.

The use of pack trains for feeding trail and roundup crews persisted in rough, isolated regions of the West well into the 20th century, especially in those areas where dense vegetation, broken terrain, narrow passages, and the absence of roads and bridges discouraged the use of carts or wagons…”

“The primitive forerunner of the roundup,” says Ramon Price, author of COME AN’ GET IT, THE STORY OF THE OLD COWBOY COOK. “consisted of neighboring stockmen getting together to look over each other’s herds for strays.  Such neighborly gatherings were called by the various names of ‘cow hunts’ or ‘cow works’, ‘works’, ‘cow drives’ or were spoken of as running cattle’. Each man ‘packed’ his own food in a saddle pocket or a flour sack tied behind the cantle of his saddle.

Food in those days was simple and scanty. Each man carried a small supply of roasted coffee, salt, and cold corn bread or a hard biscuit. Sometimes, if the bread supply ran short, a man would be sent to a neighboring ranch to request the ‘lady of the ranch’ to bake some biscuits…Each man brewed his own coffee to suit his individual taste and there was no ‘cussing the cook’, a privilege enjoyed by later-day cowhands…”

But by the 1850s, writes Price, 2-wheeled ox-drawn carts or wagons were taking the place of pack animals in the open country along the Texas Gulf coast. These were easier to manage than mule trains and had a greater carrying capacity. The era of the ox cart didn’t last long and were soon replaced by heavy duty freight wagons pulled by 2 to 6 horses, depending on the weight of the load and the difficulty of the trail…”

Says Price, “Most historians credit freighter-turned-rancher Charles Goodnight with creating the prototype chuck wagon in 1866. His model was a simply a wooden cupboard made of…Osage orangewood that was bolted to the rear of an army wagon.  The design of this “chuck” or “grub” box, as it became known, perhaps drew inspiration from the portable writing desks of the period and the compact mess chests then popular with travelers, campers, and soldiers for cooking and dining in the field….”

“Chuck boxes, by contrast,” says Price, “were usually much larger, standing about four feet tall, and were made to a cook’s or rancher’s specifications. Some were rectangular and of uniform depth, while the backs of others sloped rearward from top to bottom to give the cook maximum access to their contents. Whatever its shape, a chuck box usually houses a labyrinth of shelves and compartments.

Within the upper reaches of the box the cook stowed a variety of tin cans and wooden containers bearing items in more or less constant use–staples, spices, tableware and other small utensils, and perhaps medicines. Larger and heavier items like earthenware crocks, wooden kegs, and iron pots and pans were kept on the lower shelves of the unit.

Most chuck boxes also accommodated several often ill-fitting drawers that opened by means of finger and hand holes or metal, leather or ceramic pulls…a hinged lid, secured by a hasp, covered the face of the chuck box while in transit…”

“There were certain unwritten but well-understood rules in camp,” Elmer Kelton writes in the introduction to A TASTE OF TEXAS RANCHING. “You never rode a horse up close enough to stir dust around the wagon. The working hands ate first, visitors afterward. When you finished eating, you scraped your plate clean and dropped it and your utensils in the cook’s ‘wreck’ pan so he did not have to scour the area looking for stray hardware. You rolled up your own bed, and if the camp was to be moved, you dragged it close to the wagon or even loaded it to help the cook and his swamper*, if he had one. You never loafed around the cook’s fire. In wintertime, the cowboys built a loafing fire of their own in the evening, a little way from the wagon…”

(*a swamper was an unskilled helper)

Trail driving, says Price, “reached its zenith between 1866 and the mid 1890s”.  This was due to a huge demand for beef and the absence of adequate and economical railroad transport.  At its height, says Price, it involved millions of cattle, thousands of cowboys and hundreds of chuck wagons. An average outfit consisted of eleven men, including a trail boss, eight drovers, a horse wrangler, the cook and chuck wagon, sixty horses and anywhere from 2500 to 3000 head of cattle.

It was after the Civil War, in 1865, that many Georgia soldiers returned home to find no home at all and headed for Texas to start a new life, explains Tom Bryant in A TASTE OF TEXAS RANCHING. “Fathers and mothers in Georgia,” says Bryant, “often complained that Texas was taking their babies as more and more young boys left to join the burgeoning cattle industry that was gearing up in South Texas and would make history for the next twenty years with its long drives up North…”

The amount of food a cook might use could be staggering–depending on how many mouths he had to feed. And, despite the great demand for food, cooks were sometimes handicapped by a lack of utensils.

The chuck wagon cook had to be up long before the cowboys, -usually by 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. When cook called, the camp stirred. One poetic chuck wagon cook penned the following:

“Bacon in the pan,

Coffee in the pot,

Get up and get it,

Get it while it’s hot”

Another wrote: “A man who has had a hand in the work and eaten chuck wagon food, while sitting on a pail, is not quite the same again. He has been his own man and lived free”. (From SOWBELLY AND SOURDOUGH).

Some outfits, says Price, finished breakfast as early as three or four in the morning, and by daybreak were already in the saddle and beginning their morning circle.  Before riding away, their bedding would have been rolled and tied and left near the chuck wagon, or they risked having the cook leave it behind.

By 5:00 a.m., cook and his helper would have washed and stored their dishes, loaded the bedrolls and other gear, and harnessed the horses for a move of several miles. There might be a race to get to the next stop, for the first one there would get the best location. As soon as he reached the next campsite, cook and his helper would pitch camp and begin preparations for the next meal.

“A little flame is seen flickering in camp, and the cook’s call is heard “Roll out!”. You jump up, but before you have time to dress and pack your bed the second call is heard, “Breakfast!” (Holm Dobson, from SOWBELLY AND SOURDOUGH.)

Most cowboy cooks, says Price, relied on the versatile Dutch oven, a piece of kitchen equipment that has spanned centuries. (Most overland travelers relied on the Dutch oven, too) If you aren’t familiar with a Dutch oven (which a friend of ours used to call, for some obscure reason, a Murphy pot), it was a large round cast iron pot with stubby legs and a light fitting lid that was slightly domed with an outer ride, designed so that coals could be placed on top of it, which applied extra heat and helped food cook faster. When the lid was turned over it doubled as a grill. “The Mexicans” writes Sam Arnold in EATING UP THE SANTA FE TRAIL, “had many recipes calling for entre dos fuegos  (between two fires) which meant heat both below and above. (There are many modern-day Dutch ovens but they are without the stubby legs and the rimmed lid.)

It may interest you to know that Lewis and Clark listed the Dutch oven as one of their most valuable pieces of equipment, when they traveled west. Cowboys (and Emigrants traveling West, also), quickly recognized the value of the cast-iron Dutch oven, in spite of its weight, for it could be used to make biscuits, cook beans or a stew, fry a steak or even bake a cake or cobbler. It was used for baking, steaming, boiling, stewing and frying.   When the lid was turned over, it doubled as a grill.  Dutch ovens could be purchased in a variety of sizes, in the old days, up to 16 inches in diameter.

James A. Hansen and Kathryn J. Wilson, authors of BUCKSKINNERS COOKBOOK published in 1979 by The Fur Press in Chadron Nebraska, offer the following hints for baking breads and pies in a Dutch Oven:

1. Place Dutch Oven and lid separately in the fire.

2. Get oven moderately hot, lid very hot but not red.

3. Grease bottom and sprinkle flour over it.

4. Put in bread, biscuits, pie, etc.

5. Rake out a thin bed of coals, and set oven on it with lid on.

6. Cover lid thickly with more coals.

7. Replenish as needed.

8. Use pot hook to check progress of cooking.

Alex Adamson, author of HISTORICAL COOKERY OF THE BLACK HILLS, explains that ranch cooks often managed cooking with Dutch ovens and food carried in “hot boxes” (or a hay box.) Says Adamson, “Cooking was done with Dutch ovens and food carried in ‘hot boxes’. The cook would start his roast in the Oven after supper.  Night riders changing shifts kept the fire going. When the chuck wagon was loaded in the morning the partially cooked roast was stowed in a box packed with hay, and finished off in the oven again in time for supper…”

(Bryant and Bernstein, in A TASTE OF TEXAS RANCHING tell us that under the wagon body, the cook and his helper had a “cooney”, which was a dried cowhide used to carry firewood when it was available, or buffalo or cow chips when necessary).

One most unusual use of the Dutch oven is described in SOWBELLY AND SOURDOUGH “The cook would turn a Dutch oven upside down and put his alarm clock on it, so when it went off, the oven worked like a sounding chamber, waking up not only him, but every sleeping creature in the land!”

Scott Gregory, author of SOWBELLY AND SOUR DOUGH provides an answer – finally! – to my question, how the Dutch Oven got its name.  “These cast iron pots,” writes Gregory, “Got their name from the old Dutch traders who peddled housewares from their wagons. It is said that Paul Revere is the real developer of the Dutch oven.  The ovens are nothing more than a large, cast iron pot with a lid and a bail handle. Today

you can find the ovens made from copper, cast iron and aluminum. The cast iron version is by far the oven of choice…”

Latter day Dutch ovens such as the one I have been cooking with for over forty years, don’t have the stubby legs and the lid is no longer ridged to hold coals. I have even seen some cast iron Dutch ovens with glass lids (which seems sort of sacrilegious). It still remains a most versatile cooking pot, whether you go camping or cook with it in the luxury of your modern day kitchen.

A really versatile cook, says B. Byron Price, could even make-do without a pot. He would dig a hole, line it fur-side out with cowhide, then heat soup or stew with heated stones.

Cooking with heated stones is also the way American Native Indians often cooked a soup or stew in tightly woven baskets. Beverly Cox, in SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST notes that cooking with heated stones was so popular amongst Plains Indians that the

Dakota word for the Assiniboin Indians translates to “those who boil with stones.”

Hanson and Wilson, in the Buckskinner Cook Book, also describe Stone Boiling. “A very old Plains Indian technique for cooking was to dig a hole in the ground about a foot or more in diameter.  Then a fresh stomach (i.e., from an animal, such as a buffalo) was used to line the hole and pegged around the top, and the stomach filled with water and pieces of meat.  Red hot stones were dropped in one at a time, and in an amazingly rapid time, the contents were cooked. You could even eat the kettle when the first course was gone….”

Breakfast and dinner (the mid-day meal) were eaten hurriedly, with little time for conversation, while supper was a more leisurely meal. The cook was careful to save any edible leftovers to serve as a snack or a future meal.

”A good cook,” writes Ramon F. Adams, author of COME AN’ GET IT; THE STORY OF THE OLD COWBOY COOK, “kept the coffeepot on the hot coals during the night, so that men going on night à guard could help themselves to this needed stimulant and men Coming in could drink a warming cup to take the chill of the night from their bones.

One of the cook’s last duties of the night was to turn the wagon tongue toward the North Star so that directions could be taken from it the following morning. It served as the trail man’s compass. On the end of the tongue a lighted lantern was hung to guide the night shifts back to camp…”

A cowboy’s life on the range or trail centered around campfires and the chuck wagon, and some observers considered the life of a cowboy to be dull.

Music was often a part of camp life; says Price, “Many hands, including cooks, were proficient musicians, playing such instruments as guitars, banjos, fiddles, Jew’s harps and accordions.  (This makes sense to me, as we have such a rich heritage of old-time Western songs and ballads). Storytelling and poetry sessions were also popular activities.

Eventually, along came cook-tents and portable wood burning stoves, and then not long after, portable mess tables with folding legs and a few chairs. One longtime drover described such an outfit in 1882 on a drive between Colorado and Montana.

If the chuck wagon couldn’t carry all of the cowboys’ gear, a second wagon, known as a bed wagon or hoodlum wagon, might be used.

But more important to us (since we are primarily concerned with food and its preparation), is what the cowboys ate and how it was cooked.

”Prior to 1870,” says Price, “a few basic staples dominated the menu of all cow camps. These included coffee, bread (in the form of biscuits, cornmeal or hard crackers), meat bacon, salt pork, beef–fresh, dried, salted and smoked—and game, salt and some sugar and sorghum molasses…”

The quantity and quality depended on numerous factors, including the region, sources of supply and the ability of the cook. Over the years, explains Price, southwestern ranching outfits gained the reputation of being unimaginative and miserly with rations, while in the northern plains, ranches were considered more generous and progressive. Perhaps the changing weather of the northern plains was a factor?) In any case, cowboys were often induced to stay with northern plains ranches due to the luxuries–canned fruit and cane sugar, for example!

Although cowboys were herding cattle, fresh beef was not as plentiful as you might imagine. For one thing, most ranches kept careful records of the cattle being herded. Sometimes, smaller outfits killed fat calves or yearling heifers. And when a crew was unable to consume all of the fresh meat bearing in mind, they had no refrigeration), they sometimes bartered with local farmers for butter, milk, fruit, or vegetables.

According to Price, a typical plains cow outfit slaughtered beef every two to four days, depending on the number of men in camp and the climate for preservation.  Cowboys in the Southwest or along the Gulf Coast, says Price, enjoyed fresh beef less often, perhaps once a week. In the Southwest, where meat could spoil quickly, much of it was made into jerky, a word derives from the Spanish CHARQUI.

To make jerky, the cook usually dipped strips of beef into a hot brine or a layer of salt, then hung the strips to dry. They could also make jerky from deer, antelope, and buffalo. Dried buffalo meat, says Price, was cheaper than bacon. It could be transported easily and could be eaten ‘as is’ or fried in tallow. “Some cooks” says Price, “made a tasty dish called ‘jowler’ by boiling pieces of jerky in water thickened with flour or an egg (if available) and seasoned with plenty of salt and pepper”.

And, properly prepared, says Price, “prairie chickens, geese, ducks, quail, and wild turkey made delicious eating and were especially sought after for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts…”

Until refrigeration and automobiles came along, vegetables and fruit made up less than 10 percent of a cowboy’s diet. Cowboys generally consumed only dried or canned products, such as beans, rice, hominy, prunes, currants and apples, with perhaps a few fresh potatoes, onions, pickles and wild fruit added at times for variety. (Make a note of this—you will find that early emigrant diets were often very similar).

“Beans,” says Price, “were by far the most common food in western cow camps”.  These were usually pinto beans, also known by cowboys as “pecos strawberries or “prairie whistles”. Beans challenged the cook’s ingenuity because they took a long time to cook and the chuck wagon was often on the move.  Cooks compensated by soaking their beans overnight and by boiling two meals worth at one time. Sometimes a cook put A pot of beans on the fire while making the evening camp and let them simmer all night.

When potatoes were available, cooks would serve them boiled or fried, often with skins on. Generally, the only time cowboys encountered fresh fruit was when dried apples or apricots were shipped into camp. By the 1880s, most major ranches stocked thousands of pounds of dried apples, prunes, apricots, peaches, raisins and currants, to be eaten raw or used in sauces, cobblers, puddings and pies.

Although the invention of the tin can in 1823 provided canned meats, fish, vegetables, fruit and milk, these items weren’t readily available to cowboys on the range. As late as the 1880s, says Price, canned food (called ‘airtights’ by the cowboys), was still uncommon on the Western ranges.

Although the price of canned food became more affordable in the wake of the Civil War, one can surmise that weight was a primary factor keeping it from common use in the West; dried peaches or apricots weighed less, and took up less space, than its canned counterpart.  (This was also true for Oregon Trail emigrants, limited by weight and space what could be taken with them in a covered wagon that was about the same size as today’s mini-van. Picture, if you can, a mini-wagon for husband, wife, and perhaps two or three little children, packed with all the dried beans and other foodstuffs that could be packed for the journey. There had to be some quilts for everyone to sleep under, and some cooking utensils and mama’s Dutch oven).

As some canned foods became more available, interestingly, canned tomatoes became a favorite of the cowboys, who sometimes preferred the canned variety to fresh (possibly because of the thirst-quenching juice and, I would imagine, a craving for Vitamin C).  Cooks often flavored beans with canned tomatoes, or would mix canned tomatoes with cold biscuits to produce something called “pooch”. An innovative chuck wagon cook, lacking fruit, would mix canned tomatoes with sugar to make a passable fruit cobbler (bearing in mind that the tomato is actually a fruit and not a vegetable!).

Cowboys became fond of canned peaches and pears, too, when they were available. A cowboy’s sweet tooth is legendary, say Bryant and Bernstein.

Even though fresh meat wasn’t always available, and vegetables were virtually unheard of on the open range, one kind of food was a mainstay–bread.

“During the heyday of the open range in the late nineteenth century,” explains B.  Byron Price, “most ranch cooks served hot bread, usually sourdough biscuits, at every meal…”

Cowboys also enjoyed hot corn bread, thin tortillas soda crackers and hot loaf bread.  If he had nothing else to cook it with, a lone cowboy on the range might mix some flour and water, a bit of baking soda, if he had it, and shape it into a ball. This would be speared onto a stick and toasted over an open fire. Cornmeal might also be turned into corn pone, hoecakes, johnnycakes, corn dodgers and hush puppies. Various kinds of bread made with cornmeal were more likely to be served up by chuck wagon cooks in the South or Texas, while sourdough products were a product of range life on the High plains. (There is an amusing description of what was surely a sourdough starter, described in Willa Cather’s novel “My Antonia”, originally published in 1918. Some of Ms. Cather’s books focus on pioneer life on the Nebraska Plains. Antonia’s mother also treasured some dried mushrooms that she’d brought to America from the old country. Jim’s family, the recipient of the mushrooms, had no idea what they were or what to do with them and threw them away, and were equally unimpressed with Antonia’s mother’s use of sourdough starter).

“Some chuck wagon cookies,” says Lon Walters in his book THE OLD WEST BAKING BOOK “became so adept at quick biscuits that they didn’t even dirty any pans when assembling the mix. They would simply tear open the sack of flour, make a deep well, and blend in the baking soda, salt, and lard.  After they added a little water to the fresh biscuit dough, it was ready for the Dutch oven…”

(Although baking powder was invented in 1856 and commercial yeast cakes became available by 1868, many chuck wagon cooks continued to make their own homemade leavening by combining cream of tartar with bicarbonate of soda, flour, or cornstarch. Sourdough was made from a starter which combined warm water, some cooked potato, sugar, flour and yeast. After a couple of days stored in a warm place, the starter was ready to use. As the name suggests, you keep some of the original and add to it after every use, to keep it going.  In the 1970s, homemade sourdough starters became popular once again, and it was not unusual to see a jar of one fermenting away while  it set on someone’s kitchen counter).  Most cooks, Price tells us, “stored their sourdough in earthenware crocks holding from one to five gallons, depending on the amount of dough required”.

”Most cowboys”, says Price, “expected hot bread at every meal. Resourceful cooks would use sourdough starter to make cakes, dumplings, pie crusts and pancakes. However, by World War One, sourdough cooking was already a lost art in some regions of the West”.

There are a number of fine books devoted to cowboys of the Old West. One of the finest is the oft-quoted NATIONAL COWBOY HALL OF FAME CHUCK WAGON COOKBOOK by B. Byron Price, published in 1995, by Hearst Books. I also treasure THE OLD WEST BAKING BOOK a lovely spiral-bound cookbook with many illustrations, written by Lon Walters and published in 1996 by Northland Publishing Company. A more recent publication is Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs SPIRIT OF THE WEST published in 1996 by Artisan, a division of Workman Publishing Company and available at bookstores and through the Internet. I am also partial to NEW COOKING FROM THE OLD WEST by Greg Patent, published in 1996 by Ten Speed Press and A TASTE OF TEXAS RANCHING by Tom Bryant and Joel Bernstein, published in 1995 by the Texas Tech University Press.


Once while visiting Old Town in San Diego, I found SOW BELLY AND SOUR DOUGH by Scott Gregory, published by the Caxton Printers, Ltd., in Caldwell, Idaho. Well written and interesting, it contains many great recipes and a lot of cowboy history.

Other recommended reading (though not necessarily cookbooks),are THE LAST COWBOYS by Connie Brooks, published by the University of New Mexico Press, which deals with the closing of the Open Range in Southeastern New Mexico, and A TASTE OF RANCHING, also by Bryant and Bernstein, published in 1993.

“There are still cooks upon the cow range,” says Ramon Adams, in his book COME AN’ GET IT. THE STORY OF THE OLD COWBOY COOK, which is devoted to the chuck wagon cook, “for men have to be fed.  But they are of a younger generation and like the cowboy, have been tamed.  There are no more trail drives, nor open-range roundups; the color of the wagon cook’s calling has faded with the advancement of modern progress…”

Before we saddle up and leave the old-timey cowboy, let me share with you a poem I found, by Tex Taylor, (from COME AN GET IT which is dedicated to the Chuck Wagon of long ago:

“The wagon is headquarters and old Cookie runs the show;

Four dun mules to pull it, crack the whip and let’er go.

The wagon is a good one with bows and tarp on top,

and a coonie underneath it carries ever’thing we’ve got.

The wagon bed is full of rolls, duffle bags and feed,

and hangin’ all around the bed is ever’thing we need.

On the front of this here wagon is a spring seat and a box,

where the boys kin keep their hobbles and a lot of other stuff.

On the back end of this wagon there’s a box plumb full but neat;

it’s got tools for us an’ Cookie an’ a heap of grub to eat;

There’s sugar, salt an’ pepper, knives an’ forks an’ spoons;

A great big box of soda an’ some apricots an’ prunes.

There’s a can of bakin’ powder, box of matches, sourdough yeast,

cans of milk, Arbuckle’s coffee, liniment for man or beast.

There’s a sack of flour an’ cornmeal, can of lick, soap an’ lard.

Flour sacks hangin’ in the sun an’ Cookie standin’ guard”.

One of the tragedies accompanying the breaking up of the big ranches was the passing of the chuck wagon and its cook,” writes Ramon Adams, whose book was published by The University of Oklahoma Press.

”If ever there was an uncrowned king on the cow range,” says Adams, “it was the wagon cook.  He was monarch of all he surveyed, the supreme sovereign of his jurisdiction”—and Cook’s word was law.

And Gregory writes, “The cook is portrayed in the movies and stories as a crusty, ill-mannered ol’ goat, who was half-drunk; to be sure, some were.  But the fact is, the cook was a major part of any outfit. The rancher had plenty of problems just raising or trailing a herd, and he darn-sure didn’t need his cook adding to it!  Besides, if he wanted to keep his cowhands satisfied, he had best have a feller who could handle the cookin’ irons!  A cook was often paid more than the cowboys themselves. As a result he figured that gave him a prominence amongst the men. A cook took his orders from the owner, or trail boss.  Never would he take an order from just any saddle-warmer that was standing in his chuck line!…”

And although the old-time cowboy and the Chuck Wagon cook are gone, this is not to say that we don’t still have cowboys! Not only are there many cowboys alive and well today (in addition to the Hollywood variety), they have blessed us with a number of cookbooks. B. Byron Price, author of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame Chuck Wagon Cookbook was executive director of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame at the time I originally put this article together in 1998-99.

Modern cowboy cooking, says Price, blends simple, down to earth flavors with current tastes for a style that retains a distinct Western flavor. To prove his point, his cookbook contains a wealth of recipes from modern day cowboys and cowgirls. There s even a nineties kind of homemade beef jerky, made with a combination of spices and liquid smoke, and baked in the oven (I like to make mine in the dehydrator; the only difficulty is keeping filching fingers out of it until it has all finished drying…when London Broil was on sale, we’d buy as much as the budget would allow, and make up a big batch of beef jerky).

For an updated look at cowboy grub…er,.. chuck, you might want to check out Montie Montana, Jr’s COWBOY CUISINE, published in 1996 and dedicated to all the  performers and friends of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  And speaking of modern day microwave ovens, Arlo Dunbar, Chief Chuckwagon Cook of the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show says “Microwave ovens are okay for popcorn or reheating something you’ve already cooked the right way, but we prefer Dutch ovens and a real fire…” proving once again that the versatile cast iron Dutch oven is still king of the range–whether it’s the open range or the one in your kitchen.

Montie Montana’s cookbook is great fun, filled with recipe contributions and photographs, cartoons and plenty of cowboy wit & wisdom. And although there are recipes such as you would never find on an old-time cowboy’s plate, (such as Parmesan Pasta salad and Mousakka), you will find plenty of authentic cowboy recipes, such as  making sourdough starter and jerky. You may be as surprised as I was to find a recipe for War Cake, wearing another hat, called Wind Cake. The contributor says he grew up in Nebraska and when everything was rationed, including butter and cheese and sugar, his mother made this cake which I have written about in HARD TIMES.

COWBOY CUISINE provides a recipe for making apple pie in a Dutch oven, as well as an interesting-sounding concoction called Vinegar Cobbler, which also called for the versatile Dutch oven, and pineapple upside down carrot cake (Dutch oven needed!). COWBOY CUISINE contains lots of celebrity contributions, too, recipes from such legendary western heroes as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

Speaking of celebrities reminded me of another compilation by Ken Beck and Jim Clark, called THE ALL AMERICAN COWBOY COOKBOOK, published by Rutledge Press in Nashville,Tennessee in 1995. What great fun this book is for all cowboys and cowgirls, wannabees or otherwise! (This cookbook was recently reviewed on my blog).

“If all the world’s a stage,” the authors state in the introduction, “the American cowboy is perhaps its most legendary rider…”  Along with food favorites from all of our favorite cowboys of the Silver Screen, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and TV western stars such as James Garner and Chuck Connors, there are recipes from singing cowboys and world champion rodeo cowboys.

Some recipes are tongue in cheek, such as “Here’s a recipe for cowboy coffee: take a pound of coffee, add water, boil for half an hour. Throw in a horseshoe; if it sinks, add more coffee”.

Another modern day cowboy cookbook is TRAIL BOSS’S COWBOY COOKBOOK, published in 1985 by the Society for Range Management . This is a society, founded in 1948, by a group of people concerned with the preservation of rangelands, whether in the United States or abroad. Rangelands occupy about 47% of the earth’s total land area. They are the largest single land category in many countries, including the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Rangelands provide approximately 75% of the worldwide forage needs for livestock, food and cover for wildlife, water for many uses, and open space for beauty, recreation, environmental balance and diversity.

So, even though you and I may be city slickers, the rangelands, and their conservation, are just as important to us as they are to our country cousins.

In my search for new and different cowboy cuisine, I found a little spiral bound cookbook called RANGE RIDERS COOKIN’ created by Bob Kerby’s Longhorn Studio and published in 1989. Mr. Kerby has devoted a lifetime capturing the action of the American West and portraying the life of the contemporary cowboy. After growing up in Colorado, he went to work on large cattle ranches in Northern New Mexico. He now paints exclusively in oils and has exhibited in western art shows, with his work being featured on magazine covers and reproduced on postcards, collector prints and Christmas cards and calendars. One special treat in this little book are the many color illustrations and drawings by Mr. Kerby. There is a wide variety of recipes, many I have not seen elsewhere (Red Lodge Bear Kidneys, Deer Trail Marinated Mountain Goat!)

While browsing at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum gift shop, I found A COWBOY’S COOKBOOK by T.L. Bush. This cookbook features more than thirty early twentieth century photographs from the collection of acclaimed photographer Erwin E. Smith.

The author is a cowboy, rancher, saloon-keeper and former restaurant owner, who has a definite knack for keeping you entertained when you are reading his cookbook. His chapter €titled “Ol’ Fooler” is hilarious. The recipe are great, the photographs spectacular. A COWBOY’S COOKBOOK was published by Gulf Publishing Company.

My most recent trip to the Western Heritage Museum gift shop turned up a little soft cover recipe booklet titled – guess what? DUTCH OVEN COKING by John G. Ragsdale.   This little book was published by Gulf Publishing Company. The recipes offer a wide range for Dutch oven buffs–everything is included, from cooking up a pot of pinto beans to baking cobbler and gingerbread.

Another recent “find” was a soft cover cookbook called A TASTE OF RANCHING by Tom Bryant and Joel Bernstein. The publisher of Cowboy Magazine, Darrell Arnold, describes the book better than I can, stating, “Bernstein and Bryant teamed up to write one of the best cowboy cookbooks yet produced. They’ve combed the West talking to camp cooks, ranch wives, and cowcamp cowboys, and they’ve herded together a whole corral full of rangeland
recipes. This is the food that has fed an entire lifestyle for generations…”

Jimmie Wilson, Past President of the National Cattlemen’s Association wrote the Foreword for “A Taste of Ranching” and perhaps Mr. Wilson should have been a poet, for he writes, ”Ranching has a way of grabbing the imagination. There’s something about sitting on a horse and looking over a green meadow dotted with cows and calves that pulls at the heart strings and keeps ranches out in the blistering heat and the frigid cold tending stock, tending dreams, tending an American tradition….”

If you want to get a true feeling of today’s cowboy, this is the book for you.  While there ARE recipes, recipes aren’t the true focus of the book; ranchers, ranching, the West and the people who live in it, are.

A TASTE OF RANCHING was published in 1993 by Border Books. I bought my copy at the Western Heritage Museum gift shop but I imagine many of you with access to the Internet could find a copy through or

A few years later, Tom Bryant and Joel Bernstein teamed up again, this time to compile “A TASTE OF TEXAS RANCHING” (published in 1995 by Texas Tech University Press).

Bryant and Bernstein traveled throughout Texas, visiting with ranchers, cowboys, cowgirls, and cooks, on big outfits and small ones. Bernstein says they all had one thing in common, hospitality, a willingness to help him, and enormous pride in being Texans.  If you are really interested in learning how modern-day ranching operates, this is the book for you. Bryant and Bernstein visited over two dozen Texas ranches in order to put together this portrait of the modern day cowboy–a far cry from old times, when the cowboy was usually a single man and a loner; today’s cowboy is usually a family man and has his family growing up alongside him on his ranch.

If ever there is a good time to delve into cowboy cuisine,(old timey or present) this is it! There is a wealth of material to be found in bookstores and through the Internet book store sources. For all of us, this is an integral part of our American heritage.

COWBOY DEATH                                                                         

When life is over and my race is run,

When death shadows gather and my time has come,

When I’ve rode my last horse and have turned my last steer,

When my soul has winged its way to that celestial sphere,

When my grave has been dug and I’ve been laid to rest,

Please let it be in the far, far West.

(J.E. McCauley, Seymour Texas, 1924, from COWBOY WISDOM).

And Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Ranch life is ephemeral, I for one, shall be sorry to see it go; for when the cowboy disappears, one of the best and healthiest phases of western life will disappear with him”. (From SOWBELLY AND SOUR DOUGH).

Scott Gregory, at the end of his fine cookbook, writes “The soft glow of a sagebrush camp fire no longer warms the darkness of the cattle trail;. But the spirit in which those men lived is still alive and well. We should all periodically take a step back to share in the simple joys of their lives; the morning chill broken by hot cup of coffee in a tin cup, the shade of a tree on a hot day, and a hearty meal built from scratch, with basic ingredients. It may, if only for a while, help us to understand the character of the American West”. (From SOWBELLY AND SOUR DOUGH” by Scott Gregory)

Some of these titles are readily available through the Internet.

COWBOY CUISINE is available on starting at 36c for  a pre-owned copy, or $8.88 for a collectible copy (which is less, oddly enough, than a new copy)

THE STORY OF THE OLD COWBOY COOK is available on starting at 2.48 for a pre-owned copy or $19.95 new.

THE OLD WEST BAKING BOOK is available on for $1.90 pre-owned or $11.66 for a new copy.

THE NATIONAL COOKBOOK HALL OF FAME CHUCK WAGON COOKBOOK is available on  for .60c for a pre-owned copy or $9.99 for a new copy. (Hard bound copy, very good price)

SOWBELLY AND SOUR DOUGH is available on @   for a pre-owned copy or $21.95 for a new copy.

A TASTE OF TEXAS RANCHING can be yours from for $5.93 for a pre owned copy or $21.95 for a new copy.

A COWBOY’S COOKBOOK can be purchased from  for $2.94.

THE ALL AMERICAN COWBOY COOKBOOK can be purchased pre-owned starting at 48 cents

P.S. – it’s only fair to mention this—when I was surfing checking on the available of cowboy cookbooks and the price ranges, you could have knocked me over with a wooden spoon when I saw how many relatively NEW books about cowboy cuisine have been published since I first put this article together in 1998-99.Look them over! You may be pleasantly surprised. This doesn’t detract in any ways from the books I have written about—I think it only proves that the interest in cowboy cuisine has grown in leaps and bounds since I first tackled writing about them in 1998-99.



For most of my adult life, I have been intrigued by stories about the women who participated in the settling of the West–the women who traveled west in covered wagons, the homesteading women who worked as diligently and as hard as any man to prove up their 160 acres, the women who accompanied their men in a quest to find gold (or the women who stayed behind, at home, to take care of everything while their men went off in quest of treasure); the women who left everything near and dear and familiar to them because of a belief in a prophet or a new religion, or because  of a dream of a new and better world for themselves and their children.

They left traces of themselves in diaries and journals, but we can’t help but wonder – what really motivated these women?  It couldn’t have been easy to pack up and leave your family and friends and all that was dear and familiar –to cross thousands of miles of unknown territory, fraught with dangers…everything from hostile Indians to raging rivers, from inhospitable deserts to nearly insurmountable mountains.

And, along with all of this, thousands died en route, from common diseases, such as cholera, and accidents–such as getting run over by a wagon or struck by lightning (accidents that really did occur).

Did these women go because they felt they had no other choice?  If your husband (or father) decreed, “we’re going west” did that mean there was no room for discussion?  And how does that explain the unmarried women homesteaders—and make no mistake about it, they did exist!). Or did they want to go and considered it a great adventure?  One can surmise some did have a sense of creating history, since so many women left journals and diaries telling of their experiences.

The first time my then-husband and I, with our one-year old son crossed country, (in a car–it took 5 days and we spent the nights at motels), traveling from Ohio to California, these pioneering women were much on my mind.  The first time I flew from California to Ohio, gazing at the endless miles of prairie and mountains below, they were again on my mind. I think the question uppermost in my mind–then and now — has been “How did they do it?”

For over forty years, I have been collecting (and reading) books on this subject, searching for answers. More recently, I found myself wondering how in the world did women (often with young children and sometimes newborn babies) cook meals as they crossed country? What did they eat? How did they cook it? What did they use for fuel? (On a more personal level, how did they deal with the problems of every day sanitation, a topic left unmentioned in diaries?)

All of this reading and speculating has led to “Kitchens West” which is perhaps a bit of a misnomer.  However, “Kitchen” is defined by the Encyclopedia of Cookery as …the room in which the housewife spends a large portion of her working day preparing the family food, and goes on to explain that in any early pioneer culture, the typical house was usually a one room affair with all family activities taking place in that one room…” In this interpretation, then, “Kitchen” is being expanded to mean, in a broad sense of the word, any place in which these various peoples prepared their meals…  because we are going to explore the foods and recipes of native Americans, (after all, they were here  first. We are going to take a make-believe journey across the Oregon trail with the women who made the trip over one hundred and fifty years ago; we will take a look at Cowboy Cuisine of long ago and today, and we will explore the life and culinary times of pioneer homesteaders.

Although this idea has been on my mind for quite a long time, it seems to be an idea whose time has come, because I have been finding research material everywhere I turn—the synchronicity of ideas continues to amaze me–at the present time I have found over fifty books to use for reference. I have discovered a true wealth of material published by the State University presses, and with the help of friends who are on the Internet, have discovered many other books I would not otherwise have known about. It also helps that Oregon celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail in 1993, inspiring a number of writers to write books to commemorate that great event.

Everywhere I turned, this topic seemed to turn up. An issue of Los Angeles Times (in a Sunday supplement) contained a story about the Nez Perce (pronounced Nez Purse) Indians in Oregon. Current issues of Reader’s Digest magazines featured several cowboy/Indian theme stories. In the Los Angeles Times daily paper one day, there was a fascinating story about a Sioux Indian, Chief Long Wolf, who went to London with Buffalo Bill’s show. Chief Long Wolf died and was buried in a remote cemetery in England, and now, a hundred years later, an English homemaker was instrumental in finding his gravesite and helping to arrange for the Indian remains to be returned to his home, mostly because it was the belief of the Sioux that a person’s spirit wanders without rest if they are not buried in their tribal homeland.

Whenever I see and hear about a subject at every turn, it feels as though a giant finger of the Universal Mind is nudging me in the back, telling me “pay attention!” So, here goes:

Let’s start with some definitions.  Webster defines:

SETTLER: as one who settles, a colonist

PIONEER: as one of those who first enter or settle in a region,

opening it for occupation and development by others; one of those who are first or earliest in any field or inquiry…to go before – OVERLANDERS is another name for  Pioneers.

HOMESTEAD:  A home or dwelling, especially a house with the ground and buildings immediately connected with it; a tract of land, especially 160 acres, granted by Congress to a settler for development and ownership.

Covered wagon: a large wagon, with high curved hoops, covered by a canvas top, used to transport pioneers westward during the 19th century. Covered Wagons were sometimes also called Conestoga wagons. Covered wagons cost between $60-$90 and were usually 10’x4′ (about the size of a minivan). The name Conestoga, incidentally, a word which has all but disappeared from the American landscape, came from a town in Pennsylvania, where the first covered wagons were manufactured Covered wagons were also known as Prairie Schooners.

Cowboy: – A man who looks after cattle on a large ranch and does this work on horseback, a man who possesses the skills of a cowboy, especially those associated with a rodeo.

EMIGRANTS: was a 19th century name for the pioneers.  Were sometimes called Overlanders.

The Oregon Trail: a route that encompassed what are today eight states, from Independence Missouri, to Oregon City in the Willamette Valley. It covered 2,000 zigzag miles, from Missouri, on to Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and finally to Oregon or California.  It usually took almost five months (and sometimes seven) to reach the West and the trip was always a race against seasons. Most travelers chose the Oregon Trail because it provided a fairly regular supply of water along the North Platte and Sweetwater Rivers, a dependable supply of grass across the Prairie, and an easy, gradual grade to and through the mountains. The Oregon Trail was sometimes called THE EMIGRANT ROAD and THE OVERLAND TRAIL.

NATIVE AMERICANS are the Indian tribes of North America, specifically what is today the United States. Our focus will be primarily with the tribes in the Northwestern, Southwestern, and Western regions of the United States. As we all know, “Indians” was the name given to Native Americans by Christopher Columbus, who mistakenly believed he had reached India.



One hundred (many) years ago the great Kahkawkonty told how the Great Spirit appeared to a wise forefather and showed him the plant, corn.  The Great Spirit told him to preserve the two ears on the plant until the next spring, and to plant the

kernels.  He should preserve the whole crop and send two ears to each of the surrounding nations, with the injunction that they were not to eat any of it until their third crop.  The wise Indian did as he was commanded.  By this means the corn

was distributed among all American Indians (From INDIAN COOKING, 1973, Nowega Press.)

There is another American Indian fable which tells of a youth who went to the woods to fast to prepare himself for his approaching manhood. He built himself a hut, and wandered about it, praying that the Great Spirit might acknowledge him by sending him a gift for his people who were in great need. Finally, after several days of fasting, he was too weak to move about, and lay on the ground.  On the third day of this idleness, a youthful spirit appeared before him in flowing green plumes. The spirit commanded the Indian to rise and wrestle with him if he wished to get his heart’s desire.  After the exercise, he was exhausted, and before he revived, the spirit left. This was repeated for four days. On the fourth day, the spirit said that he would return once more, on which occasion the youth would overcome him. He should then strip off his green clothes and bury them in the ground. If the mound over the clothes was tended and kept free from weeds, the young Indian would get his desire. The Indian defeated the spirit, and followed his directions. In a few days, a plant grew out of the mound which bore ears of grain which were good to eat. This was the origin of the Indian corn.  (From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COOKERY, WM h. Wise & Co, published 1948)


Haven’t we all learned, as small children, the story of the First pilgrims, who came to America, but would have starved, to death if not for the generosity and sharing of Native American Indians, how Squanto, a Wampanoag, taught the starving immigrants how to grow corn, and kept them from going hungry?  (Archaeological evidence shows that the horticulture of corn and beans is well over a thousand years old in southern New England and dates even further back in the southern regions–and, according to the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COOKERY Icelandic sagas mention it as a product of the land to the west, which the Norse sailors discovered in the 11th century).

What you may not have learned in grammar school is that Squanto also taught the English colonists how to make use of the growing corn stalks to support the bean vines by planting the two together. They also learned that corn, unlike other grains which require smooth and well tilled fields, could be grown in patches where trees had been cut down–corn could be raised easily on land that not long ago had been heavily forested.

You also may not have learned in school that a number of families in the early Jamestown settlement were sent to live with friendly Indian tribesmen, so that they might learn to recognize strange varieties of edible roots and how to prepare them. This is how they were introduced to the potato and learned some of the many ways that the Indians used corn. From AMERICAN FOOD, THE GASTRONOMIC STORY by Evan Jones).

Corn is more than food to the Hopi people, writes Juanita Tiger Kavena, in HOPI COOKERY. It is life. At the naming ceremony of the newborn, a special ear of corn is selected as the ‘mother corn’ and is held sacred by the family, until it is used much later as food. Some families also put a taste of blue cornmeal into the baby’s mouth, saying, ‘This corn is your life’s strength. Eat this and grow strong and have a long, happy life.’

“Corn,” says Ms. Kavena, “has been the focal point of Hopi culture and religion as long as anyone remembers and is used In every ceremony…”

This must have been true of all Native American tribes who cultivated corn, since so many legends revolve around this most versatile vegetable.

A Navajo prayer goes like this:

“Truly in the East

The white bean

And the great corn-plant

Are tied with the white lightning.

Listen! rain approaches!

The voice of the bluebird is heard.

Truly in the East

The white bean

And the great squash

are tied with the rainbow.”


Corn is so important to the Pueblo and Navajo Native Americans, says Marcia Keegan, that whenever it is being ground, men come and sing. “In the grinding songs,” she explains, “they tell you almost what to do. And you have to grind to the beat, to the rhythm of the songs…”

A translation of a Taos Pueblo corn grinding song goes like this:

“From the corn we gather the pollen.  The pollen that is like gold, reminds us of the color of anointment of the ancient ones.  Grinding the corn it reminds us of heaven and it reminds us of earth.  It reminds us that Father Sky and Mother Earth will unite forever.  From the corn we learn to live, we learn the life that is ours, by grinding the corn we learn the footsteps of life.  We go through a purification, until we are like dust. The corn came from the dust, from Mother Earth, and it gives life, like from Father Sky.

We are like the kernel that comes from the corn.  With it we bring life, like the seed of the corn. Corn is the fruit of the gods, it was brought to us by the creator, that we may remember him.  Our lives, we must remember that they are holy.  The corn is sacred.  We are sacred.  We hold the seeds of the gods to the future.”  (From SOUTHWEST INDIAN COOKBOOK.)

“Corn,” writes Ms. Keegan, “is the principal Pueblo food. The Pueblos traditionally believe their bodies are basically composed of corn and that as a result they share with the grain a simple essence…” (Sort of another way of saying you are what you eat, isn’t it?)

“During a Navajo wedding” writes Marcia Keegan, “the grandmother of the bride presents the newly married couple with a special basket filled with cornmeal.  The bride and groom exchange a pinch of the golden substances with one another. The tradition is an ancient one”.


Lois Ellen Frank, author of NATIVE AMERICAN COOKING, FOODS OF THE SOUTHWEST INDIAN NATIONS Writes, “Corn is, and has been for thousands of years, one of the most important foods in the Native American diet. Considered to be the essence of life, corn holds a magical sacredness for the people. In fact, many ceremonial dances are held in which prayers are offered to the Corn Mother spirit…”

Ms. Frank also explains how corn was cultivated thousands of years ago in the Southwest, that the first varieties grown did not require irrigation, which made it a perfect crop for people to cultivate in the dry, arid region of the Southwest.

“Dry farming,” she says, “is still used by some tribes”.

Several different varieties and colors of corn,” says Ms. Frank, “including blue, white, red, yellow and speckled—are used by Native Americans today.  Blue corn, which varies in color from pale blue to almost black, is considered one of the most important corn crops. It is used primarily in making baked goods, stews, stuffings, dumpings and beverages. White corn is still a major crop on many reservations and pueblos. It is used in prayer offerings and for making hominy and cornmeal flour, which is utilized in many traditional recipes.  Red corn, ranging in color from light red to deep maroon, is used for baked goods, for stews and traditionally, for dye…Yellow corn is used in stews and is ground into flour or meal for baking…Speckled corn, which is a combination of all the colors of corn, is used for all kinds of cooking…” (If you are interested in trying different kinds of corn, you may want to refer to the Source Guide in Ms. Frank’s book, NATIVE AMERICAN COOKING where you will find a list of company names and addresses where you can obtain some not-too-readily-available ingredients).

I turned to Alvin M. Josephy’s THE INDIAN HERITAGE OF AMERICA to see what he had to say about corn and its origins. (Published originally in 1968, it was reprinted in 1991, by American Heritage Library.)

Mr. Josephy is a distinguished historian and the author of many books, including the OPENING OF THE NORTHWEST and THE CIVIL WAR IN THE WEST. He was (at the time this was first printed in 1998) the first chairman of the board of the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institute.

According to Josephy, Indian maize, or corn, was first cultivated from wild corn in Central Mexico.  “In 1948,”writes Josephy, “tiny cobs of domesticated corn, between 4,000 and 5,000 years old, were found by archaeologists both at Bat Cave in New Mexico and at La Perra Cave in Tamaulipas in northeastern Mexico.

Since then, archaeological work…in two regions of Mexico has thrown important new light on the entire subject of the start of New World agriculture…”  What the archaeologists found was evidence of the cultivation of pumpkin, peppers, bottle gourds and a kind of runner beans–9,500 to 7,500 years ago! They also found evidence of domesticated squash and corn 7,000 years ago in northeastern Mexico.  Most food historians appear to agree that corn reached North America by way of migration from Mexico and South America.

There were so many different Native American tribes that I wondered if I could even begin to compile a comprehensive list; complicating the matter, dozens of tribes, especially those in the eastern part of the United States, became extinct by the nineteenth century.


In ENDURING HARVESTS, E. Barrie Kavasch provides us with a map of the United States which lists all the Native tribes that are mentioned in Kavasch’s book. Of the Great Plains tribes, there are Osage, Arapaho, Pawnee, Cheyenne, Oto, Omaha, Ponca, Sioux, Dakota, Crow, Mandan, Cree, Chippewa, 19 tribes of Pueblo, Hopi, Navajo, Apache, Yuma, Mojave, and many others. In the Northwest were Shoshone, Bannock, Yakitna, Walla Walla, Paiute, Nez Perce, Palouse, Spokane, Squamish, and Coeur D’Alenes, while in the Southwest were tribes of Opata, Suma, Pima and Bajo – and this is not a complete listing!

Another factor, as pointed out in Beverly Cox’s 1991 cook book SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST, is that many Indian people today do not live in the same areas where their ancestors did. “When Europeans appears in the New World,” Beverly writes, “and encountered native peoples, they introduced new ideas and new material goods that changed Indian life—brass and copper kettles for cooking, guns and metal traps for hunting. They also introduced new diseases to which the natives had no immunity, and some settlers established permanent settlements that disrupted native hunting

territories, or took over fallow Indian planting grounds. Many Indian groups, faced with such pressures, signed treaties, giving up part or all of their land. Sometimes they received other land in exchange and were moved to new areas.

The Oneida in Wisconsin, for instance, are descended from people who originally lived in upstate New York. The Choctaw tribe in Oklahoma originated in central Mississippi. The Cheyennes in Montana are probably descendants of people who once lived in the forests around the western Great Lakes. As they moved, these tribes adapted to the new foods found in their new homelands…”

“Stories about the origins of corn,” writes Doctor Clara Sue Kidwell in SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST, “have a common theme among Southeastern tribes. A story from the Miccosuke in Florida and Alabama is representative. A woman feeds her family a new and delicious food that they have not seen before. Her sons wonder where she is getting it, and they secretly follow her one day to find out. They discover that she is rubbing skin from her body and forming it into little balls. Se sees them and tells them that since they have discovered her secret, they must kill her and bury her body in a nearby field. The next spring, corn stalks grow from her grave. The story associates women, corn, cycles of the seasons, cycles of life and death, and fertility, and it makes corn a metaphor with many levels of meaning…”

(*Doctor Kidwell was a Professor of Native American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley at the time this was first published; she has written some of the introductions to various chapters in SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST. David Hunt, in his cookbook THE NATIVE INDIAN WILD GAME, FISH AND WILD FOODS COOKBOOK provides culinary insights and traditions of the following tribes:

SOUTHWESTERN:  Pueblos, Zuni, Hopi

NORTHWEST:  Salish and other coastal tribes

WESTERN: Plains Indians, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Sioux

SOUTHEAST: Chocktaw, Creek and Cherokee

NORTHEAST: Canadian, Ojibway, and Eastern Woodlands

I found myself wondering, have I bitten off more than I can chew?  How can I adequately describe the food heritage given to us by the American Indian?  I turned again for help from THE INDIAN HERITAGE by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.

“The Southeastern peoples”, writes Mr. Josephy, “generally had an abundance and variety of food. Villages had gardens in which the Indians raised many crops, including corn, beans, and melons, as well as tobacco. The waters and forests were filled with fish and game, the latter including bear, deer, turkeys, and wildfowl. Nuts and berries grew in profusion and sunflowers were cultivated for their seeds. Favored dishes included bear ribs, root jelly, hominy and corn cakes, and corn soup…”

Later, he explains, “the coming of the white man spelled disaster to the Southeastern tribes.  Many were wiped out, and the Natchez and various Gulf coast peoples all but disappeared by the 19th century. In Florida, the Calusas, Timucuas, and Apalachees became extinct even earlier.

After the middle of the 18th century, refugee Creeks and other Indians from Georgia and Alabama moved into Florida and, intermarrying with runaway Negro slaves and the last survivors of the original Florida tribes, gave rise to a new people…their name was corrupted to Seminole and meant simply that they were separatists, or runaways from the Creeks. With the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Cherokees, the Seminoles formed ‘The Five Civilized Tribes’, a named applied to them in the 19th century because of their adoption…of the white man’s civilization. Many of them raised stock, tilled large farms, built large European-style homes…they dressed like white men, learned the whites’ methods, skills, and arts, started small industries and became Christians…Despite this, calamity struck the Five Civilized Tribes. An expanding nation coveted their lands, and in the 1820s and 1830s, the United States government forced their removal, one by one to new homes west of the Mississippi River, in present-day Oklahoma, which was then thought to be uninhabitable by white men. Their emigrations were cruel and bitter trials.  Some, including the Seminoles, resisted, but by the 1840s, only relatively small pockets of Indians, including some Cherokees in the mountains of North Carolina, remained in the Southeast…” From this great exodus came the name “The Trail of Tears”.

“To talk of Native American cookery,” writes Rayna Green in SMITHSONIAN FOLKLIFE COOKERY “is to talk of the oldest foods and the oldest cooking methods in North America.  It is to talk of food and cooking traditions basely solely in the natural universe, of things gathered from the ground, from trees and bushes, from plants, from fresh and salt waters, from desert sands and mountain forests, from animals as old and older than the people who took food from them.  And to talk of Native American food and cooking is to talk of dynamic change, movement, acceptance of the new and strange,and creative adaptation, like Native American people themselves.

”Once, long ago,” she continues, “as now, there was bear and buffalo, seal, salmon and oyster, cactus, fruit and wild rice, hickory nut and prairie turnip, now and for a while there has been pig and cow, wheat flour and sugar, watermelon and black pepper, even gelatin.  In between what was gathered and hunted long ago and now, there was corn–Corn Mother, which together with beans and squash, became what the Iroquois call the Three Sisters….”  (SMITHSONIAN FOLK LIFE COOKBOOK compiled by Katherine S. Kirlin and Thomas M. Kirlin, was published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1991 and is a tribute to many different American folklives, not just Native American Indian).

”Succotash,” writes Beverly Cox in SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST “in its many variations is a basic Indian dish that has long been a favorite of all Americans. Among the Algonquian and Iroquian tribes of the Northeast, food–and especially succotash–was kept simmering at all times, ready for any hungry visitor or family member…”

David Hunt, editor/author of NATIVE INDIAN WILD GAME, FISH AND WILD FOODS COOKBOOK (Fox Chapel Publishing, 1992), writes, “America’s first people were called ‘Indians’ based on the mistaken belief of the explorers that they had reached India.  This lack of understanding and cultural arrogance would be a dominant theme in Native History. The only knowledge many people have of America’s first people is based on the legend of the first Thanksgiving among the early settlers and the fiction of Hollywood movies.  Outside these sources, knowledge of Native Indians and their culture and traditions is sorely lacking.  Few people have an appreciation for the variety and complexity of the different cultures that were in existence in North America long before the coming of the white man.

The different groups of North American native people had developed advanced farming techniques, distinctive craftsmanship and the fine arts and music characteristic of thriving, vibrant societies…”

David Hunt continues, “Native Indians left a great legacy of foodstuffs and cultivation practices.  Corn, now a food staple world-wide was hardly known in Europe at the time of the settlers.  However, Indian tribes had been cultivating corn for centuries and developed a great deal of knowledge and technical expertise.  Early explorers reported sighting corn fields over 18 miles long.  Techniques of breeding pure and hybrid varieties of corn were well-known.  Counting the work of different tribes, Indians had developed over 30 varieties of corn – bred for specific climatic areas and different culinary purposes…Equally advanced processing methods for corn were part of native culture. Only recently have scientists discovered that corn soaked in ashes and water converts into a foodstuff most easily digested by the human body.  This process was practiced for hundreds of years by the Indians of the Southwest.  Many varieties of corn had hulls too thick to eat.  The Indians manufactured lye from wood ashes, using the lye to dissolve the hulls away, leaving HOMINY – a later variation of which became that classic of the American South grits. Along came Dr. Kellogg’s discovery that hominy could be toasted and flattened which formed the basis for the company bearing his name and the modern breakfast cereal industry…”

Mr. Hunt also explains that the Indians first taught white men how to dry and use red peppers, make maple syrup, use wild plants and herbs and appropriate methods of preserving meat.  It is ironic, says Mr. Hunt, “that such famous ALL AMERICAN FOODS such as Boston Baked Beans, New England Clam Bake, succotash, chili, crackerjacks, doughnuts and pumpkin pie are all based on Native Indian recipes”. (And don’t forget popcorn; Sam Arnold author of FRYING PANS WEST points out that strings of popcorn were used over 5,000 years ago in Mexico, in religious ceremonies and that even today, in remote Mexican churches, one sometimes finds the statues of the Virgin or Christ decorated with strings of popcorn).

Writes Mr. Hunt, “In addition to the all-important introduction of corn to the rest of the world, the Indians also demonstrated the value and usefulness of potatoes, tomatoes, squash, avocado, sweet potatoes, tapioca and wild rice to the early settlers…” (Commenting on the cultivation of wild rice by the Indians south of Lake Superior in the years 1670-99, one little booklet published by Ojibway Enterprises expressed surprise that some historians fail to mention this fact, since the possession of wild rice fields was one of the chief causes of wars between some of the Indian nations).

”And those who came were resolved to be Englishmen,

Gone to the world’s end, but English every one.

And they ate the white corn kernels, parched in the sun,

And they knew it not, but they’d not be English again.

( By poet Stephen Vincent Benet)

Europeans from The Old World were slow to accept corn (indeed, as Ms. Rozin pointed out, it was almost universally rejected as proper food for humans and was utilized (in European countries) primarily as animal fodder). You will find Europeans, today, who still feel that way about corn. Author Elisabeth Rozin explains why – that corn is a grain and people were reluctant to give up or accept substitutes for the grains (rice, barley, oats and rye) that they were accustomed to. Europeans made changes to the basic corn grown by Native Indians introducing wheat, flour, eggs, acids (such as those in sour milk) fat or frying and flavoring and dairy products, such as milk, cream and butter – things unknown in the new world with its lack of domesticated dairy animals.

So while your corn on the cob is strictly Native American, the addition of melted butter is really an Old World addition…the same can be said of popcorn – it is a true Indian food, however, the addition of butter is a foreign garnish.

There were, granted, hundreds of different tribes and some of these were nomadic tribes, traveling from place to place. (And even here, I stand corrected, as Mr. Josephy explains, “Actually, for more than a thousand years before the coming of whites, the dominant native peoples of the eastern plains were not nomads, but lived in semi-permanent farming villages. Although hunting contributed to their economy, agriculture was the principal source of their food…”

“To many non-Indians,” writes Josephy, “The tribes of the North American plains have become the most familiar of all the Indians of the Americas, although that familiarity is generally based on a stereotype that shows little recognition of the full scope of the history or culture of the various plains peoples….”  More recent archaeological studies, he says, have indicated the presence (i.e., in the plains regions) of a somewhat stable village life based on an economy that combined hunting and gathering (such as collecting seeds, nuts, fruits and other edible resources, with agriculture.  Remains of corns and beans at these[archaeological] sites are the oldest found so far in the Plains area. Sites dated at approximately A.D. 200-400 have revealed numerous storage pits, small burial mounds with stone-lined graves, and various relics, including pottery and objects of clay, stone, bone, copper and other materials. Around 800 A.D., Josephy explains, Woodland cultures were succeeded by groups that placed more reliance on agriculture and had a more settled way of life and appears to have extended westward onto the plains all along the front…generally, the people grew corn, beans, squash and sunflowers along the bottom-land and sent out hunting parties that perhaps roamed as far west as the Rockies, living in temporary camps during the hunts.  These Plains Village Indians lived in earth-covered or mud plastered lodges, usually square or rectangular in shape, cultivated their gardens with digging sticks and bison-scapula hoes, stored their surplus food in underground pits, and often surrounded their villages with protective stockades and ditches.  Women did the farming and men conducted the hunts. Then, “In late prehistoric times, perhaps around A.D. 1500, many of the more westerly farming settlements were abandoned, possibly because of drought or under the pressure of enemies. People in large parts of the area returned to nomadic hunting and gathering…” However, agriculture persisted in other regions and “intensive and extensive farming communities along the middle Missouri grew bigger, increasing populations became more sedentary, and cultural advancement quickened…”

In the far western plains, however, where the environment never favored agriculture, the economy remained what it had been traditionally, a hunting and gathering way of life which was pursued by small groups of people who lived at relatively low levels of subsistence and cultural development. (From THE INDIAN HERITAGE OF AMERICA).

It appears that most of the Native American tribes were farmers–cultivators.  Writes Dale Carson, in NEW NATIVE AMERICAN COOKING (Random House, 1996), “Nearly 75 percent of the world’s foodstuffs are indigenous to the Americas, where, for millennia, Native peoples of both North and South America have cultivated a vast variety of crops, gathered wild nuts and berries, and enjoyed an abundance of fish, fowl, and game meats.  In fact, Native peoples used more than 1,000 different plants for food, nearly 100 that they had cultivated before contact with Europeans.  The ways of these Native ancestors are well documented, including their economy and ingenuity in farming and cooking…”

E. Barrie Kavasch, author of ENDURING HARVESTS, writes, “Every aspect of life and death is celebrated in some way, with food. For Native Americans, this can take the form of a pinch of cornmeal offered to the wind with prayers for rain and renewal or an elaborate thanksgiving feast, complete with honey smoked duck and stuffed pumpkin, or anything in between. All of these rituals are inspired by passion and respect for life…”

And David Hunt tells us, “Prior to the coming of the settlers, Native Americans obtained meat for their diets by hunting and fishing.  Most tribes believed that animals had souls which could communicate with other wildlife even after they were killed.  Because of this belief, many detailed rituals were developed for the hunting, killing and eating of game.  It was thought that if an animal’s body was treated with respect, it would send positive message to other animals.  As a consequence of this, elaborate ceremonies praised the beauty, valor and goodness of the kill.  Were an animal’s spirit to be insulted, it would warn other game to flee the hunters.  Many hunters asked the Creator for forgiveness before killing an animal.

Since some tribes believed gods appeared on earth in the form of animals such as snakes and rabbits, they were not eaten. Other tribes also believed that young braves could not eat of their first kill without bringing themselves permanent bad luck at hunting…”

I mention some of this to you because I think it is an important factor in understanding the wrath of the Indian tribes, when white men indiscriminately killed thousands and thousands of buffalo, often for the sport of it, or for the tongue or hump, leaving the carcasses to decay on the plains. It had to be anathema to everything the Native Americans believed and held sacred, for the buffalo represented to them food, robes, utensils and tipi covers, and was to be killed only when necessary.



 INDIAN COOKING, Nowega Press, 1973)

From INDIAN COOKING we learn some of the foods of American Indians. Of wild fruit and berries, there were blackberries, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries and huckleberries (to name a few), and they had cherries, plums, currants, persimmons, grapes, pawpaws, and crab apples.  Their vegetables included artichokes, gourds, maize corn, melons, potatoes, pumpkins, squash, beans, tomatoes, and they cultivated wild rice, mushrooms, and sunflower seed.  They were familiar with, and included in their cuisine, acorns, beechnuts, coconuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts and walnuts, hickory nuts, pecans and butternuts. Of meats they had alligator, antelope, bear, beaver, buffalo, caribou, deer, elk, moose, rabbit, goats, squirrel, raccoon, opossum and muskrats. They also cultivated and used flowers and certain leaves, such as skunk cabbage and water cress, and consumed many different kinds of fish. Herbs were used for medicine, flavoring foods or in beauty aids. They knew how to make poultices, such as those made from tea, for burns.

“We walked here once, Grandfather,

These trees, ponds, these springs and streams,

and that big flat rock across the water over there.

We used to meet with you over there,

Remember, Grandfather? And we would

dream, dance, and sing, and

after a while, make offerings.

Then we would sing the traveling song

and would go our ways, and

sometimes we would see your signs

on the way to our lodges.

But something happened, Grandfather.

We lost our way, somewhere, and

everything is going away.

The four-legged, the trees, springs and streams,

even the big water, where the laughing

whitefish goes, and the big sky of many eagles

are saying good-bye.

Come back, Grandfather! Come back!

Thank you, oh, Great Spirit, for all the things that Mother Earth gives! –              Narragansett Indian prayer of Thanksgiving

“During the course of the white man’s conquest of the New World,” explains Alvin Josephy in THE INDIAN HERITAGE OF AMERICA, Indian numbers changed greatly.  Many native peoples were entirely exterminated; many were almost wiped out; others approached the brink of extinction and then ‘came back’.  The Indian population within the United States,(excluding Alaska) declined rapidly until by 1860 there remained only some 340,000. (It was around this same time that the U.S. Government encouraged the wholesale slaughter of buffalo, which Native Americans depended on for food, clothing and shelter, with the idea that–without buffalo for sustenance–the Indians would be crushed into submissiveness.)

By 1910, the figure had declined to 220,000 and the Indian had taken on the popular image of the ‘vanishing American.’ About that time, the trend reversed, and today, with a rapidly decreasing death rate and a high Indian birth rate, Indians are increasing in number at a rate 10 percent faster than that of the overall United States population. (In 1990, the Census Bureau estimated that the population of Native American Indians to be 2,000,000, of which fewer than 400,000 live on reservations (this total includes Eskimos and Aleuts. Sociologists believe that there will be almost 3 million Indians in the United States by the end of the 20th Century–more than half the number in the same area in 1492).

In a rapidly diminishing world,” writes Josephy at the conclusion of THE INDIAN HERITAGE OF AMERICA, “the future of the Indians…is one of accelerating acculturation.  But complete final assimilation is still so remote a prospect as to make certain the Indians’ own pronouncement: ‘We are here, and we will be here for many generations yet to come.”

Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold

The red and purple sunset.

Make my hands respect the things you have made and

My ears sharp to hear your voice.

Make me wise so that I may understand the things you

Have taught my people.

Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and


I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to

Fight my greatest enemy–myself.

Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands

And straight eyes.                                                                                                                                                                (An Indian Prayer – from OKLAHOMA COOKIN’ copyrighted 1976 Baxter Lane Co).

                          **

If you are interested in learning more about Native American cooking, I recommend  NEW NATIVE AMERICAN COOKING by Dale Carson, published by Random House in 1996. This cookbook contains more than 125 traditional foods and contemporary dishes made from America’s indigenous ingredients. The book also provides a wealth of historical background.

It can be found on pre-owned starting at $1.53.

Look also for ENDURING HARVEST By E. Barrie Kavasch, which contains native American foods and festivals for every season, tells the historical background of the various festivals and also contains a treasure of historical background material. This one can be found on starting at one cent for a pre-owned copy; a new one is available for $25.95.

BLUE CORN AND CHOCOLATE by Elisabeth Rozin, published by Knopf in 1992 can also be found on, pre owned starting at one cent. (You can also buy a new copy of this book for $19.11). (Always keep in mind that shipping is $3.99 for books purchased from private vendors).  I have quite a few of Elisabeth Rozin’s books. She is a fine food historian.

NATIVE INDIAN WILD GAME, FISH AND WILD FOODS COOKBOOK edited by David Hunt and published in 1992 by Fox Chapel publishing Company can be purchased on starting at $1.56 for a pre-owned copy.

SOUTHWEST INDIAN COOKBOOK by Marcia Keegan, published in 1987 was also an R.T. French Tastemaker Award Winner. It is packed with information and can be purchased on starting at one cent for a pre-owned copy.

SPIRIT OF THE HARVEST by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs, published in 1991is one of the books I also reviewed on this blog and a pre-owned copy starts at $5.97.

While there are certainly many other books devoted to Native American cuisine, the cookbooks I have mentioned above are fairly recent publications and available on the Internet. I have bought many pre-owned books over the past decade. If there is a choice between “good” and “very good” conditions at the same price, I generally go for the book in the best condition. Eventually you will also become familiar with some of the vendors and get an idea how satisfactory their merchandise is.
It seems appropriate to conclude Part 1 with an Indian farewell:


”Until we meet again may the Great Spirit

make sunrise in your heart, and may your

moccasins make tracks in many snows yet to come”

-From OKLAHOMA COOKIN’ published 1976, Baxter Lane Publishing.

ENDLESS FEASTS edited and with an introduction by Ruth Reichl

To celebrate its 60th anniversary, GOURMET MAGAZINE elected to publish a book, a compilation of some of their finest food and travel essays in the magazine’s extensive archives. (One has to wonder what happened to those archives when Gourmet magazine folded a few years ago).  Chosen to edit their masterpieces, was author/editor Ruth Reichl.

Now, the name of Ruth Reichl is one you should recognize if you have been reading food-related books for any length of time. Reichl also was editor for the magazine for about a decade prior to closing their doors. I began re-subscribing to Gourmet when I discovered she had become their editor—I admire her writing very much.  I reviewed her books TENDER AT THE BONE and COMFORT ME WITH APPLES   for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange years ago. Both books were intriguing, bet-you-can’t-put-it-down memoirs of experiences in the author’s life. Reichl was at one time restaurant critic for NEW WEST magazine, CALIFORNIA magazine, the Los Angeles Times newspaper and the New York Times. At the time of my original review of ENDLESS FEASTS she was also editor in chief at Gourmet magazine. That said, perhaps you’ll understand that it was the name Ruth Reichl that caught my attention first, on the cover of ENDLESS FEASTS. I thought anything she was involved with just had to be good.

ENDLESS FEASTS is not a cookbook in the strictest sense, although you will find an assortment of recipes included within its covers. I hasten to add, however, that the recipes included in ENDLESS FEASTS are printed exactly as they originally appeared. Reich explains, “Gourmet inaugurated its test kitchens in 1965. We now scrupulously test, and re-test, every recipe in the magazine.  But in the early years, editors assumed that readers (or in many cases, their cooks) could fend for themselves in the kitchen…”

When Gourmet began testing recipes for the 60th anniversary of the magazine, they discovered many that were not to modern tastes, while some did not work with modern ingredients. In the anniversary issue of the magazine, they changed the recipes to meet the times. However, while compiling ENDLESS FEASTS, it was decided, in the interest of historical accuracy to run the recipes as they originally appeared.

ENDLESS FEASTS is a series of articles, essays written over the decades GOURMET has been in print, by authors whose names you are sure to recognize—from M.F.K. Fisher, whose “Three Swiss Inns” was originally published by GOURMET in September, 1941,  to “JELLIED CONSOMME: A REMINISCENCE” by William Hamilton, published in August, 1985.

Readers who were fans of Laurie Colwin’s books were sure to relish “A HARRIED COOK’S GUIDE TO SOME FAST FOOD” published in Gourmet in the February, 1992, issue—and will enjoy, I am sure, the inclusion of Katharine Hepburn’s brownies (which happens to be one of my favorite brownie recipes too!)

In the Introduction to ENDLESS FEASTS, Ruth Reichl writes this about M.F.K. Fisher: “America’s greatest writer on the subject of food once described her own work as being about ‘eating and what to eat and people who eat’. The careful reader will note that this left her an enormous amount of room to turn around in…”

“It is,” Reichl adds, “also a perfect description of GOURMET magazine in its early years. When M.F.K. Fisher talked about her chosen subject, she was staking out territory, declaring her intention to write about much more than what was on the table. GOURMET, at its inception, demanded the same latitude. There was almost nothing that the editors considered outside the Magazine’s purview, no voice that could not be heart within it’s pages…”

Reichl credits the “largeness of this vision” to Gourmet’s founder, Earle MacAusland, “a man,” she notes, “who saw nothing strange about inaugurating a ‘magazine of good living’ just as the world was on the brink of war (i.e., WW2).  He wanted to make his mark, declare his belief  in the importance of living well even in the face of disaster. Bringing his magazine into the world was a decidedly optimistic act, an impulsive vote for the triumph of good sense and the value of good taste…”

And, Reichl notes, “In a time when food was not considered a serious subject, “He [MacAusland] believed it was the only one.”

MacAusland encourage GOURMET writers to “venture far and send back reports from the front. They went by rail, by bus, and by ship, and they covered every continent. Sometimes they brought back recipes; often they did not. In later years, food magazines would come to rely on recipes, but in MacAusland’s GOURMET they did not hold pride of place..”

“In looking back,” Reichl claims, “What stands out is the breadth of the coverage and the quality of the writing….”

You will find that each essay stands on its own merits, and has also stood the test of time. You will certainly recognize some of the names of authors, such as M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, Jane and Michael Stern. Others, perhaps, you may not.

ENDLESS FEASTS was a delightful introduction to writers whose names I did not recognize. At the back of the book is a list of contributors;  I frequently turn back to that section to learn a little more about a particular author. While reading “In a Tibetan Lamasery” by Ruth Harkness, I turned to the list of contributors and learned that “Ms. Harness attracted widespread attention in 1936 when she became the first person to bring a live giant panda from China to the United States.  She is the author of “THE LADY AND THE PANDA” and “PANGOAN DIARY.”

Many of us never travel beyond the borders of our own country, much less venture hither and yon; ENDLESS FEASTS allows you to become an armchair traveler, not only discovering foods and customs of other countries. But traveling through time as well, for some of these essays were written while America was in the throes of world war. Ruth Harkness’s “IN A TIBETAN LAMASERY” published by Gourmet in March, 1944, is a perfect example of this. Ms. Harkness also wrote “Mexican Mornings” which appeared in Gourmet in February, 1947, and presents the reader  with  time and place in Mexico that is certain to charm you.

Much of the prose in ENDLESS FEASTS reads like poetry; I thought this more than once but particularly while reading “SHANGHAI: THE VINTAGE YEARS” written by Irene Corbally Kuhn for GOURMET in January, 1986.  Ms. Kuhn writes about the Shanghai that existed for a short span of time, during the years between the end of World War I and the capture of the Chinese part of the city by the Japanese in 1937.

Just to reach Shanghai, in those days, was a seven week journey by sea. Ms. Kuhn describes her arrival there, on a Japanese freighter after a six week voyage from Marseilles. She was, she says, young and innocent but her limited experience as a journalist was enough to get her a job on the staff for THE CHINA PRESS, an American-edited, English language newspaper. However, since Ms. Kuhn was the only single woman living there, she had to have a housekeeper-chaperone. Some months later, Ms. Kuhn married a fellow journalist and they moved into their own home.

“Wages were so low,” she wrote, “that one could afford a houseful of servants on even the most modest of incomes. And, indeed, one was expected to. For there was always Chinese custom to consider, custom born of the pressures of over-population and expressed in the saying: One does not break another man’s rice bowl. In other words, the available work was extended to provide as many jobs as possible, and the subsequent divisions of responsibility were punctiliously observed…”

Consequently, the “standard requirements” for a small Western household consisted of a “Number One Boy”, a “Number One cook”, a coolie, a gardener, and a rickshaw coolie (who came complete with his own vehicle). This was the minimum. For larger families, if there were children, a “Baby Amah” was hired to wash, feed, and dress the children, and take them to the park for outings.  I love the expression “One does not break another man’s rice bowl”—I fell in love with Shanghai in the Vintage Years.

There is much within the pages of ENDLESS FEASTS to captivate. Consider, perhaps, Richard Clark Cassin’s “A Harvest Dinner in Taos”, wherein he writes, “I’ve always had difficulty in deciding which season I prefer in the high alpine valleys of northern New Mexico, but in the end, October almost always prevails: fresh snow above the timberline, a blaze of gilded aspens beneath, and a luxuriant carpet of summer’s green grass….”

Or, Pat Conroy’s  “The Romance of Umbria,” which is sheer poetry, when he writes, describing a little marketplace in Italy: “We wander from stall to stall, the food so fresh that the smell of the earth itself is the strongest, most assertive odor in the marketplace until we pass the store that specializes in the sale of local white truffles. The odor of truffles is as distinctive as the giveaway scent of marijuana. It enlarges the air around itself and gives you some idea of what a tree must smell like to itself…” or, later, when he writes “It is a pleasure to watch a southern farm girl wander about an Italian food market, stunned by the profligate abundance taken from the countryside…” (Pat Conroy is the very same Conroy who wrote “The Prince of Tides”. This article appeared in GOURMET in September, 1999).

There are over forty essays presented in this fine, little book (small enough to carry with you on an airplane or while running errands around your neighborhood. I like to always have a book with me when I go to the bank or post office, in case there is a line and I have to wait.)

There is so much more I would like to share with you from ENDLESS FEASTS but to do that, I would end up quoting from the entire book. I can only urge you, if you only buy one more book about food this year, or give your significant other a wish list for Christmas, that you put ENDLESS FEAST on top of the list. You’ll love it!

Sandra’s Cooknote: I originally wrote this review for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange in 2002. *I’m now thinking it’s time to re-read the entire book.  You can find ENDLESS FEASTS on starting at ONE CENT for a hardcover book. Paperback copies also from 1c.  New copies starting at $8.70. has a lot of very good hardbound copies at 99c.

Gourmet magazine closed its doors in October, 2009, after 70 years of publication.  I found the answer to one of my questions in an article by Kim Severson for the New York Times:

“One of the first things Ruth Reichl did after telling her staff…that Conde Nast had closed GOURMET was to lock up the library with its landmark collection of 70 years of cookbooks and typewritten recipes.

“That’s not going to disappear,” she said, adding that she had strongly suggested to S.I. Newhouse Jr., the company’s chairman, that he donate the archives to the New York Public Library or to a university.

Then she had her staff gathered bottles of wine and liquor from the office and held a wake at her apartment…”

Elsewhere in the Times article, “Over the course of nearly 70 years, Gourmet has a recipe database enviable in both size and quality. The pool is so deep that GOURMET  compiled a cookbook of more than 1,000 recipes in 2006 and then turned around and published more than 1,000 more in “GOURMET TODAY” which arrived—in one of the industry’s  great moments of bad timing—in September…” (I have both GOURMET and GOURMET TODAY. I also have THE GOURMET COOKBOOK, VOLUME 1 which was published in 1965. I haven’t researched to discover whether or not there was a Volume II. All three are heavy–as in weight—books.)

*I have one final thought about Gourmet—it is with even greater regret that I recall giving away decades and decades of back issues, when we moved to Florida. Back then, people weren’t renting storage units that now seem to be on almost every street corner of commercial areas.  I began subscribing again to Gourmet when we returned to California in 1982 but let my subscription lapse in 2008 when we moved to the Antelope Valley. Sigh.

-Sandra Lee Smith