Pioneer life was not easy and the daily chores of managing a house where more than a full time occupation.
Cooking was a major part of each day. Early settlers butchered their own meat and made corned beef, sausage, smoked and dried meats. Large gardens yielded produce for canning, pickling and other preserves. Root cellars stored potatoes, carrots, and onions. Milk was separated into cream for butter and baking and milk for drinking. Breads, cakes and pies were of course all baked at home from scratch from whatever was available.
For the most part meals were informal and the food hearty. Nothing was wasted. Dried bread was made into bread pudding; a bone was turned into soup and extra milk was made into pudding or cheese. Often there was a shortage of some ingredient. As you will see from the recipes, many are based on very basic ingredients and several on how to make a meal with only a few ingredients. Recipes would not only be for food but also for perfume, home remedies, wine and soap making.
Recipe books were not common and cooking was very much a passed down art or trial and error. It is interesting to read recipes from this period, as often they are vague and written with a few small hints that only the person who wrote them would understand.
Pioneer women who had to decide what few precious things to carry across the plains surely made one choice in common—their own individual collection of “receipts,” as recipes were then called. For them, these were reminders of a security left behind and a hope for the abundance of the future. In the interim, they simply did what they had to do to keep their families alive.
Many early memories of pioneer food concerned the frugality with which the Saints lived: “We lived on cornbread and molasses for the first winter.” “We could not get enough flour for bread … so we could only make it into a thin gruel which we called killy.” “Many times … lunch was dry bread … dipped in water and sprinkled with salt.” “These times we had nothing to waste; we had to make things last as long as we could.” *
No doubt the “receipt” books were closed during these times, and efforts were given simply to finding food and making it go as far as possible.
But slowly, even out of this deprivation, recipes grew. The pioneer women learned to use any small pieces of leftover meat and poultry with such vegetables as they might have on hand—carrots, potatoes, corn, turnips, onions—to make a pie smothered with Mormon gravy.
20 Lost Recipes From The Pioneers
1. Side Pork and Mormon Gravy
Mormon gravy, common fare among the early settlers and apparently a creation of necessity expressly for the times, is still hearty and nourishing for many of this generation who like to make it with ground beef or frizzled ham or bacon and serve it over baked potatoes.
- 8 thick slices side pork (or thick-cut bacon strips)
- 4 tablespoons meat drippings
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2 cups milk
- Salt, pepper, paprika
Cook meat on both sides in heavy frying pan until crisp. Remove from pan and keep warm. Measure fat and return desired amount to skillet. Add flour and brown slightly. Remove from heat and add milk, stirring well to blend. Return to heat and cook and stir until mixture is thick and smooth. Season to taste. Serve with side pork on potatoes, biscuits, cornbread, or even pancakes.
2. Mud apples
This is a variation on a Native American cooking method.
You will need
- 4 large apples
- A bucket of mud
Coat the apples with about an inch of mud on all sides, being sure that the mud is of a nice thick consistency. When the fire has burned long enough to make some coals, have your adult help you to scoop some of the coals to the side. Bury the apples in the coals, and leave them there for about 45 minutes. Scrape away the cooled coals. Knock the dry cooked mud off of the apples and discard the skins. Spoon up the sweet steamy pulp for a surprising treat.
Some groups of Native American people used a mud coating on their food as a sort of oven. The steam from the mud would keep fresh-caught fish moist, and as it dried and became clay-like, it protected the food from burning. When the mud was peeled off, it took a lot of the fish scales with it. A delicious instant meal.
3. Chuckwagon beans
This is a cattle trail recipe from the Midwest. Although this was originally done on the campfire, it might be best if you bow to modern convenience and do the cooking on a stove top.
You will need
- A 16-ounce package of dry pinto beans
- 9 cups of water
- Two large onions, peeled and chopped up
- 2 teaspoons of salt
- ½ teaspoon of oregano
- ½ teaspoon of garlic powder, or two cloves of sliced garlic
- ¼ teaspoon of pepper
- 1 tablespoon of brown sugar or molasses (add this last, and put in a little more if you like.)
Wash the beans and heat them along with 6 cups of water ’til they boil for five minutes, then turn the stove off. Let them sit for an hour. Add three more cups of water and boil it all again. Now add everything else, stir it up, and cook it for about an hour.
Cowpokes on the drive west had to settle for foods which were portable. That meant a basic menu of beans and lots of meat. For a treat, there was cornbread, biscuits, or a sweetened rice dish. Pinto beans (which are small and spotted when raw, like a pinto pony) seemed to be the favorite. When cooked, these beans swell up and turn a sort of pinkish white. They were first given to the settlers by the natives on the Mexican border.
When you eat beans with rice or corn, the two foods mix up inside your body to create an important type of protein which is like the protein in meat. (Your body is made largely of protein, and so you need to eat a lot of it.) That’s why the native Southwestern people were so healthy with a diet of mostly beans and corn and not much meat.
4. Baked pocket yams
These were “handy” during the winter months, and not particular to any one area of the country.
Take several sweet potatoes, individually wrap them in foil, and surround them on all sides with mounded hot coals. Occasionally turn the potatoes. Cook till the sweet steam pipes out of the foil (about 45 minutes). Poke into the potato with a clean sharpened twig to check for doneness (the center will be soft).
When the potatoes are done, DON’T EAT THEM YET. Let them cool a bit, then slip one into each pocket to be used as hand warmers. These will keep you comfortable while you chat around the campfire. Pioneer mothers used to send their children off with these in the winter months to keep their hands toasty on the long walk to school. Then the kids would eat them for lunch. When you eat yours, you might want to use a dish and slather them up with butter.
5. Spotted Pup
Take whatever amount needed
for hungry cowboys of fluffy, cooked rice.
Put in Dutch oven and cover with milk and well-beaten eggs.
Add a dash of salt.
Sweeten well with sugar.
Add raisins and a little nutmeg and vanilla.
Bake in slow oven until egg mixture is done and raisins are soft.
6. Jerky Gravy
Jerky, ground or chopped fine
Little Fat or Grease
Salt & pepper
Fry the jerky until done.
Remove meat from grease, and add flour.
Add milk, and salt & pepper. Cook gravy. Add meat to gravy.
The amount of each ingredient depends on how much gravy you want.
7. Lemon Pie
One cup of hot water
One tablespoonful of corn-starch
One cup of white sugar
One tablespoonful of butter
Juice and grated rind of one lemon
Cook for a few minutes; add one egg; bake with a top and bottom crust.
This makes one pie.
8. Cooked Cabbage Salad
1 Pint or more of chopped cooked cabbage
Add: 1 Egg well beaten
¼ Cup vinegar
1 Tsp butter
Dash of salt and pepper
Sweeten to suit taste. Simmer a few minutes and add ½ cup of thick fresh cream. Serve immediately.
9. Winter Red Flannel Hash
A great way to use left over corned beef is to add a few new ingredients and create Red Flannel Hash. Who knows who came up with the beets, but it really is colorful, and sticks to the ribs.
1 ½ Cups chopped corned beef
1 ½ Cups chopped cooked beets
1 Medium onion, chopped
4 Cups chopped cooked potatoes
Chop ingredients separately, then mix together.
Heat all ingredients in a well- greased skillet,
slowly, loosen around the edges, and shake to prevent scorching.
After a nice crust forms on bottom, turn out on a warmed plate and serve.
If it seems a little dry add a little beef broth.
Try with a couple poached eggs, for a hearty meal.
10. Spiced Corn Beef
- To 10 pounds of beef…
- take 2 cups salt
- 2 cups molasses
- 2 tablespoonfuls saltpeter
- 1 tablespoonful ground pepper
- 1 tablespoonful cloves
Rub well into the beef.
Turn every day, and rub the mixture in.
Will be ready for use in 10 days.
11. 1876 Cottage Cheese
Allow milk to form clabber.
Skim off cream once clabbered.
Set clabbered milk on very low heat and cut in 1 inch squares.
Place colander into clabber.
Dip off whey that rises into the colander.
When clabber becomes firm, rinse with cold water.
Squeeze liquid out and press into ball.
Crumble into bowl.
Mix curds with thick cream.
12. Mormon Johnnycake
Here is a form of cornbread used not only by the Mormon immigrants,
as the name indicates, but quite often by most of the immigrants traveling west.
Because of the inclusion of buttermilk, a source of fresh milk was a necessity.
- 2-cups of yellow cornmeal
- ½-cup of flour
- 1-teaspoon baking soda
- 1-teaspoon salt
Combine ingredients and mix in
2-cups of buttermilk and 2-tablespoons molasses.
Pour into a greased 9” pan and bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes.
To get a lighter johnnycake include two beaten eggs
and 2 tablespoons melted butter.
13. Soda Biscuits
Take 1lb flour, and mix it with enough milk to make a stiff dough;
dissolve 1tsp carbonate of soda in a little milk;
add to dough with a teaspoon of salt.
Work it well together and roll out thin;
cut into round biscuits, and bake them in a moderate oven.
The yolk of an egg is sometimes added.
14. Vinegar Lemonade
Mix 1 to 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar into a 12 ounce glass of water.
Stir in 2 tablespoons of sugar to taste.
Note: The pioneers used vinegar for numerous reasons.
One reason was to add vitamin C to their diet.
15. Fried Apples
Fry 4 slices of bacon in a Dutch oven. Remove bacon.
Peel and slice 6 to 8 Granny Smith apples.
Put apples in Dutch oven with bacon grease,
cover and cook down the apples, but not to mush.
Serve topped with butter or cream and crumbled bacon.
They’re great for breakfast or desert!
16. Dutch Oven Trout
As soon as possible after catching your trout,
clean them and wipe the inside and outside of the trout
with a cloth wet with vinegar water.
Don’t put the trout in the water.
Roll the trout in a mixture of flour,
dry powdered milk,
salt and pepper.
Heat deep fat in a Dutch oven and fry until crisp and golden brown.
17. Black Pudding
Here’s an old ranch recipe courtesy of Winkie Crigler, founder and curator of The Little House Museum in Greer, Arizona.
- 6 Eggs
- 1 Cup Sweet Milk
- 2 Cups Flour
- 1 Tsp Soda
- 1 Cup Sugar
- 1 Tsp Cinnamon
- 1 Cup Molasses
Mix well. Pour into 1-pound can and steam for 2 to 3 hours by placing in kettle of boiling water. Keep covered.
- This is to be served with a vinegar sauce:
- 1 Cup Sugar
- 1 Tbsp Butter
- 1 Tbsp Flour
- 2 Tbsp Vinegar
- ½ Tsp Nutmeg
Put in enough boiling water for amount of sauce wanted.
Add two slightly beaten eggs and cook stirring constantly to the desired consistency.
18. How To Fry Quick Doughnuts
The following recipe for doughnuts came from the March 17, 1885 Daily Missoulian. Obviously, anyone making these doughnuts will want to find a substitute for fat as a cooking oil.
Put a frying kettle half full of fat over the fire to heat. Shift together one pound of flour, one teaspoonful each of salt and bicarbonate of soda, and half a saltspoon full of grated nutmeg.
Beat half a pound of butter to a cream and add them to the flour. Beat the yokes of two eggs to a cream, add them to the first-named ingredients, beat the whites to a stiff froth and reserve them.
Mix into the flour and sugar enough sour milk to make a soft dough and then quickly add the whites of the eggs. Roll out the paste at once, shape and fry.
19. Kid Pie
If the kid (goat) is too fat to roast, cut it into pieces and make pies. Make a sauce of cut up perejil (parsley) and put in the pies with a little sweet oil and place it in the oven.
A little before you take it out of the oven beat some eggs with vinegar or orange juice and put into the pie through the holes made in the crust for the steam to escape.
Then return pies to oven for enough time to repeat The Lord’s Prayer three times, then take the pies out and put them before the master of the house, cut it and give it to him.
20. Brown Gravy
The following is a farm recipe for gravy from the late 1880’s.
This gravy may be made in larger quantities, then kept in a stone jar and used as wanted.
Take 2 pounds of beef, and two small slices of lean bacon. Cut the meat into small pieces. Put into a stew-pan a piece of butter the size of an egg, and set over the fire.
Cut two large onions in thin slices. Put them in the butter and fry a light brown, then add the meat. Season with whole peppers.
Salt to taste. Add three cloves, and pour over one cupful of water.
Let it boil fifteen or twenty minutes, stirring it occasionally.
Then add two quarts of water, and simmer very gently for two hours.
Now strain, and when cold, remove all the fat.
To thicken this gravy, put in a stew pan a lump of butter a little larger than an egg, add two teaspoonfuls of flour, and stir until a light brown.
When cold, add it to the strained gravy, and boil up quickly. Serve very hot with the meats.
What Kind Of Supplies Did The Pioneers Take With Them?
The question is answered by the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center this way…
A variety of guidebooks, newspaper articles, and helpful tips in letters from friends or family who had already made the trip provided different lists about what and how much was essential to survive the five-month journey. The critical advice was to keep things as light as possible, and to take easily preserved staple foods. Supplies in each wagon generally had to be kept below 2,000 pounds total weight, and as the journey progressed and draft animals grew tired, many pioneers had to discard excess food and baggage. Items taken by nearly all wagon parties included flour, hard tack or crackers, bacon, sugar, coffee and tea, beans, rice, dried fruit, salt, pepper and saleratus (used for baking soda). Some also took whiskey or brandy, and medicines. Minimal cooking utensils included a cast iron skillet or spider, Dutch oven, reflector oven, coffee pot or tea kettle, and tin plates, cups, and knives, forks, spoons, matches, and crocks, canteens, buckets or water bags for liquids. A rifle, pistols, powder, lead, and shot were recommended for hunting game along the way, and for self-defense. Candles were used for lighting, as they were far less expensive and lighter than transporting oil, and several pounds of soap was included. Only two or three sets of practical, sturdy, and warm clothing of wool and linen had to last the wear and tear of the journey, and a small sewing kit for repairs was important. Basic tools such as a shovel, ax or hatchet, and tools to repair wagon equipment were essential. Bedding and tents completed the list of necessities. For most families, 1,600-1,800 pounds of their supplies would be food, leaving little space for other items. Although some people tried to include furniture, books, and treasured belongings, these were soon discarded. According to many accounts, the trail was littered with cast off trunks, bureaus, beds, clothing, excess food, and even cast iron stoves. Though prices and availability of goods varied from year to year, for most emigrants it cost a minimum of $600 to $800 to assemble a basic outfit of wagon, oxen, and supplies.
An article from the St. Joseph, Missouri Gazette dated March 19, 1847
We are straying away from our roots on a dangerous road from which there will be no turning back. And the good and bad news is that we are the last generation that can truly do something about it.
We no longer know how to live without refrigerators, without cars, without phones or without supermarkets.
What will you do tomorrow if you simply are unable to buy things?