Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Boil'd Wuff

So I was up to the library today conducting research and stumbled across a diary from Andrew Allen, spring 1848, who reported,

"When vegetation sprang up the people many of them had to go to the poraryes to seak roots to eat, such as wild unions and thistles roots those were not pleasant but hunger made them good. There ware some to my knowledg eat large white wolves. It accured at the hird ground where a brother had cooked some of a large white wolf (He had caught in a trap) to get the oyl and at night the brethren that ware getting wood there came to the camp at night to stop over and thay eat all the meat he had cooked, I sea that my self."

The eating of wolves is not unheard of in Mormon history. Early pioneer Priddy Meeks also noted eating wolves in 1848. Rescuers to the Willie handcart company also ate wolves before making it back to SLC the following spring. There are likely other wolf-eating adventures I haven't stumbled across yet.

Most of you have probably heard of this craze sweeping the nation, where people read my blog and then try to faithfully recreate the food adventures that I uncover from our not-so-recent history. Well... although wuffs have recently been delisted from the Endangered Species list of protected animals, I still wouldn't recommend killing a wuff just for a recreation of this adventure. Similarly, if you were to try to get a feral dog from the pound, the adoption fees would put the price of meat up to more than $50/pound if you got a smaller breed. Naturally, a larger breed such as a German Shepherd would be more cost effective. Even so, still pretty pricey. You might instead try asking for a lead at your local Asian market, or your Philippino neighbor. Happy hunting!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hearth Cooking

Previously, CowboyCurtis asked for information about dutch oven cooking. Early emigrant Annie Taylor Dee remembered of her experience on the trail, "Most people cooked in camp kettles." Some settlers such as "Mrs. Lorenzo Roundy" in Kanarraville continued cooking directly on the coals well after the arrival of the railroad. In a previous query someone asked how the arrival of the railroad might have impacted foodways in Utah. Most directly, the railroad made it cheaper to buy a cook stove, because the freight issue on cast iron became more affordable. Even so, Patty Sessions brought a cook stove with her in the vangard company of 1847.

So then, having established that most people cooked directly on the coals (i.e. hearth cooking) before 1870, let's draw out what that means. Hearth cooking usually happens at ground level, so cooking utensils (such as lid lifters, coal shovels, spoons & spatulas)tend to have longer handles-- this as an effort to eliminate stooping. Think of your common fireplace set with its poker, tonges, shovel, and broom. Also the cooking pots must have legs to situate themselves on the coals. Legs are either cast directly into the construction of the pot, or pots can be set on a trivet or spider. And of course some pots were suspended from tripods or cranes. A crane is an L-shaped bracket on hinges mounted into the masonry of a fireplace so that suspended pots can be easily rotated into and out of the fire.

So much of cooking (as with any other pursuit in life, such as carpentry or bicycle mechanics) is a matter of having the right tool for the job. Count how many kitchen utensils and implements you have in your kitchen-- dutch oven cookery requires similar (though uniquely adapted) tools. And just as some chefs get by with one crappy knife and a terrible pan, some early Mormon hearth chefs got by with just one frying pan and no dutch oven.

As for the cooking part, most elements there are the same as cooking on a stove top. It all comes down to careful regulation of heat. In modern day dutch oven competitions, people cook just about anything you'd find in a fine French or Italian restauraunt. Some dishes call for frying, others for stewing and yet others for baking. All of these operations are done with the same pot (or multiple incarnations of the pot), but with different approaches to heat regulation. More coals equals more heat. Closer to the coals equals hotter. For beginners, try experimenting with frying bacon and not burning it to a scorched crumble. This takes patience on a moderate heat. Like many beginning stove-top chefs, too much heat is the beginning dutch oven chef's common mistake. When you can do this reliably without a lot of hassle, then you might step up to stewing. A long slow simmer without burning to the bottom takes a bit more effort. Baking is most tricky as it requires hot coals on the lid as well as underneath. Modern competition chefs use a formula of charcoal briquettes for establishing precise temperatures; historic chefs used coals from burning logs and did it by gut feel. I prefer to cook with wood rather than charcoal briquettes. They just seem so artificial. If you want to get really fancy you might try chunk charcoal, still in wood form (not compressed).

Well, there's the quick and dirty for you. Don't burn yourself!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Mormon Tea: another thought

So a while ago I wrote a couple of thoughts about the supposed "Mormon Tea" Ephedra varietals, and hinted that it was perhaps not used during the pioneer era, i.e. pre-1870. Further research is tending to corroborate this conclusion.

First, the OED puts a time stamp of 1910 on the label. Even if we assume a significant lag on its coinage to publication, the likelihood of pioneer era usage is a stretch. Further, botanical notes on the indigenous species note that while e. nevadensis and other varieties are native to the desert regions of the West, generally they show up at lower altitudes, vis a vis the deserts of the four corners region. In previous entries we noted that circa 1870 St. George, the common tea was a mixture of cayenne, cloves, bayberry, and other herbals. The wild ephedra at question was not in the mix.

When we consider that colonization to points further south and at lower elevation occurred in the late 19th century, the dovetailing of the "mormon tea" with the southern colonies begins to hint that this ephedra tea was likely a product of a later era and not part of the lore of Brigham Young's time. The more common tea of the pioneer era is described by Brigham's daughter Clarissa Young as follows:

"4 oz. each of bayberry, poplar bark and hemlock; 2 oz. each of ground ginger, cloves and cinnamon; and 1 ounce of cayenne pepper... take a small bit on the end of a spoon, fill the cup with hot water, and use plenty of cream and sugar."

Until I find a better citation, I think this is the most likely "mormon tea" for the pioneer era. That being said, there was also a significant amount of Earl Grey and other traditional English varieties as well as coffee sold by retail grocers during the era. It seems this cayenne tea was more a medicinal than a drink for pleasure in common consumption. Further, as per our previous discussion of old world/new world, research is showing that Brits stuck with tea, while Danes held stubbornly to coffee. So there's a recipe for ya!

p.s. the hemlock referenced is not the poisionous kind that makes you think of Socrates and Hamlet. Herbal shops carry a powdered hemlock bark suited to this composition.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Can't Fight That Foreign Feeling

So the question was asked about how much foreign "old world" influences made it to Utah with the 1st and 2nd generation pioneers. I would say, a lot.

Next question?

Just kidding. Here are a few examples. The little town of Mantua (funny Italian name) was settled by Danish folks, just as Swedetown on the north end of Salt Lake City was settled by Swedes. Many of Utah's early towns were settled as ethnic enclaves, keeping integrity to their original European homelands. This followed from wagon trains which were organized by country of origin. The Mantua Danes carried on having worship services in Danish into the 20th century. Similarly, the little community of Providence in Cache Valley, settled by Swiss emigrants, carried on with a Swiss choir, a Swiss-German newspaper, and Swiss folk festivals to the turn of the century. In the Swiss settlement of Midway, Utah (100 miles and a mountain range away from Providence), Swiss cows wore traditional Swiss bells and head yokes into the 1970s.

As folklorists study evolution of cultures in transplanted situations, ethnic clothing is the first thing to disappear, except for ritualized expressions of identity in folk festivals. Language disappears next, but folk foods sticks on persistently for generations as a marker of cultural identity. With ethnic language and clothing markers holding on so persistently, it should come as no surprise that food traditions carried on similarly.

Mary Ann Hafen migrated from Switzerland to Utah with the handcart emigrations of the late 1850s. Soon after she arrived, she and her husband were called to move to southern Utah and settle on the Virgin river. Though the desert sands were quite foreign from her European alps, she brought and planted seeds from Switzerland. Many other emigrants did the same, ensuring that they would have the grains, vegetables and flowers they knew from a different world.

Food patterns from the pioneers have not died out completely. To the contrary, the Swiss descendants of Providence continue to host an annual Sauerkraut dinner each fall, inviting thousands of people to share their homemade foodways. Swiss days in Midway follow similarly. Cheesemakers in Star Valley, Wyoming carry on the Swiss traditions of their ancestors. If you look for it, you can find food traditions that go back a half-dozen generations. Certainly, the handful of recipes each family safeguards are just a fraction of the dietary patterns that once defined our ancestors. The 1st and 2nd generation settlers necessarily made minor alterations to their diet based on what was immediately at hand, but still maintained a strong connection to their ancestral homelands.

As an example, English sausage and German sausage both used the same pork and beef, but with different seasonings and curing processes. English and European baking processes used the same wheat and yeast as American baking traditions, but a different approach to how the yeast was cultured. English and German brewing traditions both use malted barley and hops, but employ different fermenting processes. Swiss settlers in Utah's Dixie were familiar with European wine making traditions, but utilized grapes adapted to the arid climate.

In the end, if food traditions had dropped off after just one generation, we wouldn't have such a rich food culture today. Since we have Danish recipes with their Danish names intact (julekage, aebleskiver, etc.), this suggests we have safeguarded a rich tradition with integrity.

So how bout it? What food traditions and recipes have made it down through the generations in YOUR family?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


So a couple of you asked about Brigham and oysters. As with any Brigham querry, we might need to issue the opening caveat that many Brigham food items are likely to turn out to be exotic and not necessarily representative of what was common for everyday Joes. With oysters however, it appears that they were more common than you might have imagined.

As early as 1850 Salt Lake City grocers such as Halladay and Warner offered oysters and sardines for sale. In early newspaper advertisements, oysters seem to have been offered alongside other canned and tinned goods. Later, other fish products in tins are also offered, including lobster. An 1860s news story described a train stuck in a snowstorm for several days, and the passengers forced to subsist on tinned oysters.

In his book Eating Up the Santa Fe Trail, Sam Arnold asserts that during these covered wagon days, freighters would pack live oysters in salt water, using wooden barrels to transport them. He says the oysters were fed cornmeal as they crossed the plains. This does NOT appear to have been the case in Utah. An 1853 editorial opinion in the Deseret News advocated enterprising men to begin culturing oysters in the Great Salt Lake, but bemoaned the impossibility of getting the oysters to Utah alive. Such editorial advocations continued throughout the 1860s. A pisciculture committee continued its search for viable oyster beds in the Great Salt Lake, but to no avail.

Some evidence seems to suggest that occasional fresh live oysters did make it to Utah however. In 1861, the editors of the Deseret News wrote, "We are under obligations to Theo. F. Tracy for a box of fresh oysters by rail and stage from the east. These delicious bivalves in a fresh condition, will become less rare here, as the distance between the ocean coast and this city is lessened, and if "oysters on the half shell" should not become so popular as they are in some places, "fresh from their native element" may become so." Apparently the railroad was the key to shipping live oysters. After the railroad was completed in 1869, the DesNews announced that J.M. Simmons had commenced a business as a dealer in fresh oysters (12-22-69).

I haven't yet found any direct source for Brigham having an uncommon fondness for oysters. The Globe Saloon (restaurant in SLC backed by Brigham's investment) offered oysters on the menu in 1859, but likely these were from tins. Perhaps the association with Brigham comes from the aphrodesiac qualities attributed to oysters. In my research so far, the most common trend we can identify for Brigham's dietary indulgence is feasting on fruit. Certainly, notions about oysters are more intriguing, but perhaps not representative.

As with any good piece of research, this one raised a few questions. For example, what about "Rocky Mountain oysters"? If anyone finds a citation on that one, I'd be indebted.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What's Your Pleasure?

So, I've just been blogging away about whatever I happen to stumble across, without getting much feedback from the readers. It strikes me that perhaps the things I write about are not necessarily the things you might be itching to know. So then, how bout if you all drop a comment back about what sorts of things you might be interested in, from a historic foodways perspective. Have you been wondering what bonny clabber is? Or are you more interested in heirloom fruits and veggies? Or is it the ubiquitous Dutch oven that holds your fascination? Have you tried an old recipe and failed? If you were to drop a comment about it, then I'd know what sorts of topics I should focus on, instead of just spewing random blather.

In other news, the Trophy tomato seeds we planted did incredibly well and we shall transplant this evening to larger pots. The Sudduth's Brandywine have straggled along, looking like weaklings. The Fish Peppers are also doing very well. We planted radishes, lettuce, peas and onions last weekend, and then it snowed, so things are coming along nicely in the garden. I hope your gardens are doing well also. Hope to hear from you all again soon!