Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Road Trip!

This weekend is Fall Break-- four day weekend for school teachers, so we're goin on a road trip. There's supposed to be a deposit of saleratus somewhere down around Manti, where pioneers used to gather the stuff. Its a naturally-occuring carbonate similar to soda, but potasium instead of sodium. They used it like baking soda in biscuits and quick breads. Wouldn't that be cool to have some? Should I get a little extra and send it out to the die-hard readers?

Then, just down the road in the lovely community of Mount Pleasant, there's a wine maker who works from the old Mormon tradition, and makes a variety of wines from native fruit. So I'm going to try to meet with him for an interview.

Then, if there's still time or gas money, we might carry on down to Dixie, where there's a fundamentalist co-op that's making some really decent cheese. They have a website, I'll try to post a link if it turns out to be good.

Does it sound like fun? And then, oh yeah, the new D.I. opened in North Ogden, and I got a little candle warmer that I'm going to try using to culture salt-risen bread. Lots of adventures to pass the time until the publishers call...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Today I'm making a sort of hot pepper jelly. This isn't a pioneer recipe, but its pretty tasty. I got the recipe from my friend Kenzie, and I was surprised to see that there is no pectin in it. When she shared it with me previously, it had a definite jelly consistency. I couldn't figure out how that worked without pectin in the recipe. Maybe it was a typo.

But then I started thinking about the pioneers and their lack of pectin. So naturally I went to wikipedia.com and discovered that apples contain their own natural pectin. In fact, apples are the source of pectin when you buy pectin in the grocery store. After apples are crushed for cider, they sell the pommace (mashed pieces) to the pectin makers.

Through the course of the research, I came across a couple of different fruit preserves, and as you know, right now is the season for making preserves. The most common Mormon preserve seems to have been peaches simmered in molasses. The recipes often said to leave the skins and stones in the pot while simmering. This contributed pectin to the mix. If you simmer them for several hours, eventually it resolves into a sort of peach-flavored goop, which was used like jam, or was also used to make a filling for a pastry-lined pudding.

Another preserve mentioned was pumpkin- or squash butter. This was used in the early years of settlement before fruits were commonly available. After fruit trees were established, I did run across one source for apple butter. I imagine that the squash butter was made in pretty much the same way as apple butter, but using squash instead of apples. So here's a recipe from Elizabeth Ellet's The Practical Housekeeper: A Cyclopedia of Domestic Economy, 1857:

Boil cider down one half; put in as many apples as the liquor will contain, stew them soft; then take them out and put in fresh apples. When they are cold boil them again in the cider til they are pulpy and thick. Add different kinds of spice, a little before it is done Keep in covered jars.

Well, I better go stir the peppers. Good luck with your preserves!

Monday, September 21, 2009

And now, we wait...

This morning I drove up to the publisher's and turned in two full hard copies and a CD digital copy. Here's the stats:

70,000 words (I didn't count exactly)
325 pages, Courier New font, including notes and bibliography
123 sources in the bibliography
393 footnotes
9-11th grade reading level
2 years of rather constant part-time effort (I think I went too slow, and didn't do anything at all in several different months).

They say it will be two months before I hear anything. I don't know what to do with myself now.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sauerkraut & noodles

September is the start of sauerkraut season. Cabbages should have been ready to harvest by the first of September. Sauerkraut is made by pounding salt and cabbage together in a crock or barrel, and then letting a lactic fermentation take place. The lactic acid produces the "sauer," which puts the cabbage into a state of preservation for the winter. The whole process takes about six weeks. I started my sauerkraut in mid-August, so it should be done in a couple of weeks.

In Cache Valley, Utah, there's a little town called Providence. The town was settled by German/Swiss immigrants in the 1860s. They've been making sauerkraut every year since then. This past August I talked to Ken Braegger about how he makes sauerkraut using his great-grandfather's formula. He gave me some of his sauerkraut, which I'm saving for fall.

In Providence, they have an annual feast which places sauerkraut as the centerpiece. The event is called the "Sauerkraut Dinner". It also has been happening every year in October for a hundred years (or more). In days gone by, the sauerkraut was served with home made noodles, fried. The women of the congregation made the noodles at the church ahead of time. They rolled the noodles out in sheets on the floor (the floor being covered with sheets as well), and then cut the strips and hung them to dry on the backs of the pews. Some noodles were served with the dinner; others were sold in packages as a fund raiser.

Here's a traditional noodle recipe from the pioneer era, attributed to Effie Ensign Merrill:

1 egg, 1 egg-shell water, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 cup flour
Beat egg, water, and salt. Add flour until dough is very stiff. Roll out thin with plenty of flour on a board. Flour thoroughly, fold and roll out again. Repeat, adding flour each time, then flour again and roll tightly like a jelly roll and slice very thin. Shake out into strings of dough, sprinkle into 2 quarts of soup stock and cook 10 minutes.

I like these quite well, especially with chicken noodle soup. I've never tried frying them with sauerkraut and bratwurst. I hope you enjoy them this fall with your soups. Aren't you excited for soup season? I know I am!

P.s. you might notice that I've added lables to index.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Seed Saving

In 1893, A.W. Livingston published his masterwork, Livingston and the Tomato. As a pioneer seedsman, Livingston probably did more to develop the tomato as a commercial American crop than anyone. His book, now in print once again from Ohio State University Press, served as an encyclopedia of tomato varieties, with instructions for propagation and refinement. In the book, a contributor poses this advice to the question of "Should gardeners grow their own seeds?"

"This question is usually answered in the affirmative: the reason assigned being that one can grow better seeds than he can buy. The reason may have been a valid one once, and may still hold good in some cases, but to advise private parties to grow their own garden seeds is about as antiquated advice as to recommend farmers to weave their own cloth."

Granted, these were seedsmen, who made their living by selling seeds. We must also grant that in order to save seeds effectively, they should be isolated from other varieties which might cross pollinate. This would mean that you could only grow one variety of each vegetable in the garden.

In Utah, seedsman Joseph Ellis Johnson offered his catalog of more than a hundred seed varieties in 1864. All were grown from seed in Utah, for the Utah market. Seeds from eastern sources might not have seen success in Utah's hot arid climate and high altitude. Yet, on September 27 in that same year, Elijah Larkin (farming in Salt Lake City) wrote in his diary, "...I gathered my lettuce seed..."

If you're going to save seeds for next year, now is the time to do it. First you should ask, "Are my seeds open pollinated?" If your seeds are hybrid, then they won't grow again. If they are an heirloom variety, they should work. Second, you should ask, "Are the seeds pure?" If you grew pumpkins, summer squash and cucumbers all in the same patch, then the chances are good that they cross-pollinated, and whatever grows from your seeds next year will be a bizarre mix. We had a volunteer squash in the garden that we let grow for a while. It was a cross of yellow squash and cucumbers that turned out looking like zucchini. The flesh was woody and tough. We won't let any volunteers grow next year.

If you have open pollinated seed that you think is pure, there are different treatments for different kinds of seeds. Some seeds (like cillantro, radishes and lettuce) you can just let the plant go to seed, and then shake the seeds out of the seed heads into a paper bag. Other seeds take more involved processing. There's a great book called Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. She describes everything you would ever need to know about saving any kind of see you can imagine.

For tomatoes, cut the fruit in eighths, and then scrape the viscous seed blobs into a half-pint jar. Screw the lid on loosely, and set the jar on the kitchen counter for a couple of weeks until it grows a nasty mold on top, and the seeds fall to the bottom of the liquid. When you think it is ready, strain off the liquid, reserving the seeds. Spread the seeds out on a paper towel and let them dry thoroughly. When dry, store them in a paper envelope in a dark place until spring. Label the envelope.

So yeah, you can probably buy cheap seeds that require none of this effort. And if you are going to go to all the work of planting a garden, its best to not start with bad seeds. But if you're a little more adventurous in your gardening, you've probably come across some seeds that you can't buy in the store. These you would want to save. And its just nice to know that you do have some degree of self sufficiency in your soul, isn't it?

Friday, September 11, 2009

65,000 words

I just printed the first complete copy of the whole book. Twelve chapters, 313 pages of "courier new" at 12 point font (10 point for the foot notes). There are still 30 errors in the footnotes that need fixing, and probably as many in the text. I've been feeding it a chapter at a time to the writing group I go to, and they've been helping me clean up the readability. Right now it reads on a high school reading level. My average sentence length is 17 words. All in all, it feels like a huge milestone passed.

Next time I'll blog about seed saving. For today, this is enough.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lab practicum: Bread

If you were to sort through the posts here, you would probably find that at least half of them are about bread. That's partly because bread was the core of the Mormon pioneer diet, so I have taken a pretty hard look at it. But also, bread is just so amazing! With the complexities of flour and the mysteries of yeast, how can you not tear into a loaf and just leave yourself astounded?

Like you, most of my food activities happen in a kitchen. In the kitchen we have cups and teaspoons to measure ingredients; thermostats to control temperature for the rising time; ovens with adjustable, stable heat; and sinks and running water to clean up. All of these things shape the way we approach food. To take these away would create a different cuisine entirely. That's what I did this weekend.

Every Labor Day weekend, thousands of people converge on Fort Bridger, Wyoming. Jim Bridger built the fort in the late 1830s (I think-- maybe 1840) as an economic hub for the fur trade. The Mormons bought the fort in the early 1850s and used it as a staging station for emigration. Then the U.S. army took possession of the fort in the late 1850s, and so on. Over Labor Day each year, the fort hosts a living historical reenactment of the fur trade era rendezvous, with other living history reenactors joining in as well. I camped for the weekend with some friends who do colonial era history, but I spent my time making bread over a fire.

I tried to approach the bread making in the style of Emily Stewart Barnes' mother, who, after living for several years with just a frying pan, found the Dutch oven as a remarkable innovation to her bread making. Without using measuring utensils, I mixed dough by hand in a wooden bowl. (At home I use a KitchenAid mixer.) Temperatures were anything but controlled; I had no idea how long it would take to raise the dough with drafts blowing through the tent and humidity from a threatening rain storm. Where I usually use 6 cups of flour, I think it took at least a cup less, and it never kneaded out to what I usually expect. Instead of using my usual couches to give form to the loaves, I raised it in the Dutch oven itself, in one great mass. And when it was time to bake, I heaped live coals under and on top of the oven. I didn't add any steam for the crust and I didn't slash the top as I usually do. I normally bake the loaves for 40 minutes-- instead I left it for an hour.

What do you know, but the loaves turned out exquisite! I was nervous at every stage of the process, having set all of my familiar crutches aside. I didn't have my Bread Alone baking book to prompt my memory of measurements. The rote memory didn't feel comfortable. But the bread turned out, in huge round loaves with a golden crust I've never achieved at home.

So if you ever want an adventure in cookery, try setting your measuring cups aside. Leave the cook book on the shelf. Count how many dishes you might muster from memory alone. You'll find yourself connecting with your inner pioneer in ways you might not have imagined.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hard tack-- redux

As you may all know, one of my big beeves is that often when people go about recreating some bit of food from the Mormon pioneers, they start with a recipe that isn't anywhere close to reflecting what the pioneers actually ate. Further, they don't think to question where the recipe came from ("provenance" as the antiques folks say). If something is printed in a Church publication, it must be True, they think. And as our last post revealed, this is not always the case. So here are just a few thoughts regarding the errors in the previous post.

First, as Sherm noted, hard tack was not ever intended to be "delicious." Its main requirement was that it keep long term. These are mutually exclusive ideas. For it to keep long term, it had to be dry as a bone, and contain nothing that would spoil. Fats, oils and milk-based ingredients spoil or go rancid. Likewise, rolling the dough out thin also means it will not last long. Thin crackers break into tiny little crumbs.

If the cracker is not thin, it will take some time to dry thoroughly. If it is not completely void of moisture it will spoil. To facilitate drying, pierce each cracker with a toothpick on a half-inch grid. Because it needs to dry thoroughly, we can't bake it at 400 degrees F. Instead, it needs to bake very slowly at a lower temperature (perhaps 200-250) for a long time (at least a couple of hours).

"...it will stay fresh as long as it is kept dry." Hmmm... actually, its not supposed to stay fresh. It's supposed to be dry. And truth be told, sailors often said that a cracker has to ripen at sea. The ripening references crackers that have gotten slightly soggy from ocean humidity, and then become infested with weevils. As the weevils tunneled through the cracker (note the implication of a thick cracker), it weakened the cracker so that it could be broken up more readily. In Melville's Moby Dick, Ishmael talks about sailors throwing such crackers into the rendering pot to fry in whale oil, making a tasty meal.

On the other hand, Melville doesn't mention "...jam, peanut butter, cheese, meat spreads, or whatever you like. Try seasoning the crackers by adding onion powder, cheese, barbecue sauce, bacon bits, herbs, or spices to the dough." The utter poppycock of this notion should be apparent on the face of things.

If you make hard tack, it should break a tooth and choke a camel. On the other hand if you want to make something tasty, why not find a credible recipe for a pioneer-era cookie? It just seems silly to try to make a sea biscuit into a cookie.