RESEARCHING FOOD IN THE WILD WEST
Like all historical novelists, I do a ton of research for my books. Full disclosure – I am not a historian, I use the internet for research, and I fudge my dates. Still, there’s a lot of information that I’ve learned over the years that paints a fascinating portrait of life on the western frontier and I thought I’d share some of that with you.
(This post mostly deals with food, since that is a topic of near-universal interest. If you’d like to hear more about sheep breeding, dry land farming, and/or what gunfights and prostitution was really like in the old west (spoiler: not like it is in my books), let me know. I always enjoy rambling about research.)
The first thing to know is that food choices and availability varied wildly between the eastern costal states and the rest of the country. In the east, food was abundant and remarkably varied, with one restaurant serving over 200 different kinds of meat (each cut of meat from an animal was counted separately, and in addition to standard livestock, they also served squirrel, opossum, venison, and other wild game). The land was fertile and water was plentiful, which meant large crop yields, and the north-south stretch of the coastline covered a large temperature range, allowing for a wide variety of different crops to be grown.
Once you got past the eastern mountain ranges, however, finding adequate food supplies grew significantly more challenging. The land was fertile, but dry, which limited crop yields and variety, and the lack of easy transportation for the earlier half of the century meant that getting supplies from other locations was difficult, if not impossible.
One of the most fascinating articles I’ve ever read about food in the 1800s can be found here (http://www.oregonpioneers.com/FoodChoices.htm). Most interesting for me is the standard list of supplies carried on the Oregon Trail. A lot of what you’d expect is on the list (flour, beans, bacon), but there are some practical items that I’d never thought of, including baking soda (called saleratus at the time) and dried fruit (which was much more commonplace and cheaper then than it is now).
The full list: flour, pilot bread, bacon, rice, coffee, tea, sugar, dried beans, dried fruit, saleratus [baking soda], salt, corn meal, ground corn, vinegar.
This list is pretty much my pantry when writing my books (where everyone lives conveniently close to a supply town:), but the reality is that many of these items wouldn’t be available to the average frontier family. For them, the bulk of their supplies would come from their vegetable garden, from the animals that they hunted, and from the wild plants that they gathered. Salt was absolutely vital for the preservation of meat and vegetables, while sugar was necessary to make dried fruit palatable (and often played a part in preserving as well).
As for the luxuries: coffee came in the form of green, unroasted beans. They would be roasted and ground right before being either simmered in the cook pan or, in the latter part of the century, brewed in percolators. Chocolate was actually available as early as the late 1700s, in some parts of the country (read: east coast), and by 1850 it was available on both coasts. Surprisingly enough, it was sometimes found on the Oregon Trail, where some wagons carried the makings of hot chocolate, though it more closely resembled coffee than it did today’s hot chocolate. Canned foods first became readily available in the latter part of the century, with the first modern-day can opener patented in the 1860s and both Borden and Campbell’s opening up canning factories in the decades immediately after.
In general, food on the western frontier was fatty, salty, and high in calories. The hard work that they had to put in just to feed themselves, however, meant that many families struggled just to meet their basic calorie needs. For them, that simple list of trail supplies would have been a feast to remember.
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