FOOD PREPARATION IN PIONEER TIMES
Roberta C.M. DeCaprio
(Information gathered from the Houlton Pioneer Times web site)
Whenever we’re hungry, all we need to do is go to the refrigerator, pop something into the microwave oven, set the timer for the allotted minutes, and then sit down and eat our food. It wasn’t so easy for the people of pioneer times. A lot of time was spent in the getting, growing, and preparing foods.
First a pioneer farmer had to work out the supply problems before the family ate well. Land had to be cleared and a crop garden had to be planted. No matter what was grown, it had a fence around it to keep out the livestock. Common garden crops included corn, potatoes, beans, onions, squash, pumpkins, and turnips. Fruit trees took time to grow, so it took a few years to have their own apples, but other wild berries and fruits were picked.
In the forest, there was meat from deer, bear, turkey, squirrel and wild pigeons. The pioneer farmer also raised chickens, hogs, sheep and cattle. With the cedar sticks and oak logs burning many good smells came from the fireplace; the boiling of hominy, the steaming of sassafras tea, the baking of cornbread, and the frying of meat.
A dutch oven was used to cook food in, as well as brass kettles, large and small iron pots and skillets. Jars, crocks and mugs were also needed. Early potters found clay to make dishes. The firing of the pottery was done in a huge oven of brick with a slow fire of poplar wood. This firing took twenty-four to thirty-six hours. The pioneer often ate on a trencher. This was a wooden plate made from a board. Some plates, spoons and forks were made from pewter or out of wood horn.
Baskets were made for carrying, measuring and storing food. Splits of white oak, hickory ash or buckeye made good baskets. Honeysuckle vine, willow cane, and cornhusks were also used. Baskets would last many years. Other containers such as pails and buckets were made of wood. All day-to-day cooking was done in the fireplace. These fireplaces were usually big enough that you could walk into them. The making of apple butter and soap were done outdoors.
Corn was a common food of the pioneer family. It had to be shelled before it could be ground into meal. Shelling of corn was a chore for small children. It was often done in front of the fireplace on winter nights. Corncobs were saved to help start a fire and to smoke some meats.
The most common bread was made from corn meal, salt, and water. This was known as corn pone or hoecake. Cornbread was made from corn meal, eggs and buttermilk. It was cooked in the dutch oven covered with coals.
Pumpkins were one of the most useful of the vegetables. They could be kept fresh by putting them in a dry, cool place. Pumpkin was mixed with corn meal to make pumpkin bread. It could be baked whole or mashed up. Pumpkins were also fed to the animals.
Butter was made in churns. After the butter formed in the churn, it was lifted out into a wooden bowl and washed several times. A little salt was added. It was then put into pretty molds.
There was not much sugar in the pioneer’s kitchen. Honey, maple syrup and sorghum molasses were used to sweeten foods. Bees were kept in hollow pieces of the tree trunks. The bees made the honey. Maple sugar could be made by boiling down maple tree sap. Molasses was made by boiling down the liquid from mashed sorghum cane.
Fresh meat was cooked by broiling, frying, boiling, and roasting. Meat was preserved by being salted, smoked or pickled. Pork or ham was the most common meat of the mountain people.
Vegetables and fruits were cooked fresh or preserved by drying or pickling. Jelly could be made from wild grapes and blackberries. The entire family helped with the making of apple butter. Long hours were spent cutting up the apples. Before sunup of the big day a fire was started under a large copper kettle. The apples were added and the cooking began. All day the apples cooked over a slow fire. The apples always had to be stirred, so as not to burn them. By the end of the day, the apple butter would be done and put away in jars for the winter.
Drinks of the pioneers were sassafras tea, buttermilk, apple cider, fruit wines and spirits. The family liked hickory nuts and walnuts. Children gathered nuts each fall.
During the summer, the diet of the pioneer family was good. Common farm tools used to plant, grow, and pick crops were the harrow, plow, hand cradle, flail, hoe, rake and pitch fork. The diet was not as good in the winter months because foods were hard to keep. The root cellar was used to keep vegetables (potatoes, cabbage, and turnips) and fruits(apples, pears, and quince).
Smoked meats might have hung from its ceiling. The root cellar was often dug into a hillside. This helped make the room both cool and dark. Foods needing to be kept cool and dry were kept in the loft of the log house or hung from the ceiling beams. Corn, dried beans, pumpkins and apples were examples of these foods.
The springhouse was the walk-in refrigerator of the pioneer time. It was built over a mountain spring. In the summer, it became a storehouse for fresh milk, butter, eggs, buttermilk, sweet cream and cheese. These foods were kept in bowls and placed in the cool spring water. I can’t imagine getting up in the middle of the night and trying to grab a snack from the springhouse. I’m sure glad I’ve got a refrigerator instead.