Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Brigham Young Problem

Hello Friends! Its been several weeks since I've written, and I'm terribly sorry. I'm working on a project doing some historical restoration on a stone masonry construction, and I come home completely exhausted in the evening, not fit to write a word. But here we digress...

Often when researching Mormon pioneer food issues, we stumble over references to Brigham Young. Often these references are much more rich with detail and information that what we find in other more pedestrian diaries. We also see these details cited as representative of foodways common throughout Utah. But be certain, dear reader-- Brigham Young was the exception, not the rule. Though he certainly enjoyed such simple pleasures as hot milk over bread, or molasses candy, Brigham Young accessed more abundance and variety in his food than anyone in the western territories.

As a detail to illustrate, his daughter Clarissa remembered Brigham employed "Brother Staines" as a full time gardener, who could make anything bloom under glass. Daddy Sewell served as the dairyman on the Beehive estate. But of particular interest today is Brother Hamilton Park, the overseer. Clarissa remembered she would visit Brother Park nearly every morning, as he supplied pigeons for Brigham's breakfast. The pigeons delivered for Brigham's breakfast were likely squab: young pigeons 1 month old which have never flown. These young birds are equal in size (typically 1 pound) than an adult pigeon, but having never flown their flesh is more tender. Two would make a worthy breakfast entree. Certainly, such servants, outbuildings and specialized agriculture were singular priveliges in the Utah settlements. Cornmeal mush would be more common for the masses.

Unfortunately Clarissa didn't leave us with the preparation for Brigham's breakfast birds. As a breafast, they would likely have received some quick treatment such as frying, or being pulled into a hash. We leave you here with roasting directions, from Sanderson's The Complete Cook (1864).

If you'd like to make a stab at Brigham's breakfast birds, you can order squab online at You might also try getting to know that strange fellow in your neighborhood that keeps pigeons in his back yard. Don't try eating feral adult pigeons caught from that dilapidated barn by your mother's house; it would be akin to eating a seagul or rat.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

sourdough, applied

Alright class, are we all together now? Each of you has followed directions and created your own sourdough start using potato water and sugar. Last time we met, Mrs. Titus told us that she made bread on the trail using her start to make a sponge. At left, we find a little more detail about making bread from a sponge, taken from The Great Western Cookbook, or Table Receipts Adapted to Western Housewifery by Mrs. A.M. Collins (1857). Collins calls for using yeast, but your starter already has yeast. Mrs. Collins also assumes that the reader knows enough about bread-making to know how to make a sponge into dough. Modern readers are probably less familiar and will require more specific directions.

A more simple application of sourdough might be the "cakes" or biscuits that Mrs. Titus described. Once again, Mrs. Collins left us an interpretation of chemically-leavened biscuts, at right. In this receipt, Mrs. Collins illustrates the state of technology of her day: there was no "baking powder"-- instead she mixes soda with cream of tartar. The acid of the tartar activates the base of soda.
Mormon pioneers also used soda to make biscuits. The "Mormon biscuits" that show up in so many volumes of Mormon cookery are simply soda biscuits with an ego attached. To make these with sourdough, we eliminate the "cream tartar" and "pint of warm water" and instead add two cups of the sourdough start. The start has a naturally acidic character, to activate the soda. The start is also liquid in nature, so we don't need water to mix the dough. Some bakers like to let the biscuits raise for 30 minutes after cutting them out; others put them to the oven immediately.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Sourdough Starts

The other day I was at the library and I stumbled across an excerpt from the diary of Mary Clayton*, a Mormon pioneer settler. Here, she explains her method for starting a sourdough culture:

“Boil one good-sized potato until mealy. Mash about ¼ of the potato real fine and add to approximately two teacups of the water in which potato was cooked. Add one teaspoon sugar to lukewarm potato water. Add enough flour [about two cups] to make a sponge and put it in a warm place and let it work. Let it stand for 5 days. For pancakes pour off what you would like for breakfast and leave a starter of the sponge. Store starter in a cool place.”

In this method, Clayton relies on airborn yeasts and bacteria to settle on a nutrient-rich environment to begin working. The potato water attracts yeast in the same way as a ripe grape or apple. On the grape we see wild yeast as a dusty film attracted to the sugars of the grape. In Clayton's petri dish, the yeasts settle on the potato water and begin eating the starches. Once the culture has begun to work, it creates a colony we can use for leavening bread, biscuits and cakes. Give it a try at home, and see what happens!

*Mary Clayton's diary excerpt was found in Kitchen Treasures, 1830-1980: 150 Years of Mormon Culture. Produced by the Roy 13th Ward, found in the Special Collections of Weber State University. If anyone knows the whereabouts of the original diary, I'd love to take a peek at it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Our Purpose

Good Morning Friends!
A couple of years ago I came across an article in the New Era (I think) where someone gave a few recipes for favorite foods of the Mormon Prophets. Many of the recipes were clearly anachronous, having such ingredients as margerine and baking powder included in early- to mid-19th century recipes. The historian within me just shuddered. It was heresy!

Like most of you, I love food. I also love history. In recent months I've been studying the foodways of the Mormon Pioneers (Utah Territory, 1847-1869). My study is aimed at the publication of a book on the subject. I'm nearing the date when I'll submit a few sample chapters of a book to a lucky publisher (yet unknown) and take another step nearer to being a professional foodie. Until then I hope to use this forum to float a few ideas, and solicit feedback about the design of the book. I'd also like to query all y'all about what recipes you're hoarding from your great-grandmother. These treasures should be accessioned into a reputable institution, not locked away in your private files! Hopefully I can inspire you in your historic food adventures, and you can help me in mine. Is it a deal?

As we go about this adventure, I'd like to do it in good professional style. When I offer information, I will back it up with a citation to a primary source. Primary sources are those first-hand observers of history, such as are recorded in diaries and contemporary newspaper accounts. If you have contributions to the effort, we would also appreciate it if you could reference your primary sources as well. Here's a sample to get us started:

From the reminiscences of Lydia Arnold Titus:
"When we camped I made rising and set it on the warm ground. It would be up about midnight. I'd get up and put it to sponge and in the morning first thing I would mix the dough and put it in the reflector oven. With good hot coals the bread or cakes for a hardy breakfast were ready by the time the men rounded up all the teams."
Cited in Los Angeles Westerners Corral: The Branding Iron #153, Dec. 1983 "Sourdough: Yeast of the American West" by Donald Duke.

Mrs. Titus is asserted to be a Mormon pioneer, but I haven't been able to find her name listed in any registry with the Daughters of Utah Pioneers or the Church Historical Archives. Her memoir (note, it's a memoir, not a diary) isn't listed in Bitton's index of Mormon diaries. Guessing from the publishing info, perhaps it is held by the Huntington library, and I have a query in there. Assuming we can validate the citation, here's what we learned from this quote:
  • Mrs. Titus appears to be using a sourdough culture, based on her references to the fermentation of the "rising" and the sponge process.
  • Mrs. Titus uses a reflector oven for quick baking, instead of a dutch oven or bake kettle. The reflector oven would be better for baking "cakes" or biscuits. If she was baking loaves, perhaps the dutch oven would have been used.

Questions remaining: What was the "rising"? Can we find a primary source describing how to make a rising? Was sourdough common among Mormon pioneers, or were they more likely to use soda and saleratus? Was sourdough a trail food, and not continued once pioneers settled in Utah Territory?

Next time: sourdough biscuits!