Recently a new foodie follower asked for more information about wild gathered foods the Mormon pioneers might have used. In my forthcoming book, there is a whole chapter about wild gathered food items, but right now I'm away from home without the full disposal of my research notes. To reward a fellow foodie who asked a specific question I write this:
The early Mormon settlers considered the wilderness around them as just an extension of their gardens. Beginning with the exodus from Nauvoo, they made wild food items a significant part of their diet. The notable example of the miracle of the quail introduced the phenomenon, but even once settled in the Rocky Mountains, wild foods continued to figure significantly in their diet and economy.
Emily Stewart crossed the plains in these early years as a young girl and grew up in the viscinity of Kaysville. As she was growing up, she ate an abundance of pigweed in the early lean years. She also ate sego bulbs, ground cherries, choke cherries and other berries harvested from the foothills and canyons above Kaysville. She noted that her father gathered saleratus from the shores of Great Salt Lake and used it in place of baking soda to raise the biscuits he baked for his family. Wild foods were a substantial part of the Stewart family diet and economy.
As she grew up in such lean circumstances, Emily noted that she never had underwear to wear. But upon her 16th birthday, she decided that if she was ever going to find a husband, she would need some underwear. To this end, she went to the canyon once more that summer to pick hops. This wild herb carries a diverse set of properties utilized by early Mormon settlers for medicinal and culinary uses. Patty Sessions and Eliza Partridge both used hops to make tea when camped at Winter Quarters. Hops are also used in beer brewing as a preservative and bittering agent. Grocers in Salt Lake City paid Emily Stewart $0.50/lb. for her wild hops, and she earned enough to buy several yards of fabric to sew her underclothes. Emily Stewart married John Barnes as his third wife, and her experience is related in her own words in The Grim Years by Claude Teancum Barnes.
Hops still grow wild in many places today. The flower is used fresh. The flower is often about an inch big, looking like many fine feathery leaves piled in a conical shape (see illustration, right side center). Gather the hops while they are still young and green, before they turn dry and papery. You might use a handful of fresh hops in making a pot of tea. You can also buy compressed hop pellets at your local home brewing store, and at some health food stores. In spring time, hops rhiozomes (root starts) can sometimes be bought if you want to try growing this spreading vine at home.
Other wild-gathered food items to explore: wild meats (especially fish in Utah county), berries of all sorts, sego bulbs, salt, saleratus, wild sources of sweetening, and a variety of wild medicinals...