Sunday, May 31, 2009

Backed Beans

As you know, I'm fascinated by food as a reflection of the meaning of our lives. A year or two ago, I came into possession of my grandmother's cookbook. She's ninety now, and doesn't cook much anymore. The cookbook is a compilation of newspaper clippings, relief society dittos, and very few handwritten originals. The handwritten originals are sorted into those without comment, those labeled "good", and those labeled "very good". There are a lot of repeats in the recipes. For example, there's one called "Poulsbo Bread" that shows up more than a dozen times. Also, a recipe for baked beans shows up several times.

What I think is the oldest of the baked bean recipes is on a yellowed, stained, torn 3x5 card. It is titled "Backed Beans" and it goes as follows:
"1 larg can Pork&Beans take the little pice of Fat out
1/4 cup Brown Sugar
1/2 tea-spoon dry Mustard
1/2 cup catsup. Fry 1/2 lb Bacon till Crisp,
then chopped 1 good size onion cook in Bacon Fat-
this will take 10 mins,
drain greas off Mixx Onions Bacon and
other ingredients. Mix Well Back 1/2 hour
at 350
the Onion and Bacon can be fixed hours or ^a day before."

Fair enough. This recipe also shows up in the family recipe book of my grandma's sister. That leads me to think that perhaps my great-grandma was the misspeller of "Backed Beans".

So then I was poking around in a DUP source and found this nice little ditty from Mary Alice Widdison, born in Utah in 1854:
“Mary Alice Widdison's Baked Beans: 4 c. dried white beans ½ c. chopped onions— 1/2 to ¾ c. brown sugar or molasses— 2 tsp. Salt— 1 c. boiling water— 1/4 lb. pork diced—1/2 tsp. dry mustard— 1/2 c. catsup. Cover the beans with water and soak for 12 hours, drain and cover again with water and simmer slowly for a long time. Place a few beans in a spoon, blow them and if the skins burst they are sufficiently cooked, drain and add the remaining ingredients— blend well. Place in a greased dish or bean pot. Bake in a slow oven from 6 to 8 hours. If they become dry, add a little water or stock—uncover last hour of baking.”

With the exception of using canned instead of dry beans, they're basically the same recipe. I thought that was pretty darn cool. Now if I can just figure out what the cosmic meaning of it is...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


So yesterday I went up to the DUP archives in SLC to waste a little time while I waited for another appointment. Its a funny place. They don't let you take laptops in, and they don't let you take notes on their collected life histories of the DUPs. Instead, you're supposed to pay $.25 for a copy of each page. That's their buisness plan.

Anyway, while I was there, I got to looking at a woman named Sarah Elizabeth Scott McCune. Born in England, she married an army doctor who was promptly assigned to a station in India. She went with him. She lived in Burma and Calcutta until things got too hairy with an insurrection. They joined the church there-- in INDIA of all places, and her hubby took a plural wife-- IN INDIA of all places. Anyway, they fled the uprising just before a hundred "white people" were massacred by the colonials they thought they were doing a favor.

Several recipes came out of this experience. One, in Sarah's handwriting, is facsimile reproduced in Heartthrobs of the West volume 11. If you've ever done much research in 19th century documents, you know that deciphering some of the Spencerian script can be laborious, and some of the usages are archaic. So here's what I could make of it:

"Conversation Biscuit" [a sort of tea cookie]
2 lbs of flour
2 ounces of Salt Butter
16 ounces of loaf Sugar [why not 1 lb?]
1 [?] vol. salts [this would be baking soda, so probably an ounce for that much flour?]
4 [?] eggs [dozen?]
16 drops [?] lemon [this should be some sort of essential oil]
1 gill [unintelligible-- maybe rum?]
N.B. Dough without water. Stamp--oven solid

So what do you make of that? Anyone want to take a stab at making these? She noted that the reason for the large volume recipe was that in her quarters she was cooking for more than 40 people. Other recipes that came from this stint in India include East India Curry with Rice, and Bengal Chutney, all of which were served in territorial Utah before the railroad.

Sometimes I like finding stories about Mormon conversions in colonial India almost as much as finding recipes...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Let Them Eat Cake

Lest you think that the Mormon pioneers ate nothing but bread...

I was at the DUP archives in SLC the other day, and came across a scrap of paper curiously referred to as "The Shoe Maker's Ledger." On the back side of the paper are some credit notations as you would expect to find in a ledger book from a shoe maker. So much owed for re-soles, one new pair at $2, etc. The date on the ledger is 1835. Then curiously scrawled between the credit notations and on the other side are a few recipies. Some of them don't seem to make any sense.

"Ginger Bread
1/2 a galen of molasses
3/4 Pound of Lard"

Where's the ginger? How much flour?

"Tea Cake
3 cups of sugar~ 3 eggs one cup of Butter one cup of milk a small lump of Butter." Hmmm... two different butter amounts. No flour. Do you just add "enough" flour until it has the right consistency? What's the leaven? Do you just beat the eggs hard to get it to rise, and fold the other ingredients gently into the whipped egg? Or did they forget to mention how much pearlash?

The most promising was this for "Loaf Cake"
"2 pounds of flour 2 of suggar 3 quarters of a pounds of lard and the same quantity of Butter~ one pint of yeast 8 eggs one quart of milk. Add the sugar~ in flour~ add the raisins and spice after~ the first raising."

Hmmm... lots of questions here eh? A yeast-leavened cake. A pint of yeast suggests that we're using yeast in a starch base. As we noted earlier, many pioneers kept their own yeast cultures by feeding live fresh yeast with weekly starches such as mashed potatoes or flour gruel. This meant that they used an increased volume of yeast since a large portion of the "yeast" culture was potatoes, not yeast. And what about "raisins and spice"? How much spice? what kind of spice?

So this is what passes for a recipe in the 1830s? No real standardized measurements, no baking temperature; actually more of a process than a formula. There seems to be a lot of inherent understanding assumed. The other small problem with this "shoe maker's ledger" is that we don't know for certain what the date is. While the shoemaker's ledger dates 1835, perhaps the recipes date later after the shoemaker was using it for scrap paper. You wouldn't imagine a shoemaker would jot down recipes between business entries. The recipes do seem to have commonality to the cookery styles of that early era however. Mostly, this document seems to raise lots of questions with very few answers. I probably won't be able to use it in my book because of the dating issues. Hope it was useful to you though...

Friday, May 22, 2009

Trail Bread: Another Approach

This summer I'm going on a "pioneer trek" with the youth group from our church. We will dress up in pioneer-ish clothing and pull handcarts in the mountains for 15 miles or so. I've been told repeatedly that historical accuracy is not our goal, but rather spiritual experiences. So then... why the funny old clothes and handcarts?

It all got me thinking back to when I went on one of these treks as a wild rebellious teenager twenty years ago. They starved us, but they did let us have a little flour, which would have been historically accurate. But we didn't know what to do with flour. They told us to mix it with a little water, flatten it to a thin cake, and throw it directly onto the coals or hot ashes of the fire. When it was "done" we brushed the ashes off and ate it with butter.

Since then I've run across a couple of other gen-u-wine accounts of life on the trail. This from Andrew Jackson Allen, who was part of the insurgency of 1857 against the invading U.S. Army. On the plains of Wyoming, he and others rustled cattle from the supply trains supporting the Army, and left us this account:

"Oct 11, 1857: We drove to the rivver and killd a fat cow that war in the hird and cooked breakfast. We injoyed our meal verry much in deed, we baked our bred by roaling the doe around a stick and stuck it in the ground before the fier”

This approach was also reported to have been used by Benjamin Morgan Roberts who marched with the Mormon Battalion in 1847. I think it sounds much more practical than baking directly on the coals. Too bad they aren't going to give us flour in our upcoming trek. I've been told that ready-made store-bought biscuits will be distributed, since making biscuits is beyond the ability of most who will be on the trek. I might just have to smuggle some flour in my bedroll...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Rabbit, anyone?

So last week I wandered down to the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU to check out their special collections. Its a pretty snazzy joint. I'm writing a chapter about Danish food, and I found a woman who emigrated straight from Denmark to the sagebrush plains outlying Salt Lake City. She was rather poor, and she ended up subsisting on "fried jack rabbit and boiled wheat mush" for more than a year. This was in the early 1860s. So then, as I told you last time, I repaired to the online database of historic cookbooks from MSU, and found this suggestion for rabbits:

Rabbit-- Put it down to a sharp clear fire; dredge it lightly and carefully with flour; take care to have it frothy and of a fine light brown; boil the liver with parsley while the rabbit is rasting; when tender, chop them together; put half the mixture into melted butter, use the other half for garnish, divided into little hillocks. Cut off the head, divide it, and lay half on each side of the dish. A fine well-grown and well hung warren rabbit, dressed as a hare, will eat very much like it.

This comes to us from J.M. Sanderson in The Complete Cook circa 1861. Can't you just imagine half of a smiling rabbit head looking up at you from your plate? He didn't say what happens with the ears. What would you suggest? Leave them on? Use them as a bed for a cold jello salad?

Monday, May 11, 2009

My Personal Stash

So here's a little bit about my methodology. I go to the local university libraries and peruse any diary I can find. Sometimes I get lucky and find a woman's diary that talks a lot about what she ate. For example the other day I found a woman who said she ate nothing but fried jack rabbits and boiled wheat for more than a year. Not often do they tell the actual preparation of their food, and NEVER is there a recipe presented in context. Yesterday a friend gave me his family history, and in it the fellow told how he learned to make smoked jerky from the local Indians. He threw in the added step of dipping the strips of meat in boiling salt water. A nice touch, that...

So after I find some dishes referenced in context, then I have to find a source describing a recipe or preparation. A lot of times this comes from Michigan State University's Historic Cookbook Project. They have scanned dozens of historic cookbooks and posted them online. The cookbooks are indexed by date, by subject and by author. They are all browsable online. There are a half dozen or so within the dates of my study, so I often resort to those for the specific preparations of the dishes I find referenced. I commend this source to you.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Don't Drink That Milk!

One of my ongoing debates with myself is whether pioneers drank milk as a beverage. I'm starting to get the feeling that for the most part, they considered it a food item, but not a beverage. I have run across one anecdotal secondary source which said that in the 1870s in St. George, a well-set table would have three beverages on the table at dinner time: one of water, one of the local wine, and one of milk. Also, I found the citation I mentioned previously about Cambric tea, but in that instance it seemed it was out of desperation, and even then considered as a substitute for solid food.

On the other hand, I often come across such items as these:
**Andrew Israelson, a Dane crossing the plains in 1864 at the age of seven had just sat down to breakfast when the cattle stampeded. "I was eating bread and milk, and I lost my spoon, a good silver one." Sounds like a breakfast cereal approach.

**Mary recalls her father, William Greenwood, pioneering in Iron County, 1856. "Father had one good cow that supplied them with all the milk and butter they needed. But they had very little bread to go with it. To make their milk seem more foodable they gathered bullberries and boiled them in it. The acid in the berries curdled the milk which gave them something to chew."

**Ruth Page Rogers recorded in 1854, "I had bought a pig of Mrs. Sheffield for which I paid two dollars. Two weeks I milked two cows for Ann Lapworth for which she gave me the skimmed milk for my pig." In this instance, the cream was kept aside for butter. It seems they valued the milkfats for butter and cheese, but the skim milk wasn't fit for anything but fattening pigs.

So... did they drink milk? Elizabeth Kane noted dining in a Mormon home in Provo, 1872, and there was creamy whole milk in a pitcher on the table. I guess some did. But I think more often milk was viewed as a raw product to be used in the creation of other food items. I'm still collecting evidence on this issue.